The Last Chronicle of Barset is the sixth and final novel in Anthony Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire series.
There are several plot threads in this winding up of everyone’s stories. But the overarching plot involves Mr. Crawley, a curate who has been accused of stealing. Mr. Crawley was a minor character in Framley Parsonage, the fourth book in the series. He’s a curate in a small town who is very stern, proud of his poverty, critical of those who have wealth, especially other clergymen.
A twenty-pound check came into his possession, which he used to pay a bill. But then the check was found to have belonged to the lord of the manor house. The problem is, Mr. Crawley can’t remember how he got the check. First he thought Lord Lufton’s agent must have dropped it when he visited, then he thought his friend the dean must have given it to him. Unfortunately, the dean and his wife are out of the country, and Lufton’s agent insists he did not drop it.
Most people don’t think Crawly actually stole the check or confiscated it for his own use. They think it was a mix-up. But the case goes to court (not due to Lord Lufton. He would rather the whole thing had not come to light). Unfortunately, the bishop, or rather, the bishop’s wife, Mrs. Proudie, who wields actual control, thinks Crawley did steal the check and should be removed. Crawley himself almost wonders if he is going mad since he can’t remember for sure how he got the check.
Mr. Crawley was not one of my favorite characters, so at first I wasn’t terribly excited that much of the book focused on him. But after reflecting, I felt this plot line could not have worked with anyone else. And it is used to affect and bring out the personalities and motives of many other people.
The other major plot line is that Archdeacon Grantley’s son has fallen in love with Crawley’s daughter, Grace. The Grantleys are some of the wealthiest people in the area, and the thought of their son joining with a possible criminal’s daughter causes conflict between everyone involved.
Lily Dale from the fifth book, The Small House at Allington, shows up in this story as Grace’s friend. Lily had loved someone who jilted her for someone else richer and higher in society. But she still loves him. John Eames had loved her since childhood, but Lily only thinks of him as a brother. Then when Lily visits friends in London, she runs into the man who jilted her.
There is a totally unnecessary plot thread about a young artist’s flirtatious interactions with a married lady. Neither of them really care for each other romantically and consider their flirtations a game. But the relationship still causes problems when he falls in love with someone else and her husband begins to suspect something. The only connection between any of these people and the other characters is that the artist was a friend of John Eame’s. I don’t think flirting is a harmless game, especially among people married to others, so I could have done without this whole thread.
The Proudies, in all the books til now, have been almost humorous with him as a henpecked husband. They’re on the opposite sides of the fence politically and concerning church matters as many of the other people, and Mrs. Proudie is manipulative, so they’re ofttimes the “villains.” But things come to a very sad head for them.
Mrs. Crawley’s cousin, Mr. Toogood, a lawyer, has suspicions about where the check might have come from, and his pursuit reminded me a lot of Charles Dickens (who was a contemporary of Trollope).
Mr. Harding was the main character of the first book, The Warden. I think he may be the only clergyman in this series that doesn’t have a major flaw. He does tend not to stand up for himself even when he should, but whether that’s a flaw or not depends, I guess, on your point of view. It was said of him by his son-in-law, the Archdeacon: “He lacked guile, and he feared God,—and a man who does both will never go far astray. I don’t think he ever coveted aught in his life.” He has appeared throughout the series as a kindly older man. Now he is nearing his last days, and that all is handled in such a touching way.
Two of my favorite characters were the wives of difficult men in opposite circumstances: Mrs. Grantly and Mrs. Crawley. I would almost say they knew how to “handle” their husbands, but they were not manipulative like Mrs. Proudie. They each knew their husbands’ quirks and foibles and knew how to help them see reason and bring out their best. Mrs. Crawley knew her husband was very proud and unwilling to accept help, but she could find ways of accepting help without violating his desires. She didn’t complain of their poverty, though she had come from a more prosperous home. “She had been very strong through all her husband’s troubles,—very strong in bearing for him what he could not bear for himself, and in fighting on his behalf battles in which he was altogether unable to couch a lance; but the endurance of so many troubles, and the great overwhelming sorrow at last, had so nearly overpowered her.” Archdeacon Grantly is a blustery person, as well as a man of wealth and authority. Mrs. Grantly is about the only one who can speak plainly to him and point out where his thinking might be wrong, yet in a way that doesn’t disrespect him or undercut his authority. It was said after one of their encounters, “He knew very well that he could not get the better of her, and was apt at such moments to think that she took an unfair advantage of him by keeping her temper.”
I had wondered about the fact that Trollope doesn’t show his clergymen (who are the main characters in all most of the books) doing religious things. Mr. Crawley is shown in his religious duties more than anyone else, preaching, teaching in the school, visiting those in his parish. Evidently others wondered the same thing, “accusing” Trollope, “always without bitterness, and generally with tenderness—of having forgotten, in writing of clergymen,” to show “their professional duties, their high calling, their daily workings for the good of those around them.” Trollope answers that he had wanted to “paint the social and not the professional lives of clergymen,” just as he would write of lawyers’ and doctors’ lives without going deeply into their professions. Some also said all the clergymen in the books were flawed to some degree. Trollope answers, “Had I written an epic about clergymen, I would have taken St. Paul for my model; but describing, as I have endeavoured to do, such clergymen as I see around me, I could not venture to be transcendental.” But, he says, for his part, he would be happy to spend time with any of them.
Just a couple more samples of Trollope’s writing: He says of one Mr. Thumble, an ambitious lackey of Mrs. Proudie’s who hopes to take Mr. Crawley’s place, “who, having heard his own voice once, and having liked the sound, thought that he might creep into a little importance by using it on any occasion that opened itself for him.” One man’s wife dies in the book, and at the end of his story line, Trollope says, “We will now say farewell to him, with a hope that the lopped tree may yet become green again, and to some extent fruitful, although all its beautiful head and richness of waving foliage have been taken from it.”
The last couple of books had a similar feel to Mitford, Jan Karon’s books, except set in Victorian England. But it took the previous four books to get to this place.
I am very glad I read (or listened to) the last three books in succession. When I read the fourth, it had been a while since I read the previous books, and I had to remind myself who everyone was and how they were related. So I wanted to read the last three one after the other so I didn’t have to go through that process with each one.
My favorite of the series is Doctor Thorne, the third book. Wikipedia says it was that book that caused the series to take off. The site also says that Trollope didn’t originally intend to write a series. But he set later books in or near the same place as the first couple, and later on, publishers asked him for another book in the same area or with related characters. The last three novels were first released serially in magazines.
I listened to all the books via audiobook, all but the third wonderfully narrated by Simon Vance. Most, if not all of them, were included in my Audible subscription, so I didn’t have to use my credits on them. Most of the Kindle versions were free or 99 cents, so in some cases I would go back and forth between e-book and audio.
I’m sorry in many ways to see the series come to an end, and I’ll miss these characters. But I’m happy to become acquainted with Trollope and look forward to reading more of his books.
I’m counting this book for the “wild card classic” category of the Back to the Classics Challenge.