The Note at the beginning of this Dover edition describes Anthony Trollope (1815-1882)
as "a big, blustering, vociferous, overbearing, good-natured, tenderhearted and essentially honest fellow." If so,
then the two main characters in this novel, combined, would be a portrait of Trollope
himself. Though he grew up poor and unhappy—his father was a barrister who lost his expected inheritance and made some bad business
choices, Anthony ended up working for the post office, first as a postal surveyor's clerk, and rose from there to relative prosperity.
He also began writing, and though his first novels (1848-1850) brought him little success, The Warden was a great hit and helped establish his
career. It was to become the first of what is now known as the Chronicles of Barsetshire, a collection of six novels set in that fictional county.
And that set the stage for a lifetime of extremely prolific writing.
This is only the second of his books I have read, but I promise, more are on the way, including the entire Barsetshire series. They are all available free online. Unlike the first one I read, Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite, which was really quite tragic, this one, though it had some sad moments, was slyly clever. At times, I just had to chuckle. Though it is a rather short book, it is not quick reading, not because it is complicated, but because the action is rather sedate and placid, as opposed to a killer-thriller that tends to drive one to read fast.
In this story, the Reverend Septimus Harding, the precentor (cantor) of Barchester Cathedral, is also the warden of the local almshouse, called Hiram's Hospital. It was founded by John Hiram in 1434, so that the elderly wool-carders would be cared for when they could no longer work. Times changed, however, and now the land has been developed and money flows in. The elderly Harding had been appointed as warden to the Hospital by his friend, the Bishop of Barchester. Harding's elder daughter, Susan, is married to Dr. Grantly, the archdeacon of Barchester Cathedral, also the son of the bishop. Harding, a widower, lives with his younger daughter Eleanor, whom he loves more than anything in the world. Because the wealth of Barchester has increased, Harding and his daughter live quite comfortably. Their income is 800 pounds per year, plus the stipend for Harding's position as precentor. He represents the "good-natured, tenderhearted and essentially honest fellow" nature of Trollope, while the archdeacon represents the "big, blustering, vociferous, overbearing" side of Trollope, and also an "essentially honest fellow."
Though the wool-carders are no more, the hospital still houses twelve elderly bedesmen. (I looked it up, and it refers to people who pray for others, originally designated on a string of beads, and usually they are pensioners.) In any case, these men are well-fed, have warm and comfortable housing, really, have all they need, in addition to the love and friendship of the kind-hearted Warden. The bedesmen each receive one shilling and fourpence a day, but Harding has increased that to an additional twopence a day for each, out of his own pocket. Keep in mind that the men really have all they need, as residents of the hospital.
Enter John Bold. Dr. Bold, actually, who comes to live at his estate in Barchester, but really has no patients. But he has a yearning to be a "reformer," and believes that the pensioners at the Hospital, since the estate is now prosperous, should be receiving much more than their pittance. So he decides to take legal action. Unfortunately, he and Mr. Harding have been long-time friends, and even worse, he and Eleanor are in love. Bold pays a visit to Harding and tells him what he is doing. Harding is stunned. He had never considered that he was gypping the men out of their due. When he accepted the position, the terms were already in place, except for the additional sixty-two pounds, eleven shillings and fourpence a year he gives the bedesmen out of his own pocket.
Word gets around, and soon a few of the bedesmen come around with a petition for the others to sign, demanding 100 pounds a year more! (even though they probably never made that much in their working days). A few don't want to sign, but they are soon coerced; all but Bunce, Harding's true friend.
Meanwhile the most powerful paper in London, the Jupiter, gets hold of the story, (it seems that Bold is friends with one of the most powerful people there, named Tom Towers.) This is the final straw for Harding, who cannot tolerate his name being smeared, especially because he is not sure that this lawsuit isn't legitimate.
What makes this story so very clever and profound is that all sides of the issue are presented with such a compelling argument. We really don't know what Trollope's personal opinion was, but we do know that he was mocking Dickens, who spent his life as an activist for the poor and children. And by the end of the story, we have a hard time deciding what was right, but we DO know with whom we personally sympathize.
And the question of what is right glares at us throughout the whole story. Harding, being the good and just man that he is, cares not whether a court of law proves him right, he wants to know what Hiram's will specifically states as to how the income of the estate should be distributed. And because that question could never be answered, partly because the situation of the estate itself had changed so much since Hiram's days, in a way, nothing is ever truly resolved. I dunno. . . . Maybe it is in the next book of the series. Or not. I will definitely be reading them.
But there is much droll humor here, too, especially the names of the characters. The archdeacon, Dr. Grantly, who is also Harding's son-in-law, takes responsibility for the case. He hires the famous London attorney, Sir Abraham Haphazard, who, after studying the will, responds that there is no case, they haven't got a leg to stand on.
And the characters have their quirks, too. Harding's greatest love besides his daughter Eleanor, is his violoncello, and when he is in an uncomfortable situation, he begins to play it in his imagination, fingering in the air and moving the invisible bow in gesticulations, which probably perplexed those who did not know him well.
Trollope manages to mock just about everyone. He picks on the church for its greed and wealth, and the bedesmen certainly get their come-uppance for their greed and lack of loyalty to the man who has given them so much care and love for so many years. But his mockery of the Jupiter, especially the towering Tom Towers, and the power of the paper to make or break anyone they please, is probably the most acerbic humor in the entire book. Here are some quoted examples of the many points of view which the reader must consider, plus a bit about Tom.
The first one is from the Jupiter, shortly after Bold files suit. The newspaper's article was quite long so here is just a bit:
On what foundation, moral or divine, traditional or legal, is grounded the warden's claim to the large income he receives for doing nothing? The contentment of these almsmen, if content they be, can give him no title to this wealth! Does he ever ask himself, when he stretches wide his clerical palm to receive the pay of some dozen of the working clergy, for what service he is so remunerated? Does his conscience ever entertain the question of his right to such subsides? Or is it possible that the subject never so presents itself to his mind; that he has received for many years, and intends, should God spare him, to receive for years to come, these fruits of the industrious piety of past ages, indifferent as to any right on his own part, or of any injustice to others! We must express an opinion that nowhere but in the Church of England, and only there among its priests, could such a state of moral indifference be found.
This, of course, was the article that changed everything for Harding, because a part of him wondered if it was true, and no one could prove that it wasn't. Therefore, he begins to speak of resigning his position, which leaves Dr. Grantly and the bishop aghast. Harding says:
"If it can be proved," said he at last, "that I have a just and honest right to this, as God well knows I always deemed I had;—if this salary or stipend be really my due, I am not less anxious than another to retain it. I have the well-being of my child to look to. I am too old to miss without some pain the comforts to which I have been used; and I am, as others are, anxious to prove to the world that I have been right, and to uphold the place I have held. But I cannot do it at such a cost as this. I cannot bear this. Could you tell me to do so?" And he appealed, almost in tears, to the bishop, who had left his chair, and was now leaning on the warden's arm as he stood on the further side of the table facing the archdeacon. "Could you tell me to sit there at ease, indifferent, and satisfied, while such things as these are said loudly of me in the world?"
The bishop sympathizes with his friend, but the archdeacon is all business. This is an excerpt of his response:
"Were you, accused as you are now, to throw up the wardenship, and to relinquish the preferment which is your property, with the vain object of proving yourself disinterested, you would fail in that object, you would inflict a desperate blow on your brother clergymen, you would encourage every cantankerous dissenter in England to make similar charge against some source of clerical revenue, and you would do your best to dishearten those who are most anxious to defend you and uphold your position. I can fancy nothing more weak, or more wrong. It is not that you think that there is any justice in these charges, or that you doubt your own right of the wardenship. You are convinced of your own honesty, and yet would yield to them through cowardice."
In the chapter entitled Mount Olympus, Trollope mocks the power of the press. Here is one paragraph:
Some great man, some mighty peer,—we'll say a noble duke,—retires to rest feared and honoured by all his countrymen,—fearless himself; if not a good man, at any rate a mighty man,—too mighty to care much what men may say about his want of virtue. He rises in the morning degraded, mean, and miserable; an object of men's scorn, anxious to retire as quickly as may be to some German obscurity, some unseen Italian privacy, or indeed, anywhere out of sight. What has made this awful change? What has so afflicted him? An article has appeared in the Jupiter; some fifty lines of a narrow column have destroyed all his grace's equanimity, and banished him for ever from the world. No man knows who wrote the bitter words; the clubs talk confusedly of the matter, whispering to each other this and that name; while Tom Towers walks quietly along Pall Mall, with his coat buttoned close against the east wind, as though he were a mortal man, and not a god dispensing thunderbolts from Mount Olympus.
And last, here is one specifically about Tom Towers:
He loved to sit silent in a corner of his club and listen to the loud chattering of politicians, and to think how they all were in his power,—how he could smite the loudest of them, were it worth his while to raise his pen for such a purpose. He loved to watch the great men of whom he daily wrote, and flatter himself that he was greater than any of them. Each of them was responsible to his country, each of them must answer if inquired into, each of them must endure abuse with good humour, and insolence without anger. But to whom was he, Tom Towers, responsible? No one could insult him; no one could inquire into him. He could speak out withering words, and no one could answer him. Ministers courted him, though perhaps they knew not his name; bishops feared him; judges doubted their own verdicts unless he confirmed them; and generals, in their councils of war, did not consider more deeply what the enemy would do, than what the Jupiter would say.
Ha! And on that, I will end this review. Though slow reading this is really a good story, and recommended. Reviews of the other novels in the series are forthcoming.
All material on this site copyright © 2017 by Laughing Crow.
This site designed and written by Laughing Crow.