The Warden by Anthony Trollope (1855)

I really didn’t mean to set out on my journey through Trollope’s Barsetshire novels this year.  I loved the Palliser novels, I planned to read a few more of his stand-alone novels before I began his other series; and, if I’m honest, I have to admit that I was a little wary of this first book, that many have said is weaker that the books that follow and that I gave up on back in the days before I came to understand what makes Trollope so very special.

A disappointing dramatisation of a book from the middle of this series – I’ll say no more because others who know and love that book have said it already, and much better than I could – made me want to read that book. Because, disappointing though it was, I could see enough in the underpinning to suggest that it was likely to be a book I would love.

That was why, with just a little apprehension, I picked up this first book in the series.

I loved it. And now that I am well into the second book in the series I have to say that I’m not enjoying it as much as I enjoyed this first book. ‘Barchester Towers’ feels rambling and unstructured after this book; I do like it, but not as much as I had hoped, and so I have put it to one side for a while.

‘The Warden’ is one of Trollope’s shorter novels, and I would liken it to a beautifully wrought miniature; not quite perfect but lovely nonetheless.

the-wardenThis story, like many a Trollope, spins around a will.  An alms house was set up under the terms of the will of John Hiram in the fifteenth century, to provide food, comfort and shelter for twelve old men who had no home and no means. They were also granted a shilling and fourpence a day for  any other wants they might have.

What surplus there was – and sometimes there was very little – was granted to the warden a clergyman responsible for the running of what would become known as ‘Hiram’s Hospital’ and for the spiritual welfare of the men who resided there.

The explaining of this took a while, and that may have been why I put the book down first time around. This time though I felt at home in the author’s company and I recalled that my aunt had been warden of a similar alms house, albeit in a different age and under very different terms.

This story begins when Septimus Harding, a respected, well-liked clergyman, was the warden of Hiram’s Hospital, and when the value of the bequest had grown significantly. That meant that Mr Harding had a very healthy income as well as a lovely house and garden; and he was happy in his work; he cared for his twelve residents and they all liked and respected him.

It is the story of the trials of Mr Harding.

John Bold, an earnest young reformer, was convinced that the hospital funds were being unfairly allocated and that the warden’s income  was out of proportion to the minimal duties he is expected to perform. Mr Harding was unworldly, he had never thought to question the financial arrangements of the hospital, though he had had used  his personal funds to increase the allowance given to the hospital’s residents to one and sixpence a day.

The popular press took up Mr Bold’s cause, it became a cause celebre, and a court case ensued.

The clerical community, with the forceful archdeacon Dr Grantly,  son of the Bishop and  husband of Mr Harding’s elder daughter at the forefront, supported the continuation of the warden’s right to the surplus income from the bequest.

John Bold took the opposite view; even though he considered Mr. Harding as a friend, even though he sought the hand in marriage of his younger daughter, Eleanor.

Mr Harding wanted to do the right thing, but he was none to sure what the right thing was.

I loved the way that Trollope told this story. He presented his characters and all of the arguments so well; his narrative voice was warm, acute and witty; and I was particularly taken with how well he created the letters and newspaper reports that illuminated his story.

I appreciated that, though I had a good idea where his sympathies lay, he presented both sides of the matter quite clearly. That made it easy to feel empathy with Mr Harding, a good man who really didn’t know  what the rightness of the case was. And to wonder what had been the intentions of John Hiram when he made his will, and what would happen to the old men at the institution the bore his name.

I was very taken with archdeacon, Dr Grantly. He was so certain of the rightness of his cause, and so formidable as he set out to fight for that cause. He was wonderfully entertaining on the printed page, and, though I’m not sure I’d like to meet him in real life, I loved his tenacity, and his loyalty to his family and the church.

I loved Eleanor Harding. She was as devoted to his father as he was to her, and she snubbed John Bold while he was in the enemy camp. She didn’t cut her ties with him though; his sister continued to be her dearest friend, and she hoped that her romance could be rekindled when the court case was over and the dust had settled. She would always be loyal to her father, but she would never lose sight of the future that she knew was ahead of her, the life she wanted to lead.

Most of all though I loved Septimus Harding. He loved his daughters, he loved the old men who were in his care, he loved the work he had been called to do, he appreciated all of the good things he had in his life; and when finally decided what was the right thing to do he proved to be as tenacious, in his own quiet way as his formidable son-in-law.

The sequence of events, as he travelled to London and found his way to the people he needed to see – very much an innocent abroad – was beautifully judged and a joy to read.,

His subsequent visit to the bishop, an old and sympathetic friend, and his return to Hiram’s Hospital were every bit as good.

There were one or two character I would have liked to spend a little more time with – Mary Bold, Susan Grantly and certain of the residents of Hiram’s Hospital – but this is a small book and there is a whole series ahead of me to see a little more of the characters in this book  and to meet others.

I’m not sure that I’ll like the next book as much as this one, but I do want to give it another chance and I do want to spend more time in this world.

27 thoughts on “The Warden by Anthony Trollope (1855)

  1. I really want to read Trollope at some point as he’s another author I feel I would appreciate more now that I’ve reached a certain stage in my life. It sounds like it might be a good place to start with his work. Lovely review, Jane – you’ve convinced me to add this one to my wishlist!


    1. Many seem to have started with The Warden and moved happily through the Barsetshire novels; I started with The Pallisers and Can You Forgive Her? and certainly would recommend that if you’d prefer party politics to church politics.


  2. This book was my introduction to Anthony Trollope, and I still remember so clearly the delight I felt reading it. I’m always surprised when people don’t like this book. I second so much of what you have written! For me of course Mr. Harding is the heart of the book, and my favorite character in all of Trollope. I also went straight on to Barchester Towers, because I was reading a combined addition with The Warden. I think you’ll find much to enjoy when you do come back to it. And then in the books to come as well!


    1. I suspect I was expecting a little too much of the next book as so many people seemed to say it was better than this one. When I come back to it I’ll take it steadily, because there were things I like but I found it muddled and lacking in a sense f place. Maybe I was spoilt by the familiarity of London and having different settings in the Palliser novels, but I suspect I will always prefer Trollope’s drama to his comedy.


  3. Lovely review Jane. I too have hovered round this one for years, intending to start it and wanting to start it so I can read the series in order, but put off by the fact people say it isn’t the best. Maybe I should just ignore all that and dive in!


    1. I’d always been told this wasn’t his best and that Barchester Towers was where things really got going, but I loved this and I’m finding others now think the same. As long as you don’t mind some church politics I’d say dive in, and that I think this is a good showcase for lots of things Trollope does well.

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  4. One of the things I noticed in reading this series is how different the six books are! I confess to enjpying the broader comedy of B.T., but I think Doctor Thorne was one of best, so I hope you’ll keep going. (And you’ll meet the real Miss Dunstable, who’s a delight.)


  5. I’ve read The Warden countless times and love it too. My favorite chapter is Mr Harding’s Long Day in London. I put onto my website a group read I led of the book:

    If I may allow me to share part of a longer essay on the book by A.O. Cockshut as it is so insightful:

    The Warden, Anthony Cockshut, “Nothing is sentimentalized,” from Tony Bareham’s Trollope: The Barsetshire Novels: A Casebook

    The Warden is the story of a clergyman who gave up his preferment because the newspapers attacked him. It may seem, at first sight, a meagre subject for a novel, and the emotions of the characters may seem excessive. The setting is parochial, the action limited. Gradually though, as we read, we find that the story has its wider implications, but that the author is leaving us to discover them for ourselves. The familiar theme of a clash between conscience and an established order is given unusual variations. For here conscience IS haltmg, and the established order, though it may not be altogether lovable, has a good case; while the reformers are apt to be mixed in their motives and inaccurate in their facts. A delicate balance is maintained between the need to preserve and the need to change. Each party in the conflict seems, on his own ground, unanswerable.

    Even in the material sense, of course, much more is at stake than one minor piece of preferment. Trollope distrusted prophecy, but he provided his readers with the materials for prophecy. If the imposing structure of the temporalities of Church and State shows a crack at one point, there will soon be other cracks. Iconoclasts are not satisfied with a single success. The archdeacon and the attorney-general were right to be seriously disturbed.
    It is sometimes supposed that the Barchester world is perennially sunny and carefree. The late Sir Edward Marsh was expressing a very general view when he ascribed Trollope’s appeal largely to the fact that ‘it is pleasant to live for a space in a legendary era of peace and plenty, of solidity and stability’. No doubt it is pleasant, but no such era is to be found in The Warden or indeed in Trollope’s work as a whole. Mr Harding has seen with humility and resignation, Dr Grantly has seen with baffled rage, the writing on the wall. The era of peace and plenty (did it ever exist?) is, for the characters in this book, already passing. The regrets which the more nostalgic modern readers feel for the calm of Barchester Close have already begun in Mr Harding’s own heart. Our vision of that legendary calm is like the echo of an echo.
    Mr Harding himselfhas proved to be one of the most appealing of Victorian heroes. Though he gives up nearly all his possessions for conscience, he is free from the self-confidence and condescension which so often prevent the noble heroes of fiction from being sympathetic. He does not lecture or generalise. He does not lay down the law for anyone else. He had seen a disturbing vision of himself as an exploiter of the poor, and it concerns him alone. Modestly, persistently, and quite unsuccessfully, he tries explain his vision to others. Its rational content eludes him, but we are made to feel its compelling imaginative force.

    Most fictional accounts of a great renunciation fail because they deal only with the great gesture and overlook its practical effects. Trollope does not make this mistake. In chapter sixteen [A long day in London] we see the great gesture as it appears to the man who makes it, complicated by miserable financial calculations, marred by the vain balance of imponderable possibilities for the future. We see too the sense of emptiness which follows when a great moral act has drained the soul of all its energy. Nothing is sentimentalized; indeed timidity plays its part WIth charity and gentleness in forming Harding’s decision. And because it is all so realistic in detail, so unsentimental in conception, we feel the moral grandeur of the act more keenly than any rhetoric could make us do.
    The same chapter also gives us a sample of one of Trollope’s greatest gifts. He can convey, as well as anyone, a sense of the passage of time. Mr Harding’s twelve weary hours in London all contain their full sixty minutes. What he can do for a day, Trollope can do also with the years. The Barchester cycle covers a long period and it makes us conscious of each drop in an ocean of time. Many things which are mentioned casually in The Warden (such as John Bold’s ownership of The Dragon of Wantley’) will become important in later Barchester stories. The Warden can be enjoyed by itself, but it can only be fully appreciated with its companions.
    Mr Harding’s mildness is slightly deceptive. He allows himself to be hectored and badgered for a long time, but in the end he will turn and stand at bay. Without perhaps being aware of it, the reader has been waiting for this. It is a great moment when the old man defies the attorney-general. The imaginary ‘cello which has played so many mournful muted
    strains now has a different message: ‘He was standing up, gallantly fronting Sir Abraham, and his right arm passed with bold and rapid sweeps before him, as though he were embracing some huge instrument, which allowed him to stand thus erect, and with the fingers of his left hand, he stopped, with preternatural velocity, a multitude of strings, which ranged
    from the top of his collar to the bottom of the lappet of his coat. Sir Abraham listened and looked in wonder.’

    The long day in London has something of the excitement of the chase. All the time we are listening for the archdeacon’s avenging step behind the fugitive. We hardly pause to ask ourselves why Mr Harding needed to go to London. He did not really want the attorney-general’s advice; he knew in advance what it would be and had already decided to reject it. No, he
    was driven on by a deep need to signalise the momentous decision with a memorable and unprecedented act. Trollope does not tell us this. It is not his way to draw attention to his own subtleties.
    It has been suggested that Trollope’s grasp of character stops short at the upper and middle classes of society. To dispose of this charge it is merely necessary to turn to chapters four and twenty, where the old pensioners reveal their wisdom and their folly. The instinctive wisdom of Bunce, the vanity of Skulpit, afraid to lose his reputation as a scholar if he shows that he cannot sign his name, the pitiful avarice of the dying Bell, all these are unanswerably genuine. Trollope. knew the peculiarities of every class, but he saw the same human weaknesses in them all. And the chief of these, in his eyes, was self-deception, which he detected in the most unlikely corners. The archdeacon, John Bold, Eleanor Harding, are all honest
    people, but all, like the ambitious bedesmen, are deceived about their own motives.

    To say this may give the impression that Trollope was a bitterly satirical author. Satirical he was, but never bitter. Weakness and folly seemed to him too universal to be worth any large indignation. Indeed, he reserves his most severe attacks precisely for those satirists and reformers who ignore the natural frailty of mankind, divide everything into black and white, and thunder tediously on, drunk with their own rectitude. Thus John Bold, who has just a touch of this failing, is perhaps the least sympathetic of the book’s leading characters. Mr Popular Sentiment, Mr Pessimist Anticant and The Jupiter receive no mercy at all.

    Under these three aliases, Trollope was attacking Dickens, Carlyle and The Times newspaper respectively. Two objections might be made to these pieces of caricature – that they are unfair, and that, in a novel, they are irrelevant. There is some truth in each charge. Of the irrelevance we may perhaps say as Johnson said of certain passages in Paradise Lost, ‘superfluities so beautiful, who would take away?’ It should be remembered, too, that the novel of the 1850s was a much less specialised performance than the novel of to-day. The Jamesian concept of the novel as a pure work of art was unknown. Lively comments on topical questions interspersed in a good story were considered normal and even desirable.
    The charge of unfairness is not so easy to deal with judicially. Of course there was much more in that genius Dickens, The Times, perhaps even in Carlyle, than appears in The Warden. Yet the tone of each is most amusingly caught, and the serious criticisms underlying the parody are not groundless. The Times was pontifical in 1855; Dickens was hasty in his judgements and inclined to wallow in his feelings of pity and indignation.
    Above all, Carlyle did thoroughly enjoy being gloomy and prophetic, and indeed made a very good thing out of it.

    A more interesting question, perhaps, is why did Trollope find Dickens and Carlyle distasteful, when most of his contemporaries admired them so much. Primarily he was distrustful of all exaggeration, and did not recognise its important function in Dickens’s art. His generation, as a whole, expected and welcomed exaggeration in literature. He felt that facts were sacred, motives were devious, even in the best of men. Writers who ignored these considerations he thought superficial.
    In some ways The Warden reads like a young man’s book. The attack on Dickens is a little intemperate; the mock heroics and occasional archaisms are a little clumsy; the technical grasp is not yet quite certain. It is surprising to learn that Trollope was verging on forty when he wrote it. His boyhood and early manhood had been unhappy, and though his intelligence was good, its development was unusually slow. He had written several books before The Warden, with Irish or French settings, and none of them had been a success. The Warden was a new start, and it inaugurated a series of masterpieces. If Trollope at forty felt uncertain of himself, young for his age, and almost a failure, the vein commenced in The Warden was to make him, at fifty, a writer of great achievements.

    As we finish reading, we feel we know Barchester and its inhabitants, and the London hotels and streets, and we know a good deal about the England of a hundred years ago. One thing we do not know – the author’s own attitude to church reform. Trollope was a Liberal in politics, and intellectually convinced of the need for reform in church and state. But his
    deepest feelings were always more conservative than his thoughts. In the book’s treatment of reform, there is a deep ambiguity, which springs partly indeed from the author’s wish to be fair to all parties, but partly also from a division within himself. The character and history of Archdeacon Grantly provide an apt illustration of this. He appears first as a loud and somewhat shallow voice of church authority, and a secret and hypocritical reader of Rabelais. Even before the end of The Warden he has softened and improved. By the time we reach The Last Chronicle cf Barset he has become a character of endless interest and intricacy, one of the most dear both to author and readers ofTrollope’s numerous creations. In the development of Dr Grantly we can read something of Trollope’s own inconsistencies. On the whole these inconsistencies were a gain to him as a writer. What he lost in consistency he more than made up in subtlety and comprehensiveness.
    Many people, of whom the present writer was one, begin their reading of Trollope with The Warden, the first book in his most celebrated series. If the Barsetshire books have a little unfairly crowded out his brilliant novels of the ‘seventies and early ‘eighties, that is not their fault. The rest of Trollope is usually underrated, but the Barsetshire books are fully worthy
    of their high reputation. In reading The Warden one is taking the first step into one of the most fascinatingly varied and satisfying territories of the English novel. Everyone should read Trollope. He appeals to the highly intellectual, and can be enjoyed by the lowbrow. The Warden is the best of all places to begin.


  6. Nothing to add after Ellen’s comment. Only that the Barsetshire series is more “disconnected” from within than the Pallliser or Parliamentary one. One may like one book, disliked another (but I have never encountered anyone who disliked one of these books), be mildly interested in another, fully engaged in the other. But they all have great quality and appeal.
    As Ellen, I particularly enjoy the chapter during which Mr Harding goes to London. His playing the cello without a cello is truly poetic.
    Do go on with the series: it is wonderful reading! 🙂


    1. I have yet to find a Trollope I don’t like, but I have liked some more than others and I think I appreciate his drama more than his comedy. I could happily read that chapter over and over again, and I will go on with the next book and the rest of the series when the time in right, and maybe with different expectations.

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  7. This was the first Trollope novel I read and although I did enjoy it, I preferred both Barchester Towers and Doctor Thorne. I agree with the comments above that the six books all have different qualities so each one will appeal more to some readers than others. The same could be said about the Pallisers, I think. Oh, and Septimus Harding is wonderful – probably my favourite character in the series!


    1. I suspect this book may have worked better for me because I was familiar with Trollope’s style and I have a little knowledge of church bureaucracy The other books do look diverse, and I will certainly go back to the series. I liked much of what I read, and I want to find out what happens to Mr Harding and other characters.


  8. This is the only Trollope I’ve read so far and I liked it very much. I’ve been told the second was better. I hope you’ll end up liking it as much as you liked this one.m


  9. I still haven’t read any Trollope, and I’m not even sure that I want to, but this one looks like it would be a good one to start with. I may give it a go.


    1. He isn’t for everyone, but I do think he’s worth trying at least once. I did because so many others with similar tastes seemed to like him, and now I seem to be addicted. This would be a good book to try, because it is a fair representation of his style and not too lengthy.

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  10. The Last Chronicle of Barset has much more of Mr. Harding; has a wonderfully sketched perpetual curate; and, a few London characters I could have done without. Still TLCOB is my favorite of the Barsetshire series. I too started with The Warden and was hooked.


  11. This is the book that made me fall in love with AT. I didn’t know it was supposed to be weaker than the others – I found it engrossing and enthralling! I got up to That One That Was On The Telly, but I didn’t watch the adaptation as it looked awful. Hope you get back into B Towers soon, I loved that one, too.


    1. I think it’s simpler but not weaker, and there seem to be others who feel the same way. I will go back to the next book, because I think it was the shift of gears and the amount of comedy that put me off, and there was much I liked.

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  12. My first Trollope and I really enjoyed it. I put off Barchester and am grateful for your review reminding me of all the characters. I really must get to it soon. Thanks for the review, Jane.


  13. This was my first ever Trollope and I am so glad I was introduced to him via this book! I loved the characters and I loved the way the plot played out! So happy you enjoyed it as much!


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