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.
This 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.