The first time I started reading ‘Barchester Towers’ it failed to capture me, and to I put the book to one side. When I came back to it later, having not read any Trollope for quite some time and rather missing him, I was smitten. And I think that proves that even the greatest authors, even favourite novelists, need to be matched to your reading mood!
This story begins not long after the end of the story told in ‘The Warden’ ends; at a time when much remains the same, but some changes have happened and more changes are to come.
Hiram’s Hospital is still without a warden, Eleanor Bold has been widowed and has a baby son, and Bishop Grantly is on his deathbed, watched over by his son, the Archdeacon Grantly, and his old and dear friend, Mr Harding.
The Archdeacon loves and respects his father, and he is also a pragmatic and practical man whose dearest wish is to succeed to the bishopric. He knows though that the government that would see him as the man for the job is on the point of collapse, and that the government likely to replace it would have rather different views.
The government fell on the same day that Archbishop left this life, and so a very new regime swept into the bishop’s palace. Dr Proudie was the new bishop, and he brought with him his formidable wife, Mrs Proudie, and a social climbing, conniving chaplain named Obidiah Slope.
They were wonderfully vividly drawn characters, the kind that you probably wouldn’t want to met in real life but are gloriously entertaining in the pages of a book.
I was particularly taken with Mrs Proudie, who ably managed not only her household but every single matter in the diocese that might affect her husband, much to the chagrin of the longer standing clergy.
And I can’t help thinking that in a different age – and in the hands of a different author – she might have been a feminist icon!
The new regime is completely at odds with the old guards, and so a civil war began between Grantlyite and Proudieite forces – and between high and low church.
That drew more characters into the story.
Several members of clergy are called back to their religious duties in Barchester.
Dr Stanhope has to return from the idyllic shores of Lake Como to take up his duties in his parish. The Stanhope family add colour to Barchester, particularly his daughter Madeleine, who lost her mobility to an accident – or maybe to her estranged husband’s brutality, but has risen above that to present herself as a beautiful and seductive signora; and her brother, Bertie, who was charming and full of ideas about what he might do but too indolent to do anything but seek a wealthy bride.
The Stanhopes were wonderfully colourful, but I couldn’t quite believe in them as I did almost every other character.
Mr Arabin was called away from the ivory towers of academia by Dr Grantly, who was eager to draw more clergy who shared his views into the diocese.
I liked him, but it was a little too obvious what part he was going to play in the plot.
With all of his characters on the stage Trollope was ready to unfurl his plot, and to answer the questions he had thrown into the air:
- Who would be the new warden?
- Who would Eleanor Bold marry?
- Which party – Grantlyite or Proudieite – would win the day?
So many wonderful scenes came tumbling down, one after another, as Trollope set about answering those questions and arranging all of his characters’ lives until everything was exactly as it should be.
There were so many wonderful moments, so many perfect details.
The author reassured his readers – as he so often does – that everything would be alright, but still I was anxious because I couldn’t see quite how it would, and because I was so very involved with this world and the people who lived there.
I have a few reservations, a few reasons why this isn’t my favourite Trollope. There were a few times when characters were compromised for the sake of the plot, some of the naming of characters lacked subtlety, and I think I will always be fonder of Trollope’s drama than his comedy.
I found so much to love though; more than enough – much more than enough – to say that I had a lovely time in this book and that I am looking forward to working my way through the rest of the Barsetshire novels.
Most of all I love the way Trollope can more from comedy like this …
“Take care, Madeline,” said he, and turning to the fat rector, added, “Just help me with a slight push.”
The rector’s weight was resting on the sofa and unwittingly lent all its impetus to accelerate and increase the motion which Bertie intentionally originated. The sofa rushed from its moorings and ran half-way into the middle of the room. Mrs. Proudie was standing with Mr. Slope in front of the signora, and had been trying to be condescending and sociable; but she was not in the very best of tempers, for she found that, whenever she spoke to the lady, the lady replied by speaking to Mr. Slope. Mr. Slope was a favourite, no doubt, but Mrs. Proudie had no idea of being less thought of than the chaplain. She was beginning to be stately, stiff, and offended, when unfortunately the castor of the sofa caught itself in her lace train, and carried away there is no saying how much of her garniture. Gathers were heard to go, stitches to crack, plaits to fly open, flounces were seen to fall, and breadths to expose themselves; a long ruin of rent lace disfigured the carpet, and still clung to the vile wheel on which the sofa moved.
So, when a granite battery is raised, excellent to the eyes of warfaring men, is its strength and symmetry admired. It is the work of years. Its neat embrasures, its finished parapets, its casemated stories show all the skill of modern science. But, anon, a small spark is applied to the treacherous fusee—a cloud of dust arises to the heavens—and then nothing is to be seen but dirt and dust and ugly fragments.
We know what was the wrath of Juno when her beauty was despised. We know to what storms of passion even celestial minds can yield. As Juno may have looked at Paris on Mount Ida, so did Mrs. Proudie look on Ethelbert Stanhope when he pushed the leg of the sofa into her lace train.”
… to such wonderful emotion like this …
“The bishop had one small room allotted to him on the ground-floor, and Mr. Slope had another. Into this latter Mr. Harding was shown and asked to sit down. Mr. Slope was not yet there. The ex-warden stood up at the window looking into the garden, and could not help thinking how very short a time had passed since the whole of that house had been open to him, as though he had been a child of the family, born and bred in it. He remembered how the old servants used to smile as they opened the door to him; how the familiar butler would say, when he had been absent a few hours longer than usual, “A sight of you, Mr. Harding, is good for sore eyes;” how the fussy housekeeper would swear that he couldn’t have dined, or couldn’t have breakfasted, or couldn’t have lunched. And then, above all, he remembered the pleasant gleam of inward satisfaction which always spread itself over the old bishop’s face whenever his friend entered his room.
A tear came into each eye as he reflected that all this was gone. What use would the hospital be to him now? He was alone in the world, and getting old; he would soon, very soon have to go and leave it all, as his dear old friend had gone; go, and leave the hospital, and his accustomed place in the cathedral, and his haunts and pleasures, to younger and perhaps wiser men. That chanting of his! Perhaps, in truth, the time for it was gone by. He felt as though the world were sinking from his feet; as though this, this was the time for him to turn with confidence to those hopes which he had preached with confidence to others. “What,” said he to himself, “can a man’s religion be worth if it does not support him against the natural melancholy of declining years?” And as he looked out through his dimmed eyes into the bright parterres of the bishop’s garden, he felt that he had the support which he wanted.”
… in the space of just pages.
You have to cherish an author who can do that, who can do both of those things so well, don’t you?