Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope

Image result for barchester towers

Image result for barchester towers

(A Photo from the Trollope Society of the late, great Alan Rickman as the odious Obadiah Slope, Chaplain in the BBC version of the Barsetshire Chronicles)

If you liked Trollope’s “The Warden” you will love “Barchester Towers”. It would be wise to read “The Warden” first as the characters and setting are depicted only a little while later. Barchester Towers is a far more sophisticated book, with many more characters of significance and intertwining story lines. Instead of the issue of the amount paid to Mr Harding, lines of battle emerge between the clergy and their supporters, and true characters emerge.

Mr Harding has resigned and moved from Hiram’s Hospital, Eleanor married and lost John Bold, but has his son also called John. Otherwise life has continued, except that the Bishop is dying. The exact time of death is vital to his son who has hopes of the bishopric. Without spoiling the novel, Bishop Proudie arrives in Barchester, with the soon to be infamous Mrs Proudie and his chaplain, Mr Obadiah Slope. They represent everything that is contrary to the established Cathedral clergy, in music, practice and the importance of the Sabbath. When it becomes known that Eleanor Bold is a rich widow, more than one man decides that he should woo her. The picture is further confused, interestingly for the reader, by the Stanhope family returning to the Cathedral close. Undoubtedly my favourite character in the novel is Signora Madeline, younger daughter of the Stanhopes, who is a supreme operator from her elegant sofa. Altogether this is a fascinating novel, a comedy of church politics, with all the joys of quarrels and small wars.

This is a complicated tale of greed and family needs, with the aptly named Quiverful family, vested interests and traditions clashing ever so politely but effectively. Stylistically Trollope is always in control, and it is in the first quarter of the book he announces that the reader need not be concerned with the possibility of one undesirable marriage taking place. This is an author confident that he will not spoil the reader’s enjoyment with a premature reassurance; he knows that he has enough material to maintain the reader’s interest without increasing the tension. Indeed, tension is not something running through this book; it is an enjoyable read with realistic characters for the time who enjoy situations where there is no real peril. Mrs Proudie is the ultimate power behind the throne, whose own opinions and actions are commonly known to dominate those of her weak willed husband. All of the women in this novel are fully realised characters whose choices and actions have far more influence than any of the men around them appreciate. I think that this is what sets Trollope apart from Dickens, whose women do have their limitations. Trollope revels in setting up a community where men appear to have the power and influence, but who are really driven to action by the women around them. He manages to accomplish much in this novel without padding or great length, and together with “The Warden” it is deservedly one of the undervalued greats of Victorian literature.

So do try and read these books; as classics they are available electronically either for free or very few pennies and hard copies frequently appear secondhand. I will return with some newer books, though as I am due to investigate Elizabeth Gaskell’s house in Manchester shortly, who knows?


The Warden by Anthony Trollope – A simple classic

Image result for the warden trollope

As literary classics go, this is a remarkably short book. It is not complicated, and the issue it covers seems to be a minor, parochial problem. In Trollope’s hands the problem is explored from a variety of viewpoints, each embodied by a memorable, well realised character. The setting, a cathedral and those who live and work there or nearby, is such an enclosed community that a murder mystery would have worked well, but happily this is a classic novel with no death or high tragedy. Its simplicity is a little deceptive, as its controversy is important; ought someone to be paid a large amount for not a lot of work because he is favoured by the patron?

The reverend Septimus Harding is the Warden of a small almshouse for twelve old men, Hiram’s Hospital in Barchester. For the very small duties of keeping an eye on these pensioners of an ancient will, he gets the generous stipend (in the mid nineteenth century) of £800 per year. He also lives in a beautiful house and a lovely garden with his daughter, Eleanor, who is in turn very fond of  young doctor, John Bold. Mr Harding’s other daughter, Susan, is married to the archdeacon, Dr. Grantly, whose father, the Bishop, is Mr Harding’s friend and appointed him as Warden. So, this is a tiny community which is rocked when John Bold is inspired to take legal action to question Mr Harding’s right to the money he is paid. The value of the land which the money comes from has increased greatly; Bold and his friend Tom Towers believe that the increase should not be paid over to the incumbent. By the time “The Jupiter” (based on “The Times”) publish a strong condemnation the battle lines are drawn and Mr Harding feels overwhelmed.

This is a simple story but elegantly told. The characters are frustrating and determined, behaving predictably and seemingly irrationally in turn. It does seem real, as the people of the novel move in their small, interconnected circle. It is a story of semi rural life thrown into a national spotlight when lives are changed, but not lost. It is a gentle classic, and an important start to a series of Barsetshire novels. Some of the issues are still familiar to us today, and the demands of some of the residents of the hospital so well expressed that their voices seem more modern than Trollope ever intended. The characters are mainly consistent, and are a valuable introduction to those who will people a world created by Trollope which is still fascinating today.

This is the first post resulting from today’s book group which looked at “The Warden” and “Barchester Towers”. Quite a task you may think, but we didn’t meet in July so we had two months to read them. A surprisingly large number had read both! I have read both often before, so enjoyed watching the BBC version from several years ago. If you haven’t got the dvd, it is apparently easy to find on you tube. An excellent way to spend a few hours!

Angela Thirkell – novelist of Barsetshire

You may have heard of Barsetshire. It’s the fictional shire created by Anthony Trollope as a setting for his best known novels, the Barsetshire Chronicles. They start with the wonderful The Warden and continue with Barsetshire Towers. You may have seen the tv version staring the likes of Alan Rickman and Susan Hampshire. If not, the dvd is available. The Victorian church has never been so funny and interesting….

You may well wonder what that has to do with a woman author called Angela Thirkell. Well, in the 1930s she began to write the Barsetshire series of novels. She continued to write the novels, based in the contemporary Barsetshire, through the Second World War, roughly one a year, until the 1950s. In that time she managed to refer back to the original Trollope novels (at least some of the characters) as well as creating new families and memorable individuals who inhabit a certain geographical area of middle England. There are about thirty books in the series, but frankly they do not all need to be read in order.

So, I half resolved to keep an eye open for Thirkell’s books. Then I spotted that Virago were bringing out some of her books in paperback. Having read High Rising

and encountered the memorable Mrs Morland, the author of many books, her enthusiastic son Tony, George Knox and the rest, well I was hooked. Since then I have been eagerly searching out the other novels, managing to pick up some first editions (thanks, Northernvicar and Hexham Oxfam Bookshop and many many others who have helped me search all over the country) as well as assorted large print editions and paperbacks. They have been sent from across the country and world, meaning I have a collection of about 50 books, including some omnibus editions.

If you want to find out whether you would also be interested in trying to follow the intermingling families and fortunes of the people of Barsetshire, Virago have produced about five reprints which are available in many bookshops, not just secondhand investigations. I believe that they are bringing out about another six during May and November next year, so more opportunities to find out what goes on. They are not in series order, but still stand up to reading as and when.

Why do I like them? Well, anyone who has enjoyed Persephone books will recognise the style of twentieth century British woman’s writing.  It is a complicated series of intermarriage and generations, but as Thirkell admits herself in Jutland Cottage she cannot sort out all the generations, given the long period over which she was writing. Some have attempted it, and produced maps and family trees and even background books. I have not read all of them, but they may be available. Yes, there are racist elements, but only those which would have been prevalent at the time, and certainly not outrageous. The politics are a little right wing for my taste, but again are reasonable for the time given the Labour victory of 1945 and the fact that most of the characters are, or linked to, minor aristocracy.

I do hope I have not put you of these books, as they represent an almost Jane Austen like world of marriage, disappointed hopes as well as the odd (in all senses) clergyman, all comfortably getting along in a world sometimes dominated by War ( probably the most interesting novels ) and postwar realities. It is not always sunny, and characters do die, but the the overall feeling is of a comfortable world of reoccurring characters and beautiful images of country life.   If tales of Middle England in the mid twentieth century written by a woman is your sort of thing, you will not be disappointed.