Sunday, April 29, 2012

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope

I honestly do not know how I got through so much of my life without hearing this man's books recommended. But, as I explained in my review of The Warden, all that changed when Mrs Sonnemann introduced me to him and then sent me a little starter pack of my own! I have just now finished the sequel to that first book: Barchester Towers.

The differences between The Warden and Barchester Towers are pretty obvious. Barchester Towers is, to begin with, at least three times longer. It also contains everything that I enjoyed about The Warden—but much, much more so. My original thought was that Trollope is the man to read when you are all out of Jane Austen. I would like to modify that view now. Trollope is in many ways different to Austen. He has the same satiric bite, but a somewhat freer hand: no Jane Austen heroine, for example, would box an unwelcome suitor's ears. In addition Austen's satire was more directed at people's foibles in private life than their public behaviour and institutions. In short, Trollope is all himself—quirky, compassionate, chatty, and gurgling with quiet humour.

Five years on from the events of The Warden, the bishop of Barchester dies and is replaced by the appointment of a Whig government: Dr Proudie, a clergyman with low-church leanings, who comes complete with a Gorgon of a wife and her revolting hanger-on Mr Slope. Hitherto, Mrs Proudie and Mr Slope have seen eye-to-eye in matters of doctrine, but with the bestowal of the bishopric on Dr Proudie, Mr Slope revolts in earnest: Mrs Proudie intends to be the real bishop of Barchester. Mr Slope, installed as the bishop's chaplain, has ambitions of his own and is determined to supplant Mrs Proudie's control over the bishop. Mr Slope and Mrs Proudie's pungent mixture of arrogance and ungraciousness in their intended reforms soon antagonises every one of the existing Barchester clergymen, especially the archdeacon, Dr Grantly. Injury is soon added to insult: Hiram's hospital, without a warden since the end of the last book, is to be given a new warden, and despite expectations that the humble and deserving previous warden, Mr Harding, will be restored to his old home, Mrs Proudie and Mr Slope determine to give the wardenship to another clergyman, Mr Quiverful.

Meanwhile, other storms gather on the horizon. Dr Stanhope and his feckless family--conniving Charlotte, useless and idle Bertie, and man-eating divorcee Madeline--return from Italy and settle in Barchester, where Charlotte incites Bertie to marry Mr Harding's wealthy younger daughter and Madeline sets about her favourite pastime, even ensnaring Mr Slope. Despite his passion for Madeline, Mr Slope too decides to marry Mr Harding's daughter.

As romantic complications pile up, the war between Mr Slope, Mrs Proudie, and Dr Grantly intensifies. There's only room for one shadow bishop in Barchester; but who shall it be?

This book was wonderful: I enjoyed every minute of it, though I read it slowly at first. Trollope's plot is detailed, with a few unexpected turns, and a wholly satisfactory ending. His characters are, as I mentioned in my review of The Warden, wonderfully drawn, with great flaws but also with great compassion. All his good characters have faults, but all his bad characters have their good points.

Most of the time when a writer does this with his characters, he is excusing bad characters for doing, thinking, or being bad; he is excusing the badness. With Trollope, the impression is more that of a man trying to bring out the best in sinful people, without moral confusion. A good writer, I have heard it said, is one that can show you how to love the unloveable. Trollope has this gift—has it perhaps in greater quantities than any other author I've read. Even Mr Slope is worthy of charity.

This particular book, even more so than The Warden, is a wonderful book about just that—charity, the Christian love of the unloveable. This kind of love is the kind of love which Christ said would be the hallmark of the true Church (John 13:35). This book, about divisive church politics in a town full of clergymen, records the triumph of charity over differences of opinion, doctrine, and temperament—as well as documenting the dangers that arise from a lack of charity.

Many of my readers will be particularly interested to know what information emerges from this book on the subject of Trollope's religious convictions. I think it's safe to say two things here. First, so far as the matter can be settled by reading his books, Trollope was a sincere Christian. His reverence on matters of religion, his sincerity in describing the religious feelings of his characters, his genuine and apparent concern for the church's reputation, his wise treatment of clerical antagonists, and his wholehearted delight in clerical protagonists, land him firmly on the side of Christendom. Mr Slope is not revolting because he is a clergyman; he is revolting because he is an insincere clergyman with more regard for his own ambitions than for his faith. In addition, his bad example is balanced by all the flawed but more or less honest clergymen in the book—most notably, by Dr Grantly, who at a very moving moment early on in the book repents of letting ambition run away with him.

Second, Trollope was definitely on the high-church end of the scale, with a marked distaste for low-church sentiments. The slimy Mr Slope is low; the sincere and humble Mr Arabin is high. This is one area in which my sentiments do not line up exactly with Trollope's. As far as I understand it, the high-church low-church divide probably stems from Reformation-era tensions in the English Church. Anglicanism can, at its 'highest', be the closest thing the Protestant denominations have to Catholicism, complete with candles, chanting, and genuflections. The 'low' church, on the other hand, is likely to be more Calvinist and Reformed in doctrine, place less reliance on rituals, be less wedded to the idea of episcopal rule, and generally more non-conformist in tone and Puritan in influence.

That seems to be the basic picture, but let me throw in a few complicating factors. The 'low' church of Trollope's day appeared to be placing less emphasis on orthodoxy and doctrine, preferring a more liberal creed that placed few restrictions on their behaviour. If there was an anti-intellectual evangelical streak in the Anglican church, it would be found in the 'low' church with its preference for ethical behaviour above right doctrine. This manifests in Mrs Proudie and Mr Slope's strict, legalistic sabbatarianism, coupled with an insistence on Sunday-schools (I would share Trollope's aversion for that institution). They are the pietistic type, which pays lip-service to the Sabbath and insists that only they can rear other people's children—but somehow manage to flunk something as basic as Holy and Edifying Relationships With the Opposite Sex. We all know people like this, after all. They go on mission trips but put their own children in school to be indoctrinated by the state; they attend church every Sunday and do not stop to consider that the work they do every day is worship of the Lord Most High; they have personal devotions every day and may even witness to coworkers, but lack a vision for taking the Gospel into every area of life, and especially not politics. The Mrs Proudies of this world are like a dear friend of mine who grew up intending to fulfill her life's calling as a missionary to unenlightened tribes, who would leave a possible husband at home to care for the children and support her in her important work. (She has learned wisdom since and is an exemplary helpmeet to her husband.)

Here's another complicating factor. Around the time of the story, the 'high church' was going through something of a reformation (and something of an un-Reformation), especially in liturgy, symbolism, and social action. The Oxford Movement, of which the protagonist Mr Arabin is hinted to be a member, is somewhat foreign to the high church of Barchester-- “high and dry”, is Trollope's description of them. The Oxford Movement, which revisited the Anglican church's relationship with the Roman church, resulted in a number of prominent clergymen undertaking that controversial sports event, the Swimming of the Tiber, and being received into the church of Rome. Although Mr Arabin is specifically stated to have considered making that swim himself in the wake of his mentor John Newman's conversion, he is by the time of the novel a firmly decided Protestant.

The final complicating factor is Trollope's underlying support of the Christian faith. Although he admits himself, if sides must be taken, to be on the side of the high church, his main allegiance appears to be to true religion wherever that may be found. The book ends, not with all the low-church people being soundly discredited, but with peace descending upon the factions, brought by charity.

Thus I was not at all troubled by Trollope's dislike for the low church. Generally speaking, I otherwise found the book commendable. Mrs Proudie, who—wait for it, this is a marvellous description—who is:
all but invincible; had she married Petruchio, it may be doubted whether than arch wife-tamer would have been able to keep her legs out of those garments which are presumed by men to be peculiarly unfitted for feminine use
--Mrs Proudie, I say, renders herself odious to all by her determination to rule over her husband. Dutiful wives and dutiful children are, on the other hand, commended, while, interestingly, Mr Harding's gentleness and laxity as a father results in some harrassment for his daughter, who could have done with firmer guidance. That said, I do take issue with the depiction of the penniless Quiverful family, whose major character trait appears to be, “Those poor people, they have fourteen children and are therefore much to be pitied.” But there—I am alive in a culture where nobody would think it odd if a gentleman vicar's son got a day job with a greengrocer. Mr Quiverful's problems would vanish—if it were not scandalous for his children to get a job, or go into trade selling vegetables out of the garden or mittens or goodness knows what.

But enough about the views and morals of the story. It would be nearly criminal for me to finish without mentioning Trollope's writing style. It is superb. Chapter 27 took my breath away. If I could write like this, I would die happy: Mr Slope goes to visit Madeline Neroni, the man-eater who has lured him into her service. He cannot help hanging around her; he only wishes to be flattered by her flirting. She does not care for him; she only likes to play with men. And thus she plays with him: she provokes and maneuvers him effortlessly into an undying passion for her, all the while loosing subtle insults at him. He, on the other hand, while being shown up as a fool, still somehow manages to be stung out of slimy unctuousness into something very like manhood. It is magnificently done, and all without losing sight of how badly both of them are behaving.

The tone of the book is very light and comedic throughout, although its moments of seriousness are a resounding success. In addition to effortless dialogue, well-drawn characters, and lashings of satire, Trollope includes something that I've rarely seen in a book before, and certainly not on such a grand scale. It is generally considered very bad manners these days for an author to break into the story to address the reader directly. JRR Tolkien did it now and then in The Hobbit, to reassure very young readers. But Trollope elevates this to an art form. He will not only tell you what his characters are doing and thinking; he will tell you his own views on the subject. For example, he will tell you that Mr Harding's daughter is in no danger of marrying either Mr Slope or Bertie Stanhope:
And here, perhaps, it may be allowed to the novelist to explain his views on a very important point in the art of telling tales. He ventures to reprobate that system which goes so far to violate all proper confidence between the author and his readers, by maintaining nearly to the end of the third volume a mystery as to the fate of their favourite personage. Nay, more, and worse than this, is too frequently done. Have not often the profoundest efforts of genius been used to baffle the aspirations of the reader, to raise false hopes and false fears, and to give rise to expectations which are never to be realised?
Trollope is, he assures us, above such deceit. There are no surprises at the end of the book—he promises it:
Nay, take the last chapter if you please – learn from its pages all the results of our troubled story, and the story shall have lost none of its interest, if indeed there be any interest in it to lose.
Just as hilariously, as the story draws to a close, Trollope pauses to let us know that he's having trouble fulfilling his contract with his publisher, who has asked for exactly 477 pages:
Do I not myself know that I am at this moment in want of a dozen pages, and that I am sick with cudgelling my brains to find them?
Brilliant, funny, satirical, and deeply endearing—I cannot recommend Barchester Towers enough, and I look forward with relish to enjoying the rest of his works.

Although I have not seen any Trollope adaptations, Mrs Sonnemann has recommended the 1982 BBC mini-series featuring Alan Rickman as Mr Slope—an inspired bit of casting! --though not unreservedly. She advises avoiding more recent adaptations.


marmie said...

Suzannah, what a superbly written review!! I identified so much with your enjoyment and relived some of my favourite impressions. I think that there is a "something" that he has in common with Jane Austen. As Henry James said soon after Trollope's death, "His [Trollope's] great, his inestimable merit was a complete appreciation of the usual. ... [H]e felt all daily and immediate things as well as saw them; felt them in a simple, direct, salubrious way, with their sadness, their gladness, their charm, their comicality, all their obvious and measurable meanings. ... Trollope will remain one of the most trustworthy, though not one of the most eloquent, of the writers who have helped the heart of man to know itself..." Perhaps the first sentence expresses the link with Austen. A sort of male, Victorian version of what Chesterton says of Jane Austen, "...That young lady had a talent for describing the involvement and feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me...most wonderful..."

Lady Bibliophile said...

Oh, very excellent, Suzannah! What a lovely book review; I've been looking for bloggers who go into this kind of detail for years, and it was such a blessing to find you. :) I appreciated your points on Trollope's religious views, as I was wondering, and now recall in The Way We Live Now the Christian character Roger Carbury, one of Hetta's lovers. He was friends with a Roman Catholic priest, and while he showed him grace in allowing him to talk about his Roman Catholicism, he did not give an inch in regards to doctrine. But in a very kind way.
I have enjoyed Trollope's writing style as well; refreshing is the best word I can find for it, because it's excellent in style while quite personable and relatable.
I see Barchester Towers in my future. :)

Radagast said...

An excellent review! I've just finished it myself.


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