This was definitely a five-star read for me - a rating I award to only about 6% of the dozens of books I read each year. The Last Chronicle of Barset is quite simply, splendid.
Warning: While I'll be trying to keep them to a minimum, there will be a few spoilers for some of the previous books in the series in this review, especially The Small House at Allington. Also, if you are already convinced to read the book, you might like to stop here and go and do so, because while I don't give away the ending, I do discuss the plot in some detail.
Loving the Unlovable
There was so much to like about this novel. As always, Trollope is funny--one of the most consistently funny authors you'll ever read, and while he isn't as overtly outrageous in Last Chronicle as he was in Barchester Towers, I spent the whole book grinning in delight, cackling with glee, or even reading bits aloud in funny voices for the mere pleasure of hearing them. But Trollope's humour stems from one of the things I've always loved about him. Trollope's whole genius as an author lies in getting you to see people with all their quirks and faults and even sins--and yet coming to love them anyway. Not in such a manner as to excuse their failings, but despite them: reading any Anthony Trollope book is an exercise in Christian charity, in unconditional love of the unlovable. He gives you repulsive people and then makes you care for them, genially depicting them with all their quirks and idiosyncracies. The result is hilarious. (Mr Crawley walking along, hand outstretched to crush the bishop!) Jane Austen, of course, mined a similar vein of humour, but she was considerably more acid and ruthless than Trollope is: Both Mr Crawley and the bishop he intends to crush are so sympathetically drawn that despite their glaring personal faults, we can't help both laughing at and loving them.
This ability to get us to care for sometimes quite offputting characters is also the reason why The Last Chronicle of Barset is so profoundly moving. Because this is the grand finale to the series, most of the prominent characters from all the earlier books--Mr Harding and Eleanor, the Grantlys and the Proudies, Mr Arabin, Dr Thorne, Mark Robarts, Lady Lufton, Mr Crawley, and even Lily Dale and John Eames--are back in full force, drawn into the great clerical tempest at the novel's heart. As they make their final bows, they are ushered off, some to happy and some to unhappy endings; in fact, some of them to quite shocking endings. And while there is a great deal of power in seeing characters we love coming to unhappy endings (short version: boohoo), Trollope gets the most mileage from the unhappy ending of one particular character whom I never, ever expected to feel sorry for. This character was nails on a blackboard--someone it was heaps of fun to thoroughly despise--and yet, in this book, Trollope tore this apparently unassailable character to shreds, until I wanted to howl in sympathy. I've never felt so bad about the bad end of such an annoying character.
This said, I thought not everything in the story worked well. A subplot surrounding an artist friend of John Eames had so little relation to the rest of the plot that it probably should have been removed; it would have made a good standalone novella. That didn't annoy me at all, though, compared to the downright tragic ending of another plot, which was so disappointing (after 852 pages' worth of thinking it might finally come right after all) that I could almost have beaten the author over the head with his own manuscript. Ack! I do thoroughly understand why Trollope chose to end the subplot that way, of course. It's very true to the characters, and it prevents the otherwise happy and satisfying ending from being too implausibly neat. But I don't think I've felt so disappointed since the ending of Rupert of Hentzau.
By far the most compelling and well-drawn character in this book, populated as it is by so many compelling and well-drawn characters, is that of Mr Crawley, the impoverished curate accused of stealing a paltry sum of money. We met Mr Crawley first in Framley Parsonage, where he emerged as an odd, prickly, proud character of undeniable and yet almost repulsive rectitude. At the time I read that book, I found Mr Crawley rather a challenging character to come to grips with, given that he seemed to be both one of the most sincere and one of the most flawed of the Barsetshire populace. I also didn't quite know what to think of how the heroine of that novel seemed to collude with Mrs Crawley behind her husband's back to arrange things in ways that he would certainly disapprove of. However, since I realised The Last Chronicle would be all about Mr Crawley and his family, I postponed a final judgement till after I'd read it.
Now that I have, I feel I have a much better appreciation of where Trollope was taking this character. Mr Crawley's particular failing is pride, a pride that shows itself in excessive humility. Trollope laughs at Mr Crawley as much as he laughs at all his other characters, but it can't be denied that he also takes on a rather titanic character in this novel: a brilliant scholar and genuinely loving father, pastor, and husband, Mr Crawley, it's hinted, sees himself as one of the debased giants of legend: Polyphemus, the Cyclopes blinded by Odysseus; Belisarius, the great Byzantine general, who ended his life a beggar; Samson; Milton. And yet he clings persistently to his poverty, too proud to take assistance or even to hire a lawyer to defend him against the accusation of theft, and proud in other ways too: "It was not sufficient for him to remember that he knew Hebrew, but he must remember also that the dean [his friend Mr Arabin] did not."
As Walter Allen points out in the Introduction to my edition of the book, this same theme of pride, though in many different forms, crops up in most of the other subplots. There is the pride of our old friend Archdeacon Grantly, who is shocked that his son wants to marry a girl as penniless and unimportant as Grace Crawley, the more so as his other children have married into the nobility. There is the healthier kind of pride, the self-respect and the sense of honour that determines the dashing Major Grantly to pursue Grace despite his father's opposition and the criminal accusation hanging over her father; there is the corresponding pride felt by Grace, who wishes not to socially injure the Major in any way. Meanwhile John Eames's pride entangles him in a flirtation with the conniving Madalina Demolines, even while he renews his suit to Lily Dale, who also has a strong sense of what she owes herself, and will not easily relinquish it. Both Bishop Proudie and Mrs Proudie suffer terrible blows to their own pride, and it is left to Mr Harding, the aging hero of the very first book about Barset, to give a contrasting picture of godly humility.
Trollope therefore uses this theme of pride as a motif to tie together all the diverse strands of subplot, less interested in drawing out a specific moral than he is simply in faithfully depicting what happens to his characters because of their pride: the narrow escapes, the tragedies, the triumphs. Side-by-side with this theme is another, one much more overt: the theme of authority in both church and family.
Authority in the Family
While this theme of authority gets its overarching expression in Mr Crawley's struggles with church authorities--which I'll deal with in a moment--it plays out in the story largely in the context of family life: in parent-child relationships, but especially in husband-wife relationships. Major Grantly wants to marry Grace Crawley, and he's willing to defy his parents in order to do so. Mrs van Siever wants to force her daughter to marry a business partner against her will. John Eames is at his wits' end to figure out why Lily Dale should continue to refuse him when all her friends and family unanimously wish her to marry him. Mrs Crawley must sometimes go behind her husband's back in order to save her family from starvation. In the battle of will between Archdeacon Grantly and his son, Mrs Grantly finds herself in the unenviable position of sympathising with her husband while she attempts to prevent him cutting off their son without a shilling. And Mrs Proudie is, as usual, determined to rule the diocese despite the fact that it was her husband who was appointed bishop and not herself.
Again, the theme of authority ties all these subplots together, even in the otherwise somewhat unrelated Conway Dalrymple subplot.
Let me take a moment to say that I loved this theme. As I recently explained, for deep-rooted philsophical and theological reasons, I'm not a feminist. These days, standing up in support of traditional Christian patriarchy will get you shot full of holes in no time, even within the Church, and it's become trendy to talk about misogyny as something that's institutionalised in the Christian patriarchal church and family. I believe that's a false picture, partly because of books like this one: not being a feminist emphatically doesn't mean thinking a woman occupies a place in the food chain roughly between doormats and dog-fleas.
And I loved, loved, loved the balance and beauty of the picture of familial authority given in The Last Chronicle of Barset.
We see this balance shown in the Major Grantly plotline between the father and his son. Major Grantly insists that as a grown man, a father, and a widower, he has the authority to pursue Grace Crawley despite his parents' misgivings. Archdeacon Grantly, on the other hand, thinks that since he is providing the Major with an income, he has the right to stop it if his son insists on marrying against his advice. As I read their wranglings, I could tell that Trollope sympathised more (as I did) with the Major; but I thought to myself that the Major showed very little regard for the fifth commandment in standing on his rights. I'm not going to tell you how this tension resolves, except that it was terrific, and I was thrilled.
We get just the same sane and scriptural balance when it comes to the relationships between the men and women in the plot. There is the Proudie marriage. Mrs Proudie, as always, is the novel's premier example of a woman who terrorises the men around her and makes herself a nuisance by interfering with church affairs that are really none of her business. And yet, Trollope finds something good to say even about Mrs Proudie: that she has real strength and a real desire to do good.
On the other hand, we have the Dobbs Broughton marriage. Mrs Dobbs Broughton is a bored socialite married to a financier who eventually runs into business trouble. Mrs Dobbs Broughton realises that business must be going badly for him, but as Trollope explains, she considers that she has no right to ask him questions about it because the financial interest she brought into their marriage was so very small: "She had no knowledge that marriage of itself had given her the right to such interference." As a wife, Mrs Dobbs Broughton automatically has the right to know about her husband's affairs, to give advice or even to step in, as Trollope suggests.
By contrast to both these marriages, Trollope gives us, as a picture of traditional Puritan-style companionate marriage, the Crawley marriage; and even, to a lesser extent, that of the Grantlys (at one point, the wise and diplomatic Mrs Grantly takes just offence to a "very uncivil reference to her sex" made by her husband). Mrs Crawley is undoubtedly a clever woman, entirely lacking in her husband's fault of pride. I mentioned that in Framley Parsonage I felt uncomfortable about what Mrs Crawley is shown to do underhandedly, behind her husband's back, to prevent her family from starving; but with the deeper characterisation in Last Chronicle, my opinion of her changed: she became the example of a wise woman married to a foolish man, an Abigail (though Mr Crawley is by no means a Nabal) engaging in a little judicious management and interposition, while unshaken in her loyalty to and respect for her husband.
Mrs Crawley is a wonderful character, but so is Mr Crawley, and contempt for women is by no means one of that prickly clergyman's faults. He objects strenuously to Mrs Proudie's inteference in church affairs, but by not to the right and capacity of a wise woman to give advice when advice is sought: "If there be aught clear to me in ecclesiastical matters, it is this, - that no authority can be delegated to a female," he tells Mr Arabin in a letter. He goes on to explain that because of the criminal case against him, the bishop has instituted a commission to inquire into his fitness to be a clergyman:
In doing this, I cannot say that the bishop has been ill-advised, even though the advice may have come from that evil-tongued lady, his wife. And I hold that a woman may be called on for advice, with most salutary effect, in affairs as to which any show of female authority would be equally false and pernicious. With me it has ever been so, and I have had a counsellor by me as wise as she has been devoted.Church authority, in other words, can never be wielded by a woman. But a woman has authority as an individual and also as a wife, and is therefore welcome to exert private or familial influence, even in church matters. Later on, Mr Crawley even goes further in his somewhat prolix praise of feminine authority:
"I have, methinks, observed a proneness in the world to ridicule that dependence on a woman which every married man should acknowledge in regard to the wife of his bosom, if he can trust her as well as love her. When I hear jocose proverbs spoken as to men, such as that in this house the gray mare is the better horse, or that in that house the wife wears that garment which is supposed to denote virile command, knowing that the joke is easy, and that meekness in a man is more truly noble than a habit of stern authority, I do not allow them to go far with me in influencing my judgement."Characteristically, Trollope at once lampoons this gracious utterance by telling us that Mr Crawley "never permitted the slightest interference with his own word in his own family." But the words have been spoken, and spoken sincerely: if a Christian husband shows the love and dependence he ought to show, some wit is going to suggest that his wife wears the pants.
As in every other area of life, there are two extremes we can fall into, and in this case people seem only too ready to fall into one extreme or the other: that of total autonomy and domination by men, or that of total autonomy and anarchy of women. But in the Christian ideal, the battle is not between men and women, the battle is between God and God's church on one hand, and the world, the flesh and the devil on the other. In Trollope's novels, there is no war between the sexes, anymore than there should be war in an army between officers and men. In Trollope's novels, as in Scripture, marriage is not about asserting the authority structure (as important as the authority structure is); it's about working together, it's about having the strength of two, the wisdom of two, and the resources of two rather than of one. We talk a lot about the dangers of being "unequally yoked", but overlook the fact that this means the ideal is an equal yoking, even within the hierarchy of marriage.
And here I must say something very important. Up till now, I'd felt that Trollope goes rather easy on his heroines. They are almost a little too good to be true, and while everyone else in the story usually gets humbled, they usually come out with all their dignity intact. As a woman, I'm keenly aware of the failings of my sex, and I don't find such unflawed heroines particularly compelling: Lizzie Bennet or Emma Woodhouse seem more real to me than Lucy Robarts or Mary Thorne.
However, in reading The Last Chronicle of Barset and thinking about some discussions I've had lately, I've come to realise why we need books like these, books which depict admirable women wielding authority in admirable ways. Partly for the benefit of women, it's true, but even more for the benefit of young men who might need to be taught to respect women. That's the beautiful thing about Anthony Trollope: just as clearly as he is no twenty-first-century feminist, he clearly also has a very deep respect and love for women. And if Trollope sees his heroines with eyes that overlook a multitude of sins, that's a great perspective for young men to practice and learn.
Authority in the Church
The theme of authority also crops up, perhaps most definitively, in Mr Crawley's struggle with his church authorities. Having been accused of theft, and facing trial, Mr Crawley is directed by Bishop Proudie (or more to the point, by Mrs Proudie) to relinquish his position as the curate of Hogglestock. Believing himself to be innocent, Mr Crawley refuses to do so, the more so since the bishop has no legal power to remove him unilaterally from his living. In the process, Mr Crawley delivers himself of a number of ringing declarations of limited government and the duty of interposition:
"In all questions of obedience, he who is required to obey must examine the extent of the authority exercised by him who demands obedience."Since the bishop has no authority to evict him, Mr Crawley defies the bishop. But Trollope makes sure we know that this is not rebellion. Rather, it's the bishop (or, more to the point, Mrs Proudie) who is in rebellion against the law because she is seeking to exert an authority that is not lawful for a bishop to wield (much less the bishop's wife). The right and duty of interposition--of lesser authorities acting to keep higher authorities in check--is the fenceline between tyranny and right authority, between abuse and justice.
Trollope understands interposition as few people today do: that everyone has authority, that authority has hierarchy and limits, and that it's everyone's responsibility to see that their own and others' authority is kept within just bounds. These days, years of overweening state government has catechised us to expect church and family, like state authorities, to be their own best judge of the propriety of their own actions. But in The Last Chronicle, Trollope gives us example after example defining the limits of just authority. John Eames, in pursuit of Lily, expects her to let herself be ruled by his own and her friends' wishes; but Lily's mother as well as Lily herself understands that this is a decision which ultimately only Lily has the authority to make. Mrs Crawley has every right to advise her husband in church matters and does; Mrs Proudie has every right to do so, but tries to dominate instead, only to meet the righteous opposition of the diocese; Mrs Dobbs Broughton ignores this right, and probably harms her marriage in consequence.
I know this is a monster review, but this book was so good. It's not often that a novel is this entertaining, yet at the same time, this edifying. In a world that sometimes seems to have gone completely mad, where authority is so often misused, where so few people understand their own right and duty either to defy tyranny or to advise authority, and where the sexes each see the other as the enemy, Trollope's Last Chronicle of Barset is a breath of fresh air, a moment of calm and sanity and hope. Read this book.* Recommend it to your friends. It is that important.
Find The Last Chronicle of Barset on Amazon, The Book Despository, Project Gutenberg, or Librivox.
* But read the other 5 novels first, of course. What? They're all wonderful, and I wouldn't want to spoil the experience for you! They are The Warden, Barchester Towers, Doctor Thorne, Framley Parsonage, and The Small House at Allington.