I am so lucky. Roughly every week or so, I read a book that blows my mind, and entertains me in ways that I hadn’t thought possible. Last week it was Middlemarch, the week before that it was Pride and Prejudice, the week before that it was The Picture of Dorian Gray, the week before that it was Less Than Zero, and so on…you guys just have no clue about the kind of awesome stuff that I get to read, but am way too lazy to blog about…
But this week it was Anthony Trollope’s The Warden. I think there are very few books that I’ve enjoyed as thoroughly as I enjoyed this one.
First of all, it’s got the sort of tiny, funny little plot that I really love: the priest who’s attached to this 19th century British old age home comes under public attack because he gets way more money from the trust (which was established by a 14th century wool merchant) than the twelve pensioners who are its supposed beneficiaries do.
And it has a wonderful, interventionary narrator: an omniscient first person voice that interjects into all the doings of the characters and comments upon them…as in the following description of a novelist (called Mr. Popular Sentiment) who’s a thinly veiled caricature of Charles Dickens:
Of all such reformers Mr. Sentiment is the most powerful. It is incredible the number of evil practices he has put down: it is to be feared he will soon lack subjects, and that when he has made the working classes comfortable, and got bitter beer put into proper-sized pint bottles, there will be nothing further for him left to do. Mr. Sentiment is certainly a very powerful man, and perhaps not the less so that his good poor people are so very good; his hard rich people so very hard; and the genuinely honest so very honest.
And, finally, the characters are delightful. The titular warden is a fuzzy-headed old man who’s living quite happily, without any concerns about the source of his income, until the newspapers stir up his conscience and he realizes that, actually, he’s not entitled to any of it. And his prime antagonist in this novel is not the reformer who stirs up all this public feeling against him; it’s his extremely pragmatic son-in-law, who he’s completely terrified of.
Oh, and there are sooooo many good set-pieces. For instance, aforementioned reformer is sort of sort of in love with the warden’s youngest daughter. And at one point the reformer’s sister goes into a spiel where he berates him for acting like a fool:
“Pray, pray, for my sake, John, give it up. You know how dearly you love her.” And she came and knelt before him on the rug. “Pray give it up. You are going to make yourself, and her, and her father miserable: you are going to make us all miserable. And for what? For a dream of justice. You will never make those twelve men happier than they now are.”
“You don’t understand it, my dear girl,” said he, smoothing her hair with his hand.
“I do understand it, John. I understand that this is a chimera,—a dream that you have got. I know well that no duty can require you to do this mad—this suicidal thing. I know you love Eleanor Harding with all your heart, and I tell you now that she loves you as well. If there was a plain, a positive duty before you, I would be the last to bid you neglect it for any woman’s love; but this—; oh, think again, before you do anything to make it necessary that you and Mr Harding should be at variance.”
So much drama. So many scenes. It’s just…it’s a perfect little book. Oh yeah, did I mention that the book is little, too? It’s really short. Like, under seventy thousand words. For a nineteenth century British novel, that’s practically a short story.
And I didn’t know anything about it! No friend of mine had ever told me, “Dude, you have to go read The Warden, because it is so very charming.” I just picked its name out of a list of ‘great books’ that I occasionally use to select my reading.
Now I am correcting that silence. You guys should read this book. It is so very charming.