Most of Anthony Trollope’s enduring work is bound up in two series. The Palliser novels follow the life of a fictional British politician. And the Barchester novels examine life (predominantly clergical life) in a fictional provincial town. Oh, and almost all of his novels are long. They are brutally long and have the kind of leisurely, digression-choked pace that was only permissible during the Victorian era.
After I read and loved the first (and fairly short) Barchester novel (The Warden), I looked with horor upon the 200,000 word behemoth that was the second novel. I didn’t really want to get enmeshed in a series of lengthy books. Instead, I tried the only one of Trollope’s stand-alone books that is said to be worth reading (The Way We Live Now). It was good, but it was also a long and brutal slog that was, in many ways, lacking in much of the softness and charm of the quaint provincial life portrayed in The Warden.
And that’s where I left things with Trollope for several months. I sensed that there was some goodness in the rest of the Barchester novels, but I wasn’t sure I could commit. But finally, after slogging through a dense, dreamy short novel (John Cheever’s Falconer), I looked at the second volume (Barchester Towers), and thought, “Sure it’s long, but it’s so readable. Wouldn’t it be nice to just sort of sink into a book?” Yes, this is the mindset that drives the sales of epic fantasy.
Well, I did read Barchester Towers. And it was nice. It was an extremely pleasant reading experience. The plot involves many of the same persons as the first novel. The kind, bumbling bishop has died and a new bishop who bumbles in a different way has been installed. And with him comes a prideful and avaricious chaplain who plots to marry a girl, and there’s alot of flailing about and maneuvering about who will get this preferment and that deanship. It’s not much of a plot at all, really. Nothing is at stake. Never do you get the sense that the girl is going to end up with either of the two villains who are plotting for her hand. Nor are the villains even that villainous. One is just kind of greasy and greedy. The other is a fop who’s in debt.
But the characters are all very well-drawn. They’re larger-than-life, like Dickens characters, but not nearly so farcical. There’s Mr. Harding, a beloved but kind of ineffectual curate who keeps worrying about whether he’s carrying out his duties well (but makes no effort to actually ramp up his energy-level in undertaking them). There’s the Stanhopes, a family of amoral dissipates, who are the subject of some of Trollope’s best descriptions, such as:
The great family characteristic of the Stanhopes might probably be said to be heartlessness; but the want of feeling was, in most of them, accompanied by so great an amount of good nature that their neighbours failed to perceive how indifferent to them was the happiness and well-being of those around them. The Stanhopes would visit you in your sickness (provided it were not contagious), would bring you oranges, French novels, and the last new bit of scandal, and then hear of your death or your recovery with an equally indifferent composure.
There’s Archdeacon Grantly, who seems quite irreligious and primarily motivated by family pride, but who seems to so genuinely love his family–including his father-in-law (the aforementioned Harding) and his sister-in-law–that you can’t help but like him. There’s Mr. Quiverful, a clergyman who has fourteen children and desperately wants a better posting, but is unwilling to seek it dishonorably. And there’s his wife, who has no such compunctions, and of whom Trollope writes:
Whatever the husband might feel, the wife cared nothing for the frowns of the dean, archdeacon, or prebendary. To her the outsides and insides of her husband and fourteen children were everything. In her bosom every other ambition had been swallowed up in that maternal ambition of seeing them and him and herself duly clad and properly fed. It had come to that with her that life had now no other purpose. She recked nothing of the imaginary rights of others.
And there’s the secret main character of this (and all) Trollope novels: money. He’s one of the only novelists (other than perhaps Jane Austen), who seems to really care about money: what people will do get it and how they will use it. There’s a marvelous scene where he describes the difference between a social-climbing farmer whose wife spends his money on lace and school-lessons for his children and his solid yeoman neighbor–equally endowed with money–who saves up in order to buy farms for all his sons. Trollope can describe how clergyman will live and die with anxiety to move from a 200 pound a year posting to a 400 pound a year posting, and how another clergyman can easily give up an 800 pound a year posting. He is able to describe money as both a marker of status and a divider of social classes and a real, concrete thing that is used to purchase the things that people need (or desire so strongly that the desire seems akin to a need).
And finally, the novel has the wonderful Trollopean narrator, a first-person character that interjects itself into the novel and frequently runs away on its own awesome digressions, like this one:
‘New men are carrying out new measures, and are eating away the useless rubbish of past centuries.’ What cruel words these had been; and how often are they now used with all the heartless cruelty of a Slope! A man is sufficiently condemned if it can only be shown that either in politics or religion he does not belong to some new school established within the last score of years. He may then regard himself as rubbish and expect to be carted away. A man is nothing now unless he has within him a full appreciation of the new era; an ear in which it would seem that neither honesty nor truth is very desirable, but in which success is the only touchstone of merit. We must laugh at every thing that is established. Let the joke be ever so bad, ever so untrue to the real principles of joking; nevertheless we must laugh—or else beware the cart.
Anyways, yep, it’s hard to recommend this book. The book I’m really recommending is the first book in the series. The Warden is half as long and twice as good. But if you like The Warden, you should not be shy about reading Barchester Towers. It’s pretty good too.