Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope is the second book in the Chronicles of Barsetshire series. I found this novel to be one of the most enjoyable that I have ever read. It is complex in all sorts of ways, masterfully written, has marvelous characters and, to top it all off, it is very funny.
The plot picks up approximately five years since the conclusion of The Warden
Dr. Proudie, is appointed. Proudie is an extremely weak man who is controlled by two schemers: his hypocritical and domineering wife, Mrs. Proudie, and his personal minister, the manipulative and self-serving Mr. Obadiah Slope. Both set their sites on taking power in the diocese at the expense of the longtime residents and eventually at the expense of each other. A war of social, political and ecclesiastical maneuvering soon breaks out between the newcomers and the long-term residents. Eventually, Mrs. Proudie and Mr. Slope also begin to vie against one another.
Complicating matters is the return of the Stanhope family to Barchester. Dr. Stanhope is a local clergyman who has been living in Italy. The Stanhope children are narcissistic, vulgar and manipulative. Among them are the seductive and calculating Signora Madeline Vesey Neroni and the flippant, irresponsible Ethelbert "Bertie" Stanhope. These characters proceed to cause all sorts of strife in Barchester.
Trollope seems to better understand and represent the complexities of life than do all but a small minority authors. He reflects reality in a way that is amazingly real and multifaceted. When characters act, it is usually for a variety of mixed motives, ranging from the noble to the nefarious. Misunderstandings are often infused with some truth. Situations and people are rarely simplistic.
In my opinion, Trollope’s in-between characters are the best. Archdeacon Grantly is a case in point. This man is overbearing, arrogant and often a bully. Yet, he seems to have a moral core that is real but imperfect. As his father, the Bishop of Barchester, is on his deathbed, Grantly is indeed distraught. However, the timing of his father’s death is an issue. Because of an impending change in government, if the Bishop dies soon, the Archdeacon will likely be appointed the next Bishop. However, if the old Bishop lives much longer, it is unlikely that the Archdeacon will ever become Bishop. Situations are rarely simple in this novel. Muddling this issue is the fact that the dying Bishop is suffering, so that a reasonable response from a relative would be a desire for the end to come with some haste.
The Archdeacon’s response is similarly complicated,
Nothing could be easier than the old man's passage from this world to the next. But by no means easy were the emotions of him who sat there watching. He knew it must be now or never. He was already over fifty, and there was little chance that his friends who were now leaving office would soon return to it. No probable British prime minister but he who was now in, he who was so soon to be out, would think of making a bishop of Dr. Grandly. Thus he thought long and sadly, in deep silence, and then gazed at that still living face, and then at last dared to ask himself whether he really longed for his father's death. The effort was a salutary one, and the question was answered in a moment. The proud, wishful, worldly man sank on his knees by the bedside and, taking the bishop's hand within his own, prayed eagerly that sins might be forgiven him.
This book is also very funny and sometimes even hilarious. I found myself laughing out loud on several occasions. Once again, as in The WardenThe wit ranges from the subtle to the bitingly sarcastic, and occasionally it veers towards the physical.
At one point, Trollope comments on peoples’ tendency, in times of distress, to find solace from fickle and untruthful folks in the innocence of babies,
This kind of consolation from the world's deceit is very common. Mothers obtain it from their children, and men from their dogs. Some men even do so from their walking-sticks, which is just as rational. How is it that we can take joy to ourselves in that we are not deceived by those who have not attained the art to deceive us? In a true man, if such can be found, or a true woman, much consolation may indeed be taken.
Ironically, I sense that the above displays an understanding of such refuges that people find, even as such refuges are being mocked.
There is a lot more here. The work is full of additional fascinating characters that I have not even mentioned. It is brimming with themes and insights. It is chock full of wonderful mythological allusions. The writing style is extremely well crafted and innovative, a point that I will explore in a separate post.
This is a highly recommended read for anyone with the slightest inclination toward nineteenth century English novels. Unless a person were to be completely adverse to that art form, it is hard to imagine why anyone would not like this book. As someone who insists upon reading series in order, I would recommend the very worthwhile The Warden