The below contains spoilers as I needed to reveal some key plot elements in order to convey my thoughts on this book.
The Warden by Anthony Trollope is the first book in the Chronicles of Barsetshire series and also the first book that I have read from this author. This work centers upon Septimus Harding, an elderly clergyman who is the warden of a retirement home and hospital for elderly and indigent church employees. Harding is a humble and decent man who becomes caught in the middle of a conflict.
John Bold, a somewhat overbearing, crusading reformer who, though a friend of Harding, begins to take on a cause that puts him at odds with the warden. The hospital was set up as a trust several hundred years earlier through an endowment from a wealthy patron. The question of how much compensation the church should be paying to the warden and other officials of the trust is brought into question by Bold’s exertions. Basically, Bold asserts that too much money is paid to the warden and that more money should go to the patients. As the story progresses, criticism of Harding mounts and he is even personally attacked by self-serving and unethical journalists.
Harding’ s son in law, the even more overbearing Archdeacon Grantly, takes up the cause of the church and Harding in opposition to Bold. Complicating matters are such contributing factors as Harding himself begins to believe that his compensation is too high and unjust, Bold and Harding’s youngest daughter Eleanor are in love, and the hospital’s patients become divided over the issue.
Harding is a surprisingly interesting character. His meekness is at times so profound that it might be characterized as weakness. At one point, he decides to resign his position of warden because he cannot stand the public criticism but mostly because he concludes that he is truly not entitled to the generous salary. He openly acknowledges that, since his son-in-law would oppose this measure, he must avoid Grantly, as he would not be able to carry out his conviction in the face of the archdeacon’s strong will. However, he ultimately finds great moral courage in himself when he finally does resign.
Trollope’s style has been compared to Charles Dickens’s, who was a contemporary and an acquaintance. Based upon this one work, I would argue that while there are similarities between the two authors, Trollope has his own distinct style. For instance, Trollope’s characters, though less entertaining than those of Dickens, are also less absurd and generally more realistic. Likewise, Trollope paints a more balanced picture of the world’s contending forces. Trollop also seems less sentimental than Dickens.
One thing that this novel exudes is its advocacy of moderation, balance and simplicity, as is personified in Harding. The warden is caught in between overzealous, self-aggrandizing reformers and arrogant, unbending conservatives. The author sees a lot of good and a lot of bad in these contrasting views and in the people who hold them. Thus, he clearly is advocating a middle ground. This acknowledgement of shades of good and bad inherent in different types of people and ideologies seems to drive a theory of the world where moderation and cautious change work best, since no one view is completely in the right or in the wrong. The dogmatists on both sides, personified by both Grantly and Bold, are shown to be mostly well intentioned, but also as causing harm in the world. This writer is critical of those who see the world in too black and white terms. One thing that I really admired here is that despite their deep flaws, these antagonists are not demonized and each is shown to have good qualities.
An example of this rejection of simplistic thinking occurs at one point when Trollope refers to a commentator/reformer who is unable to distinguish between shades of gray, Trollope writes,
No man ever resolved more bravely than he to accept as good nothing that was evil; to banish from him as evil nothing that was good. 'Tis a pity that he should not have recognised the fact, that in this world no good is unalloyed, and that there is but little evil that has not in it some seed of what is goodly.
Trollope reserves his harshest criticism for a popular novelist who, in this author’s view, portrays the world very simplistically and through the lens of over exaggeration. This novelist is clearly and unquestionably a thinly disguised version of Charles Dickens. Trollope describes him,
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. Namby-pamby in these days is not thrown away if it be introduced in the proper quarters. Divine peeresses are no longer interesting, though possessed of every virtue; but a pattern peasant or an immaculate manufacturing hero may talk as much twaddle as one of Mrs Ratcliffe's heroines, and still be listened to. Perhaps, however, Mr Sentiment's great attraction is in his second-rate characters.
Trollope goes on and on for pages carping about “Mr Sentiment” in a similar vain.
If there is any doubt about the true identity of this author, two of Dickens’ characters, Mr. Buckett and Mrs. Gamp, are actually identified by name! The theme of moderate balance and avoidance of hyperbole finds its perfect foil in Charles Dickens.
There is so much here, and as usual I have not touched upon many aspects of this novel. Certain characters, including both Harding and Bold, are surprisingly complex and very well drawn. The point of view of the novel is fascinating, it is usually third person, but occasionally drifts into first person and into other variations. There are a lot of aesthetically pleasing allusions to classic mythology. Harding and his experiences often parallel Christ and the Gospels, including Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane as well as the story of the Last Supper. Ultimately, this is an extremely well crafted character study that is also an entertaining read. I cannot wait to get to the remainder of the Chronicles of Barsetshire.
My commentary on Trollop’s unusual Pont of View is here.
My commentary on the second book in the Chronicles of Barsetshire series, Barchester Towers is here.