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.
My commentary on the third book in the Chronicles of Barsetshire series, Doctor Thorne is here.
Thanks for a wonderful review of this fine novel by Trollope. Many years ago it was my introduction to Trollope and I remember it fondly.
Your reference to Trollope's realism in contrast with Dickens seems quite on point, while his balanced style seems almost classical.
Trollope is in many ways the epitome of the Victorian novelist.
Hi James - I suppose many would first think of Dickens as a Victorian novelist. I agree however that Trollope seems to be more of an archetype. I think that we are so familiar with Dickens that we forget just how bizarre his characters were.
Brian, I am familiar with Dicken's work (along with many), but not with Trollope's work; I now feel that I should read The Warden, mostly for the complex and well-drawn characters. Excellent review and commentary.
Hi Sukko - I think that if you like Dickens that there is a good chance you will like Trollope, even though Trollope's above criticism of Dickens seems to be a bit on the harsh side.
Your reviews are always thought provoking. Not one I am familiar with and not sure I would be in a rush to get a copy but it does sound like an interesting read.
First Tom at Wuthering Heights, now you: Trollope's been getting lots of praise in the blogosphere lately. It's really my fear of long Victorian novels that stops me from giving him a try.
I ve a pile of Trollope I need to read that I won a couple of years ago he is a writer I have til this point avoided not sure why it is the big book thing his books tend be long ,nice review brian and thanks for remind me of the seven novels I have sat unread ,all the best stu
Thanks Lainy - Though different from Dickens, I think if one generally likes the period and place that Dickens wrote about then one is likely to like Trollope.
Hi Miguel - Tom has some great posts up on Trollope. When I went back and read one I actually found that he and I were so much on the same track on an upcoming post that I have in the wings that I needed to make changes as I did not want to seem to be copying his ideas.
Hi Stu - I think that that you will really like Trollop. I am obsessed with reading series in order so that I would recommend this one before any of the other Chronicles of Barsetshire Towers Books.
Much pleasure awaits! I have read many Trollope novels but because he was so prolific, there are many left. If you get a chance, check out the Uk Trollope Society page which subdivides the books into different categories.
I think you're spot on about the various camps: extremes and moderation. Trollope shows the clashes between these two groups in other novels. He's a great favourite of mine.
Hi Gut - I know that you are very partial to Trollope. I had heard about that website. I will check it out right now.
A very interesting review Brian. I love the Barchester Novels, and you have a treat in the next one, which to my mind is the best - Barchester Chronicles. You make me want to read them all over again - but where would I get the time?
Hi Tom - Time is indeed the great enemy we we raeders. I am really liking forward to the remainder ofbthe series.
I have read a great deal of Trollope and always with pleasure, including one of the "Irish" novels. You have made a good beginning. Barchester Towers (next book in the series) is probably better known, but it is more enjoyable if you read The Warden first.
Hi Nancy - i have so much of Trollope to get to! It is amazing how beloved his books seem to be these days.
>Trollope’s characters, though less entertaining than those of Dickens, are also less absurd and generally more realistic.
Yes!!! I have been slowly reading The Barset Novels, and really enjoyed The Warden when I read it a few years ago. Mr. Harding is a odd hero, but a hero nonetheless.
Good review. As always, lots to chew on.
Hi Jane - Mr Harding is indeed one of the more unusual protagonists that we encounter in great literature.
This is off topic, but I'm wondering how you choose your books. Is it on a whim or do you have a plan of sorts? You have a great selection. I've never read this author. Thanks for the introduction.
Interesting that his work has been compared to Charles Dickens and that they were friends. I wonder if Dickens gave him writing advice or even vice versa.
Wonderfully thought out post as usual.
Hi Heidi - Great question. It is so complicated!
I have a plan of sorts. Basically read through history's well known and respected authors then I alternate with non fiction book.. Every third fiction book is supposed to be philosophy. Every third none fiction book should cover the American Revolutionary period. There are other rules. I almost never really actually follow these rules. I break them and vary them more often then not. However I often follow the general spirit of them. Sometimes one author will lead me to another. Sometimes I will read a recommended book. Sometimes I do not want to read a philosophy book. In the end I really love what I read.
Hi Naida - After the above quote was written I wonder just how much advice that these two would have taken from each other!
Great review, it seems like an interesting story. I haven't read Trollope but he's on my list.
Thanks Delia. The thing is this is only the beginning of the story as it is only the first book in the series.
I had to skim your review because I've been meaning to read Trollope for ages and that's exactly the novel I've got. I hope to het back to your review sooner raher than later.
Harding sounds like an interesting character and I'm interested in the various POVs.
Hi Caroline - Sorry about the spoilers.
I do think that you will like this.
Trollop's POV is fascinating and I plan a post on it soon.
Interesting as always. What a wonderful insight you give into this author and his characters.
Not having ever read Trollope partly because I used to fear that he was a watered down sort of Dickensian wannabe, it was fascinating to hear of his attack on Mr. Sentiment and that it seems to go on and on for quite some time. How interesting! Another reason to give Trollope a try at some point, I guess, although an unexpected one. :D
Thnaks so much Tracy. Trollope's characters are truly filled with wonder and insight!
Hi Richard - i have actually now finished Barchester Towers and will be blogging about it shortly. I feel strongly that Trollope is a major author in his own right even more so now.
Thanks for your thoughtful review. I have never read anything by Trollope, but I'm sure I will at some point.
It's interesting to me that several of Dickens' contemporaries have been compared, in style, to Dickens. And those that are compared, I find, tend to be people who wrote for his magazine. :)
Hi Rachel - I did not know about the magazine. Maybe Trollope was taking a poke at what he perceived as something of a clique.
I must admit that I have never read any of Trollope's works, although I've heard of him, of course.
The plot of this novel is interesting indeed, with its interconnected themes of concern for the poor and criticism of extremes and dogmatic views.
In spite of the above, I'm not at all happy about Trollope's thinly-veiled criticism of Dickens. I don't see why one novelist would criticize another, within the context of his/her own work. It not only seems rather petty, but also introduces literary criticism into a work of fiction, which, in my opinion, is a rather ridiculous mixing of literary genres. But perhaps this sort of thing was common in Trollope's day. I really need to go back and re-read those 19th-century British authors I'm familiar with, to see if they, too, included such comments in their own novels. Who knows? I might be very surprised....
Anyway....I do want to read this novel, but I am already prejudiced against Mr. Trollope. "Mr. Sentiment", as he calls Dickens, enjoys a literary reputation that I believe is more far-reaching than Trollope's ever has been. After all, Dickens's characters are universally beloved. Can the same be said for Trollope's? I hardly think so.
Well, sorry about the little rant....as you can see, I dearly love Dickens, and just think it was very petty of Trollope to criticize him like that. And now I'm wondering if jealousy could have been a motivating factor in this. Could it be that Trollope was actually JEALOUS of Dickens's popularity? Hmmm... If so, he had every reason to be!! Ha, ha!!
Nevertheless, I will definitely give this book, as well as subsequent volumes in the Barsetshire series, a try!
As usual, great commentary! Thanks for your thoughts!! : )
Hi Maria - Trollope seems to do all sorts of extra literary or should we call it meta - fictional things in his works. I just put up a post about some of them. The criticism is just one of them.
As for the specific criticism, I am beginning to love appreciate Dickens more and more myself. I am also thinking that Trollope is a great underrated artist who may have been Dickens's equal as a result of his incredibly realistic characters.I almost see Trollope's criticism here as an argument among giants that I do feel very emotional about. There is certainly a lack of depth to Dickens's characters, that Trollope is commenting upon. Yet there is SOMETHING else about those characters that is difficult to articulate that perhaps Trollope misses.
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