Sunday, June 7, 2015

Anthony Trollope's The Chronicles of Barsetshire

My commentary contains minor spoilers regarding the outcome of several relationships portrayed in this series.

I have completed all six books of Anthony Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire series. Almost every page of the approximately 3,456 pages of the series is worth the read. Before I read these books, I had not read anything by Trollope. Now he is one of my favorite authors.

There are many themes and motifs developed during the course of the novels, including: the decay of the British class system, the virtues and strengths of quiet and non-aggressive people, the condition of women in society, religious hypocrisy and virtue, the mix of good and bad in everyone, and many others.

Though there are still numerous highly praised Trollope novels that I have not read, I feel that at this point I can say a few general things about the author. Trollope’s talents are numerous. He is funny, he is accessible while at the same time deep, and he uses a form of meta-fiction that is unique, amusing and witty. He describes people and their interactions in a more realistic way than just about any other writer that I know. His allusions to mythology as well as to Biblical and classical literature are frequent, clever and aesthetically pleasing.

I find Trollope to be a mostly optimistic writer. While that was true throughout the series, there seems to be a little darkening in his attitude and more realism exhibited as the series progressed. This is exemplified by the less than happy outcomes for a trio of characters, Lilly Dale, Johnny Eames, and Adolphus Crosby. See my commentary on their fates here.

Trollope is often compared to Charles Dickens as his books are set in the same period and place and seem to cover similar situations and themes. Both writers spend lots of words exploring human relationships and psychology. Both also seem to exhibit a moderate and easy going Christian based philosophy in their writings.  

There are major and important differences, however. Where Dickens was larger than life, Trollope seems in many ways the opposite, as he successfully attempts to reflect life the way it is, with incredibly nuanced, complex and contradictory characters and situations. Most of Trollope’s virtuous characters have flaws. Even his most pernicious creations exhibit virtues. Furthermore, despite Trollope’s realism, he  does not penetrate into the really dark corners of the human experience as Dickens does. In addition, where Dickens was concerned with the plight of the poor and oppressed, Trollope seems much less interested in those subjects.

Viewed in its entirety, the series is impressive and unified in terms of plot, characters and themes. It is also aesthetically and emotionally satisfying. At the end of the last book, there are marriages, declarations that some couples will never marry, and deaths of some long standing regulars.

Many book series offer a reader comfort; they provide familiar characters and places. I do think that some of this familiarity is often paid for with a degree of superficiality. The plots and characters are presented in too safe a manner. Trollope mostly avoids such superficiality in these books, his realism and complexity providing substance throughout.

My favorite book of the series is Barchester Towers. Though the novels do not need to be read in order, I recommend doing so. There is a certain continuity of characters and events that, when read in order, give the plot and character development additional coherence. The last book in the series, appropriately titled, The Last Chronicle of Barset, really should only be read last, since it concerns the fates of multiple characters and because it picks up multiple plot threads.

The first book in the series, The Warden, was very good, but I think that most of the other novels are better. Thus, if one does start at the beginning, one can look forward to the narrative improving.

I leave off with the closing paragraph of the The Last Chronicle of Barset. It is a marvelously written example of the meta-fiction that I alluded to and a fitting end to this series that will forever be close to my heart.

“And now, if the reader will allow me to seize him affectionately by the arm, we will together take our last farewell of Barset and of the towers of Barchester. I may not venture to say to him that, in this country, he and I together have wandered often through the country lanes, and have ridden together over the too-well wooded fields, or have stood together in the cathedral nave listening to the peals of the organ, or have together sat at good men's tables, or have confronted together the angry pride of men who were not good. I may not boast that any beside myself have so realized the place, and the people, and the facts, as to make such reminiscences possible as those which I should attempt to evoke by an appeal to perfect fellowship. But to me Barset has been a real county, and its city a real city, and the spires and towers have been before my eyes, and the voices of the people are known to my ears, and the pavement of the city ways are familiar to my footsteps. To them all I now say farewell. That I have been induced to wander among them too long by my love of old friendships, and by the sweetness of old faces, is a fault for which I may perhaps be more readily forgiven, when I repeat, with some solemnity of assurance, the promise made in my title, that this shall be the last chronicle of Barset. “

My commentary on the first book in the Chronicles of Barsetshire series, The Warden 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.

My commentary on the Fourth book in the Chronicles of Barsetshire series, Framley Parsonage is  here  and as it relates to gender roles here.

My commentary on the Fifth book in the Chronicles of Barsetshire series The Small House at Allington is here.

My commentary on the Sixth book in the Chronicles of Barsetshire series, The Last Chronicle of Barset is  here.

My commentary on  the relationship of Lily Dale and Johnny Eames in the Chronicles of Barsetshire series is here.

My commentary on Trollop’s unusual Pont of View is here


Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

If only Trollope were half as good a stylist as Dickens! But his novels might collapse under that kind of stylistic weight. Better that he under-writes.

Trollope's meta-fictional tradition runs directly back through Thackeray, Scott, and Fielding (and thus to Cervantes). I find it amusing, too, often quite clever. But not unique.

James said...

This reader was taken by the arm and enjoyed every bit of Trollope that I read. Thanks for your insightful commentaries and thoughts that encourage me to return to Trollope to be led through his world again.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tom - I do agree that Dicken's style or anything like it would likely be a bad mishmash with Trollope's realism.

Brian Joseph said...

Hio james - If you choose to reread Trollope I would love to hear your thoughts on these books.

Suko said...

Brain Joseph, I'm glad you found a new favorite author, Anthony Trollope. I think I'd enjoy this series as well. I've enjoyed your posts on it.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

There is the one thing like Dickens - the jokey names. Dr. Fillgrave and so on. Henry James hated hated hated those names. Readers less neurotic about so-called realism enjoy them with relish.

JacquiWine said...

I'm glad you've discovered a new favourite writer, Brian. Interesting comparisons with you think there are similarities/connections between Trollope and Jane Austen? I'm thinking of the way these writers observe and comment on social situations.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tom - Yes, the names! They do seem a little out of place to me with Trollope.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - I think that you would like Trollope also. I would love to read your thoughts if you gave him a read.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jacqui - I should have included a few words about Jane Austen in my post. I think that Trollope, who wrote later, was enormously influenced by Austen.

They both seemed to be very realistic writers with keen insight on human behavior.

Delia (Postcards from Asia) said...

Always great to read your posts on the classics. What will you be reading next?

Felicity Grace Terry said...

Loving the cover of this one, it seems to suit the book perfectly not that of course we should judge a book by its cover.

Great commentary as always Brian, you certainly bring these classics to life.

JoAnn said...

I'm halfway through the Barsetshire Chronicles (my fist experience with Trollope, too) and already agree with your observations, especially those comparing Trollope with Dickens. Trollope seems much more suited to my reading taste. Was just thinking I may not read another Dickens until I have completed all of Trollope... and that could take a while ;-)

I plan to start Framley Parsonage next month. My #6Barsets group is already considering reading the Palliser novels next year. We'd love to have you join us.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - Thanks you.

That is a great cover and does reflect the feel of the series as a whole.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi JoAnn- I do like Trollope better then Dickens.

I will keep an eye on your blog and will likely join you for the Palliser novels.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Delia - I will reveal some of my reading and blogging secrets since you asked :)

I like to keep about four blogs in the pipeline for various reasons. I also write slowly. This I completed the last book in this series about seven weeks ago. Thus I have completed several books in the last few seeks that I will be blogging about. Those books are:

Charles Dickens - David Copperfield

James Joyce - Ulysses (Yes I did!)

Andrea Dworkin - Intercourse

I am currently reading:

Jane Austen Persuasion

Margaret Atwood - The Penelopiad

Delia (Postcards from Asia) said...

That's great. Your secrets shall be safe with me. :) And slow is the best way to go. I can see you put a lot of thought into your posts.

I look forward to your comments on all the books but The Penelopiad in particular. I've read a Margaret Atwood book years ago and didn't like it all that much but always meant to read more of her work just to see if I will change my mind.

Sharon Wilfong said...

I had not heard the term "meta fiction" before. That is interesting. I had not considered that in a writing method before. I agree with you that Trollope has all the necessary ingredients for being a great writer. I think his observations about human nature to be very insightful. I cannot comment on the books yet since, as I've said, I haven't read them but I was glad to read your review of this last in the series.
I agree with your comparison to Dickens. Dickens characters are really more caricatures while Trollope's are more real, although as you say, he can be a little dark.
Thanks for a great review!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Delia.

So far The Penelopiad is very different from Atwood's, or anybody's, other works.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sharon.

I find Trollope's metafiction so amusing at times.

If you read these books I would love to know what you thought.

Guy Savage said...

The film version of Barchester Towers is worth catching if you get a chance.

JaneGS said...

It's wonderful to find an author that really works for you, as it's clear that Trollope does for you. While I'm not sure I can honestly say he is one of my favorite authors, I will say that your review points to why I do like Trollope. He is realistic, and I prefer realism mostly but not exclusively. He is witty, wise, gentle, and insightful. He is a great storyteller and evokes time and place marvelously. My biggest issue is the digressions into the intricacies of church politics--I lose patience with him then, but when he resumes telling the story, all is forgiven.

The good news is that Trollope was extremely prolific. When it comes to picking a favorite author, you could hardly do better!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - Indeed I must see this. I will try to over the weekend.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - He does have a lot of books out there.

I like realism but I also like books that are not realistic. To me it depends on just how well the author does either.

I would say that Trollope is one of my favorites, there are a couple, including Shakespeare thatI like a little better.

Lindsay said...

Well done for completing this series Brian, and thank you for your thoughts on them all. I've decided I must read some of his writing, so I'm going to get a copy of The Warden and make a start at some point soon.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Lindsay.

I think that you will like this series. I look forward to reading your thoughts on The Warden.

Maria Behar said...

Hey, Brian!

WOW. I can see, from that quote at the end of your post, that Trollope was a true prose stylist! I think I need to grab myself a copy of "The Warden" sometime this year, and dive in! Nothing like a great prose style to catch my literary interest!!

Since I have read Dickens, but not Trollope, it will be very illuminating for me to compare the two. As you know, Dickens is one of my favorite writers. Perhaps he will soon be accompanied by Trollope, on my favorite authors list.

The Chronicles of Barseshire does sound like a very thoroughly detailed look at the British society of the time, and a very realistic one, as you have pointed out. I like the fact that Trollope's "good guys" and "villains" are not cardboard characters, but rather, people with strengths and weaknesses, just like real people.

Do you feel any sadness, now that you've finished the series? And KUDOS to you, by the way, for sticking with it all the way through! But seriously, each series I have finished in the past has left me feeling a little sad.... I won't be seeing those characters again. Of course, you can always re-read a beloved series, though.

It seems that, with Trollope, one can really LIVE through the characters' eyes, and so, one feels very much a part of the world of these novels, even though it's a different world from our own. Still, human nature is always the same, throughout the centuries. (Well, we're not exactly Neanderthals anymore, are we? But wait.....there are Internet trolls who are STILL living in that

Thanks for another of your very enlightening and interesting reviews!! :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - Thanks for the great comment.

That is a wonderful passage and it exemplifies Trollope's tendency to step back and address the readers.

Finishing up this book indeed makes me very sad for all the reasons that you mention. That passage in particular brings tears to my eyes.

It is striking how Trollop's characters have so much relevance to today's world. Though I would mention that unlike Dickens, Trollope shied away from depicting the worst of humanity.

You comment does remind me something that I was thinking about, some of these Trolls are like Dickens characters. If he wrote today I can picture him depicting someone who goes home and secretly harasses people over the internet.

Maria Behar said...

Great point, here:

"If he wrote today I can picture him depicting someone who goes home and secretly harasses people over the internet."

I absolutely agree with this!! : )

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - That is really funny for those of us who know what is going on out there :)