Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The Warden - Anthony Trollope

In 2004, when I first joined the online book group which became dovegreybooks, and which I still love, everyone was talking about Anthony Trollope.  Over the course of the year, I managed to acquire all of the Barchester Chronicles & Palliser novels.  Fast forward eight years, and... I finally read something by Trollope!  And it wasn't even one of the actual books I bought in 2004, although it was a duplicate of one of them - Penguin sent me their new edition of The Warden (1855) a few months ago, and I decided that was a good excuse to give Anthony T a go.

Verdict: Success.

Several people have told me over the years to skip over The Warden and start with Barchester Towers, because The Warden was dull or pedestrian.  My friend Will expostulated with some warmth about how much he'd hated it at school - but by then I was already halfway through the novel and LOVING it.

On the face of it, the subject matter isn't of huge excitement and relevance to 2012.  A complicated combination of vague wills and inflation means that clergymen are benefiting from legacies intended for the charitable assistance of later generations.  Mr. Septimus Harding is one such clergyman - the warden of some almshouses, collecting £800 a year, and thus far more than the one shilling and sixpence given daily to the twelve old and infirm men who live there.

Now, I love the Church of England, but even I couldn't call myself gripped by their financial workings 150 years ago.  At least, not in the hands of any other author.  In The Warden, it scarcely matters what the issue is - what matters is the way Trollope uses it.  While some people value Dickens as a social reformer rather than a comic writer (I am the reverse), I find Trollope's touch much more palatable.  If this scenario had appeared in a Dickens novel, the warden would be called Mr. Grabsomecash, a cackling, acquisitive, unholy man.  And that would be fine, because he'd offset it with brilliant dialogue and hilarious grotesques, but it wouldn't have shone any very realistic light upon the issue.  Trollope, ingeniously, combines his evident belief that reform is needed with a character who is the opposite of conniving, money-grabbing, or selfish.  At the start of the novel, after Mr. Harding has been accepting £800 a year for quite a long period, the idea that he is doing the wrong thing 'has never sullied his quiet, or disturbed his conscience.'  Things soon change...

Heading the charge is John Bold, social reformer, who (despite his Dickensian name) is a subtle combination of forthright and bashful.  He isn't directly affected by the almshouse dispute, but is the sort of left-wing gent who views all disputes as his personal business.  He is idealistic, but also (you would have seen this coming, had I mentioned that Mr. Harding has an eligible young daughter, Eleanor) in love.  Which gives excuses for wonderful honourable-young-lady speeches like this:
"Mr. Bold," said she, "you may be sure of one thing; I shall always judge my father to be right, and those who oppose him I shall judge to be wrong.  If those who do not know him oppose him, I shall have charity enough to believe that they are wrong, through error of judgement; but should I see him attacked by those who ought to know him, and to love him, and revere him, of such I shall be constrained to form a different opinion."  And then curtseying low she sailed on, leaving her lover in anything but a happy state of mind.
You can't imagine Kim Kardashian or the cast of The Only Way Is Essex handling the situation in quite the same way, can you?

Septimus Harding has another daughter, Susan, but one not quite so close to his heart - largely because she is married to the ferociously logical and unpleasant archdeacon (she cannot bring herself to call him by any name other than 'archdeacon'.)  There can be no character so frustratingly awful as one who uses 'common-sense' instead of compassion, logic in place of love - and the archdeacon, Dr. Grantly, is one of those.  He is Mr. Bold's equal and opposite, forthright in defending Mr. Harding's right to receive his £800 a year, brooking no compromise on the topic.  When Mr. Harding wishes to find out whether he is morally and legally entitled to the money he receives (which nobody really seems to know) Dr. Grantly blinds him with syllogisms and declares that Mr. Harding will be abandoning the church if he does not continue to accept the money.  Yet even with Dr. Grantly, Trollope is charitable, noting towards the end of The Warden that:
We fear that he is represented in these pages as being worse than he is; but we have had to do with his foibles, and not with his virtues.  We have seen only the weak side of the man, and have lacked the opportunity of bringing him forward on his strong ground.
And he goes on to list his virtues, alongside his vices.  For Trollope is scrupulously fair in The Warden.  Right and wrong are not clearly demarcated, and even the right things are done for wrong reasons, and vice versa.

The Warden is largely the exploration of Mr. Harding's conscience, his craving for privacy, his sense of duty, and his love for Eleanor and the men of the almshouse.  It is all subtle and generous, and in a beautifully lilting prose.  I can see the threads of Jane Austen more clearly than I have in any other Victorian writer; Trollope values the balance and measure of sentences as much as Austen did.  The issue is no longer relevant, and perhaps never was to the majority of the country, but people have not changed.  Anybody familiar with disputes local or national will recognise the various characters here, or at least some of their traits.  At the centre of it is the wonderfully complex figure of Mr. Harding, thrust into a limelight he loathes and forced to defend a position he is beginning to consider indefensible.  If the rest of the Barchester Chronicles just gets better, then I'm excited to read on!

42 comments:

  1. Yes, I too read that it might be best to skip The Warden but like you am pleased I didn't. The first chapter or two were a bit dense but once through those I found it delightful. And Barchester Towers is every bit as good. I haven't read any further than that yet but certainly plan to soon.

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    1. I was rather nervous when there was no dialogue on the first 13 pages, but it didn't hold me back! I'll probably save Barchester Towers til January, once A Century of Books is over.

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  2. I know I have Trollope at home on my shelves and I, too have yet to read him. I have always been put off but this review revived a bit of interest on my part.
    I have been making lists of books to look for when I get home from this S American trip. Currently sitting here in La Paz typing comments to you. Old habits die hard related to blogs. All the best, Pam

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    1. How funny to think of you in such a different place!

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    2. As a 79 year old Indian I finished reading the Warden second time in 15 years. I consider it the best of the six Barchester novels followed by Dr. Thorne, the third in the series. Dickens is also my great favourite. But Trollope, though somewhat less attractive, is a greater realist in depicting the inner struggles of conscience of an ordinary man. Both Mr. Harding and Dr. Thorne are great examples of morality fighting against religious and social conventions.
      rabindra.ghosh@gmail.com

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  3. A book I've actually read! ;) Yes, I enjoyed the Warden and have been collecting the rest of them. I just need to sit down and read them. Barchester Towers, ho! I also enjoyed the BBC series with a very young Alan Rickman as Obadiah Slope.

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    1. Hurrah! It does feel a bit unnerving to be writing about a classic for once - normally I feel I need to add an apology that the book will be impossible to find!

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  4. Skip The Warden? It's one of my favorites of the series. But then I could read about the C of E's pay scale for hours. I love that kind of stuff.

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    1. Ha! Well, I've been on a Parochial Church Council before, so I've had my full of C of E finances... well, I thought I had before I read this!

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  5. I am quite jealous of your Penguin edition. I am currently reading Warden from my digital Kindle version - very authentic. Can totally smell the ink on the page.
    I too have read across the blogs that Warden is often the "dullest" or the most "boring" of Trollope's Barchester's novels but I haven't found anything to complain about so far!

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    1. If only I could remember who misled me in this way, I would name and shame! The Penguin edition is nice, and the cover has a curiously leathery texture. Trollope on a Kindle feels weird!

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  6. You get so much more out of Barchester Towers if you've read The Warden. I adore Trollope, and I think you'll find the rest of the Barchester Chronicles enjoyable. Can't wait to hear your impressions of Mrs Proudie!

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    1. I'm excited about all the series ahead of me! Especially because I often think I should be reading more Victorian literature, but find some of it a chore - this definitely wasn't a chore. And it's my first 1850s book reviewed on here.

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  7. And then, of course, you will better understand the wit and subtlety of Angela Thirkell's books.
    I suffered what we called 'The Useless Diamonds' at school - it nearly put me off Trollope for life - but thankfully I found him later on!
    (BTW check out my home made doorstop figure of Parson Harding - based on Donald Pleasance)

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    1. Oh, maybe I won't enjoy The Pallisers so much, then...

      And finally I understand Parson Harding doorstop!

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  8. I'm amazed that anyone thinks you should skip The Warden. It was my first Trollope and I loved it as much as you obviously did. I have never got on with the Palliser books but the Barchester novels are wonderful. You must go on to Barchester Towers and find out more about all these wonderful characters.

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    1. Thanks, Harriet! I'm so glad I didn't take the advice to skip the Warden.

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  9. Oh, I love Trollope and I always recommend The Warden (with a a caveat to ignore the blurb which usually makes it sound like the most boring book ever). Septimus Harding is such a great character.

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    1. I hope your friend takes the bait! And I agree, the blurb doesn't do the novel any favours...

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  10. Thank you for this. The Warden is on my to read list. The only Trollope I have read so far is Joanna. I like those penguin English Library editions -I'm such a sucker for a well designed cover.

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    1. I can't imagine Joanna and Anthony have much in common, but who knows, I haven't read Joanna! I do like their series of covers - nicely designed.

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  11. I've never read Trollope, but do own the DVD of the BBC's Barchester Chronicles from ages ago which had Donald Pleasance as Septimus, and a wonderful Alan Rickman as Obediah Slope (love that name). It is a fine adaptation. I will read the books one day ...

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    1. I'm torn between wanting to watch the series (having heard such good things) and wanting to keep the book pure in my mind...

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  12. Thank the lord, *finally*, you are developing literary taste!!!!!
    There is hope, & I shall buy you a complete Mary Webb for Christmas!! :)

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    1. The winter night's will get chilly, it'll be handy to have something to throw on the fire!

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  13. Like everyone else here, I think the people who recommend skipping 'The Warden' have no idea what they're talking about...

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  14. Oh happy happy day. Simon, I was so excited to read your review on The Warden and to know you love it too. One of my very favourite novels, it is a study of grace under pressure, and forgiveness, exemplified by Septimus Harding. Barchester Towers is a little less solemn and lots of fun (even a bit of slapstick when Mrs Proudie has her dress torn), but The Warden has it's own dignified gentle beauty. It's also an excellent piece of social history about the beginings of the evangelical movement in the C of E. Thanks for your lovely review.

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    1. What a lovely comment, Merenia, which characterises The Warden perfectly!

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  15. I was told not to bother with 'The Warden' as well and am glad I didn't listen. I think it's the perfect introduction to Trollope. It has all that's good about his writing along with indications of his shortcomings. That and it's just such a good book.

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    1. Maybe the same person told us?? Luckily we both go our own way!

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  16. I'm one of those readers who is a bit obsessive about reading series in the correct order, so I would never recommend starting the Barchester books with anything other than 'The Warden'. I think I like it just as much as 'Barchester Towers'. After these two, I recall finding the rest of the series a little disappointing, precisely because there is far less of the church politics.

    I can highly recommend the 1995 BBC Radio 4 adaptation of 'The Warden' too.

    As for it not being relevant now, the machinations of internal politics will still ring true to anyone working in a fairly large organisation or sitting on a committee. Times change, human behaviour less-so.

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    1. Although I don't much care about reading authors in the order of publication, I definitely agree about series - otherwise things just don't make sense (it's one of the reasons I don't like the idea of 'Mapp and Lucia' being sold as a single book, rather than the fourth in a series.)

      And we agree on your final point - the issues are different, but the characters are eternal.

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  17. I found The Warden a bit slow starting out but it's definitely worth reading. I do prefer Barchester Towers but I'd never tell anyone to skip The Warden -- BT wouldn't be nearly as good if you hadn't read the first book. It's still my favorite of the series so far but I've read both Dr. Thorne and Framley Parsonage this year and loved them both. There are some WONDERFUL characters but I'll say no more, I don't want to spoil anything for you.

    I do love Trollope's clever names, not as silly as Dickens -- also known as Mr. Popular Sentiment!! Trollope got his own little dig in as well, but I'm sure you noticed!

    I hope we can have a Trollope readalong with the Doves after Barnaby Rudge.

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    1. I loved Dickens as Mr. Popular Sentiment! Very snarky :)
      I look forward to more Trollope with the doves.

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  18. No Simon, I think Trollope on a Kindle is just the right thing for a journey and I always make sure I add one or two that I haven't read for a while before I set out.

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    1. good for you :) You know me and Kindles!

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  19. The Warden was the first Trollope I read - it was a gift, otherwise I would have started with the Pallisers (which I also enjoy) and I loved it. What I like about Trollope is that his characters are (usually) shades of grey rather than black and white.

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    1. Absolutely! I thought he was so measured and generous.

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  20. Excellent review, Simon! I am planning to read The Warden in September. I tried Barchester Towers a couple of years ago and gave up on it, but have always felt badly about that. This is exactly the sort of literature I *should* like. I thought I'd start at the beginning this time. I ordered the complete Chronicles for my Kindle so I can take it with me wherever I go.

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    1. Thanks Laura :) I look forward to your thoughts on The Warden - and now you've got the complete Chronicles, there'll be no holding you back!

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  21. I bought two Trollope novels with a good reputation (Eustace Diamonds and Way We Live Now). Sorry guys, I found them both dull and stodgy, like eating grey clay. No style, no street scenes, no humour. Lif'e's too short. My desert island books are Bleak House, The Newcomes, Vanity Fair, Mr. Sponge's Sporting Tour, Adam Bede.

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