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!