Classics Review: The Warden by Anthony Trollope
After completing the Palliser series, I decided I might as well start on Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles, Trollope’s earlier and more popular six-novel series. I actually did read the first two of the series, The Warden and Barchester Towers a long time ago, so long ago that I really didn’t remember much about them, probably because I found them so strange at the time that I could hardly understand what was going on. Wardens, bishops, archdeacons, and all the strange culture of Victorian life in general were all but incomprehensible to the younger me. This was before the Internet, so I could not then do what I can do now: go to Wikipedia each time I need background information. Besides making books themselves more available, the Internet greatly enhances the reading experience by making it easy get educated on historical and cultural context. I think that is a gain for humanity.
The Barchester Chronicles take place a century and a half ago before motor vehicles, telephones, mass communication, and women’s liberation. Things like writing letters and going to church were essential to staying connected with other human beings. One of the most valuable benefits of reading Trollope and other 19th century authors is simply an understanding of what life was like before the modern era. Stories of humans, stripped of the now ever-present technology and its accompanying cacophony, give me a clearer idea of what our strange species is all about.
The Barchester novels begin with The Warden, published in 1855, in which we meet Mr. Septimus Harding, a sixtyish clergyman who lives a charmed life as warden of an almshouse in a lovely picturesque home on a generous salary of 800 pounds per year. This means he is the caretaker of a facility called “Hiram’s Hospital,” home since the 14th century to 12 worn-out old working men. A certain medieval landowner named Hiram bequeathed his land for an almshouse and its maintenance. The will specifies that the almshouse would provide for 12 elderly wool carders who could no longer work and had no family to care for them in their old age. The rents and products produced be the surrounding land were to be used for the support of the facility. Over the centuries the will was carried out but the wool carders evolved into 12 poor working men in any field and the wardenship evolved into a very comfortable living for a clergyman appointed by the bishop.
Mr. Harding is a gentle soul who plays his violoncello for the elderly residents, keeps his gardens, and writes books about hymns. His younger unmarried daughter Eleanor lives with him and his older daughter Susan is the wife of Dr. Grantly, the energetic archdeacon, and fierce defender of the rights of the Church. The old men love their warden and he loves his life. Everyone is happy. Of course this paradise cannot last, at least if we are to have a novel to read.
The spirit of reform is in the air and questions are popping up all around England about the disparities in income between the clergy and the poor they are supposed to be serving. One of these busybody reformers, a young medical man named John Bold, has come to live in Barchester and begins to question why the warden gets so much money and the poor workmen get only a tuppence a day plus room and board. The busybody reforming newspaper The Jupiter takes up the cause, portraying poor Mr. Harding as a greedy parasite living off the money meant for the poor.
Dr. Grantly’s father is the bishop, who is a close lifelong friend of Mr. Harding, so we truly have a cozy arrangement in Barchester. Dr. Grantly has no patience for the liberals and their meddling with the time tested institutions of the Church, so when John Bold files a lawsuit against Mr. Harding, Dr. Grantly gets his own counsel, Mr. Abraham Haphazard, and goes to battle with full force. The Bishop, another gentle soul who hates conflict, only wants peace. But Mr. Harding is tortured by the very suggestion that he might be taking money that he has no right to. Though he has been warden for ten years, the idea that he was doing anything wrong never occurred to him. The 12 old men split into warring factions: those wanting their rights to 100 pounds a year and those supporting their beloved Mr. Harding and the status quo. As if this isn’t enough, there is another complication: Eleanor Harding and John Bold, the young reformer who stirred up the trouble, are romantically involved.
The Warden holds its own as a brilliant novel 160 years after its publication. The issues are the same: the haves and have nots – one group of people living at the expense of another. In this novel, however, the people with the power and money are so charming and the world they run so sweet and stable, that the reformers seem like the evil ones. Right and wrong are not easy to discern, and Trollope’s message seems to be that it would have prevented a lot of suffering to have just left well enough alone. As George Orwell put it, “A time-honoured abuse, he [Trollope] held, is frequently less bad than its remedy. He builds Archdeacon Grantly up into a thoroughly odious character, and is well aware of his odiousness, but he still prefers him to John Bold, and the book contains a scarcely veiled attack on Charles Dickens, whose reforming zeal his found it hard to sympathize with.”
Mr. Harding is confronted with a hard choice and this most mild-mannered of men makes a decision so unheard of at the time that it send ripples of shock and surprise through Barchester and the whole clerical world. I found The Warden to be irresistible, I think because Trollope writes with razor-sharp perception about the foibles of human character and the flaws of our social systems but also with genuine warmth, affection, and humor. The most horrible characters have their good points – he makes a point of defending Dr. Grantly despite his harsh insensitivity and greed – and the good characters are never too sugary sweet (as you often find in Dickens). Trollope may perhaps have an underlying agenda to defend tradition, but his main focus is in simply telling a compelling story of people caught in the traps laid by the world and by their own decisions.