Well it’s over. I tried to read as slowly as I could, but now I have turned the final page of Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire series and this one did not disappoint. I loved the character of Reverend Josiah Crawley, the highly-educated severe hard-working poverty-stricken perpetual curate of Hogglestock, first introduced in Doctor Thorne. So I was delighted to find that he is the central character in The Last Chronicle. The beleaguered Mr. Crawley, one of Trollope’s severely underpaid clergymen, is the poster child for a self-sacrificing carry-your-cross Christian (though he finds plenty of ways to complain about it).
The threadbare Mr. Crawley absolutely refuses to accept financial aid from his many wealthier friends until his family is literally on the brink of starvation and even then accepts help only with much groaning and mental anguish. So when he is accused in stealing a cheque for 20 pounds his shame and suffering is intense even though he has no memory of committing the alleged crime. The drama that ensues brings all of the best characters into the narrative as well as a few entertaining new ones. Archdeacon Grantley is at his raging best, old Mr. Harding is at his mild saintliest, and Mrs. Proudie is bullying her husband the Bishop into the harshest persecution of the accused clergyman. Mark Robarts and Lady Lufton from Framley Parsonage play their “trying to be helpful” parts as well.
One of the Archdeacon’s sons, Major Henry Grantly, is now a handsome 30-year old widower with a three-year-old daughter. He has fallen in love with Grace Crawley, the shy but well-educated daughter of Mr. Crawley, and his father the Archdeacon is threatening to disinherit him if he marries her. It would not do to connect the socially rising Grantly family with a girl whose father may well be going to prison for thievery. Never mind that most people believe Mr. Crawley to be innocent.
Grace has become friends with Lily Dale, the stubborn heroine of The Small House at Allington, so in another storyline we get to find out what is going on with Lily and her suitors, the steadfast Johnny Eames and the now widowed Adolphus Crosbie. But Adolphus is not quite the Apollo he used to be and Johnny is wavering a bit in his steadfastness after five years of rejection.
Johnny’s friendship with an artist named Conway Dalrymple leads to another storyline involving a group of artsy and nouveau riche characters that serve as foils to the high and stuffy standards of the clerical crowd. Conway is carrying on a sort of just-for-fun mock romance with the flighty wife of an unsavory stockbroker named Dobbs Broughton. He is also painting an interesting young lady named Clara Van Siever, posing her as the Biblical Jael about to drive a tent nail through the head of the sleeping Sicera (from the Book of Judges). Clara is a no-nonsense kind of girl with a direct deadpan way of speaking. She is not one of your flowery sweet Victorian heroines, and is just one great example of Trollope’s uniquely wide range of female character types.
All of the storylines are darkly humorous and in the end deeply human. The story of Mr. Crawley’s devastating brush with the law gives Trollope plenty of opportunity to expose the hypocrisy, inequality, and cruelty of human society as well and the humaneness and courage of the people who live in it. It’s a fantastic story and the ending wraps up the series in a deeply satisfying way. Most of the characters get their poetic justice. The beauty of novels is that the author can make that happen.
I have loved all of the Chronicles of Barset, as well as all of the Palliser novels, but I believe The Last Chronicle of Barset is my favorite Trollope book so far. You can read it happily as a standalone novel, but knowing the previous five novels adds greatly to the pleasure.