Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald.Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
on 1934
Genres: Classics - Twentieth Century
Pages: 315
Format: eBook
Source: Purchased: ebook
Goodreads
two-half-stars
The French Rivera in the 1920s is 'discovered' by Dick and Nicole Diver, who turn it into the playground of the rich and glamorous. Among their cycle is Rosemary Hoyt, the beautiful starlet, who falls in love with Dick and is enraptured by Nicole, unaware of the corruption and dark secrets that haunt their marriage. When Dick becomes entangled with Rosemary, he fractures the delicate structure of his relationship with Nicole, and the lustre of their life together begins to tarnish. Tender is the Night is an exquisite novel that reflects not only Fitzgerald's own personal tragedy, but also the shattered idealism of the society in which he lived.

Tender is the Night was published January through April, 1934. As an exercise in understanding, I am going to list a few things that were happening in 1933 through 1935 in the United States (per wikipedia):

The U.S. was in the midst of a deep depression. 25% of the workforce was unemployed. FDR implemented the first New Deal beginning with his inauguration in March, 1933.

Bonnie and Clyde began the rampage that would ultimately end their lives by murdering two young highway patrolmen. They were shot dead on May 23, 1934, after their behavior transfixed the nation for two years.

The Dust Bowl began on November 11, 1933, in South Dakota. In May, 1934, a two day dust storm removed massive amounts of Great Plains topsoil in one of the worst such storms of the Dust Bowl. The dust clouds blew all the way to Chicago, where they deposited 12 million pounds of dust.

This is what it looked like in America:

Dust-storm-Texas-1935

This is what he was writing about,

the murphys

in his epically self-indulgent book about rich, pretty people with rich, pretty people problems, like what to do when you drink too much booze, have sex with beautiful actresses half your age, and generally behave like a hollowed out husk of a human being.

Is it any wonder that it flopped?

In the final analysis, sure, it had redeeming literary value. But the characters were soulless and charmless (as Fitzgerald’s characters often are) and the world that they lived in was shallow and superficial. It left me utterly empty. Sort of like Dick and Nicole Diver.

The Grand Sophy by Georgette HeyerThe Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer
Published by Sourcebooks on 1950
Genres: Historical, Romance
Pages: 372
Format: eBook
Source: Purchased: ebook
Goodreads
New York Times Bestseller! "Sophy sets everything right for her desperate family in one of Georgette Heyer's most popular Regency romances."

When Lady Ombersley agrees to take in her young niece, no one expects Sophy, who sweeps in and immediately takes the ton by storm. Sophy discovers that her aunt's family is in desperate need of her talent for setting everything right: Ceclia is in love with a poet, Charles has tyrannical tendencies that are being aggravated by his grim fiancee, her uncle is of no use at all, and the younger children are in desperate need of some fun and freedom. By the time she's done, Sophy has commandeered Charles's horses, his household, and finally, his heart.

The Grand Sophy was published in 1950, between Arabella and The Quiet Gentleman. It is set in 1816, in the immediate aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars.

In spite of one glaringly problematic aspect, which will be further discussed below, The Grand Sophy is my absolute favorite Heyer of all that I have read because I adore Sophy. She is a simply wonderful heroine – outspoken, self-confident, and well-liked in spite of her occasionally unconventional behavior. She is basically the Annie Oakley of regency England right down to the pistol.

Her verbal sparring with the ultimate hero, Charles Rivenhall, is laugh out loud funny:

‘I’ll take care of that!’ he retorted. ‘Let me tell you, my dear cousin, that I should be better pleased if you would refrain from meddling in the affairs of my family!’

‘Now, that,’ said Sophy, ‘I am very glad to know, because if ever I should desire to please you I shall know just how to set about it. I daresay I shan’t, but one likes to be prepared for any event, however unlikely.’

Charles is obviously confounded by Sophy, when she shows up at his house with a dog, a monkey and an attitude. He likes her, at times a great deal, but is befuddled by her lack of fainting spells, her out-spokenness, and her meddling nature as she starts to set things right with his family. Charles is engaged to the antithesis of Sophy, Eugenia Wraxton, who is well-bred, humorless, and smug. One of the funniest aspects of this book is watching Charles struggle with the priggish Miss Wraxton because he is completely loyal to his family, and while he is perfectly comfortable criticizing them, woe betide the person who has the audacity to be critical of them in his presence. Eugenia makes this unfortunate mistake on more than one occasion.

There are two events in the book that really establish the worth of both Sophy and Charles Rivenhall, though. The innocent young man stumbling into debt through gambling is often a feature of Heyer’s stories, and this one is no exception – Charles’ younger brother, Hubert, has found himself deep in debt from gambling and tries to recover his fortunes by taking out a loan from a usurer and betting on a horse race. This – of course – goes badly, and Hubert is deeply ashamed as well as completely demoralized. Sophy is able to extract the truth from him with some skilful and sympathetic questioning, and offers to loan him the money to repay the lender, which he refuses. When Hubert is too ashamed to come clean with Charles, Sophy, naturally, takes matters into her own hands and visits the moneylender.

This could be a successful and funny device to show Sophy’s intrepid nature because she handles the whole thing with aplomb and resourcefulness. Unfortunately, Heyer endows the blackmailer with many of the most pernicious stereotyped character traits of a Jewish moneylender, which makes the entire interaction uncomfortable for the modern day reader. Whether or not Heyer was actually anti-Semitic I will let scholars who have studied her critically address. All I can say about this part of the book is that it detracts from the story in the same way that the unfortunate caricaturing of Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s detracted from that fine movie. It didn’t ruin the experience for me, although I can see how it could for other readers. It is doubly unfortunate because there was simply no need for it, so the only conclusion I can draw is that Heyer did it on purpose for effect. Her narrative goals could have been served by any character that was greasy, unpleasant, and criminal. There are – were – plenty of character types from which she could have drawn without bigotry.

Leaving aside that blight on the book, Charles, as well, shows to advantage as a result of this episode. Far from reproaching his younger brother, he takes Hubert into his confidence and explains that the gaming of their father has left the family essentially destitute, and accepts responsibility for the rift that made it impossible for Hubert to confide in him.

‘Well, I had better make a clean breast of the whole! I went to a rascally moneylender, and I borrowed five hundred from him, for six months. I thought I should have won every penny back, and more beside, at Newmarket. But the damnable screw was unplaced!’ He saw his brother’s expression, and said: ‘You need not look like that! I swear I shall never do so again as long as I live! Of course I ought to have come rather to you, but –’

‘You should have come to me, and that you did not must have been far more my fault than yours!’

The second event relates to the youngest sibling, Amabel, who becomes extremely ill during the course of the book. Charles returns home to find the house in disarray, his mother taken to her bed, and his sister, Cecilia, and Sophy, in charge of nursing the ill child.

‘Oh, yes, tell about the time you were lost in the Pyrenees!’ begged Amabel drowsily. Sophy did so, her voice sinking as the little girl’s eyelids began to droop. Mr Rivenhall sat still and silent on the other side of the bed, watching his sister. Presently Amabel’s deeper breathing betrayed that she slept. Sophy’s voice ceased; she looked up, and met Mr Rivenhall’s eyes. He was staring at her, as though a thought, blinding in its novelty, had occurred to him. Her gaze remained steady, a little questioning. He rose abruptly, half-stretched out his hand, but let it fall again, and, turning, went quickly out of the room.

Am I crazy, or does this remind of this:

odb-The-Look

Swoon. No, seriously. I just died.

For the ending, Heyer brings together all of the disparate and mostly unwitting participants in Sophy’s plans, and shuffles the partners until everyone ends up with their proper match. It is a consummate game of romantic chance, deftly managed, with an eye toward perfect propriety, and only the clever Sophy could have pulled it off. There are a few important side stories that are worth mentioning, most particularly Cecilia’s romance with Fawnhope and Charling, and the indolent Sancia, Sophy’s putative and unwilling step-mama. This is, to my mind, Heyer’s most enjoyable novel to date – witty, sparkling, and genuinely funny.

Doctor Zhivago (Book 2) by Boris PasternakDoctor Zhivago (Book 2) by Boris Pasternak
Genres: Classics - Twentieth Century
Format: eBook
Source: Purchased: ebook

It has taken a few weeks to come back to finish the Doctor Zhivago discussion. I’d like to begin this post with a quote from the beginning of Book 2:

The train that had brought the Zhivago family to this place still stood on the back tracks of the station, screened by other trains, but there was a feeling that the connection with Moscow, which had stretched over the whole journey, had broken, had ended that morning.

So, we’ve left Moscow and travelled across Russia with the Zhivago family to begin again. Having read this book immediately prior to beginning my Great War read, I am struck by the narrow focus of Doctor Zhivago. It plays out across this grand stage of the Russian revolution, but at its heart, it is the story of one insignificant man. There is scarcely a mention of Lenin in the entire book. The great figures and battles of the revolution are absent – they are engaged in their great acts somewhere else, in the heart of Russia. This is a story of a revolution, and of a war, but it is the story of the minute impact of the war on one man. The reader is completely unaware that World War I is happening elsewhere on the great stage of history during this story. This makes the story feel almost claustrophobic, like we are Zhivago, living with bits and snatches of information but very little real understanding of what is going on out there. How is the war progressing? Who is winning? Who is losing? When will it end?

This is a really unique perspective, and one that I found thought-provoking. In wartime, communications aren’t always reliable, and the people in the middle of war often aren’t able to access legitimate, accurate information about what is actually going on – but this is difficult to convey in fiction. Doctor Zhivago effectively immersed me in the Russian revolution because it wasn’t written with a hindsight is 20/20 approach. Zhivago is conscripted into service (abducted, really) and spends month without a clue about his family, about how the war is going, about what has happened to Lara.

And I want to talk about Lara. The relationship between Yuri and Lara was problematic for me, and not just because they were both married. I am not a fan of cheaters, even if they are involved in an star-crossed, epic love story. It undermines their moral authority.

But I also struggled with Pasternak’s treatment of Lara, and the way that she was constantly tossed from male character to male character as though she was some sort of a toy that the manliest Russian man got to take home. I hated Komarovsky (and we’re supposed to hate him. He’s a rapist, notwithstanding his claim that he isn’t). Pasha was weak and pathetic until he turned into a monster because his wife made him feel inadequate. And Yuri chose a wife and chose a family and benefited from those choices, and it was really pretty crappy of him to abandon Tonya and his son because hot sex with the Russian earth mother.

Not to absolve Lara. She was allegedly friends with Tonya. I feel like the “romance” cheapened both of the characters. It’s self-indulgent to absolve oneself of the burden of infidelity by claiming that you have an all-consuming, irresistible passion for someone other than your spouse. Even in wartime. And Lara could have been a fantastic character – a bright and ambitious woman who pulled herself out of the most pernicious servitude by sheer force of will, she went to school, became first a teacher and then a nurse. That’s some pretty amazing stuff, but it gets lost in the narrative of Lara is so hot and sexy and men fall all over themselves to possess her.

One of the things that I unequivocally loved about the book, though, was Pasternak’s language. He is a poet, and some of the passages are achingly beautiful. A few examples:

Big stars like blue mica lamps hang in the forest among the branches. The whole sky is strewn with little stars like a summer meadow with chamomile.

Winter had long since come. It was freezing cold. Torn-up sounds and forms appeared with no evident connection from the frosty mist, stood, moved, vanished. Not the sun we are accustomed to on earth, but the crimson ball of some other substitute sun hung in the forest. From it, strainedly and slowly, as in a dream or a fairy tale, rays of amber yellow light, thick as honey, spread and on their way congealed in the air and froze to the trees.

The ashen softness of the expanses quickly sank into the lilac twilight, which was turning more and more purple. Their gray mist merged with the fine, lacy handwriting of the birches along the road, tenderly traced against the pale pink of the sky, suddenly grown shallow.

Ultimately, I enjoyed a lot of things about this book. It was frequently a tough read, though, and I feel that I would have enjoyed it more, and understood it better, if I had had more context for the Russian revolution while I was reading it. It is not an easy read, but is worth the trouble.

Somewhere in France by Jennifer RobsonSomewhere In France by Jennifer Robson
Published by William Morrow on December 13, 2013
Genres: Historical
Pages: 400
Format: eBook
Source: Purchased: ebook
Goodreads
Lady Elizabeth Neville-Ashford wants to travel the world, pursue a career, and marry for love. But in 1914, the stifling restrictions of aristocratic British society and her mother’s rigid expectations forbid Lily from following her heart. When war breaks out, the spirited young woman seizes her chance for independence. Defying her parents, she moves to London and eventually becomes an ambulance driver in the newly formed Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps—an exciting and treacherous job that takes her close to the Western Front.

Assigned to a field hospital in France, Lily is reunited with Robert Fraser, her dear brother Edward’s best friend. The handsome Scottish surgeon has always encouraged Lily’s dreams. She doesn’t care that Robbie grew up in poverty—she yearns for their friendly affection to become something more. Lily is the most beautiful—and forbidden—woman Robbie has ever known. Fearful for her life, he’s determined to keep her safe, even if it means breaking her heart.

In a world divided by class, filled with uncertainty and death, can their hope for love survive. . . or will it become another casualty of this tragic war?

Recommended for fans of historical fiction, Rosamund Pilcher, Jennifer Donnelly’s “Rose” series, and Judith Kinghorn.

This book reminds me strongly of Ms. Kinghorn’s The Last Summer, which I read (and reviewed) last year and very much enjoyed. It is neither groundbreaking nor terribly original, but is an entertaining and well-written historical novel with strong romantic themes.

The heroine, Lilly, was extremely likeable – brave and assertive. The World War I setting worked well, and I enjoyed the secondary characters, especially Lilly’s fellow WAAC friend, Constance. There were a couple of scenes that made me smile, and more than a few scenes that caused me to sniffle a bit.

This book doesn’t possess the depth of, say, Cather’s One of Ours. But it is highly entertaining, seems to be historically solid, and I spent a very enjoyable couple of hours devouring it. I would recommend it to anyone who likes their historical fiction with a happily ever after.

The Passing Bells by Phillip RockThe Passing Bells by Phillip Rock
Series: Passing Bells #1
Published by William Morrow on 1978
Genres: Historical
Pages: 516
Format: eBook
Source: Purchased: ebook
Goodreads
"The guns of August are rumbling throughout Europe in the summer of 1914, but war has not yet touched Abingdon Pryory. Here, at the grand home of the Greville family, the parties, dances, and romances play on. Alexandra Greville embarks on her debutante season while brother Charles remains hopelessly in love with the beautiful, untitled Lydia Foxe, knowing that his father, the Earl of Stanmore, will never approve of the match. Downstairs the new servant, Ivy, struggles to adjust to the routines of the well-oiled household staff, as the arrival of American cousin Martin Rilke, a Chicago newspaperman, causes a stir.

But, ultimately, the Great War will not be denied, as what begins for the high-bred Grevilles as a glorious adventure soon takes its toll—shattering the household's tranquillity, crumbling class barriers, and bringing its myriad horrors home."

Recommended for fans of family sagas, books set during the Edwardian period, and multi-generational epics, The Passing Bells is one of those long sagas that was extremely popular during the 1970′s and 1980′s. Given the number of those that I read in high school, I am honestly surprised that I missed this one. Like many books in that style, it is a mile wide and an inch deep. Honestly, though, it is a satisfying inch.

Phillip Rock was a screenwriter and a novelist, and wrote novelizations of Dirty Harry and The Cheyenne Social Club. The Passing Bells was the first in a trilogy of novels about the Greville family. It begins during that last golden summer before the crisis in July, followed by the August madness and the declaration of war.

“All I know for sure is that everything is going to bloody well change.” “That might be a blessing,” Charles said quietly.

The beginning of the book focuses on the events at the Pryory, introducing us to the three children of the manor and their friends and romantic interests, certain members of the servant class, and an American cousin who also a journalist. From there, the book follows each of them, from England to the fronts, to the devastation that is the trench warfare.

My favorite two characters were Martin Rilke, the American journalist who comes to visit and Ivy, a downstairs maid who takes advantage of the new opportunities for women offered by the war, and becomes a nurse. Every character in the book is changed by World War I, and, in a fictionalized fashion, the sweeping changes to British society, to the youth, to a way of life that cannot survive the war, are explored. Things cannot stand.

The last of the young maids had departed after Christmas, answering their country’s call for women to take over the jobs that men were leaving. Men and more men. Kitchener had asked for one hundred thousand volunteers to form the nucleus of his New Army. Over a million responded.

Rock does not shy away from a gut punch or two, leaving the greatest of them for the end of the book. I can’t help but reminded of the lyrics from Children’s Crusade, from Sting’s Dream of Blue Turtles album:

“Children’s Crusade”

Young men, soldiers, Nineteen Fourteen
Marching through countries they’d never seen
Virgins with rifles, a game of charades
All for a Children’s Crusade

Pawns in the game are not victims of chance
Strewn on the fields of Belgium and France
Poppies for young men, death’s bitter trade
All of those young lives betrayed

The children of England would never be slaves
They’re trapped on the wire and dying in waves
The flower of England face down in the mud
And stained in the blood of a whole generation

Corpulent generals safe behind lines
History’s lessons drowned in red wine
Poppies for young men, death’s bitter trade
All of those young lives betrayed
All for a Children’s Crusade

The children of England would never be slaves
They’re trapped on the wire and dying in waves
The flower of England face down in the mud
And stained in the blood of a whole generation

Midnight in Soho, Nineteen Eighty-four
Fixing in doorways, opium slaves
Poppies for young men, such bitter trade
All of those young lives betrayed
All for a Children’s Crusade

A “passing bell” is defined as a bell tolled to announce a death or funeral service —called also death bell. An apt title.

One of Ours by Willa Cather (The Nebraska sections)One of Ours (the Nebraska section) by Willa Cather
on 1923
Genres: Classics - Twentieth Century
Pages: 371
Format: eBook
Source: Purchased: ebook
Goodreads
Willa Cather's 1923 Pulitzer Prize-winning narrative of the making of a young American soldier

Claude Wheeler, the sensitive, aspiring protagonist of this beautifully modulated novel, resembles the youngest son of a peculiarly American fairy tale. His fortune is ready-made for him, but he refuses to settle for it. Alienated from his crass father and pious mother, all but rejected by a wife who reserves her ardor for missionary work, and dissatisfied with farming, Claude is an idealist without an ideal to cling to. It is only when his country enters the First World War that Claude finds what he has been searching for all his life.

In One of Ours Willa Cather explores the destiny of a grandchild of the pioneers, a young Nebraskan whose yearnings impel him toward a frontier bloodier and more distant than the one that vanished before his birth. In doing so, she creates a canny and extraordinarily vital portrait of an American psyche at once skeptical and romantic, restless and heroic.

I love Willa Cather – I was born in Nebraska, and her books really resonate with me.

I don’t think that One of Ours will end up a Cather favorite, but I am really enjoying it. I’ve read a fair amount of reviews that say that the section set in Nebraska that describes the experience of an American farmer viewing the war from a distance is the best part of the book, and so far, I would certainly agree that it is outstanding. She describes the early 20th century farm experience masterfully, and, as reader, I really admired the way that she brought the news of the war into the story as something that emotionally impacted the characters without affecting them in any substantive way.

Claude Wheeler, the main character, is based on her cousin, G.P. Cather, who died in 1918 in Cantigny France. This is a 1916 photograph of a group of young Nebraskan men who fought. Cather is the young man behind the sign that says 1916.

nebraska 1916

One afternoon in the first week of September Mrs. Wheeler was in the kitchen making cucumber pickles, when she heard Claude’s car coming back from Frankfort. In a moment he entered, letting the screen door slam behind him, and threw a bundle of mail on the table. “What do you, think, Mother? The French have moved the seat of government to Bordeaux!

I really love the juxtaposition here of Mrs. Wheeler making cucumber pickles with the news about the war. It is so remote, and homely, and illustrates how life goes on, even in wartime, in the places that are distant from the war. All during WWI, women must have made pickles, which seems sort of crazy from where I sit, looking backwards, like the entire world should have stopped for that four years, and just watched, holding their breath, what was happening in France and the other war fronts.

Claude joins the military in order to escape from Nebraska, and from a terribly failed marriage. He is a young man who spends most of the beginning sections of the book in the midst of a great existential crisis. He doesn’t fit in with the people around him. He has doubts about Christianity, he is an intellectual who doesn’t have a lot of opportunities to participate in intellectual life or debate. Briefly, while he is in college in Lincoln, he begins to blossom into someone with greater self-confidence and becomes more comfortable with who he is and the doubts that he has.

Now he dismissed all Christian theology as something too full of evasions and sophistries to be reasoned about. The men who made it, he felt sure, were like the men who taught it. The noblest could be damned, according to their theory, while almost any mean-spirited parasite could be saved by faith.

Perhaps I identified with this aspect of Claude’s personality because THIS is the very struggle that I experience when I think about Christianity.

Returning home to the farm, Claude falls in love with Enid, a childhood friend and girl from a neighboring farm, and persuades her to marry him although she is deeply religious and wants to go to China as a missionary. In another time, Enid probably would not have married. In this time, she appears to have married him not because she loves him and wants to build a life with him but because he is her mission – she is to bring him back to God. It’s the worst sort of self-abnegation on her part because she is going to fail, and they are both going to be miserable.

In the depths of this lassitude the thought of Enid would start up like a sweet, burning pain, and he would drift out into the darkness upon sensations he could neither prevent nor control. So long as he could plough, pitch hay, or break his back in the wheatfield, he had been master; but now he was overtaken by himself. Enid was meant for him and she had come for him; he would never let her go. She should never know how much he longed for her. She would be slow to feel even a little of what he was feeling; he knew that. It would take a long while. But he would be infinitely patient, infinitely tender of her. It should be he who suffered, not she. Even in his dreams he never wakened her, but loved her while she was still and unconscious like a statue. He would shed love upon her until she warmed and changed without knowing why.

This section is beautiful and heart-breaking because we know that Claude is going to be disappointed, and that Enid isn’t going to be much of a participant in the marriage. Even her father knows that this decision is going to be bad, that the marriage will be a failure. “What he wanted to do was to hold up life as he had found it, like a picture, to his young friend; to warn him, without explanation, against certain heart-breaking disappointments. It could not be done, he saw. The dead might as well try to speak to the living as the old to the young.”

Cather is at her best when she is writing about her characters, picking out tiny moments and events and thoughts and using the most emphermeal minutia to illuminate them, bathe them in light, as an artist adds light to a painting to highlight something she wants the viewer to see, to notice. Cather is respectful of her characters, even when they are foolish or self-centered or misguided.

When Claude joins the military, Cather writes:

He believed that he was going abroad with an expeditionary force that would make war without rage, with uncompromising generosity and chivalry.

According to wikipedia, Cather learned of G.P.’s death reading a newspaper in a hair salon. She said this about it:

From that on, he was in my mind. The too-personal-ness, the embarrassment of kinship, was gone. But he was in my mind so much that I couldn’t get through him to other things … some of me was buried with him in France, and some of him was left alive in me.

I haven’t gotten to the sections about WWI – those are coming, and it feels a bit like impending doom.

Barchester Towers by Anthony TrollopeBarchester Towers by Anthony Trollope
Series: Chronicles of Barsetshire #2
Published by Penguin Classics on 1857
Genres: Classics - Victorian
Pages: 418
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased: print book
Goodreads
"I never saw anything like you clergymen … you are always thinking of fighting each other"

After the death of old Dr Grantly, a bitter struggle begins over who will succeed him as Bishop of Barchester. And when the decision is finally made to appoint the evangelical Dr Proudie, rather than the son of the old bishop, Archdeacon Grantly, resentment and suspicion threaten to cause deep divisions within the diocese. Trollope’s masterly depiction of the plotting and back-stabbing that ensues lies at the heart of one of the most vivid and comic of his Barsetshire novels, peopled by such very different figures as the saintly Warden of Hiram’s Hospital, Septimus Harding, the ineffectual but well-meaning new bishop and his terrifying wife, and the oily chaplain Mr Slope who has designs both on Mr Harding’s daughter and the fascinating would-be femme fatale Signora Vesey-Neroni.

This is the second volume of Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire. In his introduction, Robin Gilmour examines the novel’s political and social background and Trollope’s concern with changes occurring in society.

Barchester Towers is a bigger novel than The Warden in every way. Its scope is more sweeping, it’s characterizations even richer (and more satirical) and its cast of characters has grown significantly. I enjoyed The Warden a lot. I adored Barchester Towers.

I am a sucker for huge Victorian novels, peopled by legions of occasionally hilariously named characters. Dickens has nothing on Trollope in his naming facility. From Mr. and Mrs. Quiverful (the cleric with 14 children, of course) through Mrs. Proudie (activist wife of the new, low church bishop who becomes embroiled in a major power struggle) and Obadiah Slope – a nametag nearly as evocative as Uriah Heep, whom he resembles in more than just the sound of his name – Trollope has given us a whole society to enjoy.

The basic premise of Barchester Towers is simple. The bishop, father of the Archdeacon Grantley, has died, leaving the bishopric open and available. When the Prime Minister chooses the evangelical Dr. Proudie to fill his position, rather than the High Church archdeacon, all hell rather breaks loose in Barchester, with normally quiet, retiring clerics jockeying for better positions, more prestige, and new opportunities.

In addition, poor Eleanor Bold, whose romantic travails were a centerpiece of The Warden has, sadly, been widowed after giving birth to a child. She has been left rather well-off in widowhood and becomes the marital target of three disparate men – Mr. Slope (played by the always excellent Alan Rickman in the BBC special), who is frankly after her money and is greasy, obsequious perfection (he makes Austen’s Mr. Collins look like the picture of unboastful humility), Dr. Stanhope, who is also after her money, and is more of the bluff, hearty type, and the brilliant Francis Arabin, who is high church, and is summoned in effort to combat the low church fellows who are taking over Barchester.

The weirdly sorta hot Alan Rickman as Obadiah Slope.

The weirdly sorta hot Alan Rickman as Obadiah Slope.

One begins to wonder if Trollope plans to successively marry and widow poor Eleanor in every installment. And one further notes that Trollope clearly never envisioned Mr. Slope being played by Alan Rickman. Because, yeah, he’s bizarrely appealing.

In any event, Barchester Towers is awesome. It is a romp, full of satire, and humor, and puncturing self-importance. Trollope is delightfully subversive and biting. Obadiah Slope is one of those characters we love to hate, with all of his wily and duplicitous scheming. And even the most “unwordly” of clergymen are always engaged in manipulation to improve their positions, which they would attribute to their desire to direct their flock, but we know better because Trollope tells us so: it’s nearly always self-interest at the core.

And when Trollope asks: “[i]s it not a pity that people who are bright and clever should so often be exceedingly improper? and that those who are never improper should so often be dull and heavy?” We answer with a resounding “Yes!”

“There is no happiness in love except at the end of an English novel. But in wealth, money, houses, lands, goods and chattels, in the good things of this world, yes, in them there is something tangible, something that can be retained and enjoyed.”

Trollope, you clever, diverting, amazing, awesome, and exceedingly delightfully improper old cynic. I can’t wait to read the next installment.

The Warden by Anthony TrollopeThe Warden by Anthony Trollope
Series: Chronicles of Barchester #1
Published by Penguin Classics on 1855
Genres: Classics - Victorian
Pages: 201
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased: print book
Goodreads
four-stars
"The tranquil atmosphere of the cathedral town of Barchester is shattered when a scandal breaks concerning the financial affairs of a Church-run almshouse for elderly men. In the ensuing furore, Septimus Harding, the almshouse's well-meaning warden, finds himself pitted against his daughter's suitor Dr. John Bold, a zealous local reformer. Matters are not improved when Harding's abrasive son-in law, Archdeacon Grantly, leaps into the fray to defend him against a campaign Bold begins in the national press. An affectionate and wittily satirical view of the workings of the Church of England, "The Warden" is also a subtle exploration of the rights and wrongs of moral crusades and, in its account of Harding's intensely felt personal drama, a moving depiction of the private impact of public affairs."

This slender book is the first volume in Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire. It is one of Trollope’s shorter works (if not the shortest), and provides the reader with a brief but delightful introduction into the characters and setting of Trollope’s ecclesiastical series.

I have not read a lot of Trollope. The only other of his novels that I have read is the stand-alone “The Way We Live Now,” which I read a number of years ago – long enough ago that if I were to try to review it, I would need to reread it. I remember distinctly enjoying it. Trollope is a student of human nature, and explores human behavior in a way that is really compelling. The Warden is a slice of life book centered around Mr. Harding, the warden of a hospital for poor men (the bedesmen), who becomes the subject of a dispute between his son-in-law, Dr. Grantly, and a reformer, John Bold. Mr. Bold attempts to make the case that Mr. Harding’s salary – which is rather generous – should, by rights, go to the bedesmen for whom he provides spiritual succor and physical care.

Poor Mr. Harding, who is a genuinely honorable man, ends up being tugged like a bone between two dogs when Mr. Bold files a lawsuit to oust Mr. Harding and give the bedesmen the money from a trust that is in place to care for them. The men have varying reactions to this plan. Some of them think it is a grand idea. One of them thinks that they are likely to not really benefit in the end, and is loyal to Mr. Harding:

“Law!” said Bunce, with all the scorn he knew how to command—”law! Did ye ever know a poor man yet was the better for law, or for a lawyer?

I’ll let you guess who was right.

As if this dispute isn’t ugly enough, Mr. Harding’s younger daughter, Eleanor, is also in love with John Bold, and is therefore, herself, engaged an emotional tug-of-war between her filial love and respect for her father and her romantic love for Mr. Bold.

“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 judgment; 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.

And, to top off this rather convoluted family pentagon, Mr. Harding’s other daughter, Susan, is married to Dr. Grantly. Lots of Victorian family drama ensues, ending in the resignation of Mr. Harding from his position, and the marriage of John Bold and Eleanor Harding.

One of my favorite things about this book is the believability of it. This is how families act, even modern families, when disputes are allowed to fester, and people take sides, and grudges are held. There is always a peacemaker. In this case, the peacemaker ends up being Mr. Harding, who is a simply lovely character. He is genuinely good, and it horrifies him when he is confronted with the position that he has been being paid at the expense of his charges. He displays no sense of entitlement – he is hurt, not angry, not defensive. Once he decides on his course of action, he pursues it single-mindedly and selflessly.

“I cannot boast of my conscience, when it required the violence of a public newspaper to awaken it; but, now that it is awake, I must obey it.”

I want to say a quick few words about Trollope’s women. All three of them – Susan (wife of Dr. Grantly/daughter of Mr. Harding), Mary (sister of John Bold) and Eleanor (daughter of Mr. Harding/sister of Susan/friend of Mary) were fully realized and complex characters. Eleanor was a bit too good to be true, but didn’t I just love her nonetheless.

In the end, of course, the bedesmen end up much worse off than they were before the reformer decided to try to help them. They have the same (small) apportionment of money, and no Mr. Harding. The position of Warden goes unfilled because the bishop cannot be prevailed upon to offer it to anyone other than Dr. Harding, who continues to refuse to return to the position through the end of The Warden.

This was a simply wonderful read. It is followed by Barchester Towers, which is the sequel to The Warden and takes up about two years after the resignation of Mr. Harding and the marriage of John and Eleanor.