Series: Chronicles of Barchester #1
Published by Penguin Classics on 1855
Genres: Classics - Victorian
Source: Purchased: print book
"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.