Series: Chronicles of Barsetshire #2
Published by Penguin Classics on 1857
Genres: Classics - Victorian
Source: Purchased: print book
"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.
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.