Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Warden, by Anthony Trollope

Yesterday I listened to an old favorite of mine, The Warden (1855), the first in Anthony Trollope's series of six novels set in the fictional county of Barsetshire. I've only read 19 out of his 47 novels, but I have a little goal of getting to all of them someday.

The Warden is set in the fictional cathedral city of Barchester (inspired by Salisbury), and concerns various dignitaries of the church, such as kindly old Bishop Grantly, his domineering, active and worldly son, Archdeacon Grantly, and our title character, Mr. Septimus Harding, who at the beginning of the novel holds the wardenship of Hiram's Hospital--basically a charity nursing home for retired laborers run by the church.  A young friend of Mr. Harding's (who's also in love with his daughter) raises a public question of whether the funds that support the charity and pay Mr. Harding's salary are being disposed of in accordance with the original terms of the bequest. Mr. Harding isn't at fault at all but the mere fact of the fairness of his position being called into question force the sensitive man to resign his profitable living.

I suspect that Trollope wrote this novel in response to severe church reforms of the day, that sought to do good but ended up leaving people worse off than they were before.  It's possible the novel originally had some relevance to the world it came out of, but it still resonates today. Being raised without religion myself, I don't have much interest in religion and I'd never have imagined that I'd be so fascinating by these long novels about clergymen and their families, but they don't actually concern religion itself. The atmosphere of the cathedral close isn't too far off from the contemporary world of academe, for example. So, I encourage everyone to pick up these novels. Their true depictions of the petty internal politics that can often bog down even the most well-intentioned institutions will continue to be relevant to new readers as they have been for more than 150 years.

The Warden is by far the shortest entry in the Barsetshire series and it's easy to dismiss it as little more than setting up the masterpiece that followed it. And while it's true that Mr. Harding and his daughters Eleanor, and Susan, and his son-in-law the Archdeacon are also prominently featured in that delightful book, The Warden is a great novel in its own right, and one of great variety. After the reformer John Bold promises Eleanor Harding to drop the suit against her father, and becomes engaged to her, he has to go and surrender to the Archdeacon. Trollope has presented these characters with such complexity that even though Bold is a good enough guy to carry off our heroine Eleanor, we're still angry enough at him over the pain he's caused Mr. Harding, that gentlest, sweetest of men, that we can enjoy seeing him get his comeuppance.  When he arrives at the Archdeacon's house, he's greeted by the Archdeacon's three sons. The three boys completely get the better of him with deadpan sarcasm in one of Trollope's funniest scenes.

But then take the scene where the kind, generous Mr. Harding bids goodbye to the 12 old men who've been under his care as Warden. Most of the men have participated in the attack on Mr. Harding out of futile greed and ignorance, but come to regret their action deeply. He is such a good, sweet man, with only the fault of not having the courage to fight for his own interest--if that is a fault at all. And by the time Mr. Harding is slammed in the popular press, the reader feels the sting of that attack as if Harding their our own father.  The Archdeacon, too, is flawed but lovable. I love Trollope characters as I love my own friends, aware of their faults as well as the qualities that overshadow them.

I'll leave off with one of my favorite quotations from The Warden:

"They say that faint heart never won fair lady; and it is amazing to me how fair ladies are won, so faint are often men's hearts."

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