Monday, November 4, 2013

Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope

In my recent post on Trollope's The Warden, I referred to its more famous sequel, Barchester Towers, which I've also recently revisited. This novel is perfect. Perfect. It's got laughs, romance, drama, tears, slaps, takedowns, putdowns, backstabbing, intrigue, death, gossip, and genuine heart--human nature depicted with Trollope's most deliciously snarky style. Who could ask for anything more?

Trollope was himself a huge Jane Austen fan, and her influence is never clearer in any of his books than Barchester Towers, an Austenesque study of human foibles. Every character that appears in this novel, from the protagonists whose motivations, thoughts and feelings are elucidated at length, to a butler who makes a brief appearance in one scene, is a specific person, and Trollope knows exactly who that person is.

From the very first scene you know you're in for something very special. The novel opens with characters we know from The Warden--the benevolent old school Bishop Grantly is on his deathbed, attended by his son, the active, worldly Archdeacon.  The death of the old Bishop coincides exactly with a change in government, so the Archdeacon knows that the longer her father lives, the less likely it is that he will be appointed in his place. The Archdeacon is an ambitious man, and a strong partisan, and knows he'll be a good bishop, since he's been basically running the diocese for the last several years of his father's tenure. He struggles with his ambition, his sense of duty and his affection for his father, and prays for him to live as long as possible. The first time I read The Warden, I didn't love the Archdeacon, but his grief and struggle here won me over.

The old Bishop outlives the government and an outsider is appointed Bishop by the new Prime Minister. The new Bishop, Dr. Proudie, arrives in Barchester with his bossy, domineering wife and  a very ambitious chaplain, Mr. Slope--possibly the slimiest character in all of literature. Mr. Slope and Mrs. Proudie begin as allies in a campaign to force the rest of the diocese into their religious views and to systematically insult the members of the old guard. A dispute over a piece of preferment erupts into a power struggle between Mrs. Proudie and Mr. Slope over which of them will rule the Bishop.

I've noticed this thing in 19th century novels, that preachers were often idolized by women, the way movie stars or singers are today. The odious Mr. Slope, is detested by all men, but his faux piety has some charm for women, even though he is not physically attractive. This, in part leads to a misunderstanding which occupies a lot of this novel, the Archdeacon and his wife are convinced that her sister, Mrs. Bold (now a wealthy widow) will be induced to marry Mr. Slope. I hate misunderstandings, and if this novel has an imperfection, it's this one. But I can't hold it against Trollope when he addresses the reader and acknowledges the device: "But then where would have been my novel?"

I can't in this short piece do justice to all of his wonderful characters, but I'll just tell you about my favorite, The Signora Neroni, nee Madeline Stanhope. This lady is the daughter of a Barchester prebend, Dr. Stanhope, who has at the the time of the novel lived for the past ten years with his ineffectual wife, his eldest daughter, the competent, but cold-blooded Charlotte, his son, Bertie, a handsome, charming spendthrift, and his younger daughter, Madeline. Madeline is a great, great beauty, and an even greater captivator through her manners. But Trollope gives her something unexpected: she's returned to her father's house after an unsuccessful marriage with an abusive Italian. She leaves him, unable to walk, disabled by his abuse. She doesn't let her disability dampen her success with men though--instead she makes a great show of being carried from room to room by three servants! She mercilessly ensnares as many men as she can come across, and the odious Mr. Slope is one of her easiest conquests. She toys with him and tortures him until disposing of him in the most glorious and public manner possible at the end of the novel. She seems heartless and cruel, but when she earns the admiration of an honest and good man, Mr. Arabin, she helps him to earn the woman he loves (Eleanor Bold, nee Harding.) From this witty and delightfully nasty lady, I'll give you instead her one noble moment, when she tells Eleanor about Arabin's love for her, one of Trollope's most beautiful passages:

"What I tell you is God's own truth; and it is for you to use it as may be best for your own happiness. But you must not betray me. He knows nothing of this. He knows nothing of my knowing his inmost heart. He is simple as a child in these matters. He told me his secret in a thousand ways because he could not dissemble; but he does not dream that has told it. You know it now, and I advise you to use it."

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