Monday, October 5, 2009
The Warden by Anthony Trollope
Anthony Trollope is a sadly underrated and underappreciated classic British author. Everyone knows Dickens, Austen, and the Brontes. Even Thomas Hardy is well known, since Tess of the D'urbervilles is routinely assigned high school and college reading. However, Trollope is hardly mentioned in all those must-read classics lists (well, in this country) and not one of his works made the BBC Big Read list (of which, I am proud to say, I have read 74). It's too bad, considering he was one the most prolific writers of the Victorian era, publishing 47 novels -- 47!!! -- some of which he wrote while employed as a civil servant. He invented the British pillar post box, among other things, and is known to have risen early every day so that he could write from 5 to 8 a.m before he went to work. Now, that's discipline.
I do realize there are literature lovers who will run screaming from the room if Victorian writers are mentioned. Many people have bad experiences with too much Dickens at too young an age (or, as grownups, they just don't like him, which is also okay). I suppose it's fair to compare Trollope with Dickens because a) they were contemporaries and b) they wrote long, serialized novels. However, they're really quite different. Many people dislike Dickens' melodrama, his flowery prose, sentimental characters, and his constant use of unbelievable coincidences. You won't find this in Trollope. He's a much more straightforward writer, and unlike Dickens, it never seems as though he's writing with a stage adaptation in mind. He does include social commentary and satire, but it's much more political. And while Dickens' characters cover a cross-section of society from the gentry to the lowly crossing sweepers, Trollope's novels are more concentrated on the upper classes, and his commentary is mostly focused on politics. (It does help to have annotated editions which explain all the background). However, I must qualify this by saying I've read only two of his novels. I haven't encountered any bedraggled orphans yet, but this could change.
I got hooked on Trollope last year when I read The Way We Live Now, considered by many to be his best work. Seriously, I could not put that book down -- it's more than 800 pages and it is a real page turner. Plus, it's surprisingly timely, since the story revolves around a financial scandal eerily like the Madoff scheme, which is why Newsweek put it on the cover this summer as its top pick of What to Read Now and Why. Pretty impressive for a book written in 1875!
But back to The Warden. It's one of Trollope's earliest novels, written in 1855, and is the first of his beloved Barsetshire Chronicles. The story centers around the Reverend Septimus Harding, pastor of the church in fictional Barchester. This job also includes the wardenship of Hiram's Hospital, an almshouse for twelve local indigent men, funded with a legacy from a local landowner John Hiram who left his land to the church in the 15th century. The will stipulates that the warden receives income from said land, which has increased in value exponentially, thereby providing the warden a generous income for this work (800 pounds per annum, or about $50K in current U.S. dollars). A local reformer has decided it's a shocking misuse of church funds, and brings it to the attention of the tabloid newspapers, who decide to blow the lid off this scandal.
This is further complicated by the fact that Mr. Harding's elder daughter is married to the archdeacon, Dr. Grantly, the son of the Bishop (Mr. Harding's boss); and by the fact that the reformer, Dr. John Bold, is in love with Mr. Harding's younger daughter Eleanor. Dr. Grantly is offended by the implication that the church is abusing its position and files a lawsuit against Dr. Bold. The hospital residents get wind of this and decide they each deserve a hundred pounds a year, so they get involved also. Meanwhile, Rev. Harding just wants to play and write music, his first love, and poor Eleanor is stuck in the middle of all of this.
Basically, Trollope is satirizing the power of the church, reformers, the tabloid press, and the power of the sensational novelists of the time -- that is, Charles Dickens (referred to as "Mr. Popular Sentiment"). Throughout his novels, Trollope uses hilarious and thinly veiled pseudonyms. Besides Mr. Popular Sentiment, The Warden include characters called Rev. Quiverful and Sir Abraham Haphazard; The Way We Live Now had aristrocrats known as Lord and Lady Damask.
I also loved the way the characters were developed. Trollope was really good at creating sympathetic characters -- I felt so sorry for Rev. Harding, who really wants to do the right thing, but he's under pressure from the church to fight back, and he's also worried about his youngest daughter and what will happen to her. Eleanor and even John Bold are interesting and conflicted.
I liked The Warden, but compared to The Way We Live Now it seemed to take an awfully long time for the story to get going. The Warden is only 189 pages long (Penguin Classics edition), but I found that the first 100 pages dragged. After the story began to move along, it really held my interest and I finished it right away. The Way We Live Now is more than 800 pages and 100 chapters, but the story really grabbed me. It is by far the fastest I have read a classic of that magnitude -- I found myself sneaking off to read "just one more chapter." It is that good.
I suppose it's unfair to compare the two books because they're written 20 years apart. Barchester Towers, the second book in the series, and The Last Chronicle of Barchester, the final book, are the most popular, so I'm looking forward to reading both of those. The Warden wasn't quite as good as I was hoping, but I have heard that it's the least good (I wouldn't say worst) of the Barsetshire Chronicles. If you want to read a one great Victorian novel with wit and satire, I'd recommend The Way We Live Now. I'll report back on the Barsetshire series as soon as I get through my current read, The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, which is shaping up to be a great book. As soon as it's finished, I'll be back for more Trollope.