Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope

Two whole weeks of Anthony Trollope!  It's my turn for a review of Barchester Towers, the second book in his Barsetshire Chronicles and one of his more popular books.

Anyway, I've been wanting to revisit Trollope for awhile.  Last year I read The Warden, the first of the series set in fictional Barsetshire.  It's one of Trollope's shortest novels at only about 250 pages, but I didn't like it nearly as much as The Way We Live Now -- it seemed to take forever to get going.


Barchester Towers gets interesting much more quickly.  It picks up not long after the end of The Warden.  If you haven't read The Warden, you may want to skip to the end as there are mild spoilers (it is a series after all). Anyway, the Bishop of Barchester is on his deathbed.  Dr. Grantly, his son, who is also his archdeacon, is widely expected to pick up the reins and be appointed to his father's position, but that would be too convenient.  A Dr. Proudie from London has been appointed instead.  However, Dr. Proudie has no intention of actually spending that much time in the country -- he'd rather stay in London and make appearances in the House of Lords, so most of the responsibility will be shouldered by Mr. Obadiah Slope, his chaplain. This appointment throws the whole social and religious society in Barchester into a bit of an uproar because Dr. Proudie and Mr. Slope are more evangelical, also known as Low Church -- Trollope was making a statement about the schism in church politics.

It also becomes complicated by the fact that Dr. Grantly's father-in-law is Mr. Harding, the eponymous warden of Hiram's Hospital from the first novel.  Actually, he's now the former warden, as he resigned his positions due to a kerfuffle.  (See The Warden for more background.)  The slippery Mr. Slope decides to exercise his influence with Dr. Proudie to get his choice selected as a new warden.  Mr. Slope and Mrs. Proudie's opinionated, overbearing wife get into a power struggle over this, leading to one of the funniest bits in the book.  It's a bit long but I think it's worth sharing:

There was a dead pause in the room.  Mr. Slope had risen from his chair, and was standing with his hand on the back of it, looking at first very solemn and now very black. Mrs. Proudie was standing as she had first placed herself, at the end of the table, and as she interrogated her foe she struck her hand upon it with almost more than feminine vigour.  The bishop was sitting in his easy chair twiddling his thumbs, turning his eyes now to his wife, and now to his chaplain, as each took up the cudgels.  How comfortable it would be if they could fight it out between them without the necessity of any interference on his part; fight it out so that one should kill the other utterly, as far as diocesan life was concerned, so that he, the bishop might know clearly by whom it behoved him to be led.  There would be the comfort of quiet in either case; but if the bishop had a wish as to which might prove the victor, that wish was certainly not antagonistic to Mr. Slope.

There are lots of misunderstandings, power struggles, and people falling in and out of love.  Much of the action comes to a head at a hilarious garden fete hosted by the local gentry.  Parts of this book really reminded me of Elizabeth Gaskell (I could absolutely envision the garden party after my repeated viewings of Cranford and Wives and Daughters) and the domestic scenes reminded me quite a lot of Jane Austen, particularly her sly wit. I've heard that Trollope was a huge Austen fan, which doesn't surprise me after reading this book.

The book does start out a bit slow, though it picked up and became a faster read by far than The Warden -- I think I read about 150 pages this past Monday, which for me is amazing for a Victorian.  I know Carolyn at A Few of My Favourite Books read 300 pages of Trollope a day for this circuit -- wow!

The only other comment I'd like to make is that I really wish I had researched the Church of England before I'd started this book -- I wasn't raised Episcopal so I didn't really understand the difference between High Church and Low Church and all the different titles with the hierarchy of the various characters' positions.  I wish I'd found some kind of chart to make it less confusing, like a family tree.  I still enjoyed the heck out of this book but I think I might have gotten more out of it if I'd known more about the history.  Of course I didn't read the introduction to this book first because I was afraid of spoilers.  The endnotes were good but I think they assumed the reader knew more background.

This was one of my favorite books of the year and I'm eager to read more Trollope.  One of my goals for 2011 is to finish the Barsetshire series -- I've heard great things about both of the next two books, Dr. Thorne and Framley Parsonage.  And today I was at Half Price Books with Amanda from The Zen Leaf, where I was delighted to find another volume of Trollope that includes Barchester Towers, Miss MacKenzie, and Cousin Henry -- for $3.22 which included tax!  Sweet!

If you'd like to read more reviews of Trollope's novels and stories, please visit The Classics Circuit for links and more information.

11 comments:

  1. I loved this book too and I agree it was a lot better than The Warden. I don't have much knowledge of the church hierarchy either, though luckily it didn't affect my enjoyment of the book! Like you, I'm hoping to finish the Barsetshire series in 2011. I can't wait to start Dr Thorne!

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  2. I just read my very first Trollope-Cousin Henry for the circuit-I really enjoyed it and found his prose style delightfully relaxing-I enjoyed your post a lot

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  3. THANK YOU for the wonderful Persephone gift! Those cookies are SO good! :-) :-) :-) Thank you!!!! :-)

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  4. I'm glad we stopped by and found that book for you Karen! :)

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  5. Helen -- I'm hoping to start Dr. Thorne right away. My mother has a copy she's promised to lend me at Christmas. :-)

    Mel U -- I was so happy to find that volume with Cousin Henry yesterday -- it was serendipitous.

    Marie -- you are so welcome! I'm glad you like it. Loved the photo on your blog!

    Amanda -- Sorry we didn't get any Zola. Let me know if you go back to HPB during the sale. I'm hoping to visit some great bookstores over the holiday and I'll keep my eyes out for more Zola.

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  6. I tried to read The Warden earlier this year and was defeated. It looks like if I can slog my way through it I will be rewarded with much more enjoyable titles later in the series.

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  7. I did manage to get through the Warden but was slightly deterred from Barchester Towers by its length, assuming it would move like the Warden. I'm now much encouraged to start it.

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  8. I loved Barchester Towers and the others. The BBC series is also great. Alan Rickman as Mr Slope is wonderfully oleaginous! It might be available on netflix.
    I was brought up Presbyterian but married an Episcopalian. High church is very similar to Roman Catholic. It has incense and bells and such like whereas Low church is much plainer and simpler. They're both the Church of England and have the Queen/King as the head of it, but they cater for different tastes amongst church-goers.

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  9. I had a tough time with this book but your review was quite enjoyable !!

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  10. Anbolyn -- I had a hard time with The Warden too. Barchester Towers did start out a bit slow but it picked up much more quickly. Maybe Trollope just takes a little time to get going.

    Falaise -- BT was much better, and I've heard great things about the rest of the series. I'd like to read the rest of the series this year. I've been reading about one Trollope a year but it's just not enough.

    Katrina -- I got a box set of Trollope DVDs at Costco this summer, and Barchester is in there! I was saving it until I finished the book, I hope to watch it this weekend. I LOVE Alan Rickman. Sigh.

    Laura -- thank you! Maybe it wasn't the right Trollope at the right time for you. I think he's worth it.

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  11. I'm reading the Palliser series and it is not very much like a series -- not many spoilers in the second book, since it focuses on different people. I am looking forward to also reading the Barsetshire books once I'm done with Palliser.

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