Author: Anthony Trollope
In the small, English church village of Barchester, reform jostles with the stoic tradition of the church and the innocent every-man represented by Septimus Harding, Precentor and Church Warden. Harding is torn between a moral dilemma and the comfortable position afforded by corrupt society. The first in the Barchester Chronicles, and Trollope’s first successful novel, the sleeper story is more concerned with characters and quandaries than with enticing plotlines or great tension. This is both the charming appeal of the novel and its own tragic inability to stay long in our minds.
Based on a medieval will (and its associated, well-meaning benefactor) a hospital/retirement home for working men has been established and tied with the church, the Warden being officially responsible for said oversight of the hospital and general emotional care of the men. The will is old and vague and John Bold, friend to the Warden, goes from an honest desire to do good to the powerful world of newsprint and prestige, stirring up an argument that the £800 yearly income of the Warden is stolen by the church and is meant for the retirees. Conversely, the Warden’s sanctimonious son-in-law, esteemed Bishop Grantly, is a despicable character with no concern for doing good and an unwavering desire to keep power in the church. In the middle is the honest Warden, a man who does not desire to take that which is not his, but also is not sure of the claim or what reactions and possible reparations he should make. Backed by his caring daughter, who is in love with John Bold, the Warden searches out the truth and the meaning of right in this maze of lies and political machinations giving both the establishment and ardent reformers a bad name.
I originally encountered this novel through my book club (to which I am much addicted) when it was noted that Trollope is trending right now in that his novels remain popular because they are still relevant and the writing is accessible instead of being esoteric. Debating which Trollope to dive into, The Warden was chosen for being Trollope’s first successful novel, the beginning of a beloved series, and for being decidedly shorter than some of his other 800 page opuses.
The short novel, no more than two hundred pages and a mere six discs in audiobook format, meanders and takes its time establishing the situation and the characters. The world is fully fleshed out as are all the intrigues of the Victorian era and the daily habits, some of them quite cozy, of the good-natured Warden who adores music and seeks answers. The outcome of the Warden-ship and the £800 is less important than the journey, a dilemma relatable and realistic in its everyday nature. Stuck between two ardent men, Harding is shown as the true hero as neither reformer nor establishment fair well under Trollope’s not-so-subtle middle-ground position. Both sides are deemed selfish and self-serving, glory hounds with no thought to the actual people they are effecting. It’s an interesting take, a little surprising in its way. Having grown up with Charles Dickens (whom Trollope criticized for his reforming ways), I expected to see fiction of this era either with the Jane Austen presentiments of marriage and social mobility or with Dickens’ darker revelations about society. Instead, we get a hybrid somewhere in-between the two worlds that won’t give us a satisfying answer: is this right or is this wrong. This is what makes the novel so brilliant and the argument over the church money (admittedly not an interesting quandary in and of itself) thought provoking.
Harding is a complicated character, both weak and strong, hating his weakness and eventually finding his strength in pain and rebellion. He ultimately discovers his salvation in a strange sort of giving up – the realization that no answer is needed because he merely wants to remove himself from the debate. It’s a little disappointing, a little sad, a little strange, but ultimately viable because, in the end, when life gets too difficult don’t many of us walk away from our questions, leaving mysteries unsolved, instead choosing a new, less difficult path. I’m not sure what Trollope is saying here or, more accurately, what the moral is since his middle-ground is miserable, yet suitably complex and endlessly believable.
While Harding is well-rounded the supporting characters remain mostly static in their assigned roles. Good is good, evil is evil, stubborn is stubborn, and positions and temperaments do not vary. This world of background characters is stable, allowing our concern, the Warden, to grow throughout the tale.
Along with the real-life flare, the writing is elegant yet to the point, very accessible and modern without losing any beauty of description or sentiment. It’s intriguing and compelling and the people are real – yet something is missing. It’s an indefinable something, but when I finished the novel I had the sense that I would instantly forget it. It would later appear as one of those books on my shelf which I argued with myself over: have I read this? This usually results in a Google of all my old reviews to verify if a particular book has been read. I cannot exactly say why there is such a quality of forgettablity unless it is the very realism that causes it. The tension here is low because the risk is relatively low. The Warden risks a life of poverty, to be sure, but no great horror awaits him and we soon know that friends and alliances will protect the Warden from the ramifications of his own decisions. The danger is not here and while the moral inquiry is relevant and essentially believable, it’s not especially compelling. In a way, it is too much like real life, and in fiction we tend to look for grander sentiments, more dramatic problems, bigger dilemmas, and instead here we find a sleeper of a novel that is quite good, quite brilliant in parts, but ultimately, just not that exciting.
*A Note on Edition: I listened to the unabridged audio CD as read by Simon Vance. This recording was expertly rendered and the reading top quality. Being read to enhances the odd coziness of the tale and brings the characters and their world further alive. This is a fantastic way to encounter Trollope for the first time!
– Frances Carden