Thursday, June 11, 2015

Throwback Thursday: My first Trollope

In September 2013, I read my first Anthony Trollope novel, The Warden, and I posted my review here. As I have mentioned here previously, I am now reading my second Trollope, Barchester Towers, and enjoying it immensely. I hope to finish reading it today and post my review tomorrow. But as a reminder of where the story started, here is my 2013 review of The Warden.

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The Warden by Anthony Trollope

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Most of the reading I've been doing this summer has been of murder mysteries. Noir. Police procedurals. Thrillers. Cozy mysteries. But always with a murder involved. It was time for a cleansing of my reading palette.

The writers of those mysteries all tailor their craft for the tastes of typical readers (if such animals exist) of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. They feature short, pithy, undemanding sentences calculated to keep those pages turning and keep the reader from turning away to any of the other myriad of possible entertainments available to her. They write for a short-attention-span audience, and they are entertaining in their way.

But now, for something completely different. 

Anthony Trollope's sentences can in no wise be described as short, pithy, or undemanding. Here is an example from early in the book, where Trollope is describing the warden's habit of playing on an imaginary violincello when he was under emotional stress.
While these vexed him sorely, the passes would be short and slow, and the upper hand would not be seen to work; nay the strings on which it operated would sometimes lie concealed in the musician's pocket, and the instrument on which he played would be beneath his chair; but as his spirit warmed to the subject - as his trusting heart, looking to the bottom of that which vexed him, would see its clear way out, - he would rise to a higher melody, sweep the unseen cords from his neck, down along his waistcoat, and up again to his very ear, create an ecstatic strain of perfect music, audible to himself and to St Cecilia, and not without effect.
Now that is a sentence! And this book is filled with such complicated structures. They demand the reader's full attention. One can't be texting or following Twitter while reading such sentences.

The Warden was the first in a series of six books which comprise Trollope’s Barchester series, one of the most enduring serial collections of British fiction. It tells the compelling story of a good man, the kindly Mr. Harding, warden of the almshouse in Barchester. Mr. Harding, through no fault of his own, finds himself caught in a maelstrom of publicity over alleged financial misconduct. This was a topical subject because financial misconduct by the Church of England was much in the news at this time.

The national scandal was fueled by a reformer named Bold, who was a friend of Mr. Harding and who was in love with the reverend's daughter, Eleanor. Bold believed that the terms of the will which created the almshouse were not being fairly carried out, that too much of the income was going to the warden while it should have been going to the twelve aged indigent residents of the almshouse. The fact that Mr. Harding was tenderly caring for and supporting the residents was never in question - and was never taken into account by the news stories.

Mr. Bold's assertions came to the attention of the Jupiter, the influential newspaper of the day. Soon the newspaper was editorializing about the warden's alleged malfeasance. The story was taken up by pamphleteers, the National Enquirers or Drudge Reports of their day, and it was distorted out of all reason and the warden felt that his reputation was irretrievably blackened.

Anthony Trollope wrote in the Victorian era in England, but one can't help seeing parallels between the media which he describes and the American media of the day. The story of the disgraced warden would have been irresistible manna for the 24-hour cable news networks. 

The good and honorable Mr. Harding comes to believe that the charges that he is receiving too much income for the work that he does as warden have some basis in truth, and he sees that the only way out for him to resolve the conflict in his conscience is to resign the post, much to the consternation of his son-in-law and older daughter and other supporters. The only one who supports him in his decision is Eleanor.

And so, he walks away from his profitable post and into a life of genteel poverty, and yet his chronicler says that he "is not an unhappy man." Eleanor marries Bold and, eventually, her sister and brother-in-law are reconciled to the match and they all become friends again.

As for the twelve old men of the almshouse who had dreams of becoming much richer through the efforts of the reformer, they, in fact, became poorer once Mr. Harding left the position of warden, since he had been supplementing their income from his own proceeds. Too late they realized how good they had had it under his benevolent care.

Trollope's rich writing is, in many ways, a comedy of manners reminiscent of Jane Austen. He reveals a society of contrasts between Victorian London and the provincial life of Barchester. His story is one of the power of the press to do both good and evil contrasted against the small but indomitable voice of one person's integrity. It is a story of Victorian England that could just as easily be of modern day America. The Warden is as relevant as today's newspaper or the Internet.

And the writing! Oh, the writing! It is just beautiful. I consider my palette to have been thoroughly cleansed. 

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