10 February 2009

Book Review: Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope

Victorian Challenge #1

Barchester Towers When the Bishop of Barchester dies, the preferment goes not to his son, Archdeacon Grantly, but an outsider. Or rather, two outsiders, for the new Bishop Proudie’s wife does all she can to rule her husband and, through him, the diocese. The Low Church sensibilities of the Proudies and their evangelical chaplain, Mr Slope, do not sit well with the archdeacon, who with great celerity moves to ensure that things change as little as possible. His first act is to try to get his father-in-law, Mr Harding, reinstated as warden of Hiram’s Hospital. Mrs Proudie has other ideas – she wants the bishop to give the post to Mr Quiverful. Mr Slope vacillates between the two options, leaning toward whichever will best ensure his worldly success – and as Mr Harding has a widowed daughter with twelve hundred a year, there’s a lot of success up for grabs.

Eleanor Bold and her income have also been noticed by Charlotte Stanhope, eldest daughter of a churchman summarily recalled from a long absence in Italy by the new bishop. Dr Stanhope has neglected his duties to the extent of letting his children think and act as freely as they please, with results that scandalise Barchester. Charlotte’s sister Madeline is a cripple whose still-living husband doesn’t stop her setting out to enthrall everything in trousers, and their brother Bertie has failed to settle to any profession beyond that of spending his father’s money. Certain that Bertie will never prosper on his own, Charlotte decides that a rich marriage is just the thing, and sets out to make it happen. She never dreams that anyone so plainly enamoured of Madeline as is Mr Slope might have such schemes himself.

Archdeacon Grantly suspects just that, and furthermore interprets Eleanor’s common civility to Mr Slope as encouragement. Soon a wedding is viewed as only a matter of time, and not even securing a vacant living for Mr Arabin, a firm adherent to the archdeacon’s principles, can compensate for such a dire prospect. Mr Arabin, after meeting Eleanor, is no happier at the thought. And few people other than Mr Slope are pleased when the dean also dies, and the bishop’s chaplain is suggested as a replacement.

Barchester Towers is the second of the Barsetshire novels, and takes place five years after The Warden, the events of which are recapped at the start. Church squabbles might not sound the most interesting of subjects for a novel, and I’ll admit it had its tedious moments, as things ecclesiastical were recounted and philosophised upon. The greater part of the book more than compensated, and contained some hilarious moments. The image of Bertie Stanhope breezily attempting to free a furious Mrs Proudie’s skirts from the castors of the sofa he had just sent hurtling across the floor is one I will not soon forget. (Aside: I recall reading somewhere that a fellow club member once mentioned his dislike of one of Trollope’s characters, to which Trollope replied that he would go home and kill her off immediately. Was that Mrs Proudie?)

The characters can be hard to truly like, but they are a lot of fun to read about. The bishop is a henpecked doormat and his wife and chaplain odious, but it’s great entertainment to see said wife and chaplain vying for supremacy over each other (and the bishop). I always found myself hoping for the victory of whichever one was currently on the page and plotting. The Stanhopes are wonderfully eccentric in their disparate ways, and each manages to do something good by the end, but I was still glad to see the last of them. By comparison the forces upholding the status quo (the good guys, if you will) are less interesting than the disruptive elements they combat. The exception is my favourite of the lot, Miss Thorne, the local squire’s sister who thinks there is little worthwhile in the world that isn’t at least a few centuries old.

There is a love story worked in amongst the scheming, and while I was pleased to see a happy ending for Eleanor she’s not exactly my favourite heroine. A nice girl, a good daughter, a devoted mother and doubtless now a good wife, but there’s little more to her than that. And no, there is not a spoiler in this paragraph. Trollope has an odd habit of announcing certain plot developments far in advance which somehow failed to mar my enjoyment of the book. It takes good writing to pull that off.

Rating: A-


Anonymous said...

I read this a few years ago and enjoyed it. Like you, I felt it had its tedious moments, but there's something very gentle and leisurely and wise about it that I liked. I also liked the description of Eleanor's quiet beauty.

hopeinbrazil said...

I like some Trollope books more than others. The Warden is one of my favorites because of the absolute integrity of Mr. Harding.

Have fun on your Victorian Challenge. Those are the kinds of books I love best. =)

Laura said...

I love Trollope's novels, and the Barchester series was the first series I read by him. I think Dr. Thorne was my favorite of the novels in that series, although I enjoyed The Small House at Allington, too. (My husband didn't like the ending of that one, though.)

Your review of Barchester Towers is excellent and makes me ready to reread the book!

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