Seeing as I my first Penguin A Week post was Trollope’s The Warden, I thought it would be nice to review its sequel, Barchester Towers, at roughly the halfway mark.
As delightful as The Warden was, I found Barchester Towers to be even more so, if only for the reason that it is a longer book, and therefore there is more to delight in. By the standards of most Victorian novels (at least the ones that are still popularly read), The Warden is a novella. Barchester Towers has more of the length and plot development that we would expect when looking at it in context of its contemporaries, such as works by Dickens or Thackery — or even Dumas, Hugo, Tolstoy, etc.
Perversely, I suspect that one of the reasons that Trollope often comes in last when spoken of alongside the authors I just mentioned, is because his work is so much more accessible to the general public, and therefore less appealing to academicians. He is much more relaxed and less abstracted than Dickens and Thackeray. He has a point of view, but he does not seem to care whether the reader shares that or not. He draws attention to himself in the narrative without ostentation, just as someone who is relating a story, informally, after a meal, and who breaks away to explain a point that might hinder understanding or enjoyment later on. Whatever the aims of Victorian Literature may have been, Trollope’s express interest is simply in having you, the reader, enjoy the story, and if it is not enjoyed, then Trollope is obviously happy for you to find amusement elsewhere, and will carry on with his tales with those who are still present for it. (One of my favourite asides occurs in Chapter 6, where Trollope himself, without even using a mouthpiece character, launches into an invective against the modern church sermon
This is a very refreshing aspect for anyone who has read and enjoyed a lot of Victorian fiction. And as with The Warden, the cast of characters is rich and well-developed. Trollope comes close to creating villains in this work in the form of the pious Proudies and the oleaginous Mr Slope. There are also the Stanhopes adding a great deal of conflict into the quiet Barsetshire community with their total indifference towards the problems that they create. Trollope very wittily describes them thus:
The Stanhopes would visit you in your sickness (provided it was not contagious), would bring you oranges, French novels, and the last new bit of scandal, and then hear of your death or recovery with an equally indifferent composure.
The Grantlys and the Hardings in this book, as in the last, stand at the centre, fighting the good fight against modernism, progressivism, and reform. And so it makes the reading of it rather bittersweet, for the England they fought for is now long gone. But the feeling and intelligence of that age is luckily preserved for us in this and the rest of the Barset novels.