The Warden

The Warden is the first of Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire novels, which I started reading many years ago during one of my Great Literature kicks. Every so often I figure that there’s more to life than genre fiction, and go looking for something more classic. At that time I was a participant in the rec.arts.books newsgroup on Usenet (remember that?) and lots of people were talking about Trollope, so I gave it a go. I got through the first two books in the series, had trouble locating the third in print, and there was no Amazon to help (remember that?), so I gave it up. Recently, though, I found an edition of Trollope’s complete works, nicely formatted for the Kindle, for not much, and grabbed it.

The story takes place in the mid-19th century, in the cathedral town of Barchester, which is loosely based on Salisbury, and concerns the politics of the day and of the Cathedral Close. Our hero, Mr. Harding, is an Anglican priest, the precentor (that is, cantor) of the cathedral, and warden of “the Hospital,” a home for twelve superannuated workers. The home was established in the will of a local man some centuries past, with a bequest for its support; the will established a certain fixed stipend to go to the twelve residents, with the remainder of the income going to the warden. In the early days, the stipend was generous and the warden’s share minuscule. With the passage of time, and even with small increases in the stipend, the warden’s share amounted to eight-hundred pounds a year, quite enough for Mr. Harding to live in comfort and keep horses and a carriage for his daughter’s use.

This was not an unusual pattern in that era, with some similar “livings” being much more lucrative than Mr. Harding’s, and the more whiggish papers of the day had begun to notice them and call them a horrid injustice. One such man, Mr. Bold, a well-to-do resident of Barchester, has begun to ask questions about the Hospital, and about whether Mr. Harding’s income hadn’t better be given to the twelve residents, and has launched a lawsuit in that regard. In the view of Mr. Harding’s son-in-law, Archdeacon Grantley, this is a direct attack on the perquisites of the Church, and is to be countered with all vigor. And then, Mr. Bold is in love with Mr. Harding’s daughter Eleanor, and she him. And our peaceful, publicity-hating warden is in the middle and not at all sure what is best to do.

The Warden is a slow, peaceful book, with considerable gentle humor of the kind that’s hard to excerpt. There are no villains, precisely, just men doing what they think best; no one we cordially hate; but there are many men with all the foibles that come along with that. Trollope liked people, clearly, but he also saw them clearly and was amused by them. Here’s his description of a party:

The party went off as such parties do. There were fat old ladies, in fine silk dresses, and slim young ladies, in gauzy muslin frocks; old gentlemen stood up with their backs to the empty fire-place, looking by no means so comfortable as they would have done in their own arm-chairs at home; and young gentlemen, rather stiff about the neck, clustered near the door, not as yet sufficiently in courage to attack the muslin frocks, who awaited the battle, drawn up in a semicircular array.

He goes on to describe, how the engagement takes shape, in a passage I’d love to quote except that it goes on far too long. Later, Eleanor Harding has a heart-to-heart talk with her friend Mary Bold, her beloved’s sister. Trollope informs us,

What had passed between Eleanor Harding and Mary Bold need not be told. It is indeed a matter of thankfulness that neither the historian nor the novelist hears all that is said by their heroes or heroines, or how would three volumes or twenty suffice! In the present case so little of this sort have I overheard, that I live in hopes of finishing my work within 300 pages, and of completing that pleasant task—a novel in one volume….

In short, Trollope is quiet fun for a peaceful evening or a lingering afternoon, or whenever you’re in a mood to slow down and take it as it comes.

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