or the past two-and-a-half months, I have been re-reading my way through all six volumes of Trollope's Barchester series. I bought these books — Oxford University Press, in very small print ! — in 1963, more than forty years ago, from "John B. Wylie & Co., Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow," and, still tucked into volume one is a small business card, which says on the verso: "The only copy of 'The Small House at Allington' in stock is too shop-soiled to send you. A fresh copy will follow before even the fastest reader can get through the others!" That is the history of how I acquired this little set. Since then, I have read all six novels I don't know how many times and, each time, enjoy them more because, with every reading, some aspect becomes clearer, or I realise something which I had missed the previous time; or I gain more insight into the one or other of the characters; or, as happened this time, reading it all in a relatively short time, I got a better overview over the whole story, from volume one to volume six.
Barchester is a cathedral town in imaginary Barsetshire of mid-nineteenth century England. Each of the six novels — beginning with The Warden, and continuing with Barchester Towers, Dr. Thorne, Framley Parsonage, The Small House at Allington, ending with The Last Chronicle of Barset — takes us to a different part of the county. In each, we meet the local parsons and the parishioners, the wealthy and the poor, the titled and those without rank or fame, and in each reappear some of those whom we met before. In each, a heart-rending romance, a deserved or undeserved misfortune, a striking personality or downright politics, catches our interest and our sympathy, our contempt and even anger. And in the last novel, almost all of the important personages of the first five, are drawn together and allowed a final curtain call, and for almost all, in some way or other, the problems which so haunted them while their story was being told, are finally being solved, or, quite simply, their dreams come true. Yes, even Dr. Proudie, the henpecked bishop, finds unexpected relief.
Trollope has a wonderfully easy and elegant style; he can be serious, he can be witty and, at times, he speaks with tongue-in-cheek; but he can also be tender, with amazing insight into the human psyche, whether male or female, old or young. To an uninitiated reader, his lengthy descriptions may seem almost insurmountable but, on re-reading, it becomes clear that all those seemingly endless paragraphs are absolutely necessary in order to prepare the setting based on preceding history, to present the full picture of the person described and to understand what is going on in his or her mind in order to follow him, step by step, until a solution is reached.
In Barchester Towers, he has the Signora Neroni come to the conclusion, that "the manhood of Barchester consisted mainly of parsons," and this is obviously also Trollope's view, indeed, he makes them his favourite characters. As a result, he has to defend himself, in the concluding chapter of the series, against the criticism that, in writing about clergymen, he had ignored their professional duties and their high calling, as though these were matters of no moment. In answer to this he explains that his purpose had been to paint the social and not the professional lives of clergymen; and that, as a novelist, he felt entitled to write of them out of, not in, their pulpits.
His characterisation of individual parsons is superb; he paints them in such minute detail that we can almost see them before us and hear them speak. The most expanded upon and, therefore, also the most impressive character undoubtedly is that of the Rev. Josiah Crawley, perpetual curate of Hogglestock Parish, who takes centre stage in the last novel. It is said that Trollope based this character, in part, on his own father. Crawley is a first-class Greek and Latin scholar; a close college friend of Dean Arabin whom he far surpasses in scholarship but, unlike Francis Arabin, he is as poor as the proverbial church mouse; too proud to accept alms, and almost taking pleasure in his poverty; but — never losing his dignity even in the greatest adversity.
Of no less importance is Archdeacon Theophilus Grantly, son of the late Bishop Grantly, and rector of Plumstead Episcopi, financially well off and a man of the world. The new Bishop, Dr. Proudie, is, by comparison, a minor figure, important only through his wife who is the real power behind the ecclesiastical throne. With the Proudies arrives Mr. Obadiah Slope, the Bishop's evangelical chaplain and creator of widespread mischief. With his inaugural sermon in the cathedral, in which he expresses his "abomination of all ceremonious modes of utterance" in the services of the Church, particularly that of chanting the Liturgy, he creates a storm within the Cathedral Close and divides the diocese into high-church and low-church camps.
Dean Trefoil is but a brief apparition. After Mr. Slope's incendiary sermon, the old man "betook himself silently to his deanery, afraid to speak; and there sat, half stupefied, pondering many things in vain." Not long after this, he suffers an attack of apoplexy and, having lingered in a coma for several days, he dies. Dr. Francis Arabin, a college friend of Archdeacon Grantly, is his successor.
Dr. Vesey Stanhope, absentee Prebendary of Barchester Cathedral, who had been living in Italy for the past twelve years in order to cure a sore throat and collect butterflies, is summonsed home by the new bishop, or rather by Mr. Slope, and we now meet him and his family. Trollope says of him : "As Dr. Stanhope was a clergyman, it may be supposed that his religious convictions made up a considerable part of his character; but this was not so."
In Greshamsbury, which we visit in the third novel, lives the Rev. Caleb Oriel, a man of very High Church principles; single, very rich; a thorough gentleman, good-humoured, inoffensive and sociable, with but one fault — he was not a marrying man. So he believed.
North of Barchester, we find the young, energetic but naïve Rev. Mark Robarts as Rector of Framley Parsonage. A friend of Lady Lufton and her son, Ludovic of Framley Court, he becomes embroiled in self-inflicted misfortune, when he, against his better judgement follows the invitation of the Duke of Omnium to Gatherum Castle, which almost results in his total ruin. And, at Puddingdale, there is the Rev. Quiverful who, in all humility but material relief, accepts the Wardenship of Hiram's Hospital.
Among all these, lives quietly and unassuming, but outstanding in kindness and deep understanding of life and human nature, the Rev. Septimus Harding, up to now Warden of Hiram's Hospital for Bedesmen in Barchester; father of Susan, Archdeacon Grantly's wife, and Eleanor who, after early widowhood, marries Dean Arabin.
Innumerable lay personages crowd the pages of the Barchester stories, and we meet a number of them, particularly "the quality," in Barchester Towers at the Fête Champêtre given by the Thornes of Ullathorne. The owners of Ullathorne, a large estate just to the south-east of Barchester, are Squire Wilfred Thorne, a bachelor still at fifty and "possessed of quite a sufficient number of foibles to lay him open to much ridicule," and his older sister who also lived on the estate. As Trollope says, she "participated in his prejudices and feelings so strongly, that she was a living caricature of all his foibles." Nonetheless, she was well educated and could converse on Addison, Swift and Steele, and recite poetry by Dryden and Spenser.
In the third novel, Dr. Thorne, we learn that, since the Reform Bill, Barsetshire is politically divided into two parliamentary constituencies — an eastern part, which is "more purely Conservative than the western" which, in turn is under the influence of two "such great Whig magnates as the Duke of Omnium and the Earl de Courcy". In East Barset live the Greshams of Greshamsbury, and Squire Frank Gresham is the Conservative Member of Parliament there. Unfortunately, he commits political suicide by marrying Lady Arabella, the daughter of Earl de Courcy. We never meet the Earl himself but we have much, not always pleasant opportunity to study his wife, his daughters and his two sons, the Hon. George and the Hon. John, throughout the novels.
Then there is Dr. Thorne himself, guarding the secret of his niece Mary and, eventually, taking a most unexpected plunge into matrimony, giving up his practice and moving to the estate of Chaldicotes in West Barset. Very much part of Dr. Thorne's life, is Sir Roger Scatcherd of Boxall Hill. The Baronet started out "whilom as a drunken stone-mason in Barchester" but, through hard and highly satisfactory work for the government, had earned himself a knighthood and acquired the estate of Boxall Hill, formerly part of Greshamsbury. Sir Roger was also very fond of "a drop of som'at hot" which, eventually, proved his undoing.
Another, elderly, brother-sister couple live at Guestwick, namely the Earl De Guest and his sister, Lady Julia. Guestwick is "in another county," yet its people are very much part of Barchester history. This is the story of The Small House at Allington, the heartbreaking tale of Lily Dale's betrayal by Adolphus Crosbie, and of Johnny Eames' unrequieted love. The Earl is saved from an attack by an infuriated bull through none other than Johnny himself and, as a result, the two become good friends. In The Small House at Allington and in The Last Chronicle of Barset, we watch him as he grows from 'hobbledehoy' to a young hero, advancing to private secretary to Sir Raffle Buffle of the Income Tax Office. But even Johnny Eames is not without a few questionable adventures. Lili Dale is the only one in Barset, for whom there is no "happy ending". In fact, when Crosbie breaks the engagement — and her heart — she writes in her diary: "Lili Dale, O.M.," that is "Old Maid," and an old maid she remained. I can't help wondering, though, whether she was influenced by the story of her uncle, Squire Christopher Dale, who lives in the Great House at Allington, of whom was said that, in his youth, "he had fallen in love with a lady who obstinately refused his hand, and, on her account, he had remained single".
Trollope by no means ignores the importance of women in his novels; on the contrary, they are painted with just as much care and devotion as are the men. Apart from Lily Dale, already mentioned was Mrs. Proudie, the Bishop's wife, and there are so many, well-described instances of her outrageous interference in the business of the Barchester See, that the reader is sorely tempted to echo the Rev. Crawley and say to her: "Peace, woman!"
Mrs. Grantly, the archdeacon's wife, is the personification of common sense and diplomacy in dealing with a husband. Then there is Lady Lufton at Framley Court; so unlike her aristocratic sisters in West Barset, she is realistic, gentle, understanding and always ready to help. Another, down-to-earth and straight-forward human being, but in a different sense, is Lady Scatcherd of Boxall Hill, who never quite got accustomed to her husband's elevation — she remains true to her own self, simple and unassuming.
A brief but powerful appearance is that of the Signora Madelina Vesey Neroni, in whom, merely looking at the name, no reader would suspect Madeline Stanhope, Dr. Stanhope's daughter. Hers is an extraordinary story which, most certainly, has greatly influenced her equally extraordinary behaviour. She leaves a strong impression and, admittedly, a not altogether negative one.
Martha Dunstable is the heiress of her father's almost unlimited "Oil of Lebanon" ointment riches; she is a strong personality, not given to unnecessary ceremonial, but is cheerful, wise and down-to-earth — a breath of fresh air. And dear little Lady Julia de Guest who, after the Earl's death, still keeps her door open for Johnny Eames and, in a motherly way, lends her ear and her advice. And there are Mrs. Crawley and her daughter Grace in Hogglestock, sorely tried by abject poverty; the Misses Prettyman in Silverbridge and their schemes; Eleanor Harding, now Mrs. Arabin, in Barchester, and dear Mrs. Dale in Allington.
Trollope's Names for Places and People
Delightful are Trollope's choices of names for minor, but yet important characters, as well as for places, towns and castles in Barsetshire. The Reverend Quiverful is the father of fourteen children; Dr. Fillgrave is the top Barchester physician and Mr. Rerechild his competition, both on occasion supplanted by Sir Omicron Pie of London. Sir Raffle Buffle is Chairman of the Income Tax office in London. When parliamentary elections are held in Barsetshire, Mr. Nearthewinde is the "indefatigable agent" for the aspiring member for Barset East. And then, there is the Scotsman, Dr. Pessimist Anticant, who produces monthly pamphlets on the Decay of the World. And Mr. Harding consults Sir Abraham Haphazard in London, famed lawyer, a man of wit who "sparkled among the brightest at the dinner-tables of political grandees".
And at Ullathorne rules old Mr. Plomacy, the steward who, at the time of the French Revolution, had gone to France with letters for the royal family hidden in his bootlaces; and had returned safely.
As for place names: I already mentioned that the Duke of Omnium lives at Gatherum Castle; while Archdeacon Grantly is at Plumstead Episcopi. And Trollope's Barchester map shows such quaint place names as the villages of Stogpingum, Eiderdown and Crabtree Canonicorum.
The series begins with the Rev. Septimus Harding, Warden of Hiram's Hospital in Barchester, and the series — almost — ends with the Rev. Septimus Harding. With great tenderness and insight, Trollope describes the dying man's friendship with his little granddaughter, Posy, and the child's instinctive acceptance of her Grandpa's final farewell. And so the old man goes to sleep, his death as quiet and unobtrusive as his life had been. After the funeral, the archdeacon says:
I seem to have known him all my life. I have known him ever since I left college; and I have known him as one man seldom knows another. There is nothing he has done, — as I believe, nothing that he has thought, — with which I have not been cognizant. I feel sure that he never had an impure fancy in his mind, or a faulty wish in his heart. His tenderness has surpassed the tenderness of woman; and yet, when occasion came for showing it, he had all the spirit of a hero. I shall never forget his resignation of the hospital . . . The fact is, he never was wrong. He couldn't go wrong. He lacked guile, and he feared God, — and a man who does both will never go far astray. I don't think he ever coveted aught in his life, — except a new case for his violincello and somebody to listen to him when he played it.
As I read the final pages, there were tears in my eyes.
Last modified 19 March 2006