BY SEAN CLARK
Author: Anthony Trollope
Longmans of London, 1855.
Best ebook deal: Free in the public domain (many formats here)
The Way We Live Now has been one of my favorite books since I discovered it just after college. A goal of mine for this summer was to read more Trollope, so I decided to begin with The Warden, which is the first installment in his popular series, known informally as the Barsetshire series.
The Warden is typical of 19th century books. That shouldn’t be too surprising as Trollope was one of the most prolific and popular writers of the century. The book includes plenty of robust characters of varying sensibility and social status, political intrigue, philosophical waxing, and plenty of wit. While The Warden is lacking the complexity and satirical fangs of The Way We Live Now, it still features a morally complex subtext that powers the book nicely. Both greed and righteousness are covetous traits, and Trollope’s novel showcases the chaos such motivations can incur, even in the most peaceful of settings.
Septimus Harding is the goodly, meek warden of an alms house in Barchester (a fictional British cathedral city) who enjoys a quiet and unassuming life spent looking after 12 elderly beadsmen, playing the cello in his garden, caring for his daughter, and acting as Precentor at the adjoining cathedral. Originated in from the medieval estate of a man named Hiram, the fortune that provides the funds for the alms house also provides Harding with a quite comfortable £800 per year (roughly $60,000 in modern funds).
When John Bold, a young reformer who takes up cases for the poor, learns that the money might not be distributed correctly, he takes up suit to have the will reinterpreted. This causes substantial political turmoil quite quickly, as the clergy and gentry—never happy with a rocking boat, and affronted by the meddling Bold—quickly take counter action. It stirs up personal turmoil as well, as Bold is romantically attached to Harding’s daughter, Eleanor.
And while Harding’s conscience tells him Bold may be in the right, and that he doesn’t want any money not rightfully his, he gets swept up in the maelstrom when his other daughter’s husband, the arch-deacon of the diocese, expects him to defend his right to the allotment:
He was afraid that he was being led to do that which was not his duty. He was not, however, strong enough to resist, so he got up and followed his son in law.
Once the newspapers start flinging mud and people of Barchester begin to crank the rumor mill, the victimized Harding is relegated to perpetrator and forced, against his deepest wishes, to take some sort of action.
While not nearly as biting as in The Way We Live Now, the satire of The Warden is clever and far reaching. Characters whose names could never belie their roles (e.g. Dr. Pessimest Anticant, Sir Abraham Haphazard, and Mr. Popular Sentiment—said to be a cut at Dickens) all opine on the warden’s suit, each representing one or more of the various interested camps in such a scandal. Only in one instance did it get to be too much for me: the build up of Tom Towers, popular columnist for The Jupiter, the big time London newspaper representing The Times, is way overblown and heavy-handed. But aside from that Trollope keeps things in check and funny.
And it really is quite funny. People tend to assume, perhaps because they are older books, that Trollope’s work is stodgy and boring; indeed, whenever I bring up Trollope in conversation–I do–I tend to get dismissed as an English major. But his success came from laughing at Victorian lifestyle from within, and his characters walk a fine line between realism and cartoon. Trollope’s sort of wit and veiled-mockery has a pretty long shelf life, so readers unaccustomed to classic literature won’t be lost without context.
This, his fourth novel, is a pretty quick read compared to some of Trollope’s work (he often wrote serials and held himself to a famously rigorous writing schedule), and it presents the many themes the author later became know for, primarily by depicting good people yanked around by the greed of others and by fleshing out a stable of memorable, larger-than life-characters. It is a witty and clever book that doesn’t lack for intrigue. The Warden is also the first in Trollope’s most popular series of books, so if you’re looking to open the door to a summer of great classic reading, such as I was, this is an excellent place to start.
Also, check out this excellent fan site, especially remarkable in that it contemporarily honors a novelist who has been dead going on 130 years. The caricatures of various Trollopian characters are quite cool, they’ve put together a handy currency converter that will help you gauge different monetary sums brought up (which I used to calculate the number above), and there are plenty of interesting essays and fun facts to read. Did you know Trollope introduced the mailbox to Britain? Weird.