Memory is a funny thing. For years I have been haunted by a sensual impression of a place. I remember being in England and walking along a row of houses. It’s a very peaceful, mild, warm autumn afternoon. The houses are part of a larger compound, overshadowed by a huge cathedral. I remember walking away from the cathedral close and coming to a small river that was flowing through the grassy meadow, on the same level as the soil. There were weeping willows and sheep. Walking around that place was like visiting a time long gone. These haunting images returned periodically. The light outside of my windows sometimes triggered the memory. It was always nice to go back in my mind, the only trouble was – I couldn’t remember where this had been. I’ve been in England many times, stayed there for a couple of months or weeks. I’ve visited many places and many cathedrals, but as much as I thought about it – I had no clue where I’d been on that warm autumn afternoon. Not until reading The Warden. The moment I opened the book and read the description of Barchester I knew – this is where I had been. But how could that be? Barchester doesn’t exist. Although I like to keep the introduction of a book until I’ve finished it, I had to read it to find out more. In the introduction I learned that Trollope based Barchester on Salisbury and Winchester. I immediately went online and looked up photos of Salisbury cathedral, the cathedral close and the meadows around and, yes, indeed, that’s where I’ve been some years ago. I found it pretty uncanny that Trollope was so capable at describing a place. I still don’t know why I forgot that the images were images of Salisbury. I’ve never forgotten a place like that. Maybe because it was so dreamlike?
I’ve meant to read Trollope for a while. Actually ever since I’ve read Guy’s (His Futile Preoccupations) and Brian’s (Babbling Books) reviews of his novels. Most of Trollope’s books are chunky but The Warden, the first in the Chronicles of Barsetshire, is a mere 180 pages.
According to the introduction, Henry James called The Warden “the history of an old man’s conscience”. That’s true, however, it’s only one of at least three major themes Trollope exlpores and which all contribute to make The Warden a highly worthwhile and interesting book and one of those you’d love to discuss with other people.
Septimus Harding is precentor and warden of an almshouse. With these positions come 800£ per year. In order to obtain this money Mr Harding doesn’t have to work a lot. As a precentor he’s in charge of the choir in the cathedral and as warden he’s the moral support of the twelve destitute men who are allowed to spend their last years in the almshouse. Since the almshouse was founded in the 15th century, the warden has received more money every year because of the revenue of the land. The twelve men’s allowance however would have been still the same as in the 15th Century if Mr Harding hadn’t given them some of his own money.
At the time when this story takes place, numerous reformers are hunting down greedy clergymen, showing how they abuse of their power and enrich themselves at the expense of others. Dr Bold is just such a reformer. When he meets the warden and his daughter, with whom he falls in love, he learns about the founder’s will and instigates an investigation which leads him to the conclusion that Mr Harding receives money that is due to the almsmen. His inquiry quickly gets out of hand when the biggest newspaper publicly accuses the warden of greed and malpractice.
Mr Harding is an excessively private man. He’s weak but kind and good-hearted. Being dragged into the spotlight like this, accused and shamed, is more than he can bear. He never thought that he might be doing something wrong but once he starts to think about it, he’s not so sure that he wasn’t enriching himself at the expense of the twelve poor men. While he doesn’t want to fight the accusation, his son-in-law, archdeacon Dr Grantly and the bishop of Barchester, fight for him and soon both parties involve lawyers. The warden has another strong supporter in his daughter who begs Dr Bold to abandon the cause.
The three themes which are explored each center on another figure. Mr Harding has to examine his conscience. Will he stay warden if it has been proven that he’s legally entitled to his money or will his own conscience tell him to let go?
Mr Bold shows how good intentions at the wrong moment and without thinking about consequences can be fatal. Maybe Mr Harding gets too much money, but why make this a matter of public interest and involve the newspaper? Why does he disregard the peace and quiet that reigns at the almshouse? Neither Mr Harding nor the twelve men are wanting anything. They live together amicably but once Dr Bold tells the twelve men that they should get more money, peace is lost forever.
For contemporary readers it might be interesting to read about the role of the press and the journalist Tom Towers. Trollope was inspired by true stories and what he lets us experience is the beginning of the value of public opinion and the power of the press.
Trollope chose to show us the end of an era. The tone of the book is elegiac throughout. In the introduction Robin Gilmour makes an interesting point. The warden’s garden is a strong symbol of this dying of an era. At the beginning of the novel it’s lush, green and lovely. At the end:
The warden’s garden is a wretched wilderness, the drive and paths are covered with weeds, the flowerbeds are bare, and the unshorn lawn is now a mass of long damp grass and unwholesome moss.
I had a very strong reaction when I read how content Mr Harding was in the beginning and how quickly a lifetime of ease was destroyed. At the same time I had to agree with Bold. Not in this matter, but in general. Why would a clergyman be given so many riches, a huge house with gardens, and a large income without doing any work? Still, I was sad for Mr Harding who was threatened to lose everything he held dear, even though he might not have been entitled to have it.
What annoyed me about Mr Bold’s doing was that the man he attacked was a kind and generous man and – compared to other clergymen – a tiny fish.
Before ending this rather lengthy review, I’d like to say a few things about Trollope’s writing. I enjoyed the descriptions and I had to laugh out loud a few times when he characterized people, notably the archdeacon, using caricature and satire. I found many of his authorial intrusions interesting but there were too many for my taste. I had problems with the parodies of Carlyle and Dickens because they felt glued on and were not a part of the story. I didn’t mind that Trollope spoke to the reader directly but some of the more hidden intrusions were annoying.
I’m glad I read The Warden. It made me remember my stay at Salisbury and I loved the descriptions. I liked his choice of themes and think they are just as important today as they were then. I also think he’s a wonderful satirist. Will I read the next in the series? In all honesty – I’m not so sure. I can’t pretend I fully warmed to Trollope and although I’ve started a small Victorian literature reading project, I think I’ll move on to Elizabeth Gaskell and the Brontës.
If you’d like to read more reviews on Trollope visit Guy’s (His Futile Preoccupations), Brian’s (Babbling Books) and Tony’s (Tony’s Reading List) blogs. Brian’s reading and reviewing The Barsetshire Chronicles (here’s his review of The Warden). Tony has reviewed both the Barchester and the Palliser novels – and some more and Guy has written about many of the other novels.