Sunday, May 24, 2015

Anthony Trollope’s The Last Chronicle of Barset

Anthony Trollope’s The Last Chronicle of Barset is the sixth and final book in the The Chronicles of Barsetshire series. Within the novel’s 928 pages, Trollope fits both an independent story and a comprehensive wrap up of what has gone on before in the fictional county of Barsetshire. Many threads that were opened in the series, as well as the fate of multiple characters, are resolved here.

What is more or less the main plotline involves Reverend Josiah Crawley, whom we met in some of the earlier books. A strict and at times harsh man, Crawley is extremely complex. When he is accused of stealing a small amount of money, he is threatened with jail and with the loss of his dignity and of his religious procurements. Making matters worse is that Crawley is often in a state of mental fog, causing everyone, including himself and the reader, to wonder if the clergyman actually did appropriate the money in a moment of incoherence. His predicament quickly becomes entwined with the ongoing ecclesiastical conflict that was begun in Barchester Towers. This conflict, between the diocese’s Bishop Proudie and his allies and Archdeacon Grantly and his allies, is still going on years after it began in the earlier novel. This struggle is acrimonious, but it is also at times portrayed with a lot of humor.

A major subplot involves Major Grantly, the Archdeacon’s son, who is wooing of Grace Crawley, the Reverend’s daughter. This potential union is opposed by Archdeacon Grantly.

Another important subplot concerns the now very self-confident and successful Johnny Eames, who is still pining for Lily Bart. Lily, for her part, still seems to be in love with Adolphus Crosbie, who jilted her years earlier. This aborted engagement was a major component of the plot of The Small House at Allington.

As I alluded to above, there are numerous additional subplots and characters contained in this voluminous novel.

This book is so long and involves so many characters and situations that it is difficult to write about it in a concise way. As is typical of Trollope, it is filled with complex and dynamic characters and interesting plot developments, as well as creative and lively writing.

Other than the aesthetic and emotional payoff of reading about the marvelous characters previously introduced in the series one last time, this book really shines with Trollope’s superb depiction of Crawley. Introduced earlier in the series, the clergyman here is depicted as an extremely multifaceted and enormously flawed character that, nevertheless, is not lacking in virtues.

On the outside, Crawley is a strict and puritanical religious figure. Rhetorically intimidating, he endures great hardship for his beliefs. Unfortunately, he also allows his wife and children to suffer as a result of his refusal to accept charity from others. He also takes some questionable stances based upon his unbending, and at times illogical, principle. Though a strict and sincere Christian, on the inside the Reverend is self-pitying, prideful and resentful of the success of others.

Yet, Crawley is no monster. He has a conscience despite his stubbornness, and he sometimes compromises his principles to alleviate the suffering of his wife and children. He is shown to minister and provide assistance to the worst elements of society that no one else will have anything to do with. He firmly stands up to some pernicious people who seem to get away with bullying and intimidating everyone else. Despite some ill advised and irrational stands on principle, he is an ethical man who often refuses to waver from a moral path.

Crawly is shown alternately to be mean, kind, stubborn and hypocritical as well as noble.  Trollope’s portrait of him ranges from tragic to the downright hilarious. Ultimately, he is a brilliant literary creation.

One of many outstanding passages involving the Reverend occurs at a point when Crawley is preparing for a confrontation with Bishop Proudy and the Bishop’s wife, Mrs. Proudy. Mrs. Proudy is malicious, hypercritical and overbearing. She schemes throughout the diocese to achieve her own agenda, which is often harmful to others. She has successfully intimidated her husband, as well as many others, into accommodating her agenda.  As Crawley is walking to meet the pair for a match of wills, he begins to ruminate as follows,

And yet he would take the bishop in his grasp and crush him,—crush him,—crush him! As he thought of this he walked quickly through the mud, and put out his long arm and his great hand, far before him out into the air, and, there and then, he crushed the bishop in his imagination. Yes, indeed! He thought it very doubtful whether the bishop would ever send for him a second time.


Then he stalked on, clutching and crushing in his hand the bishop, and the bishop's wife, and the whole diocese,—and all the Church of England.

The ensuring confrontation indeed sees Crawley verbally “crushing” the pair, in a hilarious manor.

There is so much more to this novel. Since it involves so many subplots and characters, as a stand-alone work, it can seem a little unfocused. Furthermore, it picks up so many threads from previous books. As such, I would recommend that this one be read only after completing all of the other series’ entries. When read at the end, it offers an enormously entertaining and satisfying wrap for the magnificent Chronicles of Barsetshire.

My commentary on the first book in the Chronicles of Barsetshire series, The Warden is here.

My commentary on the second book in the Chronicles of Barsetshire series, Barchester Towers is here.

My commentary on the third book in the Chronicles of Barsetshire series, Doctor Thorne is here.

My commentary on the Fourth book in the Chronicles of Barsetshire series, Framley Parsonage is  here  and as it relates to gender roles here.

My commentary on the Fifth book in the Chronicles of Barsetshire series The Small House at Allington is here.

My commentary on Trollope’s unusual Point of View is here.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring by Alexander Rose

Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring by Alexander Rose concerns itself with American espionage activities during the American Revolution. This is a great history book that expands from its base subject to shed light on various related aspects of the Revolution. This work is the basis for the very good television series TURN.

While Rose’s book touches upon much of the spy work that both sides engaged in during the war, its primary focus is a on a group that was known as The Culper Ring. This was a spy ring that was organized in Southern New York by American Officer Benjamin Tallmadge. During most of the war, New York City was the primary hub for British military operations. Rebel spies in the city passed information across Long Island through key ring member Abraham Woodhull. The information was then dispatched across the Long Island Sound to rebel-controlled Connecticut and eventually to George Washington himself. The activities and interactions of the members of the ring are related in fascinating detail.

A great deal of this book is local history for me. A large percentage of the activity that is described in this work takes place on Long Island, NY, which is also my home. Much of the political, social and religious culture of Long Island at the time is surveyed. In addition, a locally famous raid that was led by Tallmadge is detailed in the book. 

In 1780, spurred by intelligence supplied by the ring, Tallmadge led a small force from Connecticut to Long Island across the Long Island Sound. He landed near a beach that I often frequent. His mounted troops rode across Long Island to attack a fort and a supply depot. The resulting destruction of British provisions and supplies was a detriment to British forces operating in New Your City. His route is marked locally and known as The Tallmadge Trail. I live on this trail.  His small force proceeded down a road on which my house is now situated.

One aspect that makes this a history book of distinction is that it expands beyond its primary subject to provide intriguing and important insights into multiple aspects of the American Revolution and early America. Diverse subjects such as the brutal nature of some areas and subcultures of New York City, the religious aspects and conflicts relating to both Rebels as well as Loyalists, etc. are explored. As someone who is interested the American Revolutionary War period, I found this book to be a feast of interesting concepts.

As I am often known to do, I will focus a little upon just one of many points of this work. Rose argues that intelligence work in which both sides engaged was different from, and in many ways unique to, the American Revolution, as opposed to anything going on in Europe.

Rose explains how such spy craft was not as important on the battlefields of the Old World. On European conflicts he writes.

“collecting intelligence about the enemy’s movements was not of prime concern since there were only certain, defined routes along which an army could travel, and topographers could thus accurately predict how long a formation would take to reach its destination”

and later,

“In Europe, the mark of a great captain was not his talent for deception or for divining intentions, but his ability to outmaneuver opponents on known ground and defeating them in the field as they marched and wheeled in lines and columns.”

 Rose goes on to describe how the conflict in America was different,

 In America’s vast geographical spaces, however, armies (and guerrillas) could hide, live off the land, travel cross-country, appear out of nowhere, strike, and vanish. Possessing advance or intimate knowledge of what the enemy was doing, or was planning to do— the raison d’ĂȘtre of  espionage— became of vital importance. 

As the business of intelligence was distinctive in America, Rose goes on to describe all sorts of innovations employed by the Culper Ring and other rebel spies, as well as by their British opponents, including invisible ink, complex and innovative codes, economic sabotage through the use of counterfeiting, etc. This is but one of the many interesting and enlightening areas explored in this work.

 This is a suburb book. It is well written and researched. It tells an interesting story. It expands into a host of relevant and diverse subjects. I highly recommend this for anyone interested in the American Revolutionary War era, the history of New York City and Long Island, or spy craft in general.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Visiting Postcards From Asia

When Delia from Postcards from Asia asked me to participate in her "Guest" series where bloggers answer questions that are posted on her blog I was honored.

So today you can find me over at Delia’s site where one can find my answers to some bookish questions as well as some insights about me personally.

The post is here.

 While reading the post I urge everyone to explore Delia’s blog. It is full of insightful reviews on all sorts of interesting books. Delia’s writing is both lively and insightful.

Thanks Delia for having me as your guest.