Sunday, February 16, 2014

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope


Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope is the second book in the Chronicles of Barsetshire series. I found this novel to be one of the most enjoyable that I have ever read. It is complex in all sorts of ways, masterfully written, has marvelous characters and, to top it all off, it is very funny.

The plot picks up approximately five years since the conclusion of The Warden. Once again, we get to look into the lives of the various inhabitants of the city of Barchester. These include the elderly and meek, yet wise and virtuous, clergyman Septimus Harding, his now widowed daughter, Eleanor Bold, and his overbearing son-in-law, Archdeacon Grantly.

When the beloved bishop of the diocese passes away, a new bishop, Dr. Proudie, is appointed. Proudie is an extremely weak man who is controlled by two schemers: his hypocritical and domineering wife, Mrs. Proudie, and his personal minister, the manipulative and self-serving Mr. Obadiah Slope. Both set their sites on taking power in the diocese at the expense of the longtime residents and eventually at the expense of each other. A war of social, political and ecclesiastical maneuvering soon breaks out between the newcomers and the long-term residents. Eventually, Mrs. Proudie and Mr. Slope also begin to vie against one another.

Complicating matters is the return of the Stanhope family to Barchester. Dr. Stanhope is a local clergyman who has been living in Italy. The Stanhope children are narcissistic, vulgar and manipulative. Among them are the seductive and calculating Signora Madeline Vesey Neroni and the flippant, irresponsible Ethelbert "Bertie" Stanhope. These characters proceed to cause all sorts of strife in Barchester.

I found it difficult to decide where to focus in this post, as this novel is so full of wonderful elements. There is so very much to comment upon here. The aspects that strike me the most are how well crafted and nuanced several of the characters are, and just how amusing, even downright funny, this book is.

Trollope seems to better understand and represent the complexities of life than do all but a small minority authors. He reflects reality in a way that is amazingly real and multifaceted. When characters act, it is usually for a variety of mixed motives, ranging from the noble to the nefarious. Misunderstandings are often infused with some truth. Situations and people are rarely simplistic.

The complexity of the personas that Trollope has created in this work is indeed impressive. The people he has fashioned here may be the most realistic fictional characters that I have ever encountered. As in real life, Barchester is populated with good people, really bad people, and people who are in between. However, unlike the creations of many authors, the good characters almost always show some flaws, and the bad characters occasionally show good traits. The folks who are in the middle are very complicated indeed.

In my opinion, Trollope’s in-between characters are the best. Archdeacon Grantly is a case in point. This man is overbearing, arrogant and often a bully. Yet, he seems to have a moral core that is real but imperfect. As his father, the Bishop of Barchester, is on his deathbed, Grantly is indeed distraught. However, the timing of his father’s death is an issue. Because of an impending change in government, if the Bishop dies soon, the Archdeacon will likely be appointed the next Bishop. However, if the old Bishop lives much longer, it is unlikely that the Archdeacon will ever become Bishop. Situations are rarely simple in this novel.  Muddling this issue is the fact that the dying Bishop is suffering, so that a reasonable response from a relative would be a desire for the end to come with some haste.

The Archdeacon’s response is similarly complicated,

Nothing could be easier than the old man's passage from this world to the next. But by no means easy were the emotions of him who sat there watching. He knew it must be now or never. He was already over fifty, and there was little chance that his friends who were now leaving office would soon return to it. No probable British prime minister but he who was now in, he who was so soon to be out, would think of making a bishop of Dr. Grandly. Thus he thought long and sadly, in deep silence, and then gazed at that still living face, and then at last dared to ask himself whether he really longed for his father's death. The effort was a salutary one, and the question was answered in a moment. The proud, wishful, worldly man sank on his knees by the bedside and, taking the bishop's hand within his own, prayed eagerly that sins might be forgiven him. 

This book is also very funny and sometimes even hilarious.  I found myself laughing out loud on several occasions. Once again, as in The Warden I get the sense that the author is taking the middle ground, even in his humor. Trollope skewers conservatism and stuffiness as well as liberality and lack of restraint with equal vigor. The wit ranges from the subtle to the bitingly sarcastic, and occasionally it veers towards the physical.

At one point, Trollope comments on peoples’ tendency, in times of distress, to find solace from fickle and untruthful folks in the innocence of babies,

This kind of consolation from the world's deceit is very common. Mothers obtain it from their children, and men from their dogs. Some men even do so from their walking-sticks, which is just as rational. How is it that we can take joy to ourselves in that we are not deceived by those who have not attained the art to deceive us? In a true man, if such can be found, or a true woman, much consolation may indeed be taken. 

Ironically, I sense that the above displays an understanding of such refuges that people find, even as such refuges are being mocked.

There is a lot more here. The work is full of additional fascinating characters that I have not even mentioned. It is brimming with themes and insights. It is chock full of wonderful mythological allusions. The writing style is extremely well crafted and innovative, a point that I will explore in a separate post.

This is a highly recommended read for anyone with the slightest inclination toward nineteenth century English novels. Unless a person were to be completely adverse to that art form, it is hard to imagine why anyone would not like this book. As someone who insists upon reading series in order, I would recommend the very worthwhile The Warden first. I cannot wait to move on to the later entries in this series.



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


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

My commentary on Trollop’s unusual Pont of View is here.



33 comments:

bookaroundthecorner said...

I really want to read more Trollope.
I loved Miss McKenzie

The only problem is that the books are huge and for most of them only available in English. (Don't ask me why he wasn't translated earlier)

Emma

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Emma - Many of his books are indeed very long. Plus, once one begins this series I think it may be difficult to stop.

Trollope is one writer who I am surprised is not translated.

Guy Savage said...

You are on a Trollope roll. I just finished Lady Anna which I liked but didn't love. Barchester Towers is one of the Greats, I think. It's a cauldron of manners and petty politics.

Miguel (St. Orberose) said...

The whole blogosphere's reading Trollope this year. Although I don't have plans to read him, I'm greatly enjoying your series of posts on him, Brian.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Miguel - He seems a popular lately. He is very accessible and is also recommendable to many tastes. Perhaps reading of him is moving like a wave.

Heidi’sbooks said...

Wow. This author was not even on my radar, but I must put it on my TBR list pronto. Thanks.

I found you method of choosing books to be excellent! I really like the loose structure you have rotating between the types of books you want to read. It seems like such a good idea to decide which genres/subjects you want to read about, then rotate between the topics. It gives a framework, but still allows for the whims of the reader. I've been thinking about that for my own reading. It would mean that I wouldn't get to the end of the year and then figure out I hadn't read much nonfiction/history!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - Cauldron is a good word. The manors of the age are also so elaborate and controlled. It seems that Trollope has some fun with them.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Heidi - I think that you would like Trollope. He is such a likable author, yet his books are filled with artistically created characters and interesting themes.

The entire framework things works for me. I violate it a lot, but when I go back and look at everything that I read i more or less stick to the spirit of it.

Suko said...

Brian, this sounds like an extremely insightful and funny book! Excellent review, and based on this alone I will look for a work by Anthony Trollope.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - Trollope has lots of books available and has a beloved following, I believe that he has several series available. If you are like me and insist on reading in order you may want to be sure that you get the first one.

BookBelle said...

Well, okay then. When I find my classic self back, this will be one I try (well before Bleak House, I think). Your enthusiasm jumps off the page here. I love reading your blog.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Belle - thanks so much. Both this and Bleak House were great works. I think that this was more enjoyable however.

JaneGS said...

I just finished Dr. Thorne, and was thinking back over The Warden and Barchester Towers, so reading your post was incredibly timely.

>Situations and people are rarely simplistic.

Ah, yes! I agree that Trollope creates very realistic characters who face real moral dilemmas and waver, regardless of where they fall on the good spectrum.

Excellent review of an excellent book.

Tom Cunliffe said...

Nice review Brian - Its a very good book isn't it. Trollope is a master of characterisation isn't he - they almost jump off the page. I'm very pleased you enjoyed it

Naida said...

It sounds like you are loving the Chronicles of Barsetshire series Brian. It does sound like Trollope wrote well crafted, realistic characters.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - thanks.

I must get to Dr. Thorne as well as many other Trollope titles.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tom - Yes, I cannot wait to get to the other books. As I mentioned, Trollope's characters may be the best that i have run into.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - this is indeed a great series of books and I believe that it is safe to say that Trollope is a indeed a great writer.

James said...

Nice review of a very good book. I enjoyed this more than The Warden so I did not mind the length.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - I too liked this one better then The Warden. Length usually does not bother me.

Tracy Terry said...

Loving the idea of what sounds like a colourful cast of characters, the narcissistic, vulgar and manipulative Stanhope children sound particularly interesting if hardly delightful.

Lucy Horner said...

I've not read this but it sounds like a must-read, particularly in regard to the complex characters.

"Trollope seems to better understand and represent the complexities of life than do all but a small minority authors"... so well-put!

As always, thank you for the post, Brian! Lucy over at Tolstoy Therapy.

Caroline said...

Such high praise. I'm glad you enjoyed this so much. I find it interesting that the in-between charcaters are so great. I really should read him, but like Emma, I'm not keen of the length of most of his books. The Warden is an exception.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - The Stanhopes would be a bit vulgar and over the top even by 21st century standards. Wonderful characters indeed!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lucy - Trollope had such a way with characters.

If you read this series I would love to know what you thought about it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - Though it is a little less compelling then this one, The Warden might get you hooked!

Delia (Postcards from Asia) said...

What a great and entertaining review, I really enjoyed reading it. This sounds like such a fun book to read, and I love the names of the characters - Proudie and Slope. I am adding this to my classics list. Hopefully I won't forget to read The Warden first.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Delia. The warden was more then worthy of reading it in and of itself. While it is not absolutely essential to read first, I think that doing so helps to enhance and add depth to this book.

Maria Behar said...

From all the wonderful comments you've made about this and the previous novel in the series, "The Warden", I can see that I have to get better acquainted with Mr. Trollope! I love novels with strong, interesting characterizations, and this writer definitely incorporates them into all of his novels.

Also, I don't know much about the workings of the Church of England (except that it was founded by King Henry VIII, the Bishop of Canterbury is the closest equivalent to the Pope, and they ordain woman to the priesthood), and I think these novels will familiarize me with them, to some extent. I'm always fascinated by the details of other religions, as well as other Christian denominations.

Thanks for your thoughts! : )

Maria Behar said...

P.S. I forgot to comment on the humor. That's a definite plus!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - Trollope is indeed a special writer. I have not heard of anyone who has read him who dislikes him.

Unfortunately I only really learned the bear minimum of about the Church of England from this one.

Rachel Bradford said...

Bah! As usual, I'm behind on your blog. :)

Thanks for the thoughtful and interesting review. As always, I will add this book to the end of my every-elongating to-read-queue.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Rachel - Life does get so very busy!

Of course the queues are also uncontrollable. I do think that you will like Trollope.