Book review: “The Warden” by Anthony Trollope

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Book review: “The Warden” by Anthony Trollope

OK, “The Warden” by Anthony Trollope, published in 1855, is one of the classics of English literature.

Over the past century and a half, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of readers have enjoyed Trollope’s humorous, poignant and sharp-eyed account of the travails of Rev. Septimus Harding, a minor clergyman in the (fictional) cathedral town of Barchester.

Mr. Harding is the elderly warden of Hiram’s Hospital, a charity home established more than 400 years earlier for a dozen aged laborers no longer able to earn their daily bread.

At the opening of the novel, he has held the post of warden for more than a decade, being paid 800 pounds a year (or the equivalent of about $90,000 in today’s dollars) to oversee the operation of the home and the care of the men, a far from onerous task. Aside from having a roof over their heads and their daily meals, the men are given a small amount of spending money which, over the course of the year for the 12 men, totals something less than a tenth of what Mr. Harding receives.

The dichotomy in the payments to Mr. Harding and to the men is not something the warden created nor thought much about. It resulted from various decisions made over the previous centuries. But, now, there are some minor rumbles about the efficacy of the situation.

The mid-19th century was a time in Great Britain when reformers were targeting the Church of England — an arm of the government — for what were coming to be seen as abuses. This is a mild example of some of the practices being targeted, and, so, one reformer goes to court to seek a change.

The case gets the backing of the lofty Attorney General of the Cabinet, Sir Abraham Haphazard, and of the Jupiter newspaper, a stand-in for the Times of London. And Mr. Harding finds his name being dragged through the mud of public debate.

A very soft man

The Warden seems to be a very soft man, and so he is — for the most part.

He has no ambition to speak of. He is diffident to point of wimpiness, but in a very decorous way. His only distinguishing characteristic, aside from a profound gentleness, is his talent for chanting and for playing the violoncello. Indeed, he is most deeply himself, most deeply at peace, when he is playing his violoncello.

Nonetheless, when the public contretemps over his wardenship become too much for him to take, the Warden takes action, and brings the novel to its satisfying conclusion.

(I’d rather not give away the ending for anyone who will be reading the book for the first time.)

Some quotes

As I said above, “The Warden” is a classic novel. So I’m not going to analyze it here since that’s been done by many readers and scholars since its initial publication.

What I will do, however, is to spend some time looking at Trollope’s writing, specifically at his descriptions of Sir Abraham Haphazard and of Mr. Harding’s dealings with that towering personage.

Sir Abraham was a tall thin man, with hair prematurely gray, but bearing no other sign of age; he had a slight stoop, in his neck rather than his back, acquired by his constant habit of leaning forward as he addressed his various audiences. He might be fifty years old, and would have looked young for his age, had not constant work hardened his features, and given him the appearance of a machine with a mind. His face was full of intellect, but devoid of natural expression. You would say he was a man to use, and then have done with; a man to be sought for on great emergencies, but ill-adapted for ordinary services; a man whom you would ask to defend your property, but to whom you would be sorry to confide your love.

He was bright as a diamond, and as cutting, and also as unimpressionable. He knew everyone whom to know was an honor, but he was without a friend; he wanted none, however, and knew not the meaning of the word in other than its parliamentary sense. A friend! Had he not always been sufficient to himself, and now, at fifty, was it likely that he should trust another? He was married, indeed, and had children, but what time had he for the soft idleness of conjugal felicity? His working days or term times were occupied from his time of rising to the late hour at which he went to rest, and even his vacations were more full of labor than the busiest days of other men. He never quarreled with his wife, but he never talked to her — he never had time to talk, he was so taken up with speaking. She, poor lady, was not unhappy; she had all that money could give her, she would probably live to be a peeress, and she really thought Sir Abraham the best of husbands.

Anyone who has had any dealings with high-ranking politicians and bureaucrats knows the type. Haphazard is a man after victory. And he’s going to get it.

“To be right”

Trollope notes that Mr. Harding is “not so anxious to prove himself right, as to be right.” Yet, that is something that Haphazard can’t understand.

Of the intense desire which Mr. Harding felt to be assured on fit authority that he was wronging no man, that he was entitled in true equity to his income, that he might sleep at night without pangs of conscience, that he was no robber, no spoiler of the poor; that he and all the world might be openly convinced that he was not the man which The Jupiter had described him to be; of such longings on the part of Mr. Harding, Sir Abraham was entirely ignorant; nor, indeed, could it be looked on as part of his business to gratify such desires.

Such was not the system on which his battles were fought, and victories gained. Success was his object, and he was generally successful. He conquered his enemies by their weakness rather than by his own strength, and it had been found almost impossible to make up a case in which Sir Abraham, as an antagonist, would not find a flaw.

“The imaginary violoncello”

The Warden is like most of us. He has his quirks, and those who know and love him know and love those quirks. So it is for Trollope’s readers.

As the novel moves along, we are shown that, at times of high stress or emotion, Mr. Harding will unobtrusively move the fingers of both his hands as if he is playing the violoncello. Usually, he does this under a table, or behind his back, or in his pockets.

It’s a nervous tic that provides a glimpse into his soul.

As readers, we have come to know — and love — him for this very human, very illogical, way of handling difficult moments.

So, when the Warden is having a showdown meeting with Haphazard, we are touched when Trollope reports, “Mr. Harding, seated in his chair, began to play a slow tune on an imaginary violoncello.” And, a few minutes later in the meeting, we find him “slowly playing away with his right hand, as though the bow were beneath the chair in which he was sitting.”

He is weak. Haphazard is strong.

Steel deep inside

Moments later, as the Attorney General is browbeating him, he is “still playing away on his fiddle with his hand behind his back.”

Yet, finally, to Haphazard’s astonishment, Mr. Harding turns the tables on the lawyer-politician and triumphs by exerting his strength of conscience. He silences the great man as if he’d hit him. He asserts himself — and his moral authority.

And Trollope writes:

And, as he finished what he had to say, he played up such a tune as never before had graced the chambers of any attorney-general. He was standing up, gallantly fronting Sir Abraham, and his right arm passed with bold and rapid sweeps before him, as though he were embracing some huge instrument, which allowed him to stand thus erect; and with the fingers of his left hand he stopped, with preternatural velocity, a multitude of strings, which ranged from the top of his collar to the bottom of the lappet of his coat.

Sir Abraham listened and looked in wonder. As he had never before seen Mr. Harding, the meaning of these wild gesticulations was lost upon him; but he perceived that the gentleman who had a few minutes since been so subdued as to be unable to speak without hesitation, was now impassioned — nay, almost violent.

The reader, too, spills over with emotion — with laughter at Haphazard’s befuddlement and with tears of joy at Mr. Harding’s discovery of the steel deep inside his character.

At this moment, Mr. Harding is so very right.

Patrick T. Reardon
5.25.12

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