Book review: “Barchester Towers” by Anthony Trollope

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Book review: “Barchester Towers” by Anthony Trollope

 

Barchester Towers, like the other five novels in Anthony Trollope’s Chronicles of Barset, is characterized by psychological nuance and an affection for humanity in all its waywardness.

There are novels written by authors who don’t like their characters — not a one of them.  Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom comes to mind.  Most writers like at least some of the people who populate their stories.

Trollope likes all of his characters, even the bossy bully Mrs. Proudie who takes up a lot of pages of Barchester Towers, and Mr. Slope, the oily, conniving liar who takes up even more.

When I say “likes,” I mean “understands.”  Trollope understands the weak bishop’s wife and the weak bishop’s chaplain as fully rounded, many-layered human beings.  They do a lot of bad and mean things, but none of Trollope’s characters is all bad.

 

Curious and lovable

It’s a measure of the author’s affection for the human race that he can tell of the depredations of these two with more of a touch of humane forbearance, as if to say, “Aren’t people just so curious? And, at the same time, lovable?”

Mean-spirited or gentle-minded, Trollope’s people can’t help but get themselves into trouble, can’t help but look silly, by jumping to conclusions or refusing to recognize their limitations or huffing and puffing for one reason or another.

Consider all the hubbub that results because the widow Eleanor Bold, out of Christian charity, tries to think the best of Mr. Slope while all of her family and friends are certain (correctly) that he’s up to the worst.

Mrs. Bold accepts visits from Mr. Slope, out of large-heartedness, but also more than a bit out of stubbornness in the face of all that familial opposition — with the result that the family members all decide that she will soon wed the smarmy clergyman.

Despite the family’s absolute certainty, nothing is further from the truth.  Trollope writes:

It was nauseous to her to have a man like Mr. Slope commenting on her personal attractions, and she did not think it necessary to dilate with her father upon what was nauseous.  She never supposed they could disagree on such a subject.  It would have been painful for her to point it out, painful for her to speak strongly against a man of whom, on the whole, she was anxious to think and speak well.

 In encountering such a man she had encountered what was disagreeable, as she might do in walking the streets.  But in such encounters she never thought it necessary to dwell on what disgusted her.

 

One word

Her father, the gentle, mild, meek Mr. Harding, has a chance at this moment in the novel — actually, one of many opportunities — to clear up all the misunderstanding.  If everyone is certain that Mrs. Bold is thinking to marry Mr. Slope, why not ask her?  Trollope writes:

And he, foolish weak loving man, would not say one word, though one word would have cleared up everything.  There would have been a deluge of tears, and in ten minutes every one in the house would have understood how matters really were.  The father would have been delighted.  The sister would have kissed her sister and begged a thousand pardons.  The archdeacon would have apologized and wondered, and raised his eyebrows, and gone to bed a happy man. 

 And Mr. Arabin — Mr. Arabin would have dreamt of Eleanor, have awoke in the morning with ideas of love, and retired to rest the next evening with schemes of marriage.  But, alas! all this was not to be.

 

“Never starve”

Don’t worry.  Happy endings will eventually abound, as Trollope, early on, advises his reader.

And, even though, Mr. Slope gets his comeuppance, he is not shattered.  Trollope is subtle and seasoned enough to know that people like Mr. Slope don’t get shattered by a loss in one arena.  They just move to another one.  He writes:

It is well known that the family of the Slopes never starve; they always fall on their feet like cats, and let them fall where they will, they live on the fat of the land.  Mr. Slope did so.  On his return to town he found that the sugar-refiner had died, and that his widow as inconsolable; or, in other words, in want of consolation.  Mr. Slope consoled her, and soon found himself settled with such comfort in the house in Baker Street.  He possessed himself, also, before long, of a church in the vicinity of the New Road, and became known to fame as one of the most eloquent preachers and pious clergymen in that part of the metropolis.

 

“Not in all things a bad man”

Mr. Slope’s own future happy ending is an example of Trollope’s sensitivity to human nature.  Yes, in the clichés of the fiction of his time, bad guys were supposed to end up suffering.  But Trollope know how the world works, and how some people are just too hard and too clever to fall to pieces.

Also, he remains aware that Mr. Slope, just as any of his other characters, is a human being and, as such, a very complicated organism.

And here the author must beg it to be remembered that Mr. Slope was not in all things a bad man.  His motives, like those of most men, were mixed; and though his conduct was generally very different from that which we would wish to praise, it was actuated perhaps as often as that of the majority of the world by a desire to do his duty.  He believed in the religion which he taught, harsh, unpalatable, uncharitable, as that religion was.  He believed those whom he wished to get under his foot…to be the enemies of that religion  He believed himself to be a pillar of strength, destined to do great things; and with that subtle, selfish, ambiguous sophistry to which the minds of all men are so subject, he had taught himself to think that in doing much for the promotion of his own interests he was doing much also for the promotion of religion.

 

“Like a rose among carrots”

Even so, while at the same time giving Mr. Slope his due as a human, Trollope makes it clear for the reader that, for any clear-eyed person, he is not at all an attractive man, such as when the clergyman is wooing an exotic beauty with an Italian husband (back in Italy):

Mr. Slope, taking the soft fair delicate hand in his, and very soft and fair and delicate it was, bowed over it his huge red head and kissed it.  It was a sight to see, a deed to record if the author could fitly do it, a picture to put on canvass.  Mr. Slope was big, awkward, cumbrous, and having his heart in his pursuit was ill at ease.  The lady was fair, as we have said, and delicate; every thing about her was fine and refined; her hand in his looked like a rose lying among carrots, and when he kissed it he looked as a cow might do on finding such a flower among her food.

 

“Stuck out his toes merrily”

If Mr. Slope is making a fool of himself, don’t we all?  That, I think, is the subtext of all of Trollope’s pages.

For instance, he writes, in the second chapter of the novel, that Mrs. Bold is head over heels in love with her baby, Johnny, born some months after his father’s death.

But, as a baby, this baby was all that could be desired.  This fact no one attempted to deny.  ‘Is he not delightful?’ she would say to her father, looking up into his face from her knees, her lustrous eyes overflowing with soft tears, her young face encircled by her close widow’s cap and her hands on each side of the cradle in which her treasure was sleeping.  The grandfather would gladly admit that the treasure was delightful, and the uncle archdeacon himself would agree, and Mrs. Grantly, Eleanor’s sister, would re-echo the word with true sisterly energy; and Mary Bold [the late husband’s sister] — but Mary Bold was a second worshipper at the same shrine.

The baby was really delightful; he took his food with a will, stuck out his toes merrily whenever his legs were uncovered, and did not have fits.  These are supposed to be the strongest points of baby perfection, and in all these our baby excelled.

Baby love, of course, is a good thing.  To be silly in that pursuit is rather expected, but still silly.

 

A yes-sayer

Trollope also takes the opportunity at appropriate moments to have his characters comment on more public aspects of human nature, such as when Mr. Arabin analyses the work of critics:

‘It is so easy to condemn,’ said he, continuing the thread of his thoughts.  ‘I know no life that must be so delicious as that of a writer for newspapers, or a leading member of the opposition — to thunder forth accusations against men in power; show up the worst side of everything that is produced; to pick holes in every coat; to be indignant, sarcastic, jocose, moral, or supercilious; to damn with faint praise, or crush with open calumny! What can be so easy as this when the critic has to be responsible for nothing?’

There is much wisdom in these words.  And also an insight into Trollope’s work.

In this novel and in all his other novels, Trollope is never indignant, sarcastic, jocose, moral, or supercilious.

He is not a naysayer.  He doesn’t rant.  He doesn’t paint the world in black and white.

He is a yes-sayer.  He says yes to the abundance of existence and of human complexity.

Not for Trollope the anger of the attacker.  He understands humanity.   He finds great bounty in the world and in the sheer curiousness of all that people do.

And he brings all that, wrapped in elegant prose, as a treasure for the reader to open and enjoy.

 

Patrick T. Reardon

9.26.18

 

 

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