Classics Circuit Review: Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope

The Classics Circuit’s Anthony Trollope tour is in full swing.  It began Monday, December 6 and will end Friday, December 17.  The button comes from the frontspiece of the first publication of The Last Chronicle of Barset (published 1867).  Anthony Trollope was born in London in 1815. When he died in 1882, he’d written 70 major works, including novels, stories, sketches, essays, and travelogues.

Here’s my review of Barchester Towers, followed by some more comments on the tour.

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I’d never read Trollope before, and chose to read Barchester Towers for this blog tour.  First, because it was a familiar title.  It’s part of The Chronicles of Barsetshire, one of Trollope’s best-known series.  And second, because I had a copy on my shelves that has gathered dust for something like 20 years.  I thought it was high time I read it!

And … I made it through 140 pages of this 533-page tome before throwing in the towel.

I typically enjoy classic English literature, and the storyline was promising.  When a bishop dies, his son expects to be appointed successor, but another man is chosen.  This causes a bit of controversy, and the new bishop stirs things up by actually expecting clergy to work.  Trollope’s tongue is firmly lodged in his cheek as he paints vivid character portraits, such as this description of the new bishop and his wife:

It is not my intention to breathe a word against the character of Mrs. Proudie, but still I cannot think that with all her virtues she ads much to her husband’s happiness. The truth is that in matters domestic she rules supreme over her titular lord, and rules with a rod of iron. Nor is this all. Things domestic Dr. Proudie might have abandoned to her, if not voluntarily, yet willingly. But Mrs. Proudie is not satisfied with such home dominion, and stretches her power over all his movements, and will not even abstain from things spiritual. In fact, the bishop is henpecked.  (p.23)

But the humor was not enough to compensate for the glacial pace.  In 140 pages a new bishop was appointed, and the bishop and his wife had a party.  In between these epic events, various characters were introduced.  Trollope spent 11 pages describing five members of a notable family in exhaustive detail.  The bishop’s party received similar treatment, except that took twice as long.  I just lost patience with it.

At first I was disappointed in myself for giving up, for not appreciating the detail and use of language.  Then I thought about Charles Dickens, a contemporary of Trollope.  I don’t particularly like reading Dickens either, but I adored dramatizations like Bleak House (2005), and Little Dorrit (2008).  These films brought Dickens’ world to life in a way the books never did.  As I was struggling with Trollope, a bookish friend recommended the 1982 BBC production of Barchester Chronicles.  If nothing else, I think I’ve learned that the best way for me to experience Victorian literature is through film.

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Despite trying very hard to get past it, there was another aspect of Trollope’s writing that put me off.  As LifetimeReader said, “Trollope reflects many of the assumptions and prejudices of his time.  Sometimes his portrayals of gender or race can be kind of off-putting.” And Falaise was even more direct: “Let’s make no bones about this.  Trollope is a racist and he’s not afraid to show it.  Not for him the subtle sneer or the coded comment.  No, sir.”

I couldn’t agree more.  One of the characters in Barchester Towers dabbled in Judaism (as if that even makes sense), giving Trollope a forum for overt racist comments about Jews as “dirty” people.  It was unbelievably offensive, and even though I know it’s unfair to hold Trollope to today’s standards it was a complete turn-off.

But who knows, maybe I’m alone in my views on this book.  I’m looking forward to visiting these blogs for more thoughts on Barchester Towers, and I hope you’ll join me!

To learn more about Trollope’s entire body of work, check out all the tour stops.

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17 thoughts on “Classics Circuit Review: Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope

  1. I read this with great interest, Laura, because I am a little more than half way through my Trollope novel (although mine is less than 300 pages…so I think I can probably get through it!).

    I found a couple of your points especially interesting…In my volume, in the introduction, there is quite a bit about how Trollope criticized Dicken’s writing! Funny that you prefer Dickens over Trollope … I wonder how Anthony would take that *laughs*

    I am also am finding that his humor is quite funny (especially when it comes to the interactions between men and women as in the example you gave!). BUT, that said, I agree, the descriptive passages are long and exhaustive (I think that is typical of Victorian literature in general, but I never enjoy it). Sometimes I want to scream at him: “Enough! Get to the point!” So I’m not loving Trollope, but I think the book I chose is a little more “doable” and there are parts I’m enjoying. I don’t think I could get through over 500 pages of it though!!

  2. I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy this book, Laura. I loved it, but I can definitely understand the problems you had with it. Trollope’s writing is very descriptive and slow-paced, which won’t appeal to everyone, and I agree that some of his comments are offensive. I love the characters he creates, though, and the moral questions his books raise.

  3. I’m about halfway through with it now and I’m really enjoying it. I’m sorry you don’t like it! However, I can recommend The Way We Live Now — it’s really long but the miniseries adaptation is also great.

    • I’m glad you’re enjoying it, Karen! I really was quite surprised that I didn’t.

      P.S. That was my husband up above; don’t encourage him! 🙂

  4. I loved this book, but started with ‘The Warden’ and think I might have struggled a bit more if I hadn’t read that first. The advantage of ‘The Warden’ is that it’s reasonably short which made it easy to finish, and by the time I’d finished it I was hooked by Trollope.

    I know the passage you mean in Barchester Towers regarding attitudes to jewishness – it certainly catches the eye, and certainly reflects Trollope’s (and his times) prejudice but it clearly wasn’t meant to offend – I found it a useful reminder of how ingrained and respectable that sort of casual racism once was, something I don’t think we should forget or be put off by!

    There is also a deep prejudice against catholics (again common for the times) low church evangelists, and some pretty obnoxious ideas about women none of which detracts from my pleasure in reading him… but after that long hobby horse style rant I didn’t have the patience for Trollope 5 years ago and I also have a fascination with these sort of prejudices now and trying to understand how people thought – could be reasonably enlightened on one hand and so horribly bigoted on the other.

    • I like the idea of approaching Trollope with an aim of understanding the people of that era. I think I was just in the mood for a funny leisure read and it wasn’t that, for me.

  5. The more I read of other’s reviews of Trollope, the happier I am that I chose to read The Warden for The Classics Circuit. At 284 pages, I was happy to see it wrap up. I’m not sure I would have lasted for a full 533 pages, and I didn’t encounter any of the racist remarks that others have mentioned.

    I had planned on reading Barchester Towers next, but it may have to wait for another challenge.

    Thanks for your review–it was still fun to read even if you didn’t finish the book!

  6. Hi Laura,

    Enjoyed your review and I can defintely see your point on the slow-moving nature of the book. Barchester Towers should be my next Trollope, having read the Warden, but I suspect it will be a while before I get to it!

  7. I was looking forward to the Barchester books (I’m reading the Pallisers right now) and I’m sorry to hear that the attitudes are a bit annoying. Hate it when that happens.

    I like the books I’ve read but they definitely are character books and not books of plot, so it sounds like the book you read was similar in that respect. I personally like how he makes the characters so real so it works for me. But yes, it can be dull if you want plot…

    • Rebecca, I may try Trollope again someday. I have this nagging feeling that I should have enjoyed this more. I agree the character development is outstanding. It may have just been the wrong book for me at the time. And despite that, I still enjoyed the tour!

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