This was my second attempt at reading this book (read about my first, failed attempt here). I learned a valuable lesson: always read a series in order. Barchester Towers is the second in Trollope’s “Chronicles of Barsetshire” series. In The Warden, Trollope introduced Septimus Harding and Archdeacon Grantly, and established important plot points that continue developing in Barchester Towers.
When we last saw Mr. Harding, he was recently ousted from his position as Warden of a charitable hospital due to controversy over compensation and duties, and assumed a lesser role in a nearby church. Now, a few years later, he is comfortably ensconced in his role and, it seems, semi-retired. The appointment of a new bishop resurrects questions of the hospital warden, since the role was left vacant. Bishop Proudie brings a different style to Barchester, being more “Low Church” than “High Church.” But perhaps more importantly, he is ruled by his wife:
This lady is habitually authoritative to all, but to her poor husband she is despotic. Successful as has been his career in the eyes of the world, it would seem that in the eyes of his wife he is never right. All hope of defending himself has long passed from him; indeed he rarely even attempts self-justification, and is aware that submission produces the nearest approach to peace which his own house can ever attain.
Proudie is also heavily influenced by his chaplain, the creepy and slimy Obadiah Slope. Both Slope and Mrs Proudie have strong views on who should be appointed Warden, and Slope is also angling to be appointed to the more senior position of Dean. Slope and Mrs Proudie engage in a very amusing battle for control of the diocese as the hapless bishop looks on.
But Barchester Towers is about much more than church politics. In this second novel, Trollope further develops the Barsetshire area, introducing characters from all layers of society and skewering them with his excellent wit. There’s also a romantic storyline, in which Harding’s widowed daughter Eleanor is courted by three different gentlemen, with everyone else conspiring to influence the outcome. Trollope shows his hand early on, allowing the reader to enjoy these antics without worrying about Eleanor doing something stupid. All’s well that ends well, for both Harding and his daughter, and Trollope’s summing up in the last chapter left me feeling very satisfied indeed.
Trollope’s writing is filled with detail, devoting an entire chapter to introducing a single character and going on at length about issues in the church which may need some research to fully appreciate. Reading his work requires some investment of time and effort, but I’m now a complete convert and am looking forward to working my way through this delightful series.