This review could be subtitled, “In which I develop a fondness for Anthony Trollope.” A couple of years ago I gave up on Barchester Towers, and while I had my reasons I never felt good about it. This time I decided to start at the beginning of Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire, and I’m glad I did.
Septimus Harding is warden and precentor of Barchester Cathedral. The Warden’s duties also include the care of twelve elderly gentlemen living in an almshouse associated with the cathedral. Harding is getting on in years, and enjoys the stability and limited demands of his position. He has a good relationship with the bishop:
The bishop and Mr. Harding loved each other warmly. They had grown old together, and had together spent many, many years in clerical pursuits and clerical conversation. When one of them was a bishop and the other only a minor canon they were even then much together; but since their children had married, and Mr. Harding had become warden and precentor, they were all in all to each other. I will not say that they managed the diocese between them, but they spent much time in discussing the man who did, and in forming little plans to mitigate his wrath against church delinquents, and soften his aspirations for church dominion.
But Harding is on more tenuous terms with the second in command, archdeacon Dr. Grantly who, incidentally, is also Harding’s son-in-law. Dr. Grantly is rather full of himself, in an amusing way:
In the diocese of Barchester the Archdeacon of Barchester does the work. In that capacity he is diligent, authoritative, and, as his friends particularly boast, judicious. His great fault is an overbearing assurance of the virtues and claims of his order, and his great foible is an equally strong confidence in the dignity of his own manner and the eloquence of his own words.
There’s trouble afoot in Barchester, and it comes not so much from Grantly as from John Bold, a young attorney interested both in Harding’s younger daughter Elinor, and in making a name for himself. His approach to the latter is to stir up controversy about management of church funds. Specifically, he questions whether the original terms concerning the almshouse are still being adhered to. Perhaps the church is keeping an unfair part of money that should rightfully go to the almshouse residents?
Harding is shattered by this accusation. Not so much because it comes from a potential future son-in-law, but because of his care and concern for the men in the almshouse. He cannot bear the thought of cheating them out of income. Grantly, of course, takes an opposing view and does all in his power to keep funds for the church. The matter becomes a public scandal, and then things get really interesting, as Harding and Grantly deal with the situation, and each try to outmaneuver the other.
Along the way Trollope relentlessly satirizes the church, with its endless bureaucracy and politics, as well as the newspapers which fan the flames of scandal. I’m sure some of this was lost on me, but I got enough to enjoy it. Mostly, however, I just loved Septimus Harding, an example if there ever was one of the meek inheriting the earth. Yes, he had a cushy job and no real desire to work harder, but at the same time he was a man of principles and willing to stand up for them in a time of crisis.
Now I’m looking forward to having another go at Barchester Towers!