Friday, October 8, 2010

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

The Warden (Oxford World's Classics)I'm sorry to say that I only made it through one-third of David Copperfield last month before I gave up and moved on to greener pastures. But in defense of my good intentions to read classics (in spite of failing with David Copperfield this time around), my next book was The Warden, the first in the six Barsetshire Novels by Anthony Trollope, a contemporary of Dickens. The book club in Michigan where we used to live had chosen Barchester Towers for their October selection, and I just couldn't bear to start in the middle of the series.

I enjoyed The Warden much more than David Copperfield, not only because it was shorter, but because the characters were quite clearly defined, a moral and relational problem was quickly stated and developed, and I felt like the story was actually going somewhere. (I'm sorry to say that David Copperfield's lack of ambition left me feeling rather apathetic about his prospects and problems, such as they were.) Like Dickens often did, Trollope deals with a contemporary issue - that of the abuse of clergy who were handsomely rewarded for administrating works of charity while the recipients of that charity were pitifully cared for. Mr. Harding, or the Warden of Barchester, had rather innocently been given such a position with a long-fixed and adequate income when his daughter married the bishop's son, the archdeacon, and he had since taken care of the elderly men at Hiram's Hospital (a retirement home of sorts) with kindness and generosity. No one who knew Mr. Harding would have suggested that he abused his position, for he freely gave the twelve men in his charge extra funds from his own resources and kept them company with his musical talents, caring for their souls as well as their bodies. Nevertheless, as a matter of principle, a young doctor believed that the system was unjust and began a lawsuit against the Warden, in spite of his own friendship with Mr. Harding. To complicate matters further, this zealous doctor was in love with Mr. Harding's younger daughter Eleanor, though their love was not yet proclaimed by an engagement.

Although the church's abuse of its resources was one of national concern, Trollope deals with it on a very personal level, contrasting Mr. Harding's desire to be just and right in spite of personal loss with the more obstinate position of the archdeacon, his son-in-law, who insisted that the church was always right in its appropriation and use of funds and easily dismissed all criticism to the contrary while relying on his well-paid lawyers to settle the matter in his favor. I immediately felt sympathy for Mr. Harding, who had lived his life with the purest of motives, only to find those motives questioned and his character maligned not only in his own village and by the very men he served but throughout the nation by means of the press. The character of the young doctor, John Bold, is likewise admirable in his quest for justice, even if he does seem somewhat calloused and unfeeling at times.

Mr. Harding's concern for the honor of his name, of maintaining a good character in the eyes of the world, eventually leads him to resign his place as warden and return to a much lower position of service in the church. His integrity, however, does not make all things right with the world. If Mr. Harding is himself content to be poor, his resignation results in less care and support for the twelve poor men of the Hospital. This could also be construed as the fault of the church, but Trollope seems more concerned for the effects on the individuals involved rather than the overarching principles involved. I appreciate the honesty with which he presents the complex issues of determining what is right for an individual, a family, a community. Clearly, Mr. Harding acted rightly according to his own conscience, but it could also be argued that he was too much influenced by public opinion of himself to act justly for the good of those who were under his care. Similarly, Eleanor and John Bold eventually act upon their emotions to the neglect of the principles to which they thought they were so committed. Trollope leads us to believe that these actions were inevitable for these characters, and for good or ill, life goes on for the inhabitants of Barsetshire, rich and poor alike.

I look forward to continuing the story of these earnest lives in the second installment Barchester Towers.


Laura said...

I don't think I've ever read a book by Trollope that I haven't enjoyed on some level. And while I love Dickens, I can't say the same for his books. Trollope's Barchester series is my favorite (and Doctor Thorne is my favorite in the series), but I liked the Palliser series a lot, too. Hope you read and enjoy all of the Barchester books!

Ordinary Reader said...

Just came across your blog today and wanted to say how much I'm enjoying reading it. We seem to have a similar taste in books and your writing is lovely to read. Great blog, very nicely done. I'm now a follower.
Nice to meet you,

hopeinbrazil said...

I'm always glad to hear of someone else who likes Trollope. Mr. Harding is one of my very favorite literary characters.

Slow Reader said...

This is my favorite line from the book: "I hope you may live contented, and die trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ, and thankful to Almighty God For the good things he has given you." Isn't that great?

Page Turner said...

That is a beautiful quote, Slow Reader - one worth cross-stitching (if only I still did such leisurely things)!

Slow Reader said...

Say, Page Turner, I read a review of The Warden that called Eleanor's scene with John Bold (where she pleads with him to stop the action against her father) as violent. I recalled it as being disturbing in its intensity, but I didn't remember having struck Bold or anything like that. Do you? I'll have to go back and look at it. I did feel she went beyond what she had intended to do. I thought she would ask, but not demand. You did mention that both she and Bold went against their principles, carried away by emotion. Interesting that, in Barchester Towers, Eleanor does commit an act of physical violence against Slope, for which she is ashamed. Maybe the reviewer was categorizing passionate speech as violence.

Page Turner said...

Slow Reader, I don't recall any physical violence in the scene in the Warden, and I have not yet gotten to any violence against Mr. Slope in Barchester Towers (though he no doubt deserved it, the slimeball!). When I mentioned going against their principles, I was referring to Eleanor's prior resolve to defend her father dispassionately and Mr. Bold's willingness to give up the fight for right for the sake of love. I was sorry to learn that their happiness was cut short.