The back cover claimed that Barchester Towers is the most famous and well-loved of Anthony Trollope’s novels. For the first fifty pages I was a little unclear as to why this was so, but after surviving the tedium of the initial lengthy descriptive passages, I found myself lost in the book and not wanting to be found. The well-drawn characters, humorous comments, and mischievous plot produced a witty and sparkling novel which culminated in a very satisfying ending.
Barchester Towers is about a war between the various clergy members of the diocese of Barchester. When the old bishop of Barchester dies, his son Archdeacon Grantly, has every hope of succeeding him in his office. Unfortunately, the reins of government have just switched hands in England, and since Anglican Church appointments are political in nature, Dr. Grantly is out of favor and the stranger Dr. Proudie is pronounced the new bishop.
Dr. Proudie, the new bishop of Barchester and something of a “low” churchman, awakens antagonism as soon as he arrives, or rather his two “managers” awaken antagonism for him. His overbearing wife, Mrs. Proudie, has nothing but criticism for the liturgical and musical traditions of Barchester, and his scheming chaplain Mr. Slope tries to assert his power over the locals.
As the tension grows, another clergyman named Dr. Stanhope, who has lived abroad in Italy for the last decade or so, returns to his office in Barchester bringing with him three beautiful but heartless children. The son, Bertie Stanhope, is hopelessly in debt, and the oldest daughter Charlotte is trying to find him a rich wife to help him out of his difficulties. The youngest daughter, breathtaking in appearance but crippled in feet, styles herself Signora Neroni. She has left her brutal Italian husband behind and intends to set up court among the susceptible clergymen of Barchester, to toy with them in the art of love, and then cast them aside when she is done with them.
There are many more machinations afoot than just the Signora’s, however. To combat the influence of the new bishop, his wife, and the oily Mr. Slope, Archdeacon Grantly procures an appointment for Mr. Arabin, a learned fellow from Oxford and longtime enemy of Mr. Slope’s views. Mr. Arabin, it is to be hoped, will be clever enough to tear the sheep’s clothing off Mr. Slope and ameliorate his harmful presence in the diocese.
As the story progresses, the Signora begins to catch as many men as she can in her web, but as she is already married, there can be no honorable relationship with any of them. Another beautiful–and more attainable–flower blossoms as Mrs. Eleanor Bold, the rich, widowed sister-in-law of Dr. Grantley, becomes the object of matrimonial attention of three men: Bertie Stanhope, Mr. Slope, and Mr. Arabin. With wry humor, Trollope describes the scene at a dinner party as Eleanor Bold is surrounded by her admirers:
“‘Pray, pray don’t move,’ said Miss Thorne, almost forcing Eleanor back into her chair. ‘Mr. Stanhope is not going to leave us. He will stand behind you like a true knight as he is. And now I think of it, Mr. Arabin, let me introduce you to Mr. Slope. Mr. Slope, Mr. Arabin.’ And the two gentlemen bowed stiffly to each other across the lady whom they both intended to marry, while the other gentleman who also intended to marry her stood behind, watching them.”
I shall not give away which of the three gentlemen Eleanor does choose in the end, although the author is not so free from spoilers. Throughout the book, Trollope addresses his readers with chatty confidentiality, assuring us that though the characters may be wading through a fog of misunderstandings which obscure the future, we need not be so blind. The author is on our side and intends us to amuse us with the story, not torment us with suspense.
The plot of the book is cleverly structured to focus on three ecclesiastical appointments. First, there is the appointment of the Bishop of Barchester which turns the whole town upside down. Second, there is the appointment of the Warden of the Hospital which lies in debate for nearly half the book. And third, there is the appointment of a new Dean of the cathedral of Barchester which sets the whole world to rights once again. Although there is little connection to The Scarlet Letter, the threefold structure reminded me of Hawthorne’s book where the beginning, middle, and end are all set on a scaffold.
Trollope does not hesitate to criticize the villainous and self-serving clergymen portrayed throughout the story, but neither does he hesitate to offer praise where praise is due. Those who hold convictions out of true religion are never mocked, and indeed, the concluding paragraph is a tribute to Eleanor’s father, the kindliest clergyman in the novel. In the same fashion, those who live lives of immorality or impropriety do not receive a completely comfortable end, while those who conduct themselves well are rewarded with happiness. The portrayal of the Stanhopes reminded me, in some small measure, of Henry and Mary Crawford from Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park.
Barchester Towers was a good introduction to an author I have never before attempted, and I hope to read more of Anthony Trollope’s books in the future.