It’s about time I get around to writing about The Warden by Anthony Trollope. I finished almost two weeks ago and just haven’t had the time to do it justice. Even having the time at the moment I’m not sure I can do it justice, but I’ll give it a go.
The Warden was published in 1864. For a Victorian novel it is quite short. For a Trollope novel, I have heard, it has a very small cast of characters. The town of Barchester where the novel is set, seems to be a quiet, bucolic sort of place. It gives the impression of being a small town but there is a rather grand cathedral there and lots of newer sorts of middle class houses.
The Warden, Mr. Harding, makes 800 a year for his very easy duties of overseeing the charity hospital that houses and feeds twelve men. The hospital was established a very long time ago by one Mr. Hiram who made his fortune off the wool industry. The Church oversees the lands and the rents and all that feed the legacy that funds the hospital and pays the warden.
Everything is hunky-dorey until the young John Bold causes a ruckus with his reformist zeal. He questions whether Hiram’s will is being carried out as he intended, whether the men living at the hospital are being cheated of income because the Church and the Warden are sucking it all up. Fair enough. But the conundrum for Bold is that he is good friends with Mr. Harding and in love with his daughter.
The novel is straightforward, pleasant, easy reading disguising a host of moral dilemmas and questions about integrity. Does Mr. Bold give up his pursuit of reform because of who the warden is? And once Mr. Harding finds out there is a question about his legitimacy can he turn a blind eye like the lawyers and the Archdeacon, who happens to be his son-in-law (married to Harding’s other daughter), tell him to? Or, having had his eyes opened must he, in order to have a clear conscious give up his wardenship? And of course, what response should the Church and church leaders have? Do they fight to retain their alleged fat-cat status or do they re-examine their values?
It is a serious story lightly told with much humor, a little sentiment, and a dash of self-mocking melodrama. Trollope also takes a few jabs at Thomas Carlyle, naming him Dr. Pessimist Anticant:
According to him nobody was true, and not only nobody, but nothing; a man could not take off his hat to a lady without telling a lie – the lady would lie again in smiling. The ruffles of the gentleman’s shirt would be fraught with deceit, and the lady’s flounces full of falsehood. Was ever anything more severe than that attack of his on chip bonnets, or the anathemas with which he endeavoured to dust the powder out of the bishops’ wigs?
Oh how this made me giggle! It would not have made sense if not for having read Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus last year with its philosophy of clothes.
Trollope takes a swipe at Dickens too, calling him Mr. Popular Sentiment:
Of all reformers Mr. Sentiment is the most powerful. It is incredible the number of evil practices he has put down: it is to be feared he will soon lack subjects, and that when he has made the working classes comfortable, and got bitter beer put into the proper-sized pint bottles, there will be nothing left for him to do. Mr. Sentiment is certainly a very powerful man, and perhaps not the less so that his good poor people are so very good; his hard rich people so very hard; and the genuinely honest so very honest.
Trollope prefers shades of gray. None of his characters in The Warden are wholly good or completely bad. And while they might lack somewhat for subtle nuances, they come across as humans struggling to do what they think is right, which sometimes means in their best interest, but who hasn’t made choices from such a place?
The Warden is my first Trollope and I am certain it won’t be my last. I believe the next book in the series is Barchester Towers. Trollope also has lots of other books besides the Barsetshire series. Trollope fans, what are your favorites?