Classics: Church and Romance in Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope
9th February, 2017
Barchester Towers is a portrayal of 19th century provincial England revolving around the fight for prominent positions of the church.
Barchester Towers is second in the series of The Barsetshire Chronicles by Anthony Trollope, a series of six novels, set in the fictitious English county of Barsetshire and its cathedral town of Barchester. The novels concern the dealings of the clergy and their family, and the political, and social developments in the town. Barchester Towers, is the best known in the series. This review might contain spoilers for the first book, The Warden (Read review).
In The Warden we saw old Mr. Harding ousted from his position as the warden of Hiram’s hospital and taking up a lesser position elsewhere. Though both the books are similar in subject, The Warden focusses more or less on the mental agony of Mr. Harding, a righteous man unjustly cast in a political fiasco, and Barchester Towers advances into church politics. Also there is a more pronounced romantic side plot in this book, which lends some humourous and touching moments.
The position of Warden at Hiram’s Hospital is still unoccupied at the beginning of the novel. The Bishop of Barchester is on his deathbed. Several people have their eyes on the Bishop’s chair including Mr. Harding’s son-in-law and the Archdeacon, Dr. Grantly. However, much to the dismay of many, Dr. Proudie is chosen to continue as the Bishop. His wife, Mrs. Proudie is described as such “ 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.” She is all ears for the advices of Dr. Proudie’s detestable chaplain, Mr. Slope, who has several plans up his sleeve, including the chair of Dean. The clergy of Barchester are against the reforms of Mrs. Proudie and Mr. Slope. Soon enough, there is a new arrival – the Stanhope family. As Dr. Stanhope takes up the duties of the parish, he brings with him an interesting array of family members including his married, crippled, seductive daughter who goes by the name, Signora and his debt ridden son, Bertie, who is looking for a good alliance for financial stability.
There is a distinct romantic storyline in Barchester Towers, unlike The Warden, where it got suppressed in between the main plot. At the beginning we know that Eleanor’s husband, John Bold, has died and she is now a widow. This was an abrupt start indeed because I was really looking forward to reading more about their marriage in the second book. She is courted by three men, (their motives unknown to her, of course)- Bertie, Mr. Slope and the quiet Dr. Arabin. Though the choice of a new husband is pretty obvious, the three suitors and their conversations with Eleanor result in many comical moments throughout the story.
Barchester Towers has an elaborate cast of characters, all of them well detailed in their sketch. It was an enjoyable experience to be thrust into the midst of these interesting characters – some charming and some obnoxious. The character sketch of Slope, the shady character is perfect. He reminds me of Uriah Heep of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. Trollope’s mastery is in creating such a hateful character who receives no sympathy in the reader throughput the novel. There are some cliché characters, especially among the women – a dominating wife in Mrs. Proudie, the gentle, sacrificing daughter and widow, Eleanor and the seductress, Signora. The ending sections in the novel about Signora seemed a little unbelievable, but certainly contributed to the happily-ever-after that we crave in books. There is strong evidence of his opinions on how women must be at various parts of the story. An example is an incident where Eleanor slaps a gentleman (not writing more to avoid spoilers), and Trollope writes a sizeable chunk on her fear that she did something unlady-like and no say at all whether what the gentleman’s advances that led to such an incident were right or not. And this comes from an author who is generous with his authorial intrusions in the story.
Trollope frequently interrupts the narrative to add his own views about the characters. Often these comments lend a humorous vibe to the narrative. It is as though the author is scared that the reader might form opinions other than what he wishes to convey about each character, or perhaps the show-and-tell might not be as effective as he thinks it would be, so Trollope shows and then he tells. This does not give the freedom to form opinions of the characters on his own and feels restrictive. Since I was aware of Trollope’s writing style from my experience in reading The Warden, this was not a hassle in enjoying Barchester Towers.
Final Verdict :
Overall, I enjoyed Barchester Towers, even more than The Warden. The romantic storyline did add interest to the narrative and lightened up the serious matters dealt with in the book. I look forward to reading Doctor Thorne, the third book in the series.
Title : Barchester Towers
Author : Anthony Trollope
Publisher : Vintage
Published : (Originally 1857)
Language : English
Pages : 544
Rating : 4/5
Have you read the Barsetshire series?