The Warden (Barchester Chronicles 1) by Anthony Trollope

Blessed are the meek…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Septimus Harding is the Warden of Hiram’s Hospital, a charitable institution founded by a long-ago legacy to provide alms and accommodation to twelve old men of Barchester. Over the years the value of the legacy has grown so that now, as well as providing for the twelve pensioners, it also pays a generous stipend of £800 a year to the Warden and provides him with a large, comfortable house. Mr Harding is a conscientious man, neither ambitious nor particularly intelligent, who does his duty as pastor to the old men, and loves them. His elder daughter, Susan, is happily married to Archdeacon Grantly, and his younger child, Eleanor, hasn’t yet admitted to her love for a newcomer to town, the young doctor John Bold, but everyone knows that their eventual union is only a matter of time. So Mr Harding is a contented man. But John Bold is young and idealistic, and he sees the huge disparity between the alms paid to the twelve pensioners and the stipend paid to the Warden, and he feels the Church is misappropriating money that was intended to be spent on the poor of the town. Despite his as yet undeclared love for Eleanor, he begins a public campaign against what he sees as the Church’s abuse…

While I enjoyed all of the Barchester books to varying degrees, this first one has always been my favourite. A short book, it is perfectly formed, and what makes it so special is that Trollope shows all the characters as fundamentally decent people even while he allows them all to have wildly differing opinions on the subject of Church patronage. It is an idealised picture of a world that probably never existed, but that is what makes it such a comfortable and comforting read. It describes a world where even Church abuses are carried out with the best of intentions and where the worst accusations that can be aimed at the officers of the Church are of thoughtlessness and a certain lack of zeal. To Archdeacon Grantly, representing the views of the Church hierarchy, so long as the twelve bedesmen are being well looked after, and they are, then of course the remaining money should go to provide a comfortable living for the Warden, for the Church has a responsibility to provide good livings for all its officers (especially if they happen to be personal friends of the Bishop, who happens to be Archdeacon Grantly’s father).

Donald Pleasence and Nigel Hawthorne as Mr Harding and Archdeacon Grantly in the BBC’s wonderful 1982 production of The Barchester Chronicles

John Bold’s position is given fair treatment too. Mr Harding has never given much thought to Hiram’s original intentions when he made his bequest because Mr Harding is not a thinker, deferring always to the Archdeacon and the Bishop as a good Churchman should. However, when Bold, whom he admires and likes, points out the disparity between what the Church receives from the legacy and what it pays out in charity to the old men, Mr Harding cannot fail to see that his point is valid. But if the Archdeacon thinks it’s justified, then surely it is? As the Archdeacon gears up to fight the accusations of abuse, John Bold turns to the campaigning press to make his case directly to the public. And this public trial by media is the book’s other great theme, as we see poor Mr Harding caught up in a storm not of his own making, publicly reviled and humiliated, and portrayed as a monster of greed, lining his own pockets at the expense of the poor.

Although he shows both sides of the argument fairly, Trollope’s sympathies are all with Mr Harding. He seems to be accepting that the Church does appropriate money to itself and its officers that could be spent on alleviating poverty. But, it feels as if he is saying, is the Church not such a great and beautiful institution that it is worth the money that it takes? Are not the buildings lovely and worth the cost of their upkeep, from the little parish churches to the great cathedrals like Barchester? Are not the services, with their comforting rituals and soaring choirs, designed to bring man closer to God? Do not the Church’s officers, drawn largely from the younger sons of the gentry, need to be provided with comfortable accommodation and a generous income? The poor, after all, are used to being poor, so should they not be grateful for the little charitable portion the Church allows them? In Trollope’s world, Bold is shown as having the misguided zealousness of youth, well intended certainly, but not quite understanding yet how the world works. While admitting the point at the heart of Bold’s argument, Trollope seems to be regretful that reforming zealots can’t simply leave a system that works so well alone. What’s to be gained by impoverishing churchmen simply to give a little more to poor people who already have enough for their simpler needs?

Book 10 of 20

Despite my own atheism and my disgust at the various abuses that have been perpetrated in the name of religion over the centuries, I find each time I read the book that I too am on the side of poor Mr Harding, at least while I’m reading. My cynical brain knows that the picture Trollope is presenting of the Church is idealised, but my heart loves those ancient cathedrals and the choirs and the traditions, and the cloistered peace of mellow cathedral towns. In real life I would side with Bold, but in this fictional world I too believe that he is merely making the pensioners unhappy and greedy by telling them they deserve more. He is destroying the contentment of his love’s father, reducing her income, and simultaneously destroying the grateful acceptance of the bedesmen. To what end? In this world of Barchester even the poor are healthy, well-fed and rosy-cheeked, so why rock the boat?

If only that had ever been true. Trollope’s world is a fantasy, but it is a comforting fantasy, and one in which many of the respectable people of his time firmly believed. There is almost no point of connection between Trollope’s happy vision of the poor and that of his reforming contemporaries, like Dickens. This book was published in the same year as Little Dorrit, with its searing depiction of the debtors’ prison, the Marshalsea. Compare and contrast.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Timothy West who did a marvellous job. He has narrated many of Trollope’s works and I’m very much looking forward to listening to more.

Audible UK Link

58 thoughts on “The Warden (Barchester Chronicles 1) by Anthony Trollope

  1. A good review which agrees with most of the points I noted while reading it with a book group. Interesting to read that he wrote it at the same time as Dickens was writing Little Dorrit with the horrors of The Circumlocution Office. The Warden’s plight is smaller and more manageable.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, and thanks for popping in and commenting! Yes, reading Trollope and Dickens it’s quite hard to imagine they’re writing about the same time and the same country. I guess both of them probably exaggerated to achieve their effect, and there’s probably truth in both portrayals, but I tend to think Dickens is probably more accurate about the plight of the poor, in cities anyway.

      Like

  2. I picked this up as my first Barchester novel to read because it looked shorter than most but without realising it was the first, and now I’m looking forward to it if it’s passed muster under your exacting standards! But it’ll have to wait while I get to all these other titles clamouring for my attention…

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s one of my all-time favourite books, even if I do think Trollope idealises the people of Barchester. However, it’s still where I’d like to live in a little house on the High Street – such a pity it’s fictional! 😉 I do hope you enjoy it when you find time to fit it in!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. That’s the thing that really appeals to me about this one, too, FictionFan. I really enjoy a novel when the author shows how good people can disagree and see the world differently. You also make a well-taken point about Trollope’s even-handedness about Church finances. Authors are biased, like everyone else is, but if one’s going to discuss a debate, it’s best to show both sides of the issue. Add to that the characters, and I’m not surprised this appealed to you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, it’s a lovely book and makes a pleasant change for humanity to be shown as basically decent for once! I think that’s why it’s my favourite of the Barchester books – some of the characters in the later books aren’t such fundamentally good people, if memory serves me right, so while the books are still great they’re not quite as comfortable.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. How extremely interesting that this debuted the same year as Little Dorrit, a book I love (and you did too). I never read Trollope’s book, but your review of it is fascinating.
    Seeing that photo of the adaptation makes me miss the days of truly great adaptations. On my blog you wondered what adaptation I talked about in a post on my blog. Persuasion is the adaptation I meant.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Reading Trollope and Dickens it’s quite hard to realise that they’re writing about the same country at the same period. I guess they both exaggerated for effect and there’s probably truth in both, but I tend to believe Dickens’ portrayal of the plight of the poor more than Trollope’s, much though I love his books!
      Ah yes, I’ve seen quite a lot of criticism of the new Persuasion – it does sound awful. I much preferred the older adaptations when they tried hard to stick not just to the story but to the tone of the books. This adaptation is truly wonderful, and the casting is perfect.

      Like

    • I think I did, back in the day, but this and the second are the only ones I’ve re-read over the years, especially this one. However if Timothy West has narrated the whole series I think I’ll listen to them all over the next two or three years. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have started the series twice, once back in the olden days when I didn’t find them reliably in bookstores, and a few years ago, when I suddenly got bogged down. I think I read Framley Parsonage, but I know I haven’t read the last two. The problem is, it’s been so long that I would have to start over again!

        Liked by 1 person

    • This is one of my all-time favourites so I’ve revisited it a few times over the years. I also had a big Trollope phase, probably in my twenties, and I feel it’s time to have another one, especially since it looks like Timothy West has narrated loads of them on audiobook!

      Like

  5. I haven’t read this one, but your review makes it sound really good. I suppose there’s always been the chasm between caring for the poor and tending to one’s own. Not sure how that ever resolves itself, though I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to impoverish yourself to care for others.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love Trollope and am actually amazed this seems to be the first time I’ve reviewed one of his books – clearly some re-reading is long overdue! Yes, he makes good arguments on both sides of the debate, and while I didn’t feel either that poor Mr Harding should lose everything or that the twelve pensioners should really be given all the money, if memory serves me right Trollope eventually comes up with a good compromise in the later books…

      Liked by 1 person

  6. You are quite generous in your discussion of Harding’s voice of privilege. Given a choice, I don’t think the poor would prefer to remain poor. And I can’t get past the horrors of the Magdalene laundries in Ireland and the coverups of pedophilia globally and the general disregard for women in the Catholic church. And yes, so many more horrors used to subjugate the poor, so that the few could live a more luxurious existence. So this book wouldn’t be for me, I’m afraid.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha, but he wouldn’t have been considered privileged back then, so we need to judge them by their standards surely? And the poor in this book aren’t really poor – they have a nice place to live where everything is done for them, including plentiful food, little concerts in the evening, and a companionable glass of port with Mr Harding. And Mr Harding wasn’t a paedophile!!! Nor were there any unexpected pregnancies in Barchester – everyone was far too moral for that! 😂 Joking aside, though, the Church of England is a different beast to other churches – it’s more like a social club for the middle-classes who do a bit of charitable good on the side. It’s not even strictly necessary to believe in God, apparently – they famously had a bishop who admitted he was agnostic. They have had scandals over the years, of course, but nothing in comparison to the Catholic church, probably because their priests have always been encouraged to marry. And they do have wonderful churches, cathedrals and choirs…

      Liked by 1 person

    • I read a lot of him at one point but other than occasional re-reads of this one it’s been a while. This has made me realise how much I’d like to revisit his books and fill in the blanks… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I had already decided that this would be the Trollope on my next classics list and you’ve confirmed my choice. I loved the BBC series and the only Trollope I’ve read so far so I expect to be in for a treat. Good point about Little Dorrit, I’ll enjoy comparing and contrasting!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I read a lot of Trollope long ago and thoroughly enjoyed him but, apart from occasional re-reads of this one, it’s been a while! I’m looking forward to re-visiting him and also filling in some of the blanks, It’s interesting to look at what books were published around the same time as each other – really shows how differently people thought about the issues of the day.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I loved this series and agree with you completely about atheism, it doesn’t stop me from appreciating the ancient religious buildings though. I believe that Trollope called Dickens Mr Sentimentality.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha, yes, I wish we could keep the the cathedrals and choirs and all that stuff, but just do without the religion. We need atheist churches! 😉 I see Trollope’s point! Dickens does sentimentalise the poor but I still think he probably gives a more accurate picture of them than Trollope’s version. Maybe it’s just the difference between rural and urban, though.

      Like

  9. I was glad to read your opinion of this book, since I have read none of the Barchester Chronicles and this one is on my classics list. And it was good that you compared it to the books Dickens wrote about the same time. I am much encouraged to get started on this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, I do hope you enjoy it when you get to it! i love it despite my belief that he’s writing about an idealised world. Yes, it’s interesting sometimes to see what books were written at the same time – shows how differently different authors felt about the issues of the day.

      Like

  10. I read this as my first Trollope book a couple of years ago and still well remember the story and setting (a positive for me!). I see I’d read it through some recommendation of yours! Thanks for your excellent review which allowed me to revisit The Warden’s world.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad you enjoyed your introduction to Trollope! I read tons of him in my youth but apart from re-reading this one and the second in the Barchester series I’ve hardly visited him at all since. This has put me back in the mood for him, so I must try to read some of the ones I missed first time round…

      Liked by 1 person

    • His style is very readable, isn’t it, especially for that era. I think I’m going to try to listen to all the Barchester novels, if Timothy West has narrated them all – he did such a great job with this one!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I love the idea of a small, ivy-covered church village where all poor people are still quite healthy, they just wear ragged clothes and don’t eat treats as often. Alas…I think we will struggle to find a place like this in real life, but I can see why its popular in fiction!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha, I know! That’s why I find them such comforting reads – it’s the world as I’d like it to be, full of decent people and all the problems minor ones that can be resolved by people of goodwill compromising… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

Please leave a comment - I'd love to know who's visiting and what you think...of the post, of the book, of the blog, of life, of chocolate...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.