Anthony Trollope: The Warden (Chronicles of Barsetshire)

Trouble with the media is apparently nothing new. In The Warden (1855), the first book in what would become the Chronicles of Barsetshire, Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) explores the clashes between public and private, institution and individual, abstract and particular, in the aged person of Septimus Harding and his crisis of moral conscience arising from reformist attacks on his wardenship of Hiram’s Hospital in the quiet and unremarkable cathedral town of Barchester. All is well until his young friend John Bold decides to investigate the grounds on which Harding receives the income from the medieval bequest which is in the gift of his old and somewhat ineffectual friend the bishop.

Bold’s naivety in thinking to separate his friendship with Harding from his attack on the institution of the Church is most pronounced in his enlisting the The Jupiter (The Times), whose thunderous pronouncements on the iniquity and inequity of clerical privilege and simony are notorious and hugely influential, and make no allowance for the tragedy of the individual caught in the middle of institutional conflict and reform.

That media pronouncements which elide fact and comment at the expense of private individuals should strike one as so strongly contemporary says something both for the legitimacy of Trollope’s concerns at the influence of the media on public opinion as well as for the apparently inevitable sensational tendencies of newspapers. It is a strength of the novel that it does not simply reduce the legitimacy of Bold and The Jupiter’s attack on clerical gifts to that of their methodology. They may well have a point. However, it is not the fact – if indeed there is any such fact – of Harding’s entitlement or lack thereof which matters particularly, except to the warden himself, in this novel. Trollope’s concern is with the manner in which one’s duties are carried out, one’s defences laid, one’s attacks prosecuted. Those who defend Harding, the formidable Archdeacon Grantly in particular, do so not in the warden’s individual interest, but in the interest of the public institution of the Church; it is a battle of wits built on partisan presumption, rather than moral reflection.

The Warden is suffused with a gentle, occasionally stinging, humour which serves to highlight the absurdities and idiosyncrasies of his characters, each of whom is, on the whole, made to seem more human for all their public bluster through Trollope’s omniscient revelation of the private aspects of their personalities. Trollope’s portrait of Harding is highly sympathetic and one senses a real affection for the inoffensive and well-meaning Warden who carries out his duties with love and pleasure. Indeed, Trollope might also be seen in the person of Septimus Harding as privileging feeling or sentiment over reason. Alternatively, we might see his moral integrity as Trollope’s playing out of the triumph of practical over theoretical reason: Harding acts well toward others (perhaps too well) in the face of the abstract and dehumanising pronouncements of an intensely rational but unfeeling reform movement. (His love of music, expressed in his tendency to play an imaginary cello at moments of particular emotional turbulence, might be seen as the ideal marriage of the two.)

Trollope’s evocation of Harding’s lost innocence is most striking in the image of the Hospital’s walled garden: pristine and loved by the warden, this garden stands as a symbol for the loss of his timeless paradise. As his fortunes falter, so does the garden. We shouldn’t forget that ‘paradise’ derives from the word for walled enclosure or garden. As Adam and Eve gained their knowledge of good and evil at great expense, so Harding’s awakening to the moral complexities of his own case strips him of his comfortable position. The Warden’s charm lies in its subtle and humorous playing out of one man’s isolation at the hands of his own conscience whilst institutions do battle around him; in its emphasis on the complexities of the individual case in the face of sweeping public pronouncements; and in a warm but ambivalent nostalgia for the provincial Church life so clearly disappearing in the face of progressive social agendas.

The Essay – Robin Gilmour

One of the excellent things about PEL editions is that they place their essays after the novel rather than before. I never read introductions beforehand for, as the PEL series editor has pointed out, it is best to approach the story without one’s interpretation having been nudged in some particular direction. Frankly, it takes half the fun out of it. Having said that, I find that the best commentaries make me feel that I need to go and read the book all over again. Robin Gilmour’s essay is very good indeed, providing a lot of the context of The Warden’s original publication amidst the anti-clerical editorials of an all-powerful Times. He also highlights Trollope’s subtleties of symbolisation in the opposition of Barchester and London, and the journey of moral conscience Harding undergoes as he moves between the two: details easily missed on a first read-through. That Trollope’s heart was with the country and the cloister is hard to doubt, even if, as is so often the case, his head could see all too clearly the demand for modernisation and the equitable distribution of heretofore protected clerical gifts. These days, we would probably have an enquiry.

Buy The Warden 

Amazon: The Warden (Penguin English Library)

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2 thoughts on “Anthony Trollope: The Warden (Chronicles of Barsetshire)

  1. Pingback: ROOK – Jane Rusbridge | wordsofmercury

  2. Pingback: Paperback review: ROOK by Jane Rusbridge | wordsofmercury

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