Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers – conclusion. Power games

My second piece on Trollope’s Barchester Towers elicited a comment from Karen that suggested she now felt less inclined to read it; maybe it was the way I indicated Trollope is uncharitable in his depiction of the vapid non-heroine, Eleanor Bold. I do hope she isn’t ultimately deterred from reading it, for it provides many pleasures – and Trollope has some more rounded, spirited women characters to enjoy.

Mrs Proudie, the wife of the new bishop, it has to be said, is also not very flatteringly portrayed. She ‘rules’ her husband, is ‘despotic’, a ‘virago’, even prompting one of those quasi-ironic metafictional narrative intrusions that are a feature of Trollope’s technique:

Mrs Proudie has not been portrayed in these pages as an agreeable or amiable lady. There has been no intention to impress the reader much in her favour. It is ordained that all novels should have a male and a female angel, and a male and a female devil.

That last role is allotted to her – but, he adds, ‘she was not all devil’:

There was a heart inside that stiff-ribbed bodice, though not, perhaps, of large dimensions, and certainly not easily accessible.

She shows compassion in this scene with a desperate petitioner for her assistance. Trollope seems to have learnt some lessons from The Warden, where he tended to castigate just about every character’s moral position except the eponym, Harding, thus weakening the effect of the novel. Here he shows more lassitude towards his villains, as we saw in my discussion of his portrait of Dr Grantly.

These narrative intrusions serve to dilute the venom of his narrative, and to pull aside the curtain on his drama (there’s a lot of theatrical imagery in the novel) to show how it all works – or at least to pretend to. In fact he’s drawing our attention to features of the average novel which he disdains. He does this in ch. 15 when he refuses to create ‘mystery’ in the drama of Eleanor’s love interest, telling us at this early stage exactly which of her various suitors she will not marry. He claims to abhor such ‘delightful horrors’ as the revelation with a flourish in the final chapter of the solution to the mystery – this kind of trick is just ‘deceit’. Instead:

Our doctrine is, that the author and the reader should move along together in full confidence with each other.

He doesn’t want to make his readers ‘dupes’ of such teasing plots in which all depends on the big reveal in the denouement, leaving the ‘story’ with little ‘interest’, for ‘the part of a dupe is never dignified.’

As always in these metafictional asides, this is wittily ambivalent. While Trollope does aspire to create a novel that’s more than just ‘sensation’ or suspense-filled, he’s really referring to the love interest that comedies are generically required to dramatise. He’s much more interested in another aspect of the social scheme he’s anatomising in these chronicles. Power. Mrs Proudie wants to dominate her husband and his diocese.

But it’s the male ‘devil’ that’s the best part of the novel: Slope.

Obadiah Slope is the oleaginous chaplain to the new bishop, a protégé of the formidable Mrs Proudie. He’s another Uriah Heep, even down to the slimy handshake and ‘greasy’ manners. She sees in him a useful tool for converting what she sees as the high church idolatry of Barchester into their own austere low church mode – a struggle that was very much a feature of contemporary ecclesiastical life.

Neither of them is particularly devout. The narrator once again makes Slope’s real motivation perfectly clear:

He wanted a wife, and he wanted money, but he wanted power more than either. He had fully realised the fact that he must come to blows with Mrs Proudie.

He’s ambitious, and has no intention of simply playing ‘factotum’ to a ‘woman-prelate’. Theirs becomes one of the major power struggles in a novel full of them: ‘Either he or Mrs Proudie must go to the wall.’ This is the kind of conflict that is Trollope’s true zone of interest, highlighted by the prevalent military or pugilistic imagery.

Let’s end with another attempt to persuade Karen that this is a novel well worth reading. Not all of Trollope’s women characters are shallow, lacking in judgement or excessively masculine. Madeline Neroni, née Stanhope, second child of the cathedral prebendary, is a woman of ‘surpassing beauty’ and a wickedly gifted sexual predator. In Italy she’d chosen a husband badly, ending up crippled, possibly by him, and leaving him to return to her family.

She had become famous for adventures in which her character was just not lost, and had destroyed the hearts of a dozen cavaliers without once being touched in her own.

Duels fought over her cause her ‘pleasurable excitement’. In a wonderful scene at a fête champêtre at a country house she ensnares not just the drooling Slope, but also the squire of the estate, Mr Thorne, and the intellectual but emotionally myopic cleric Arabin. She has that ‘incomprehensible’ instinct of such women to perceive how women are perceived by men, and vice versa. Consequently she detects where Arabin’s affections truly lie – and takes pity on him and the lady whom he would otherwise be too romantically inept to win:

Though heartless, the Stanhopes were not selfish.

So she engages her ‘peculiar female propensities’ to ‘entrap’ Arabin ‘into her net.’ She had not taken much pleasure in the ‘chase’ for Mr Thorne: he was, like pheasants, too easy to pick off, and ‘not…worth the shooting’; he’s just worth ‘bagging for family uses.’ This is not the malicious characterisation that we saw with Mrs Proudie or Eleanor – there’s wit and animated narrative interest and investment in these scenes; this woman is attractive because she’s formidable and beautiful. She snares men because she can, because they’re generally weak, and because she enjoys it as her favourite pastime – ‘she has little else to amuse her’. But she has, like Mrs Proudie, a vestige of a heart.

This engaging and sympathetic portrayal of a strong but selfish character is seen beautifully in the earlier scene when she routs the bullying local aristocrat, Lady de Courcy. When this harridan stares rudely through her lorgnette at the beautiful Signora on her sofa, surrounded by fawning men,

The occupant in return stared hard at the countess.

The countess isn’t used to this: only royals, dukes and the ‘marquesal’ usually dare hold her gaze like that:

But she had now to do with one who cared little for countesses. It was, one may say, impossible for mortal man or woman to abash Madeline Neroni. She opened her large bright lustrous eyes wider and wider, till she seemed to be all eyes. She gazed up into the lady’s face, not as though she did it with an effort, but as if she delighted in doing it. She used no glass to assist her effrontery, and needed none. The faintest possible smile of derision played around her mouth, and her nostrils were slightly dilated, as if in sure anticipation of her triumph.

That ‘one may say’ is priceless. The countess ‘had not a chance with her.’ She makes a humiliated, enraged retreat.

This novel is worth reading for the gloriously selfish character of Madeline alone – she makes Becky Sharp look like a nun. She makes mincemeat of the odious Slope, too, so she can’t be all bad.

Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers, continued

Back from my short break in the city of my alma mater, Bristol – maybe more on that another time. For now, I’d like to look at another early chapter – ch.2 – of Barchester Towers. Last time it was the ironically ambivalent portrayal of Dr Grantly I examined; Trollope was careful in The Warden to establish him as not exactly a villain, but in pressurising the saintly warden Harding not to follow his conscience and resign from his lucrative post he was shown to be more adherent to the reputation of the institution of the church than to the moral rectitude of his father-in-law. But as we saw, he is not the villain of this novel; he is still to come.

In Ch. 2 we learn that Harding’s younger daughter, Eleanor Bold, has become a widow. Three times he exclaims ‘Poor Eleanor!’, building up a typically sonorous, not over-subtle head of rhetorical steam on her character and her position as a representative of the female sex, in the voice of his garrulous, opinionated and not entirely reliable narrator. This is the third iteration:

Poor Eleanor! I cannot say that with me John Bold was ever a favourite. I never thought him worthy of the wife he had won. But in her estimation he was most worthy. Hers was one of those feminine hearts which cling to a husband, not with idolatry, for worship can admit no defect in its idol, but with the perfect tenacity of ivy.

So she’s a ‘parasite plant’ that follows the defects of its host; she clung to her husband, faults and all. Once she had declared such ‘allegiance’ to her father; she then transferred that allegiance to her husband, ‘ever ready to defend the worst failings of her lord and master’.

It’s not hard to see why Trollope is such a favourite with conservatives (famously, for example, with John Major, former Prime Minister of Britain): this is hardly a radically feminist portrayal. Eleanor is a typically dependent woman, according to this account, one without agency or independence of her own, deriving all her energy, sustenance and raison d’être from that ‘lord and master’. As always there’s a hint of irony in this voice, but the imagery of parasitic ivy is repeated near the novel’s end when she transfers that total allegiance to her dead husband’s successor. She is not a heroine, in other words – either in general terms, or in this novel. And there’s more:

Could she even have admitted that he had a fault, his early death would have blotted out the memory of it. She wept as for the loss of the most perfect treasure with which mortal woman had ever been endowed…consolation, as it is called, was insupportable, and tears and sleep were her only relief.

Our narrator does not hold her in very high esteem, then. There’s an element of sarcastic mockery here that’s maybe not to every reader’s taste. She’s portrayed as irrational, over-emotional, needy and useless without the support of her more sturdy (though deeply flawed) spouse. More to the point, Trollope is lining up his characters for what’s to come; we expect in a social-pastoral comedy like this to have a love interest at the heart of things, but Trollope obliges caustically.

He’s ensuring that we have little trust in Eleanor’s judgement or moral rigour so that when several potential husbands appear on the scene, he’s able to tease out the plot as a consequence of that poor judgement. She leans, in other words, to the wrong man…twice.

But this narrator isn’t too interested in the romantic element; he even warns us at an early stage when the rival suitors are established which ones she won’t end up marrying. Romantic suspense is not his priority.

So what is? More on that next time. It involves a lot of military metaphors.

Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers

First published in 1857, Barchester Towers is the second of the six Chronicles of Barsetshire series of novels. It picks up the story that The Warden related (1855), concerning Septimus Harding’s renunciation of the wardenship of Hiram’s charitable hospital for old men, and the forces of opposing factions that pressed him into that course of (in)action, or urged him to stay on.

Barchester Towers cover

My Oxford World’s Classics paperback has a blemish where the charity shop sticker was peeled off; the illustration is a detail from ‘The Suitor’ by Jean Carolus. Oddly, the figure of the suitor has been cropped out.

This second novel picks up the thread four years on. As I’m about to travel for a few days, I don’t have time to say much about it here, so shall limit myself to a general introductory post. First: it’s a far superior novel to The Warden, which I found morally dubious, even though the story itself was entertainingly told. It’s more than twice as long, and has a wider, more interesting range of characters, some familiar, some new. The morality is now handled with much less clumsiness. There’s so much to say about the novel I may have to do a few posts to do it justice.

I’ll focus here on the opening chapter, ‘Who will be the new bishop?’ – the first of many such questions (ultimately, moral dilemmas) the narrative poses. Archdeacon Grantly, the high church stalwart who’d always been strongly opposed to Harding’s resignation (in all senses of that word), is sitting by his father the bishop’s deathbed. His is the first of a number of those moral dilemmas the novel portrays. The outgoing government administration is ‘well understood’ to favour the son’s succession to the mitre, and the local rumour machine has ‘whispered’ a similar opinion (there were similar whispers and rumours aplenty in The Warden). In many respects this is an improved reprise of that novel – Trollope seems to have realised where he went wrong.

Grantly is an ambitious man. He ‘tried to keep his mind away from the subject, but he could not. The race was so very close.’ For the ministry would be ‘out’ within five days, and the new administration would favour a different candidate. He gazed at his dying father’s ‘still living’ face,

and then at last dared to ask himself whether he really longed for his father’s death./The effort was a salutary one, and the question was answered in a moment. The proud, wishful, worldly man, sank on his knees by the bedside, and taking the bishop’s hand within his own, prayed eagerly that his sins might be forgiven him.

Trollope excels at showing conflicting traits and impulses in his characters, especially at crucial moments like this. Grantly had been presented in The Warden (as I attempted to show in my posts on it) as too worldly and ambitious, so that he bullies those who dare oppose him, like meek, warm-hearted Harding. Here he shows a potential for generosity and, almost, love. He’s not an out and out villain – he will appear a few chapters later.

But just as we warm slightly to this brittle, morally compromised man, Trollope shifts the ground again: the bishop dies, and he needs to get a telegram off immediately if the PM is to be notified and able to make his decision about a replacement before he goes out of office. How to do this without seeming indecently hasty? ‘Now that life was done, minutes were too precious to be lost…useless to lose perhaps everything for the pretence of a foolish sentiment.’ That sympathy Trollope had gently adduced for Grantly begins to wane.

Harding enters and comforts him; his dilemma deepens:

But how was he to act while his father-in-law stood there holding his hand? how, without appearing unfeeling, was he to forget his father the bishop – to overlook what he had lost, and think only of what he might possibly gain?

Grantly writes the telegram himself and gets Harding to send it under his own name – so he doesn’t seem too importunate. Harding is surprised to find Grantly, ‘as he thought, so much affected,’ but reluctantly complies.

What’s so satisfying in this scene, and the novel, is Trollope’s adept manipulation of his readers’ responses. We’re coaxed into feeling for Grantly, then let down with a bump as his stronger impulse triumphs over filial love. Look too at that sly aside as Harding surveys his son-in-law’s apparent grief: ‘as he thought’. Our narrator knows more, and hints at it.

There follows the first of many narrative intrusions. A long passage ironically defends Grantly, ostentatiously refusing to condemn him as he grieves – not for his father, but for his lost bishopric:

With such censures I cannot profess that I completely agree…A lawyer does not sin in seeking to be a judge…A young diplomate [sic] [is ambitious]…and a poor novelist when he attempts to rival Dickens or rise above Fitzjeames, commits no fault, though he may be foolish…If we look to our clergymen to be more than men, we shall probably teach ourselves to think that they are less, and can hardly hope to raise the character of the pastor by denying to him the right to entertain the aspirations of a man.

The irony is double-edged. He is censuring Grantly for his vaulting ambition, but acknowledges that he’s a flawed individual, not a representative of the clergy – this is Trollope’s principle; groups cannot be universally judged on the flaws or merits of individual representatives.

He goes on:

Our archdeacon was worldly – who among us is not so? He was ambitious – who among us is ashamed to own ‘that last infirmity of noble minds’? He was avaricious, my readers will say. No – it was not for love of lucre that he wished to be Bishop of Barchester. [He would be rich without it]…But he certainly did desire to play first fiddle; he did desire to sit in full lawn sleeves among the peers of the realm; and he did desire, if the truth must out, to be called ‘My Lord’ by his reverend brethren.

But these hopes, ‘were they innocent or sinful’, were not ‘fated to be realized’. The rhetorical symmetries in that passage are perhaps a little heavy-handed; a greater writer would have done this more subtly. Trollope may not be too interested in subtlety; he’s content to weave in and out of the positions we might normally expect of a narrator of a comedy with a moral message and keep unsettling us. Hence that piquant use of the first person plural: he turns the table on the reader, acknowledging Grantly’s venality, but confronting us with our own – and his. In refusing to preach, Trollope’s narrator demonstrates that moral rectitude is rarely straightforward.

My posts on The Warden are HERE and HERE