Dignity with sleekness: Anthony Trollope, The Warden

Anthony Trollope (1815-82), The Warden. First published 1855. Oxford World’s Classics 1994.

Trollope’s fourth novel is set in the cathedral town (based in part on Salisbury) of Barchester, and is the first of six in the Barsetshire sequence.

Its subject was highly topical: the ‘malapropriation of church funds’ (p. 24) and other financial/corruption scandals that beset the Church of England in the mid-19C, such as that involving the already wealthy Earl of Guilford’s nepotistically acquired Mastership of the Hospital of St Cross at Winchester: from this role he earned an income far greater than the amount allocated for the charity he ostensibly headed (David Skilton’s Introduction gives useful context).

Trollope Warden cover

This rather sweet cover illustration is from ‘The Only Daughter’ by J. Hallyar. It conveys the loving bond between Warden Harding and his daughter Eleanor.

A similarly dubious charitable institution inspires the plot of The Warden. The clergy of Barchester are described in the opening pages as the town’s ‘aristocracy’, and Septimus Harding, precentor of the cathedral for the previous ten years (he’s about sixty as the novel opens) has been appointed by the Bishop as Warden of Hiram’s Hospital in the town – a sort of almshouse for twelve ‘bedesmen’, retired working men with no other means of support. In return for neglible pastoral duties he’s awarded a moderately large annual income of £800 and a pleasant house with garden, while the charity’s supposed beneficiaries, the bedesmen, get a paltry daily allowance (supplemented by 2d daily out of Harding’s own pocket – though this doesn’t make much of a dent in his own income) and a home.

When local physician and ‘strong reformer’ of ‘all abuses’ John Bold takes up the old men’s case, advocating reform of this unjust division of the alms the hospital’s 15C founder surely intended was to benefit the old men, and not the titular head, the stage is set for a contentious and litigious conflict, for Archdeacon Grantly, married to Harding’s elder daughter Susan, is a fierce defender of the church’s reputation, and he enlists the services of the Sir Abraham Haphazard, the highest and toughest QC in the land, a ‘machine with a mind’, driven only by ‘success’, to fight the reformers. Meanwhile a campaigning, reforming newspaper ‘The Jupiter’, based loosely on The Times, takes up the case on the old men’s behalf, printing highly rhetorical and sensational stories that fuel the personified ‘Scandal’ in the town and its ‘murmurs’ and ‘whispers’ about the injustice of the Warden’s position.

To complicate things further, the naively (over-)zealous reformer Bold is in love with Harding’s younger daughter Eleanor, and she intervenes on her father’s behalf, knowing he is too mild-mannered and self-effacing to put up a fight for his own benefit.

The novel is charming, amusing and highly entertaining, and written (mostly) with great zest, pace and gentle irony. It’s weakened, however, by Trollope’s tendency to hedge his moral bets. On the one hand, he presents the reforming side as hypocritical, amoral and misguided; Bold, for example, is described thus by the narrator:

There is something to be admired in the energy with which he devotes himself to remedying evil and stopping injustice; but I fear that he is too much imbued with the idea that he has a special mission for reforming. It would be well if one so young had a little more diffidence himself, and more trust in the honest purposes of others.

Although there’s a whiff of irony in this critique of sanctimonious reformers, it still portrays Trollope’s view: that the church may well have some corrupt or greedy individuals, but that by and large as an institution it would be excessive to reform it from top to bottom; individuals are flawed, not institutions, he seems to suggest. Bold is comforts himself smugly in the ‘warmth of his own virtue’, according to this partial narrator.

On the other hand, the church is presented as a deeply corrupt, decadent institution full of ‘grasping priests’ and ‘gorged on wealth’ that’s badly in need of reform. But again it’s just a few individuals who are singled out for critical appraisal. Chief of these is Dr Grantly, the archdeacon and Bishop’s son; here’s that same ironical first-person, garrulous narrative voice describing him early on:

He has all the dignity of an ancient saint with the sleekness of a modern bishop; he is always the same; he is always the archdeacon; unlike Homer, he never nods…[and has a] sonorous tone and lofty deportment which strikes awe into the young hearts of Barchester, and absolutely cows the whole parish of Plumstead Episcopi [his parish].

‘Sleekness’ is excellent.

Later he’s likened to an ‘indomitable cock’ sharpening his spurs, readying for combat with the Warden, who he perceives as full of weakness and treachery (towards the church and the ‘sacred justice of al ecclesiastical revenues’); his ‘holy cause’ is to defend ‘the holy of holies from the touch of the profane’ and ‘pestilent dissenters’ – the reformers and the insurrectionary, ungrateful bedesmen. Oh, and he secretly reads Rabelais, hiding and locking the salacious book away when visitors call, and pretending instead to be composing sermons.

These bedesmen, largely illiterate old men, like Dickens’s trade unionists in Hard Times, are shown (with one noble but rather sycophantic exception, called Bunce) motivated by avarice rather than a sense of moral rectitude; their advocates are ‘raising immoderate hopes’ in their previously contented minds, and making them ‘hostile’ towards their kindly Warden. Here’s that sententious, floridly oratorical narrative voice on this in ch. 4:

Poor old men! Whoever may be righted or wronged by this inquiry, they at any rate will assuredly be only injured: to them it can only be an unmixed evil. How can their lot be improved? All their wants are supplied; every comfort is administered; they have warm houses, good clothes, plentiful diet, and rest after a life of labour; and, above all…a true and kind friend to listen to their sorrows, watch over their sickness, and administer comfort as regards this world, and the world to come!

This is both disingenuous and patronising – these men are given a pittance to live on, so would benefit greatly from a larger income. Trollope seems to side with the establishment view (like Grantly’s) that money is wasted on the labouring classes – they can’t appreciate the finer things of life, and don’t therefore deserve them. And Trollope ensures at the end that they don’t receive an extra penny when the Warden does the decent, honourable thing and resigns, unable to justify his ‘hated income’; ‘I have no right to be here’, he confesses  (and detects a savour of ‘simony’ in an offer of an alternative living by Grantly near the end) – a stance much to the horror and against the urgings of the hypocritical archdeacon, self-serving lawyers and fake-news-purveyors of the Jupiter.

Rather like Dickens’s equivocal position on social injustice and industrial exploitation of workers in Hard Times,published the previous year, Trollope seems genuinely disconcerted by the injustices he portrays, but can’t bring himself to turn his satirical guns on to the culpable institutions or their representatives. Instead he represents Warden Harding as a meek, saintly, pious and harmless old man, while the warring factions, as I’ve indicated, are all tainted with self-interest, self-righteousness and hypocrisy. Whereas Dickens seems to think that if the poor can just have circuses and be amused, all will be well in the world, Trollope suggests in this novel that if do-gooders just kept their noses out of other people’s business, the few good men like Harding would keep in check the venality and greed of the few bad, weak men who spoil a system which, though flawed, serves pretty well most of the time.

I realise I’ve started off sounding rather negative about this novel; so I need another post to indicate some of this novel’s virtues and delights. And maybe a few more cavils.