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.

Honesty is another word for foolishness: Pérez Galdós, Miau

 

After a not entirely satisfactory encounter with 19C Spanish fiction as represented by La Regenta (I wrote about it here and here) I turned with some trepidation to an old Penguin Classics edition of Benito Pérez Galdós’s 1888 novel Miau. The experience was mixed once again.

miau-coverIt’s a sobering, depressing plot: Don Ramón Villaamil has become a ‘cesante’ – a functionary in the immense bureaucracy of the Finance Ministry of the Spanish Restoration period who has lost his post with the fall of the political administration which appointed him. After nearly 35 years of service he’s been made redundant, just two months short of the pension which would have sufficed to provide for himself and his family.

And what a family. His waspish wife, the ironically named Doña Pura, is a spendthrift, whose mania for showing off her fading finery in the Madrid opera houses eclipses any inclination to be a housewife. Her sister Milagros (ironic name!) abets her in her tyrannical control of this household. Their unattractive daughter Abelarda (another aptly ironical name) is too timid and retiring to exert any control over anyone or anything.

Only Villaamil’s grandson, ten-year-old Luís, brings him any consolation. But the little boy is a chip of this old block. The grandfather is described early on as ‘an old consumptive tiger’, now with none of its former beauty ‘except its bright skin’ – he’s still capable of grumpy growling and self-pitying sulking, but he’s toothless.

The rest of the novel relates his increasingly humiliating attempts to beg money from former colleagues by writing letters to them, or by going the rounds of his former Treasury offices, seeking to gain favour and a new position by flattering, importuning or just being seen by his former subordinates and superiors – most of whom despise and patronize him. Those who don’t, find him a pitiable, abject figure.

It’s no spoiler to say this all ends badly for him. Too passive and introspective to play the aggressive role needed to persuade the new administration to employ him, he retreats ever further into himself, slowly turning from reluctant but persistent in his efforts to re-establish himself in the bureaucracy, to obsessive and manic – in the end conceding that he has become what these corrupt, self-serving pen-pushers see him as: a figure of fun, a deluded madman.

The narrative is often painfully slow moving, and the scenes in which this plot are enacted are often far too long and drawn-out. Spoken exchanges and Interior monologues tend to ramble on for pages.

This weakness is balanced by some genuine strengths – the qualities which have brought Galdós to be compared to Balzac and Dickens. I’d suggest he foreshadows Kafka in his bleak depiction of a gargantuan, labyrinthine bureaucracy whose main desire is to perpetuate its own lethargy and corruption, and which crushes anyone who fails to serve it in the manner it needs.

I’ll show some extracts, then, maybe more in another post, which represent him at his most compelling – but these moments are not frequent, there are many more longueurs.

In Ch. 3 Pura castigates her husband for not emulating his former subordinates, who by behaving like ‘scoundrels’ have gained promotions in the Ministry, while he has been ignominiously dropped.

She seizes upon the example of Cucúrbitas, a blundering incompetent:

He may be stupid, but he knows better than you how to push himself.

She despises the man, but admires his immorality: he takes bribes for settling accounts of the state’s clients. When the husband tries to quiet her, Pura continues, getting into her melodramatic stride:

‘How innocent you are! That’s why you are where you are, that’s why you’re poor and they pass you over. Because you haven’t a grain of foresight, and because you’ve been so careful about your blessed scruples. That isn’t honesty, let me tell you, it’s just obtuseness and stupidity.

She bitterly compares ‘honourable’ but unemployed Villaamil with this ‘dunderhead’ Cucúrbitas, concluding with the taunt that this fool will end up a director or minister – ‘And you’ll never be anything.’

She’s ‘warming to it’, our wry narrator informs us in a parenthesis like a stage direction (these dialogues are often punctuated like this, with long sequences of speeches given verbatim; Galdós was also a playwright, though more successful as a novelist). Why doesn’t Villaamil blackmail this administration by ‘coughing up’ scandal he knows about them and their ‘dirty work’, she says. She’d do it, and not care who got hurt. ‘Unmask all those scamps’, she exhorts, then he’d be found a post. But she knows he won’t, and castigates him for it.

Then she returns to more scornful abuse: he’s too full of ‘finicking and politeness’, politely deferring to these people. She moves in for the kill:

‘They just reckon you’re a nobody. But’ (raising her voice) ‘as sure as this light shines you ought to be a director by now. And why aren’t you? Because you’ve got no drive and no spirit, because you don’t count for anything, because you don’t know the way to go about things. Sighing and complaining won’t make them give you what you want.’

This tirade is relentless, her wrath like that of the ferocious sisters in King Lear, or Lady Macbeth’s when she tears into her husband when he shows reluctance to take decisive (ie murderous) action to fulfill their ambitions. Her final insults are vicious:

‘You’re harmless, you don’t bite, you don’t even bark, and they all laugh at you…It’s this honesty of yours that’s your undoing. Honesty is sometimes taken as just another word for foolishness….A man can preserve all the integrity in the world and still take care of himself and his family.’

Pura is blithely unaware of the illogical movement of her argument here, and it’s this showing of her pernicious nature that’s so effectively done: the narrator doesn’t have to explain or moralise – the author trusts us to see her as she truly is. Her hypocrisy and amorality are matched only by those of the bureaucrats she expects her husband to emulate – and yet she despises him for his refusal – or inability – to stoop to their kind of self-promotion.

There’s a grim humour in her preposterous, blistering assault on the submissive, ineffective ‘cesante’. He lacks the assertiveness and spirit that she is full of – he’s a worm that can’t turn.

That early description of the ‘old consumptive tiger’ is invoked in Pura’s diatribe. The message is clear: to get on in this corrupt world a man has to be ruthless. She fails to realise that she’s urging him to become the kind of bully who terrorises their little grandson in the opening chapter and elsewhere. Like Luís, Villaamil is too introspective and passive to fight back or stand up for himself against those who wrong him – yet he spends his time complaining about his fate.

This ambiguous dilemma and the way it’s dramatised in the novel are what redeems it somewhat from the tedious narrative sprawl. The modern world is complicated, and to swim with the sharks it’s necessary to become sharklike. Yet Villaamil isn’t portrayed as some Dostoevskian saintly innocent or idiot: he really is too passive for his own or his family’s good. There’s no redemption for the likes of him, and his loathsome, unfeeling son-in-law is his mirror image, a man who knows how to succeed, and has the morality of a snake. His name is, again, highly appropriate. He’s called Victor.