Anthony Trollope, The Warden. Post 2

Last time I took Trollope to task for his tipping the moral balance of The Warden against the reformers, despite his finding fault too with the corrupt and privileged elite, like the warden Harding’s ‘most coveted of the snug clerical sinecures attached to our church’ (note that use of ‘our’) as well as the representatives of the law, media and state. As my replies to comments on that first post suggest, he goes out of his way to punish the blameless old men in the hospital, and in fact make their position even worse once the decision is made – by whom, or how, the author neglects to tell us, we just have to take his word for it – not to award them a penny more from the charitable trust that provides for them. All the reformers succeed in doing, is his moral, is to worsen their lot, and endanger their own happiness.

This time I’d like to be less indignant about Trollope’s moral tepidity, and say something about some of the novel’s merits. Chief among these is his ability to use a varying narrative voice and position with which to deliver his observations (even though, to return to my indignation for a moment, some of these are pretty unsavoury).

First is his (usually successful, but not always) pose as an ironically less-than-omniscient, humble recorder of limited materials available to him. This is from ch. 6:

What had passed between Eleanor Harding [the eponymous warden’s unmarried daughter, in love with misguided reforming zealot John Bold] and Mary Bold [the reformer’s unimpressed sister] need not be told. It is indeed a matter of thankfulness that neither the historian nor the novelist hears all that is said by their heroes or heroines, or how would three volumes or twenty suffice! In the present case so little of this sort have I overheard, that I live in hopes of finishing my work within 300 pages, and of completing that pleasant task – a novel in one volume…[and then he’s forced to resume the scene at the warden’s tea party; and his novel fills just 284 pages of my OWC edition!]

Trollope as metafictional postmodernist! This knowing ironic stance recurs often, as in ch. 11:

And now I own I have fears for my heroine; not as to the upshot of her mission [to dissuade her beloved John Bold from continuing his campaign against her father’s unfair share of the trust’s funds]…as to the full success of her generous scheme, and the ultimate result of such a project, no one conversant with human nature and novels can have a doubt; but as to the amount of sympathy she may receive from those of her own sex.

The narrator goes on to suggest that only ‘girls below twenty and old ladies above sixty will do her justice’, for these are the only groups of females who still have hearts capable of opening up ‘the soft springs of sweet romance’. But the majority of the rest, he fears, will disapprove of her plan. For they are sufficiently worldly (as in unromantic) to know that ‘young women on their knees before their lovers are sure to get kissed.’

OK, he concedes with a wink, this prediction might well come true, but he claims Eleanor’s youth is such that she doesn’t yet know such an outcome is likely:

She may get kissed; I think it very probable that she will; but I give my solemn word and positive assurance, that the remotest idea of such a catastrophe never occurred to her as she made the great resolve now alluded to.

This is good fun – though not entirely generous to Eleanor. But I can’t go on finding Trollope politically incorrect, so let’s allow him some good jokes, even if they are a bit off-colour.

He even makes a gesture of propitiation about that dodgy morality I’ve been complaining about. This is in the penultimate ch. 20, ‘Farewell’, in which the narrator takes his leave of the awful bully, archdeacon Grantly, who has been indomitable in his defence of the warden’s position – not out of fondness for his father-in-law, but because of his unswerving belief in the church’s infallibility. I’ll have to edit this long section, which is a pity, because it dilutes the subtlety of the effects achieved by the narrative voice:

We fear that he is represented in these pages as being worse than he is; but we have had to do with his foibles, and not with his virtues. We have seen only the weak side of the man [not his stronger points]. That he is a man somewhat too fond of his own way, and not sufficiently scrupulous in his manner of achieving it, his best friends cannot deny. That he is bigoted in favour, not so much of his doctrines as of his cloth, is also true: and it is true that the possession of a large income is a desire that sits near his heart. Nevertheless the archdeacon is a gentleman and a man of conscience…His aspirations are of a healthy, if not the highest, kind…He is…a man to be furthered and supported, though perhaps also to be controlled; and it is a matter of regret to us that the course of our narrative has required that we should see more of his weakness than his strength.

That’s also pretty good – there’s a touch of the ironical voice of some of Jane Austen’s deceptively gentle, critical narrators, with a slight suggestion too of Henry Fielding’s garrulously intrusive, highly unreliable narrator in Tom Jones. Even though I hate that Trollope can’t quite bring himself to punish the likes of the odious Grantly, while he’s happy to ruin the harmless old bedesmen in the hospital, I have to concede that this is good writing – that arch use of anaphora (‘That he is…’ repeated and varied numerous times in this passage), accompanied by the nuanced repetitions (‘is true’) of the obvious defects in Grantly – his weaknesses, hypocrisy, bigotry and greed – are beautifully laid out here, all in the witty guise of a defence of the man.

And now I find I’ve gone on too long once again. I doubt I’ll return for another post on this novel, which is a shame, because there are some interesting things in it about the presentation of women (I’ve hinted at a few features already, not all of them to Trollope’s credit), the somewhat heavy-handed ironical portraits of contemporary writers and The Times newspaper and its unscrupulous journalists; there’s even a little swipe at that easiest of targets, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Some of these sections are duds, and the digressions set in London tend to look like padding, but some are really well done – and the fake news aspects of the amoral press and emotionally exploitative, manipulative Mr Popular Sentiment (a rather nasty attack on Dickens) that he depicts are sadly pertinent today.

As I was about to publish this a comment by Izzy popped up on the previous post, making a good point about some of Trollope’s merits, including use of dialogue – do take a look if you missed it.