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.





15 thoughts on “Anthony Trollope, The Warden. Post 2

  1. Wonderful essay Simon, it is a lot of fun to see you “come at” this novel from a whole other angle. I am inspired to keep this essay and read novel, especially to pick up tips from the more procedural aspects of Part 2.


    • Thanks again, Maureen. I was still unable to avoid having a bit of a pop at the author, but I enjoyed many aspects of this novel, while finding others distasteful, including some of the views on women – though he skewers John Bold for patronising his sister: ‘You don’t understand it, my dear girl’ he says, as she tries, as Eleanor does, to change his course from ‘this mad – this suicidal thing’ – risking his friend the warden’s future, and his own with the woman he loves. Instead he’s filled with ‘meditations on his own virtue’: ‘I fear’, says the narrator, brilliantly, ‘that she did not admire as she should have done the self-devotion of his singular virtue.’ See: I can be generous to AT, even when he’s sneering at well-meaning reformers. Just because he balances his sneering (as I show in the section in this post on Grantly’s portrayal; he’s equally tough on the lawyers and journalists) doesn’t endear him to me, I’m afraid.

  2. Interesting, Simon – you obviously still have reservations and pretty much everything I’ve read about Trollope praises him unreservedly. I have many of his novels lurking, and now I think I might be better starting with one of the standalone titles!

  3. I think it would be premature to form an opinion on The Barchester Chronicles, or indeed on Trollope, having read only this novel. His views on women are not distasteful at all. As in real life, some of his female characters are stupid, others are obnoxious, socially ambitious, others are clever, opinionated, witty, kind-hearted (I’m thinking particularly of Martha Dunstable, in Dr Thorne). They are as every bit interesting as their male counterparts.

  4. Definitely not a socialist! He was a hardworking professional writer who was strategic about everything he wrote. I read his autobiography not so long ago (see and what is interesting is that he specifically says that he wrote The Warden without knowing too much about ecclesiastical life. What he was always interested in was exposing the foibles and the minor corruption of the clergy and landed gentry, something that appealed to the middle classes who were the market for his books…

    • Thanks for the link – I’ll take a look at your post. David Skilton, in his Introduction to the OWC paperback edition, cites the Autobiography as evidence of AT’s ruefulness that The Warden sold so badly, and also that it was a visit to Salisbury that inspired him with its ‘nostalgic sympathy’ – hence ‘bishops should sometimes be rich!’ (ch. 5) to write a novel set in a cathedral town, among its clerical ‘aristocracy’. But of course he was also painfully aware of the ‘malversation of charitable trusts’ at the time (had to look that one up). In the Autobiography T also says that he was ‘misguided to attack both charitable abuses and the power of the press in the same novel, and suggests that he would have done well to espouse one cause alone’ (Skilton’s summary). I suppose that was what I felt about his moral equivocation, as I saw it, in his treatment of the old men of the hospital: bishops should be rich, but bedesmen, poor. But maybe once I’ve read more of him I’ll develop a clearer view of him.

  5. I found it interesting reading in Paul Theroux’ recent essays that Trollope lost his whole reputation by being very pragmatic in his autobiography about writing for money, writing every day, etc. Which seems annoying!

    • See the link in the comments below by Lisa, where she links to her review of the Autobiography of Trollope, and discusses this very topic. As she says, he suffered considerably as a consequence, when surely many writers have churned stuff out for money – from Defoe and Fielding to Dickens and just about every other Victorian writer – not to mention more modern ones. My post on Gissing, New Grub Street, is pertinent here. We can’t all be Flaubert, polishing our few paragraphs a day, searching for le mot juste.

  6. Well, Flaubert’s father died when Gustave was 25, thus leaving him a comfortable private income. Balzac, on the other hand, had to slave away his whole (short) life, because his failed business ventures and his taste for luxury.

    • As Virginia Woolf pointed out, a room of one’s own and a certain level of income are prerequisites for a certain kind of writer. I suppose the point was that Trollope was deprecated for admitting that he wrote to a rigorous schedule, turning out so many words per day, etc. – when in fact many writers did much the same. Awaiting the muse doesn’t always produce anything, while meeting publication deadlines and paying the rent sharpens the wits wonderfully…

  7. I’m really enjoying these reviews Simon and I’m glad I saved them to read later. Still not sure about The Warden, but I’ll read on and may yet read it in the wider context of the Barsetshire Chronicles (though in truth I’m probably saving them for decades from now when I’m hopefully retired).

    • If nothing else it paves the way for what follows in the Chronicles; Barchester Towers is much better, and makes more sense if you’ve read this one first. It’s not long, either.

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