RogerBW's Blog

The Warden, Anthony Trollope 17 February 2015

1855 novel, first of Trollope's Chronicles of Barsetshire. The warden of Hiram's Hospital, an almshouse supported by a charitable bequest, comes under attack for keeping too much of the now-substantial income to himself.

Good solid Victorian stodge. I've read quite a lot of older works than this, but the thickness of the writing here makes it really hard work, like trying to eat a whole large chocolate cake at a sitting. People – well, some people, but not all of them – have meaningful names like Bold or Haphazard or Sentiment. Everything is desperately drawn out, the characters range from well-meaning but incompetent to blatantly horrible, and Trollope never uses one word where ten will do:

In the first place, he wished for Eleanor's sake to think well of Bold and to like him, and yet he could not but feel disgusted at the arrogance of his conduct. What right had he to say that John Hiram's will was not fairly carried out? But then the question would arise within his heart,—Was that will fairly acted on? Did John Hiram mean that the warden of his hospital should receive considerably more out of the legacy than all the twelve old men together for whose behoof the hospital was built? Could it be possible that John Bold was right, and that the reverend warden of the hospital had been for the last ten years and more the unjust recipient of an income legally and equitably belonging to others? What if it should be proved before the light of day that he, whose life had been so happy, so quiet, so respected, had absorbed eight thousand pounds to which he had no title, and which he could never repay? I do not say that he feared that such was really the case; but the first shade of doubt now fell across his mind, and from this evening, for many a long, long day, our good, kind loving warden was neither happy nor at ease.

And that in fact is most of the plot, endlessly repeated. Septimus Harding is the warden of an almshouse, set up by bequest hundreds of years ago. The income from that bequest is far more than it used to be, but the men of the almshouse are still given just a basic living, and the remainder provides Harding with a pleasant income which he uses to publish ancient music. John Bold the reformer starts a fuss about distributing this income instead to the residents, and Harding starts to believe that he might have a point. All of this is gradually made worse by Archdeacon Grantly, odious son of the bishop and married to Harding's elder daughter, with young sons even more horrible than he; by Tom Towers, writing editorials in a populist newspaper (1855 was the year stamp duty was abolished on newspapers, making mass-market media possible); and even by Harding's younger daughter Eleanor, in love with Bold.

Trollope loves a good joke, but sadly feels the need to rub it in: yes, John Bold can realise he's doing a bad thing and then take comfort by thinking of how virtuous he's being, but do we really need to make this point three times in the same chapter?

However, my real objection to all this is not to the stuffiness of the writing but to the utterly bleak view of everything and everybody. The situation as it stands is a portrait of self-satisfied injustice; but once Harding does resign, everybody is made poorer and less happy thereby. There is no justice and no possibility of justice in this world. And I thought Tom Holt could get a bit depressing at times!

Long attacks on reformers such as Thomas Carlyle ("Dr Pessimist Anticant") and Charles Dickens ("Mr Popular Sentiment") halt what progression of plot there is, and suggest that Trollope's core point is that while things may be bad now they can only get worse if they're changed. (He's also down on pre-Raphaelites and rooms with too many things in them.) I'm glad I read this, but my goodness it was hard work.

Available from Project Gutenberg.

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