The Warden was the first of Anthony Trollope’s Barchester novels, inspired by a setting and a series of Church of England preferment scandals. A chronicler of 19th century life, Trollope was interested in the intersections between practical and emotional considerations. He was a prolific writer known for complex, realistic novels.
The main character of The Warden is Mr. Harding, a kindly, well-meaning canon who is warden of a charitable hospital, sort of a retirement home for poor old men. For his care of the twelve old men’s spiritual well-being, he receives a salary of £800 a year. It is a position that involves little work and also includes a comfortable house, where he lives with his younger daughter Eleanor.
John Bold has been a friend of this house since a young boy, and Eleanor’s friends are expecting to hear of their engagement. John is a wealthy young man who doesn’t have to work for a living, so he has turned his attentions to reform. After a preferment scandal in another town, he decides to look into the will of the man who endowed the hospital. He finds that the pay of the warden has increased 25 times since the endowment 400 years ago, while the residents’ stipends have not increased, although of course the cost of their food and lodging and medical care has increased and is taken care of by the trust. In fact, the only increase the residents have had has come out of Mr. Harding’s own pocket.
Despite his sister’s advice, instead of taking this issue up with the church or the trust, John Bold brings a lawsuit on behalf of the hospital residents and takes the issue to The Jupiter, a powerful newspaper. His lawyer gets most of the elderly residents to sign a petition, rashly promising them £100 a year each. (Note how well the math works here. Even if they took all of Mr. Hardings’ salary, they wouldn’t have enough money to pay each of the residents £100 a year.)
It is Mr. Hardings’ reaction that forms the core of the novel, for he is not interested, like the lawyers and his son-in-law the archbishop, in whether the case will be won or lost but in whether the plaintiff’s point is morally correct. Although he has never given his position any thought, in fact is simply an employee of the trust, he is concerned that the intent of the original will might have been that the recipients of the charity should receive a larger share of it.
Except for his mild-mannered friend, the bishop, he cannot find anyone who will even enter into a discussion with him on this topic. And the bishop is completely dominated by his son, the archbishop Dr. Grantly. Dr. Grantly pushes aside Mr. Hardings’ concerns, which he considers weak, disregarding his wife’s ascerbic comments on how poorly he is handling her father. Soon, a newspaper article has appeared that makes poor Mr. Harding look greedy and grasping.
Not only is Trollope interested in exploring the differences between the reactions of Mr. Hardy, high-minded and feeling, and the lawyers and Dr. Grantly, all business and practicality, but he is also interested in the ramifications of reform. Although he shows there is corruption, this corruption is more of the institutional kind that has evolved over time. No one is purposefully trying to cheat anyone. On the other hand, he wants to point out that the alternatives to these entrenched systems might actually be worse.
We can predict that Mr. Harding ends up financially worse off than he started but that the hospital inhabitants do, too. Trollope’s first Barsetshire novel is quiet and slyly ironic. Trollope is not as often read these days, but he is certainly worth reading.