Best Book of the Week!
As Trollope’s first book in his Chronicles of Barchester was about gentle Mr. Harding’s position as warden, it seems hardly possible that a good portion of Barchester Towers, the next in the series, would be about exactly the same subject. Yet, that is the case, and Trollope finds it to provide more food for satire and social commentary.
Several years have passed since the events of The Warden. The kindly old bishop, Dr. Grantly, is dying, attended by his son, the archdeacon, and his old friend Mr. Harding. Although the younger Dr. Grantly is certainly devoted to his father, he has hopes that he will be appointed to his father’s office, as he has been doing the work for years. However, just before his father dies, a new government comes in, and Dr. Proudie is appointed bishop.
The quarrels in this novel pit low church against high church, which is about all I understand about the religious issues. But all of the clergy in Barchester are high church, and Bishop Proudie is low. Bishop Proudie himself, a meek man, is not so much a problem, but he arrives with a wife who is determined to sit in on every meeting and meddle in diocese business, much to the shock of everyone else. In this she is assisted by Mr. Slope, the bishop’s own chaplain, selected by Mrs. Proudie. And an insinuating, unlikable Uriah Heepish character he is.
One of the first issues to come up for the bishop is the wardenship of the hospital for old men, which has sat vacant since Mr. Harding resigned. Bishop Proudie knows he must offer the position at its lowered salary to Mr. Harding, and Mr. Harding would enjoy returning to the house that was his home for so many years and taking up his old duties. But Mrs. Proudie wants anyone except the entrenched Barchester clergy, so she selects Mr. Quiverful, an impoverished curate with 14 children.
Under instruction from the bishop to offer the position to Mr. Harding, Mr. Slope does so by adding conditions to the position that he knows Mr. Harding will not accept and that Mr. Slope himself, or even the bishop, has no authority to request. Although Mr. Harding does not turn down the job outright, Mrs. Proudie then promises it to Mrs. Quiverful.
But Mr. Slope decides that he can run the bishopric himself if he can cut out Mrs. Proudie, so he and the bishop soon have a silent agreement to throw off the feminine yoke. They do so by offering the wardenship to Mr. Harding again. Mr. Slope has also found out that the beautiful widow, Mrs. Bold, is wealthy. He decides to marry her and feels that he won’t help his chances unless he assists her father, Mr. Harding, back into his position.
In the meantime, Mr. Slope is infatuated with Madeline Neroni, the crippled but beautiful married daughter of Dr. Stanhope. She herself is frankly toying with him and several other men, but she turns out to have some sympathy with Eleanor Bold. However, Madeline’s sister Charlotte Stanhope has decided that her impecunious brother Bertie must marry Eleanor for her money.
Barchester Towers affords another entertaining look at the political and social maneuvers underpinning this mostly religious community. It offers lifelike, engaging characters, plenty of humor, and an empathetic and perceptive view of Trollope’s own time. I enjoyed The Warden particularly because I sympathized with the upright Mr. Harding, but Barchester Towers offers more for our consideration and is an altogether more significant work.