The Warden. Barchester Towers / Anthony Trollope

The Warden and Barchester Towers are the first two novels in the Chronicles of Barsetshire series written by Anthony Trollope. This series would grow to six books published over the course of twelve years. All are set in the fictitious English county of Barsetshire and its cathedral town of Barchester. The series satirizes the dealings of the clergy and the gentry class in England during the eighteenth century. While religious matters are touched upon, Trollope concentrates mostly on the political maneuvering and backstabbing that takes place among and between both groups.

Published in 1855, The Warden’s main protagonist is Septimus Harding, the meek elderly warden of Hiram’s Hospital, an almshouse that shelters twelve aged men. All hell breaks loose when a zealous reformer, John Bold, launches a campaign to expose the generous salary Harding is paid as opposed to how little money is actually spent to feed and clothe the beadsmen. To complicate matters, Bold is romantically involved with Harding’s younger daughter, Eleanor. The campaign leads Harding to conclude that he cannot in good conscience continue to accept such a generous salary, and so he resigns his office. However, he is opposed in such a move by his son-in-law, the Archdeacon, and other Church of England officials who control the hospital’s funding. A simple tale, what makes the story special is observing an honorable man, Septimus Harding, caught in a tug of war between his desire to do the right thing and the pressure from his church superiors urging him to do otherwise.

Barchester Towers, the second book in the series, followed in 1857. While Harding does play a role in this novel, it is not the main one. Adding new characters to the mix, Trollope widens the story’s scope as he satirizes the battle taking place among the clergy in Barsetshire. On one side there are those who adhere to High Church doctrine, on the other the Evangelical wing. It also focuses on Harding’s daughter Eleanor, the now widowed Mrs. Bold who receives romantic interest from two clergymen, one High Church and the other Evangelical. This leads to numerous comical misunderstandings on the part of Eleanor’s family, as well as her suitors, who misinterpret which side and man she will choose.

These two novels make for an excellent introduction to Trollope’s literary output. Barchester Towers is generally thought to be the best book in the Chronicles series. I do recommend reading The Warden first. While not necessary for comprehending the second book in the series, it does a good job of setting up its backstory. In each, his characters show they are often more interested in living the good life rather than attending to their church members’ spiritual concerns. As these books humorously attest, there is political intrigue and petty infighting galore to be found in Barsetshire county.

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