Still waters still run deep – “The Warden” by Anthony Trollope

This is my review of The Warden (Penguin Classics) by Anthony Trollope.

The first story in the “Chronicles of Barchester” is a slim novel with such an apparently slight plot that it may seem all too easy to slip into the category of “classics I never got round to reading”, but that would be a mistake.

The Rev Septimus Harding enjoys a pleasant life in his role as warden at Hiram’s Hospital, with the welfare of twelve aged men in his care. His peace is shattered when John Bold, a local reformer bent on “stopping injustice” begins to question the financial arrangements that give the warden too high a salary and the old men too small a pension. Is Bold’s action foolhardy or noble, since he is jeopardising his prospects of marrying Harding’s daughter Eleanor?

In a climate of attacks on the religious establishment, the issue escalates. The machinations of Harding’s outraged control freak son-in-law, Dr Grantly are of little avail outside the cosy world of Barchester, and the matter even gets reported in “The Jupiter”, the highly influential organ of the national press. A decent and kindly man, Harding is mortified to find himself personally vilified. A further problem is his growing sense that he is not really entitled to his salary. Normally keen to avoid arguments and supine in the face of Grantly’s domination, is this to be the one occasion when Harding takes a stand and, if so, what form will it take?

In all this, the characters are so real, both in their conversations and the shifting inner thoughts that Trollope describes so acutely that, if one could meet them now, direct communication would be possible – as might not be the case for some of Dickens’ caricatures or Jane Austen’s mannered heroines (both writers whom I appreciate and respect in other ways).

The book is full of sly humour, as Trollope shows Abel Handy, the old men’s self-appointed spokesman, using all the manipulative arts of a modern union leader to induce his colleagues to “make their marks” (since they can’t write) on a petition. Likewise, we see how Mrs Grantly plays the accepted game of the dutiful wife in public, but controls her husband behind the scenes as he does others in public. Then there is the description of Harding, playing the “air violoncello” in moments of deep concentration or stress, to the bemusement of people who do not know him well. We can also identify with Trollope’s tongue-in-cheek musing on the power of the Jupiter, a kind of Victorian forerunner of Murdoch’s power to make and break people, at least until recently.

The only parts to which I cannot relate are when Trollope gives way to the fashion of his times to launch into a flowery essay on, say, the behaviour of people at social gatherings. When the language becomes arch and peppered with classic allusions I do not know, I lose patience. These passages are mercifully quite few, except towards the end when the plot moves to London.

What I like most is the way that, in his focus on the small, quiet lives of very ordinary people, Trollope has the gift of summoning a sense of grief and loss as moving as in any great tragedy, but also of maintaining a sense of proportion and showing people’s capacity to adjust and survive, as is part of the human condition.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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