In this early Victorian soap opera, an elderly bishop’s death triggers the drama of Barchester Towers. His ambitious, worldly son, Archdeacon Grantly, who has long been the power behind the bishop’s throne, is anxious to succeed him but an untimely change in government and the move against ritualistic, “high church” practices, which have long prevailed in Barchester, count against him.
In what seems the worst possible outcome, the newly appointed Bishop Proudie, is not merely “evangelical”, but completely under the thumb of his wife who has chosen as his chaplain her protégé Mr Slope, a slippery schemer who fully intends to run the show himself. The twists and turns of the ensuing power struggle are complicated by the fact that three very different men, including Obadiah Slope, are drawn in various ways not only to Grantly’s sister-in-law Eleanor Bold, a beautiful and wealthy young widow, but to the even more alluring but crippled Signora Neroni with a mysteriously absent Italian husband, who flirts outrageously from her sofa as a distraction.
Much of this novel is a page-turner by reason of Trollope’s very acute observation of human nature and his ability to describe it so vividly in all its contradictory shifts. His plots are imaginative and humorous, with strong dialogues which often have the directness of a playscript. The occasional “continuity errors”, generally in timing, do not matter greatly and are probably a result of the novel having been written and expanded over a period of months.
The more serious drawbacks for a modern reader are the result of the inevitable radical changes in the accepted style of writing and in society over more than a century and a half. Trollope is an intrusive narrator, who cannot resist often telling the reader what is going to happen, musing about such matters as the problem of knowing how to finish a book, or simply digressing to bang on about some new custom which he personally dislikes. He causes occasional twinges of unease with examples of anti-semitism, male chauvinism and class snobbery, because although one know he was understandably influenced by the values of his times, one somehow expects such a perceptive man to be more self-aware as regards such issues. Some sections are heavy going because of the references to the doctrinal battles within the Church and the political divisions of the day, together with the Latin tags now long forgotten. Obviously, one can look these up, but that is a distraction from the plot flow.
Overall, although one might not wish to wade through all the Barsetshire Chronicles, this classic is certainly worth reading. Throughout, Eleanor’s father, the outwardly meek, even weak Septimus Harding remains the most decent, fair-minded and truly virtuous of them all.