Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope

by Catherine Pope on January 22, 2011

Barchester Towers by Anthony TrollopeAlthough readers often struggle with The Warden, their efforts are amply rewarded by Barchester Towers (1857), the next novel in the Barset Chronicles. The story begins with the death of the Bishop, followed by a great deal of manoeuvering amongst those who seek to fill the much-coveted position. The triumphant candidate is Thomas Proudie, although it is his wife who wears the cassock in their household. Mrs Proudie – the “Medea of Barchester” – is perhaps Trollope’s most famous character and one of his finest comic creations. The plot mainly concerns her battles with the ambitious and oleaginous Obadiah Slope, who is determined to bend the Bishop to his will. The confrontations between Mrs Proudie and Slope are brilliantly drawn and sublimely funny. Bishop Proudie himself is a study in inertia and simply defers to whichever of the two rivals happens to be in the ascendant.

Not content with seeking political advantage, Slope also resolves to secure for himself an advantageous marriage, having no mean opinion of his appeal to the opposite sex. He has his evil eye on Eleanor Bold, the recently widowed and wealthy daughter of Septimus Hardy, but is distracted by the specious charms of Signora Madeline Vesey Neroni. Although permanently crippled by her estranged husband, Madeline proves irresistible to the men of Barchester, much to the disgust of their womenfolk, and uses her power to deadly and comic effect. Slope is no match for her, or indeed for any of the other formidable women he attempts to conquer. It takes a hard slap in the face from Eleanor to convince him that his attentions are unwelcome.

Eleanor Bold is one of Trollope’s strongest female characters. Independently wealthy, she is “fair game to be hunted down by hungry gentlemen”, but bats them away vigorously, refusing to accept that she should be grateful for proposals from importunate suitors. Eleanor shows dignity, courage and spirit beyond that permitted to many Victorian heroines. It is unfortunate, therefore, that Trollope ultimately reduces her to wifely submission when she finally does remarry:

She has found the strong shield that should guard her from all wrongs, the trusty pilot that should henceforward guide her through the shoals and rocks. She would give up the heavy burden of her independence, and once more assume the position of a woman and the duties of a trusting and loving wife.

Possibly Trollope lost his nerve and decided that leaving Eleanor independent and happy at the novel’s conclusion would create an alarming precedent.

His portrayal of Madeline remains radical, however. There are relatively few clear depictions of marital violence in nineteenth-century fiction, but Trollope makes little attempt to obfuscate Madeline’s sufferings:

She had fallen, she said, in ascending a ruin, and had fatally injured the sinews of her knee; so fatally that when she stood, she lost eight inches of her accustomed height; so fatally that when she essayed to move, she could only drag herself painfully along, with protruded hip and extended foot, in a manner less graceful than that of a hunchback. She had consequently made up her mind, once and forever, than she would never stand and never attempt to move herself. Stories were not slow to follow her, averring that she had been cruelly ill-used by Neroni, and that to his violence had she owed her accident.

Trollope’s handling of such a harrowing issue could easily weigh down the entire narrative, but he undercuts the tragedy with the ludicrous reactions of the other female characters to this exotic creature:

“But you say she has only got one leg!”

“She is as full of mischief as tho’ she had ten. Look at her eyes, Lady De Courcy. Did you ever see such eyes in a decent woman’s head?”

Some of the humour elsewhere is perhaps unintentional, the following innuendo-laden scene a good case in point:

Here to her great delight she found Harry Greenacre ready mounted, with his pole in his hand …

“Shall I begin, ma’am?” said Harry, fingering his long staff in a rather awkward way.”

Maybe I’m just being smutty, but Trollope is not averse to the occasional double entendre in his other fiction.

Barchester Towers manages to be entertaining, incisive and provocative, and is representative of Trollope’s talents and range. It lacks a strong narrative arc, but with such superb characters and scenes, it is hardly necessary. In his Autobiography, Trollope wrote: “In the writing of Barchester Towers I took great delight.” His delight is evident on every page.

Out now: The Meanings of Home in Elizabeth Gaskell's Fiction, a beautifully written study of this Victorian author's novels.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Annie January 22, 2011 at 5:58 pm

Mrs Proudie and Obidiah Slope are, without any doubt, two of the most magnificent characters in all of English Literature. Just reading about them here has brought a smile to my lips and a desire to go and find my copy of the book and spend the rest of the weekend – I was going to say renewing my acquaintance with them, but I think I’d rather keep them at a little greater distance than that.

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catherine January 24, 2011 at 4:39 pm

Indeed, one would want to visit Barchester for afternoon tea, rather than actually live there.

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Desperate Reader January 22, 2011 at 6:45 pm

I’ve just started ‘Framley Parsonage’ and am delighted to meet Mrs Proudie again. As a Trollope novice I’m wondering how typical the lack of narrative arc is, my limited reading suggests very typical and it’s something I’m increasingly curious about?

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catherine January 24, 2011 at 4:38 pm

Hmm, good point, Desperate Reader. I think Trollope is generally more interested in characterisation than plot. He is almost Brechtian in his tendency to signal what’s about to happen so that the reader can instead concentrate on how the character deals with the situation in which they find themselves. An Old Man’s Love and Miss Mackenzie keep the reader in suspense, but that’s related to the outcome of a dilemma, rather than an impending denouement.

I, too, have just started Framley Parsonage and am rejoicing in the return of Mrs Proudie. I’m looking forward to seeing your review.

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Carolyn January 23, 2011 at 12:20 am

I read several of the Palliser books last year, but this sounds quite fun too, so I’ll have to get to the Barchester books eventually. I just started reading The Beth Book by Sarah Grand, which I think you recommended somewhere and I’m really enjoying it, so thank you for bringing it to my attention, I was quite excited to see it in a secondhand bookstore!

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catherine January 24, 2011 at 4:34 pm

I’m glad you managed to track down The Beth Book, Carolyn, and am relieved that you’re enjoying it!

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Ali B January 23, 2011 at 12:42 pm

I must re-read Barchester Towers. I’d forgotten about Madeline. Her character and situation has made me think of Count and Countess Fosco, domestic violence and control.

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catherine January 24, 2011 at 4:32 pm

Yes, the grotesqueness of Madeline is certainly worthy of Wilkie Collins.

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Kathy December 28, 2011 at 12:08 am

Hi: Great review of Barchester Towers and I must say, I did NOT notice the double entendres. Trollope did have a modern sensibility and I’m pleased you pointed out his portrayal of an abused (but unredeemedly obnoxious) woman.

Funny that people struggle with The Warden – I didn’t know. I read both books recently (see my reviews at: http://yearofreadingmybooks.wordpress.com/tag/anthony-trollope/) and I felt that The Warden was a better book, much more streamlined, and funnier. Barchester Towers just goes on and on – don’t get me wrong, I loved it, but man did Trollope give himself license to blather at long length in places.

Happy Reading! “Ruby”

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catherine December 28, 2011 at 10:36 am

Hello Ruby. Many thanks for your comment. I very much enjoyed your reviews, too, and what a lovely illustrated edition of Barchester Towers! I am also intrigued by the Quiverful Movement in the US – extraordinary.

Yes, you’re right, Trollope certainly did blather in places. I think part of the problem is that he was often writing for serialisation and therefore he needed to fill dozens of issues. The stories weren’t always edited before publication in volume form. Some of his short novels are among the best, due to the tight structure.

Anyway, I shall keep an eye on your blog to find out about your other Trollopian encounters.

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