29 December 2010

Smack in the Middle of Barsetshire

The odious Mrs. Proudie and the unctuous Mr. Slope,
as portrayed by Geraldine McEwan and Alan Rickman.
In looking for pictures to illustrate this essay, I’ve discovered that several of my favorite actors took part in a TV adaptation of the novel.
Now I’ll have to find it on DVD.

Anthony Trollope set Barchester Towers in the time in which he wrote, almost to the day, with important thematic developments almost literally ripped from the headlines — which must have made the task of research quite a bit easier for the old boy. Coming to the novel more than 150 years later, I was impressed with but not much interested by the minutiae of Anglican Church politics, and it’s for this reason that my next Trollope novel is unlikely to be a Barchester chronicle. However, my reading experience has been in every way happier than previous (and very limited) samplings of Trollope’s work, and it’s a safe bet that I’ll venture in once again.

Shameless! (Sometimes)

Long hours spent in the subway necessitated some sort of reading material, and sent me to the used-book store; I’m not sure what steered me toward Barchester Towers, excepting its low, low price and a paperback edition of a comfortable size (not easy to find in Trollope Land). Let us say that the novel fit the dimensions of my pocket, in two different ways.

But I hadn’t read The Warden, the first in a series that, given the opportunity, runs to six novels altogether. Barchester Towers is a sequel, the second book in the series, and Trollope devotes so much of the early chapters to reference to The Warden that for a long time I didn’t think I’d last — any more than I did with the Palliser novels, when I was 16.* A few years later, I managed better with The Way We Live Now, finishing it and admiring it. But really, the odds were against me this time: picking up in medias res the multi-volume work of an author whose prose has always quite reliably put me to sleep.

Septimus Harding, the sometime Warden,
as portrayed by Donald Pleasance

The pleasure of Barchester Towers for this reader is the keenness of the satire. As his country clerics vie for power, they are every bit as cunning and as ruthless as the great British generals who were busily conquering a global empire even as Trollope wrote. Here, as in E.F. Benson’s Lucia novels**, I have the sense that Britain’s glory is entirely predicated upon a shared national desire for conquest and domination, whether it’s the playing fields of Eton and Harrow, or the jungles of Africa and Asia, or the dinner tables of Riseholme and Tilling — or the churches of Barsetshire.

The two wiliest characters in Barchester Towers are also the most power-hungry — the most shocking to other characters and the most entertaining to the reader. Mrs. Proudie, wife of the new bishop, and her favorite (but soon-to-be adversary), Mr. Slope, the bishop’s chaplain, are exaggerated, improbable, but thoroughly delicious. Their nearest rival in cunning is an English cleric’s daughter with a shady past, who has dubbed herself the Signora Vesey Neroni. (As ever, the contrast between English and Italian mores yields high comedy.) Among them, a remarkable triangle is formed, in which sexual desire is at least as important a motivator as social power or church doctrine. French novelists of the same period would have spelled this out more explicitly, but there’s a genuine satisfaction to the reader who discovers for himself what moves these characters.

The Signora (Susan Hampshire) entertains her admirers.

Arrayed against these three are the forces of good, who prevail primarily because the novelist decides that they should, and he does so, one suspects, because he lived in Victorian England. The nicer characters are not surprisingly less interesting and at times less sympathetic than their machinating antagonists. If we feel charitably toward Eleanor Bold, the headstrong, widowed daughter of the eponymous Warden, it’s mostly because her priggish friends unfairly malign her; we’re quite happy when things turn out well for her.

This is Trollope’s intention, and he announces it early — and so audaciously that this reader’s singularly un-Victorian reaction was a loud WTF? Eleanor’s hand will not be won by either of two unsuitable suitors, the author tells us, smashing every bit of suspense except the lingering question of how she’ll escape their clutches. (Once it becomes clear that a third suitor exists, some suspense is restored.)

The Good Guys: Nigel Hawthorne as the disapproving Dr. Grantly,
with Pleasance as Harding

In many ways, Trollope shows himself to be a remarkably clumsy novelist — he’s terrible at character names, too — and yet he sprinkles enough wit and just enough action that one keeps reading quite happily. And he’s quite good at set-piece parties, such as Mrs. Proudie’s ill-fated reception, or Miss Thorne’s only slightly more successful fête, when many characters come together, clash, and send the plot spinning off in new directions.

Nowadays the market is limited for old-fashioned fiction such as Trollope’s, and yet there’s no denying how well it works. Moreover, it’s exceptionally good reading on a long subway ride.

The corner mailbox, Trollope’s most practical — and arguably most enduring — contribution to his time and to ours.

*NOTE: Forced by my travel plans to miss the conclusion of the television adaptation, I carried the first of the Palliser novels with me on my maiden voyage to Europe. The Continent provided far too many distractions, and I set the book aside, never to pick it up again. Can you forgive me?

**Speaking of adaptations, it’s vital to remember that the sublime Geraldine McEwan is the incarnation of Benson’s Lucia in a memorable TV adaptation, opposite Nigel Hawthorne as her Georgie. Surely no two actors are better-equipped to prevail in any tea-party arena. And Susan Hampshire is a shining paragon of Trollope, having portrayed Glencora Palliser.

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