Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope: A review

Barchester TowersBarchester Towers by Anthony Trollope
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It was with a keen sense of anticipation that I turned to Trollope once again to read the second in his Barsetshire Chronicles series, Barchester Towers. I had read the first, The Warden, in 2013 and found it to be a wonderful reading experience; thus, the bar was set high. I was not disappointed.

In Barchester Towers, we again meet the humble clergyman and thoroughly good man, now ex-warden, Mr. Harding, and his family. There is his most beloved daughter Eleanor Bold, now Widow Bold with a young son upon whom she shamelessly dotes. And there is the older daughter, Susan, and her husband, Archdeacon Grantly, and their children. All of these characters are integral to the story told here.

But this book introduces new characters who will put their stamp upon Barsetshire and particularly Barchester.

There is a new bishop in town. His name is Dr. Proudie and he is certainly one of the most indecisive men ever to hold such an office. He is ruled in turn by his wife Mrs. Proudie, who gives new meaning to the adjectives stiff-necked and power-hungry. She determines to be the bishop in fact, if not in name.

However, Mrs. Proudie has some competition. It is the bishop's own chaplain, the oily Mr. Slope. He certainly matches Mrs. Proudie in ambition and in his desire to rule the bishop. He also has great plans for moving his own career along. One part of that plan is to find a suitable wife who will be an asset in his scramble to the top of ecclesiastical society, not just in Barsetshire but in the country. Soon enough, his eye lights on the Widow Bold as a likely candidate to fill that office.

We also meet Mr. Quiverful, vicar of Puddingdale, a godly man, who, along with his long-suffering wife, must try to make a way in the world for their fourteen living children, with another added just about every year.

Then there is Mr. Arabin, lately of Oxford, and a friend of Dr. Grantly. The archdeacon brings him to Barchester to fill a clerical post, hoping that he will be a counterweight to the odious Mr. Slope whom he hates.

And lastly, we have the Stanhope family, lately in residence in Carrara, Italy, but now called home by the bishop to take up the office which the head of the family, Dr. Stanhope had held titularly but in absentia. The bishop and Barchester get a bit more than bargained for in the Stanhopes. They prove to be a rather dissolute family - or at least two of their children, Bertie and Madeline, do. But their influence, in the end, is not all bad.

Trollope's writing was most certainly tailored to the tastes of his 19th century audience. He is extraordinary in the pacing of his story and with the great care that he gives to the development and exposition of his characters. We come to know these people very well indeed. In fact, some readers complain about the time that Trollope takes in this book in setting up his characters. Virtually half the book is spent on these introductions and reintroductions, but he does it all so deftly, so flawlessly, and with such beautiful use of language that I never felt the urge, as I sometimes do with writers, to say, "Oh, just get on with it!"

Trollope invests his readers in the lives of his characters and compels us to be interested in their actions or, in some cases, inaction. Most of all, he makes us understand what motivates them - usually something to do with church life since that is what dominates Barchester society. All of that takes time and he never rushes the process. I can see how that would make some twenty-first century readers twitchy. Not me. I revel in it.

When we get to the action of this book, it is all about the struggle for ecclesiastical power in Barchester. After five years, the office of warden is still not filled and that is the initial focus of the struggle as Mrs. Proudie and Mr. Slope push to influence the bishop in making a choice of the candidates. The sentimental choice is Mr. Harding, but the post would mean economic salvation to the Quiverful family if Mr. Quiverful should be chosen. Meanwhile, the main concern of the powers that be - or would be - is to choose a candidate who will enhance their own standing. And none is too concerned about the means that are used to achieve that end.      

Now, with all of this clerical pushing and pulling, toing and froing, you might think you would find yourself sighing in frustration. Trust me. You won't. This is a very funny book! It is in its essence a satire and Trollope makes rich use of comedy and humor to expose the ridiculousness of human nature which hasn't improved at all in 158 years. He's still spot on.

If you would like something a little more meaty for your summer reading than the latest best-selling chic-lit bodice ripper or horror/murder mystery, you might want to give Trollope a chance. If you are a fan of good writing, you won't be disappointed. 

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  1. I think I am going to devote several months in the future to reading just classics. This may be one of my choices after I finish the ones I have on my TBR. I like church life and it seems there is a lot of politicking involved in this series, which would appeal my rebel nature.

    1. If Trollope is to be believed - and I think he is - then politics and ecclesiastical concerns were virtually the same thing in 19th century English society. Come to think of it, maybe that's still true today. Maybe it always was. Anyway, as the fan of good writing that I know you to be, you can hardly go wrong with Trollope. Just be prepared to spend some time with him.


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