Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers (1857)

It's a very direct sequel to The Warden, and it makes you wonder why such things were, as far as I can tell, not often done in Victorian fiction.  The industry was big business, so why wouldn't more people capitalize on successes to make an extra buck?  Maybe because the average Victorian novel was so long; the authors always felt they'd said all they had to say about that.  Then again, that doesn't stop our contemporary authors of twelve-volume fantasy "epics."

IN ANY CASE, welcome back to Barchester!  It's been some years since Mr. Harding stepped down from his role as Warden, and lately the Bishop, Mr. Grantley's father, has died, and now there's a new bishop from outside, a weak-willed sort whose domineering wife and unctuous chaplain Mr. Slope ("I have heard it asserted that he is lineally descended from that eminent physician who assisted at the birth of Mr T. Shandy, and that in early years he added an 'e' to his name, for the sake of euphony") are battling to control, the current battleground being the question of who is going to take on the still-vacant post of Warden. Then there's Mr. Harding's daughter, Eleanor.  She married John Bold at the end of The Warden, and sometime in the interim between that book and this, they had a son and then, alas, Trollope unceremoniously killed her husband off, leaving her with a nice fortune of a thousand pounds a year.  The loathesome Slope takes it into his head that it would be very profitable to marry her, and she has another would-be suitor in the form of Bertie Stanhope, the son of a prebendary who was summoned back to England from Italy with his children, also including his crippled daughter with an abusive husband, maybe, somewhere back in Italy, who styles herself Signora Neroni and even though she has to be carried everywhere, makes it her business to make as many men as possible fall in love with her, just for kicks (this is what HAPPENS when you try to summarize a Victorian novel in brief; you get caught in these endless spirals).  Anyway, DON'T WORRY, because neither of these two will marry Mrs. Bold, as Trollope helpfully informs us very early in the novel, after which he immediately launches into a condemnation of novels that can be ruined with spoilers and assures us that if we want to skip ahead to the last chapter of his book, we can go right ahead, and the whole will still be as exciting, or not, as it ever was.  I did not take him up on this, but I imagine he's probably more or less right.

The first problem with this novel: it can sometimes get a bit bogged down in what I am calling Church Politics Porn; tastes may vary, but I daresay that for most people, this will prove less stimulating than other varieties.  Admit it: you didn't even know what a "prebendary" was, and even if you feel like you sort of know the definitions of warden, chaplain, archdeacon, bishop, archbishop, dean, vicar, et al, I would be quite impressed if you were able to place all these in their proper Victorian Church of England hierarchy.  And it's never quite clear what the theological stakes are, if any, of all the wheeling and dealing that goes on.  Perhaps they would have been obvious to a contemporaneous audience. The second problem is that the conflict is maybe a bit more drawn out than it needs to be.

But problems, problems, forget about them!  Because the fact is, when the book is On, which is most of the time, it is seriously delightful.  The central romance between Eleanor and someone else whom I haven't even mentioned is enormously appealing, and Trollope is just really great at drawing memorable characters, notably the truly awful Slope and the languidly voluptuous Signora Neroni with her what-a-tragic-life-is-mine attitude.  He's very perceptive and good-humored and just a fun guy to travel through a novel with.  I believe the next one, Doctor Thorne, is a completely new story, but why wouldn't I continue with the series?

On another note, I must say, I've read a great many books courtesy of Project Gutenberg, and this was the first one that let me down: I could read it, sure, but there were typos aplenty, loads of small words just missing--not ideal.  There's a minor character named Mr. Plomacy who was referred to as "Mr. Pomney" about a quarter of the time.  I don't know if this was the misguided result of exactly transcribing an error-ridden public-domain edition, or if it was just really crappy transcribing, but either way, not ideal!


Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

I'm looking forward to the other reviews in the cycle. Barchester Towers is the only book from it that I ever read. Bizarrely, about 20 years ago, I took a sort of automated programming/word processing class which taught how to edit and rename files and things like that, and all the lessons used an excerpt from this book as the "test document" for carrying out all the operations -- that was how I first learned of this book's existence. It was certainly a creative way of combining computer science and liberal arts.

I don't remember much about it, except that it was surprisingly enjoyable and witty, so I have a positive impression of it overall. I should go back and read it again, probably.


4:24 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. pontificated to the effect that...

Oh man, that's awesome. I can say that so far, Doctor Thorne is pretty boss.

10:17 AM  

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