Sunday, January 18, 2015

Anthony Trollope, The Warden (1855)

Okay, time to read Trollope (or, as the kids say, ttrt). My only experience with the man was from reading The Way We Live Now many years ago. I indistinctly remember liking it but not being blown away, but mainly, I remember a character called Lord Nidderdale, just because it's so fun to say. Nidderdale. Anyway, clearly that wasn't enough, so let's dive into his most famous thing, which is this six-volume Chronicles of Barsetshire series, shall we?

Here's the idea in a nutshell, which admittedly sounds maybe not super-riveting: in the fifteenth century there was this wool merchant, who created a legacy charity where twelve men too old to work are looked after and receive a small stipend, overseen by a warden, all paid for by the proceeds from the land (a BIG DEAL for them, really, since the concept of social security was alien at the time). But now, in the present day, there's some controversy: the land's making more money than it was, and accordingly the warden is ALSO making more (eight hundred pounds a year, a very tidy income), but the twelve men are still making the same as ever (well, not exactly the same, but not proportionally more). They're still being looked after comfortably, but things are seeming more questionable somehow. The novel tells of this controversy: there's the warden himself, Septimus Harding, a kindly man who doesn't feel like he's doing anything wrong but nonetheless feels guilty about the potential wrong-ness of the situation; his potential future son-in-law, John Bold, crusading against these abuses; and Archdeacon Grantly, a religious hypocrite who defends the current status quo but doesn't care whether it's “right” so much as whether it can be legally defended.

In spite of how it may sound, however, it kinda is super-riveting, and Trollope is very good with his characters. Trollope himself is clearly in favor of the status quo, but that doesn't stop him from making Bold a sympathetic character, or making the Archdeacon, whose side he is putatively on, the least likable figure in the book (though at one point, he's shown, when nobody's looking, kicking back and reading Rabelais, which I think is only meant to demonstrate his hypocrisy, but actually kinda makes him more sympathetic), and it's all interesting to think about.

I would not call the novel a complete success, however. For one thing, I think its brevity works against it. At one point Trollope makes a meta-comment to the effect that he hopes to finish the book in less than three hundred pages and have the whole thing fit in one volume; in fact, he manages it in a mere two hundred, but I don't feel as though that really gives enough time to fully explore the complexities of the situation, and the book ends rather abruptly (though the next book, Barchester Towers, treats of the same characters and is substantially longer, so hopefully that'll make things feel more satisfactory).

Then too, there's the book's message, which is more or less: there may be problems with the status quo and with relying on individual noblesse oblige, but DON'T DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT, YOU'LL JUST MAKE THINGS WORSE, which is self-evidently problematic.

Here's what I think: no, Harding isn't to blame for taking the position. It's not an individual problem. But the status quo is plainly nonsense. No, the legacy was never meant to make the pensioners rich, but at the same time, it sure as hell wasn't meant to make the warden so either, and to just shrug and say, well, that's how it's always been (even though it hasn't), so that's how it always should be is just perverse. The key point, which neither Trollope nor any of his characters seem to recognize, is this: if there's more money, the legacy should be expanded to include more people, because if the number of beneficiaries here—both pensioners and warden—remains inelastic, there's just no way for it to do what it meant to do. Without more people, it can't scale up in a way that isn't nonsensical.

It's okay, though! I still liked it, and everyone says that the series gets a lot better, so I have HIGH HOPES for Trollope.

SEXUAL INNUENDO WATCH: The Warden is having a party, which Trollope describes via an extended military metaphor, but his daughter isn't feeling it because Bold isn't there. “But she herself, Eleanor, had no spirit for the work; the only enemy whose lance she cared to encounter was not there.”


Post a Comment

<< Home