The Warden by Anthony Trollope

The Warden

First Published: 1855 (Penguin digital ed. 2012)
My copy: Free download on Kindle

Memorable quote: “Nobody and everybody are always very kind, but unfortunately are generally very wrong.”

Trollope is one of those big name Victorians who I’ve always intended to read, but never quite got round to, until now. That it’s taken so long is unforgivable really, especially given the author’s connections with my home town of Exeter, but better late than never! The Warden was Trollope’s fourth novel, but the first of his esteemed Barsetshire Chronicles. I’d heard other people say that this was the least impressive work in that series of six, and it’s certainly true that I wasn’t bowled over by it; but at the same time there’s a lot to enjoy in this gentle, affectionately needling tale of one clergyman’s moral dilemma and the society that fuels it. So if this is the worst of the Barsetshire bunch that really bodes rather well for the rest of the series.

The book follows the trials of one Septimus Harding, a character who reads less like a literary protagonist than as a personal friend of the author. For many years, Harding has enjoyed his undemanding ecclesiastical position as the Warden of Hiram’s Hospital, an Almshouse that is home to a dozen elderly Bedesmen. Since the hospital was first established, inflation and increasing property values have conspired to make the Warden’s role considerably more lucrative, with Harding now earning a comfortable £800 a year while his elderly charges still receive just one shilling and sixpence a day. A considerable amount of legal wrangling and interrogation of wills and precedents takes place in this novel, which probably wouldn’t make it a terribly appealing read if it weren’t for the wonderful depth and emotional charge of Trollope’s characters. The central clash in The Warden comes when a young reformer, John Bold, begins to question Harding’s sinecure. The novel asks how far morality can be divorced from society:  Bold pursues his investigation in the name of justice but does not mean to persecute Harding on a personal level – indeed he considers the likeable Warden a personal friend and even (here’s where it gets really awkward) a prospective father in law.

On the other side of the battle lines drawn in this novel between reform and conservatism stands Dr. Grantly, the archdeacon and husband of Harding’s other daughter. So the conflict Harding experiences as he begins for the first time to question his role at Hirams is at once moral and personal. Painted with broad comic strokes – strokes that temper but never entirely obliterate some deeper criticisms of church behaviour –  the pompous and over-ambitious Grantly is a joy to read. The other main target of satire in the book is the media, embodied in Tom Towers, editor of The Jupiter, a character  “studiously striving to look a man, but knowing within his breast that he was a god.” The paper’s involvement elevates the inquiry, and Harding’s suffering, to a new level. Yet despite the powerful forces examined in this story, The Warden never achieves much tension, which made it quite a slow read despite the slimness of the volume. Perhaps this is due to Trollope’s impressive ability to balance both sides of the argument: the church’s selfishness may come gently under fire but so does Bold’s naive idealism. The lack of a black and white solution to the issues raised in the plot may make things more interesting in moral terms but it also created – for me at least – the feeling that whatever happened in the end, things would probably turn out OK. And I never doubted that Bold would get the girl.

Written with genuine warmth, ultimately The Warden isn’t a book to read for its plot, but for its characters, its wit, and for its minute observations of  Victorian daily life amongst a society rich in both affection and affectation. On the strength of this novel I will definitely be returning to Barsetshire, though probably not for a while –  with its slow pace, Trollope’s world it feels like a setting to be revisited gradually over a period of some years. But I will get there.

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