Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope

This should have been said before. Barchester Towers is like the curate’s egg, ‘good in parts’. It underlines the supreme wisdom of the Catholic Church’s holding to the rule of celibacy. Mrs. Proudie the Bishop’s wife is monstrously real in her Sabbatarian zeal and allied with the extreme unction of Mr. Slope seems about to explode the comfortable easy life of the high Church Anglicans in the Cathedral town. It is a time of change in the Church established by law when the middle ground was being eroded from two sides the one trying to draw it down to the vulgar Dissenter rabble, and on the meretricious other side the Scarlet Lady of Rome. The Bishop is a charlie and the charlie’s chaplin is Mr. Slope. Mrs. Proudie wears the gaiters in the Palace and the war is on for the control of the diocese between her and Slope who runs the show on the admin side during the Bishop’s absences which are frequent. To balance the Low of Slope you have the High of Arabin who was almost rapt to Rome by the Newman cult. To emphasise the liberal rapprochement with Rome the appointment of Dr.Whately to an Archbishopric is mentioned. Parlous times.

When, however, Dr. Whately was made an archbishop, and Dr. Hampden some years afterwards regius professor, many wise divines saw that a change was taking place in men's minds, and that more liberal ideas would henceforward be suitable to the priests as well as to the laity. Clergymen began to be heard of who had ceased to anathematize papists on the one hand, or vilify dissenters on the other. It appeared clear that High Church principles, as they are called, were no longer to be surest claims to promotion with at any rate one section of statesmen, and Dr. Proudie was one among those who early in life adapted himself to the views held by the Whigs on most theological and religious subjects. He bore with the idolatry of Rome, tolerated even the infidelity of Socinianism, and was hand and glove with the Presbyterian Synods of Scotland and Ulster.

The counters of power in the Anglican Church are the benefices and the pivot of this tale is the guardianship of the Hospital where a dozen indigent men are kept as a charity and to be for a witness. It’s a nice little sinecure and its previous Warden, Mr. Harding seems likely to get it. Slope however decides to use this as means of subjugating the Bishop and in league with Mrs.Proudie promotes the candidature of a poor parson, Mr.Quiverfull.

All that plotting is good but where the book goes wrong for me is the character of Mrs.Bold the young widowed daughter of Mr. Harding. I was lately apprised of the fact that there can be 3000 calories in a milk shake. I would have thought that there was less in a bag of sugar. Elanor Bold is an unlikely dose of sweetness and does not go down. Her hanky is never dry.

Poor Eleanor! I cannot say that with me John Bold was ever a favourite. I never thought him worthy of the wife he had won. But in her estimation he was most worthy. Hers was one of those feminine hearts which cling to a husband, not with idolatry, for worship can admit of no defect in its idol, but with the perfect tenacity of ivy. As the parasite plant will follow even the defects of the trunk which it embraces, so did Eleanor cling to and love the very faults of her husband. She had once declared that whatever her father did should in her eyes be right. She then transferred her allegiance, and became ever ready to defend the worst failings of her lord and master.

Unlike Little Nell she hasn’t the grace to die. Fortunately she is matched in wickedness by the Stanhope family and the apotheosis of the Scarlet Lady, daughter Madeline. The allegory is broad. Beautiful, seductive but crippled at the hands of her husband Neroni who is a Papal Count. She is borne on a couch. You can’t get more papal than that. Arabin who dallied with Rome is a suitable victim. Slope slobbers over her hand too. Son Bertie, the aesthete, is well drawn and slightly quartered. From the life perhaps?

The other plot swamp for me was the Thorne family and their garden fete to welcome Mr. Arabin into his benefice. It had its moments as a delineation of snobbery and class but it went on too long. Trollope admits to us in his to the reader utterances that the last 50 pages is a push. I imagine him making a check list. Did I forget anyone?

For the Trollope fan the hymn is ‘O the transport so divine’. I may go on to the Palliser series next.

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