Delighting in Absurdities: Barchester Towers

Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers (1857)

Barsetshire novels classic TrollopeFor me, the key to Barchester Towers was found near the end, in this passage:

The sorrows of our heroes and heroines, they are your delight, oh public! Their sorrows, or their sins, or their absurdities; not their virtues, good sense, and consequent rewards. 

Indeed, Trollope’s gift lies in creating errant and uncongenial characters who nevertheless delight us, making us laugh in recognition of follies and foibles that persist to this day — in our neighbors, at least, if we be not honest enough to see them in ourselves.

I don’t necessarily agree that virtue and good sense can never be interesting in fiction, but it’s certainly true that the sympathetic and right-minded characters in this novel — noble Mr. Arabin, poor misunderstood Eleanor Bold, humble Mr. Harding — form only a rather drab background against which the others — slimy social-climbing clergyman Mr. Slope, crippled femme fatale Signora Neroni, the spineless Bishop Proudie, and the immortal, indomitable Mrs. Proudie, to name but a few — play out their comedy composed of “sorrows, sins, and absurdities.”

The main plot of Barchester Towers can be told fairly briefly. When a new bishop is appointed in the cathedral town of Barchester, and brings new notions to town along with his attendant chaplain (Slope) and a wife who is the real power behind the throne, it quickly leads to “war” with the established clergy. In his efforts to gain more power and influence in the diocese, Slope starts to wangle a choice appointment for a crony of his — but he discovers that Eleanor Bold, daughter of the man who formerly held the place* and has a moral right to it, is a rich widow as well as a lovely young woman. He abruptly shifts tactics, trying to woo the widow by soliciting the appointment for her father, which leads to further complications and his own inevitable downfall.

It takes about 500 pages to get there, though, and readers with little patience for drawn-out character histories, conflicts based in long-outdated social hierarchies, or frequent authorial digressions, will not make it far into BT. If you lack such patience, however, what are you doing reading a nineteenth century novel? Trollope’s novel rests comfortably within the conventions of the day, and he knows them well, even halting his narrative periodically to poke fun at them. He reassures us that Eleanor will not marry Mr. Slope, and advises us that creating suspense is not a proper function for a novel; in the passage just following the one quoted above, he tells us that happy endings are really terribly boring, but he’s going to give us one, because that’s what we demand of him. This meta-fictional touch may amuse or annoy you, depending on your temperament, but it also is part of what gives the reassuring sense that normality is going to return to Barchester in the end. There’s an author in charge of it all, and he won’t let us down.

Trollope’s observant eye, which captures the perfect bit of dialogue or action to reveal a character’s inner essence, is what makes reading all those pages worthwhile. He’s particularly good at portraying the clash of different personalities, as when Mr. Slope and Mrs. Proudie memorably come up against one another. In between the bits of action, with wickedly delicious turns of phrase, he skewers various aspects of human nature:

No experience of what goes on in the world, no reading of history, no observation of life, has any effect in teaching the truth. Men of fifty don’t dance mazurkas, being generally too fat and wheezy; nor do they sit for the hour together on river banks at their mistresses’ feet, being somewhat afraid of rheumatism. But for real true love, love at first sight, love to devotion, love that robs a man of his sleep, love that “will gaze an eagle blind,” love that “will hear the lowest sound when the suspicious tread of theft is stopped,” love that is “like a Hercules, still climbing trees in the Hesperides” — we believe the best age is from forty-five to seventy; up to that, men are generally given to mere flirting.

Still, I wonder if Trollope ever succeeded in creating a sympathetic character who was as fascinating as the subjects of his ridicule. I confess to feeling somewhat distanced from the comedy of Barchester Towers — though I found it entertaining, it didn’t touch me deeply, or move me with more than a mild interest in the fates of most of its characters. This is perhaps a judgment on me rather than the book, but Trollope and I haven’t quite made the connection yet. I’m willing to give the other Barsetshire novels a try, though, and see where they may take me.

* See Trollope’s previous novel The Warden for more information.

A few links of note:
Essay on Trollope and the Clergy from the Trollope Society
Review from Catherine Pope 
Reading Barsetshire at The Captive Reader

Review copy source: Print book from library
Classics Club List #11


2 thoughts on “Delighting in Absurdities: Barchester Towers

  1. I would like to read a Trollope novel someday – this one seems interesting as a character study and a farcical comedy (?) so I might look this one up first. Although I would hope to feel a little more emotionally attached to the story. Great review!


    1. It's definitely worth reading! You can also start with The Warden, which is properly the start of the Barchester novels. Some like it better than BT, some not.


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