Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1196
As a young man, Anthony Trollope, son of a ne’er-do-well barrister of good family, seemed destined to continue the decline of the family. An undistinguished student in two distinguished public schools, he had no hopes for university or career. His mother persuaded a family friend to find work for him in the London Post Office, where his performance as a clerk was eventually rated as “worthless.” Indeed, the burdens of supporting the family fell on his indefatigable mother, who converted a family business failure in Cincinnati, Ohio, into a literary career with her satiric study Domestic Manners of Americans (1832). Like his mother, the son found his path in life after a change of scenery. When the Post Office sent him to the south of Ireland to assist in a postal survey, his career in the postal service began to advance, he married happily, and he began to write.
Success as a writer came after the Post Office sent Trollope to survey southwest England. A midsummer visit to the beautiful cathedral town of Salisbury produced the idea for The Warden (1855) and, more important, furnished the outlines for a fictional county, Barsetshire, which became as impressive as Thomas Hardy’s Wessex or William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha. When Trollope returned to the same milieu in Barchester Towers, he achieved resounding acclaim. Later he wrote four more novels to create what became known as the Barsetshire Novels. This series was set in a chiefly agricultural county with its seat of Barchester, a quiet town in the West of England, which was noted for its beautiful cathedral and fine monuments rather than for any commercial prosperity. Thus at middle age began the career of one of the most prolific of the Victorian novelists, who also remained, until his last years, one of the most popular.
In his day, Trollope was admired as a realist. He was delighted with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s appraisal that his novels were “just as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting that they were being made a show of.” Some have also viewed Trollope’s series as comic works and his characters as being in the grip of a firmly controlled irony. The irony that Trollope perceives in the affairs of the people of Barchester arises from discrepancies between the ideals they uphold and the means by which they uphold those ideals. A lay person with no special knowledge of the Church of England, Trollope vividly depicts the internecine war between the party of the new bishop of Barchester and that of the former bishop’s son, Archdeacon Grantly. Both parties intend to preserve the integrity of the Church. With the Church vested in buildings, furnishings, and livings, these clergymen end up fighting for power over the appurtenances and worldly forms of the Church.
Barchester Towers includes a number of subplots, all of which are related to the ecclesiastical power struggle. Since buildings, furnishings, and livings are occupied by human beings, the clerics who guard the Church must also dispose over the lives of human beings. Some of the characters—Mr. Harding and the Quiverfuls in the competition for wardenship of Hiram’s Hospital or Eleanor Bold in the rivalry of two clergymen for her hand in marriage—become mere objects in the disputes over power. Episodes not directly related to the ecclesiastical battles serve to underscore them, as in the parallel between the rivalry of Mrs. Lookaloft and Mrs. Greenacre and the absurd ploys of the higher orders that abound in the novel.
The main conflicts of the novel are those that engage the high and mighty of Barchester. The strength of Trollope’s satire lies in his refusal to oversimplify the motives of these Church worldlings or to deny them sincerity in their defense of the Church. Even as Slope genuinely believes Grantly and his type to be the enemies of religion, so also does the archdeacon honestly believe that Slope is the kind who could well ruin the Church of England.
One of Trollope’s devices for deflating these militant clerics is to treat their wars in the mock-heroic vein. After the first meeting between the archdeacon and the Proudies, the author declares, “And now, had I the pen of a mighty poet, would I sing in epic verse the noble wrath of the archdeacon.” In time, Mrs. Proudie is ironically compared to Juno, Medea, even Achilles, while the archdeacon’s extravagance in celebrating Mrs. Bold’s marriage to his champion, Arabin, is suggestive of a glorious warrior returning from the fields with his spoils.
The reduction of marital glory is furthered by a recurrent analogy with games, underscoring the truth that Barchester’s leadership is really concerned with social rather than spiritual or moral issues. Slope’s major defeats arise from his indecorous behavior with Madeline Neroni, who is alert to every possible move. Worse, he underestimates his opponent, Mrs. Proudie, and at the end discovers that “Mrs. Proudie had checkmated him.”
Human strife is incongruous with the idealized setting of peaceful Barchester, its venerable church and close, and its rural villages round about, all endowed with a loveliness suggestive of the age-old pastoral tradition. The cathedral itself seems to judge the folly of its worldly champions. As the battles commence, Archdeacon Grantly looks up to the cathedral towers as if evoking a blessing for his efforts. However genial the comedy played out beneath the Barchester towers, the outcome is not without serious import, for the ultimate result is the further separation of human beings from their ideals. In the end, the bishop’s wife finds that her “sphere is more extended, more noble, and more suited to her ambition than that of a cathedral city,” and the bishop himself “had learnt that his proper sphere of action lay in close contiguity with Mrs. Proudie’s wardrobe.” As Mr. Slope makes his ignominious final departure from the city, “he gave no longing lingering look after the cathedral towers.” As for the archdeacon, it is sufficient for him to “walk down the High Street of Barchester without feeling that those who see him are comparing his claims with those of Mr. Slope.”
Despite the futility of its human strivings, Barchester Towers is a cheerful novel, not merely because the satire provokes laughter but also because occasionally, briefly, the real and the ideal meet. Mr. Harding is too peaceable, too naïve, too reticent to be effective in the world; nevertheless, when prompted by his dedication to simple justice, he personally introduces Mr. Quiverful to his own former charges at Hiram Hospital. This act, representing the union of his profession and practice, creates a consequence greater than the act would suggest, for it causes the Barchester world to treat Mr. Quiverful with more respect as he assumes his duties. Quite appropriately, Trollope brings the novel to its close with pastoral serenity by offering a word of Mr. Harding, who functions not as a hero and not as a perfect divine but as a good, humble man without guile.