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.
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