The Barsetshire Novels by Anthony Trollope

Start Your Free Trial

Download The Barsetshire Novels Study Guide

Subscribe Now


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Trollope’s popular fame rests on his six Barsetshire novels. Taken as a whole, they are interconnected by characters who appear in more than one of them, a technique that Trollope was to use again in his second series, known as the Political novels. The Barsetshire series established the novel-sequence in English fiction.

The most famous of the Barsetshire series is Barchester Towers. It is typical, however, of the entire chronicle, with its fine ironic tone and pleasantly complicated situations. Though the type of plot is social satire, no problems of social significance are given serious consideration, as its chief purpose is entertainment.

The series was conceived one summer evening in Salisbury, but the settings are, for the most part, in the imaginary west-country county of Barset and its chief town, Barchester. Barchester is a compilation of the many counties Trollope visited in his position as a civil servant. Barchester’s railroads and roads, its great lords and their fine castles, its squires and their parks, its towns, its parishes, and its rectors and their churches are all totally fictitious. From his careful observations and memories of his travels throughout England, however, Trollope pieced together a detailed map of Barchester. Thus, it has a totally convincing reality, based not particularly upon the geographical but rather upon Trollope’s sharp insight into the moral physiognomies of his characters.

The first book of the series, The Warden, sets a pattern to which Trollope adhered in the later books. In The Warden, the focus is upon a problem concerning the proper use of church endowments. Using his vivid imagination, Trollope set in motion the issues and conflicts that surrounded the problem and how it was approached by the various people involved, people with various modes and degrees of moral sensibility.

When Trollope returned to the milieu of The Warden in Barchester Towers, he introduced a number of subplots, all related to the ecclesiastical power struggle between the new bishop of Barchester (Bishop Proudie) and the former bishop’s son (Archdeacon Grantly). The main conflict of the novel involves both parties’ intentions to preserve the integrity of the church. In typical Trollope fashion, the irony comes forth in how the two men view themselves versus how they really are—the two clergymen are, in their own minds, fighting for the spiritual power of the church, but they are actually fighting for power over the building, furnishings, and their clerical positions; in other words, they are fighting for the worldly things of the church, not the spiritual.

Many other novels were written in the period during which Trollope was engaged in writing the Barsetshire series. Archdeacon Grantly and his father-in-law, however, continued to live in Trollope’s imagination. He created the most solid of his male characters by blending his own personality with theirs, and in his Autobiography he explained the novelist’s need to “live” with his characters and stressed the importance of recording change and the effects of time on them. Therefore, in The Last Chronicle of Barset (the book that Trollope considered his best work), the two have grown older, just as Trollope himself was growing older. The Archdeacon is the character most often described as being akin to Trollope: quick to anger but quick to forgive, generous, warmhearted, worldly. His father-in-law, who had been Warden in the first book, is portrayed at the upper limits of Trollope’s moral range. He is virtuous and good, and he grows old among his family and friends. When the older man dies, it is through the mouth of the Archdeacon that Trollope expresses his estimate of both of them.

Regarding the women that he created, Trollope always referred to them as girls. He held the same notions concerning vicarious relationships with his female characters as with his male ones. For the girls whom he created, love never ran smoothly, a plot that endeared him to...

(The entire section is 961 words.)