Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1072

The Last Chronicle of Barset is the last of a series of novels that Anthony Trollope wrote about the ecclesiastical community in the fictional county of Barsetshire, based on the Anglican Church life in and around Salisbury in southwestern England in the mid-nineteenth century. It was preceded by The Warden (1855), Barchester Towers (1857), Doctor Thorne (1858), Framley Parsonage (1860-1861, serial; 1861, book), and The Small House at Allington (1862-1864, serial; 1864, book). Many of the characters appear in all six novels, so the ideal way to read this novel is as the conclusion of Trollope’s accumulated tale of nineteenth century social and professional life, particularly among clergymen and their families.

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Trollope was aware of the possibility that any of the Barsetshire novels might be read outside that context, however, and each of the books provides sufficient information as the story progresses for it to be read alone. Repetition of incidents from previous novels is a common practice in Trollope’s works, but one that can be irritating at times for readers who are not accustomed to detailed repetitions of matters they may view as long since settled. This is part of a more serious difficulty common to nineteenth century novels in general: They tend to be very long, as during the time when they were written, narrative alone was not considered to be adequate for the experience of reading novels. There was a taste for novels of extraordinary length in a society that had plenty of time for reading, given its lack of other forms of entertainment. In addition, many novels, including The Last Chronicle of Barset, were originally published in magazines in serial form, a few thousand words at a time. The authors knew that readers might easily forget details between readings, and so they repeated important information.

In this novel, Trollope provides comment on the narrative as it takes its leisurely time unfolding. The story is told with considerable detail and much measured, sophisticated, philosophical rumination by the wise narrator. The novel is also a contemplation of ethical and social insight and an opportunity for witty, sometimes satirical, commentary on the eccentricities and cruelties of supposedly civilized characters. Trollope does not attack the structures of British society or of the Anglican Church, which follows similar patterns of privilege. What he is against is the way in which power often falls into the hands of ambitious, thrusting careerists who are more interested in exercising power for personal gain and satisfaction than they are in benefiting the Church or its parishioners.

It can be argued that in the twenty-first century The Last Chronicle of Barset is as pertinent as ever, given its exploration of the ways in which power is often grasped by the least capable members of society. Mrs. Proudie is the most blatant example of this misplaced power. She is powerful not because of any official position she possesses but because of her influence over her husband, who has, despite his intellectual and personal limitations, managed to become the bishop of Barset. In the earlier novels, Trollope has much to say about the politics of Bishop Proudie’s appointment and his malpractice of the office under the malign influence of his wife. Mrs. Proudie exercises the same irresponsible conduct in this novel as she attempts to drive Mr. Crawley from his pulpit long before his guilt or innocence has been determined.

The Last Chronicle of Barset is less concerned with the internal politics of ecclesiastical life than are the previous works in the series; it is focused instead on two further themes that interest Trollope—character and the eccentric nature of human conduct. The plot is dependent on the slight fact of the Arabins’ absence on the Continent and their misunderstanding of what Crawley’s problem is. Once they know the facts of the matter, the mystery is solved. The novel’s real theme is how Crawley, those around him, and those with power over him cope with the idea that this penurious cleric would steal money, however small the sum might be. The matter is complicated by Crawley’s intransigently honest character and his financial and personal situation. Prone to depression, worn out by years of poverty and despair, he is fragile, emotionally and intellectually. A brilliant ecclesiastical scholar but lacking in the political and social skills to make his way in the Church, he has wound up at the bottom of the institution, working hard and constantly with his poor parishioners but with a fixed sense of outrage at the lack of recognition he receives and his inability to provide for his family. He is a man difficult to patronize, given his high skills and intelligence, and he is prideful in his righteousness. For all his pride, however, he is also a man of considerable humility, which does him great harm when Arabin denies the check. Crawley gives up, presuming that Arabin must be telling the truth, since his friend’s word must necessarily be better than his own. Crawley comes to believe that he must be wrong, that he must have somehow taken the check improperly, although he has no memory of doing so.

A variation on this battle of personal honor is shown in Crawley’s daughter’s determination to refuse to marry the man she loves if her father is legally proven to be a thief. The ramifications of that decision move through the community, as the love affair impinges on the family relations of her prospective in-laws, themselves prominent members of the ecclesiastical society. Not the least interesting is the way in which the entire society, so closely connected by professional power and intermarriage, reacts to and is affected by Crawley’s plight. He is a man whom the members of the community have, in the main, conveniently patronized and attempted to ignore in his serious financial struggles, but whom they feel inclined to judge, for good or ill. The Last Chronicle of Barset is a close study of a good man who is his own worst enemy, but it is also an involved exploration of the problem of how people live together in close-knit social structures, and how, sometimes, they simply make a muddle of life, given the inclinations of human nature. It is also a charming love story and a tale of family affections in situations of both sorrow and pleasure—an example of how Trollope generously cultivates a multiplicity of themes in his novels.

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