The Last Chronicle of Barset

by Anthony Trollope

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In his biting and insightful commentaries on British Victorian society, Anthony Trollope creates the fictional world of East Barsetshire, with its capital Barchester. The Last Chronicle of Barset is one of a series of novels set in that world. Trollope offers a scenario in which just the wrong combination of characters, coincidences, and pettiness jeopardize everything that one good but befuddled man tries to accomplish. Both in the miserable hamlet of Hogglestock and in glittering London society, people with bad motives interfere with those who strive to live moral lives. Trollope balances his scathing criticism with humor and even affection for human foibles. The novel generally has a happy ending, although Trollope stops short of tying up all the loose ends. In his fiction, as in reality, neither is all villainy punished nor all virtue rewarded. For the protagonists, Josiah Crawley and his family, things turn out well, but the author makes us question why Josiah had to suffer so much along the way.

The bon vivants of London society are easy targets; Trollope does not skimp on pointing out the shallowness of their intrigues and affairs. The artists and elites engage in a harmful co-dependency, such as shown by the portrait painter, his wealthy patron, and the lovely lady he is contracted to paint. But these characters factor into a sub-plot, which provides a counterpoint to the main story, set in an insignificant little village.

Josiah Crawley is an unlikely hero in many ways. He is an endearing character who often seems too frail to endure the tribulations visited upon him. The curate is genuinely devoted to his parishioners, especially the poorest ones, and nothing will keep him from ministering to them. The core conflict in the novel arises not so much from the accusation of theft leveled against Josiah as from his insistence on continuing with his ministry in the face of disgrace. Crawley correctly notes that other people’s opinions, no matter how negative, are not sufficient reason for him to abandon his calling. Were he to do so, he would be guilty—in the eyes of God, which far outweigh any human’s views. While not falling into false humility, Crawley understands that the poor of his village are, and have long been, far more unfortunate than he is. His temporary suffering—as he is certain of being exonerated—matters little compared to the hardships they endure daily.

Trollope reserves his harshest criticism for the Church hierarchy and organization. Both the Bishop and the Archdeacon abandon Crawley at a very early stage. The Bishop is pushed by his unscrupulous wife, and the Archdeacon worries that his son might make an unsuitable marriage. While not all members of society judge Crawley harshly, the Church authorizes a rush to judgment. But though Crawley is correct in wanting to continue performing his duties, Trollope suggests that pride plays a strong role: the curate is not completely blameless in his own misfortunes. In contrast, his daughter Grace, who both stands by her father and refuses to potentially dishonor her beloved, is presented as an unrealistic paragon of virtue.

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