Reading The Warden by Anthony Trollope was an exercise in forgiveness. You see, I had to forgive the mother before I could allow myself to explore the writings of the son.
Fanny Trollope, Anthony Trollope’s mother, wrote a not-so-well-known novel called The Widow Barnaby. I was forced to read it in college and have probably needed therapy ever since. I think our entire class needed therapy, actually. Fortunately, this post is not a book review of that book, so I can focus on a far pleasanter one.
I was in need of a gentle, fun read for my bus rides and walks to and from my office, and I happened across Trollope in my search. I got the sense that Trollope would come somewhere among Dickens, Austen, and Gaskell in terms of social commentary and character interaction, which was exactly what I wanted. Furthermore, the reader, Timothy West, is one of the by far pleasantest readers I have come across. His voice is just perfect for this novel, and his voices for different characters were distinct without being overdone. I got enveloped and lost in the story from beginning to end.
The Warden is the first in a series of books called The Chronicles of Barsetshire, a fictitious location in which Trollope makes merry fun of English society under cover of a whimsical story about an elderly churchman who is just trying to do the right thing.
The main character, Mr. Harding, has the fortune (or misfortune) of landing a very good position overseeing a charity that has, for many years, employed twelve poor workers at any given time. The charity is funded by a legacy left for that purpose, but due to changes over time, the income allotted to the warden of the charity, currently Mr. Harding, has become quite large while the pay given to the workers has remained consistently meager.
When a young idealist decides to question whether it is fair that the warden receive so much while the charity workers receive so little, a major upset ensues. Mr. Harding, a genuinely kindly and honest man, is caught in the midst of it.
While the story itself is quite simple, the characters make it endearing. Where Dickens would create exaggerated wickedness and almost unbelievably dastardly situations to tell his stories, Trollope’s central conflict is barely a conflict at all. His characters cannot easily be separated into the “bad” and the “good.” They are simply people with opinions. Trollope gives them just enough depth and inserts bits of humor exactly where they needed to be to keep the story from becoming dry, and he lets the events unfold in a way that feels natural and real.
Two of the most notable characters are Mr. Harding himself and Mr. Harding’s son-in-law, the formidable archdeacon. Mr. Harding comes across as a quiet, sweet man – the sort of man whose grandchildren would take shameless advantage of him. He plays an air cello (the predecessor of the air guitar, perhaps?) when he is stressed and is dreadfully intimidated by his son-in-law.
The archdeacon is more of a force of clerical nature than a person, at times. He flies to the defense of the church’s integrity when it is accused of overpaying Mr. Harding at the expense of the poor workers. No one can stand against him. And yet, rather than rank him as a villain, we are inclined to laugh a little as he treads the noble path of righteous indignation while his father-in-law sneaks around behind his back like a naughty schoolboy trying, in his own way, to do the right thing.
Unlike Dickens, whose humor is bright and prickly at the beginning of his stories but seems to fade away as he gets into the grit of his social commentary, Trollope keeps the story light and gentle throughout. He throws plenty of jabs in plenty of directions, but they don’t distract from the pleasing tone of the storytelling. Where Dickens might use exaggerated characters and far fetched plotlines to make his point more strongly, Trollope lets his characters enact their simple dramas, and his thoughts suggest themselves along the way.
I’m hoping to listen to the rest of the series soon. They are too charming to let go at just one story.
For an explanation of why I am doing more listening than reading these days, take a look at my post On Why I Love Audiobooks