Book Review: The Warden by Anthony Trollope

The Warden by Anthony TrollopeMy mum has wanted me to read Trollope for years.  I’m not sure why I resisted the recommendation really, as she usually knows what I’ll like: she did introduce me to the wonderful Rebecca after all.  I think the idea I’d formed of what the Barchester Towers series would be about didn’t really appeal.  A load of books set in a church?  What’s really going to happen with a setting like that?  It seemed a bit too safe and quiet.

As regular readers will know, I’m taking part in “Classically Challenged”, the point of which is to sample some classic literature knowing that others are discovering (and delighting or suffering as the case may be) along with you.  I’m very behind in writing my review on this one as I didn’t start reading The Warden until the end of November, which means that Simon and AJ have already posted their reviews ages ago and I’m a bit late to the party.  Regardless, I still wanted to share my thoughts and prove I hadn’t actually given up the challenge!

The Warden is the first book in the series, and centres around the Reverend Septimus Harding, who is the warden of a Victorian almshouse.  The almshouse is the result of a long-dead landowner who wanted to set up a permanent shelter for old working-class men who, after a long, productive life, now find themselves in need of support.

However, whispers have begun to surface regarding the entitlement of the church to the largest share of the land and wealth of the property, the value of which has grown over the years.  The case is taken up by Mr Bold, a well-meaning gentleman with seemingly too much spare time and money on his hands.  He begins a legal battle to establish whether the warden should in fact be in receipt of an £800 a year salary for his duties, or whether this sum should be split between the men who receive shelter there.

Mr Harding is a nice man (sorry to use the “n” word but it’s the perfect description for him!) with a kind, if a little soft, temperament.  He wishes for a peaceful life and will do anything to avoid confrontation or embarrassment.  The case plunges him into an extremely public and painful predicament, and leads him to begin to doubt the wardenship he has never before questioned.  It is obvious that he is not personally taking any advantage of the men in his care, and yet his conscience cannot be completely stilled, even despite the brisk dismissal of his concerns by the Archdeacon: his fearsomely practical son-in-law.

The situation is further complicated by Mr Bold’s very genuine esteem of Mr Harding.  Mr Bold is a great believer in justice, which is why he eagerly involved himself without enough thought into this case, and yet he knows in his heart that Mr Harding personally is not really to blame.  Mr Bold is also in love with Mr Harding’s daughter, Eleanor, which of course increases his growing sense of regret about stirring up the issue in the first place.

The result is a public battle between the church and the media, and private battles fought, for different reasons, between the heads and hearts of both Mr Bold and Mr Harding.

Simon and AJ’s reviews reveal that they were positively unawed, even a little bored, by The Warden and its gentle characters.  Personally, I liked the book and enjoyed the subtleties of Trollope’s humour, but I didn’t fall in love with it, so I do understand in part where they’re coming from.

The way in which Trollope engages his readers through his narration was something I was particularly drawn to.  I can see how his technique of pointing out lots of little details might not be for everyone, but I felt it added depth to his characters, and it was the thing which won me over in the end – my only criticism there would have been that I wanted more!

I particularly responded to Mr Harding’s character: his shyness and his quirk of playing an imaginary cello when under stress is endearing, yet this is mixed with a stubborn insistence on doing the right thing.  Eleanor’s character could have been more developed (perhaps this will happen in the other books?) but I liked the simple support she offers her father without a thought to her own comfort, and I found her swift put-downs and emotional manipulation of Mr Bold to be clever.  And finally I must mention the Archdeacon – Mr Harding’s domineering son-in-law – expertly humanised by Trollope’s portrayal of him in a scene where he is wearing a night-cap and suffering his seemingly submissive wife’s nagging.

It’s interesting to see the range of reviews that this book stirs up.  A classic is regarded as a classic for a reason, of course, but that doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to enjoy it (or that there’s something wrong with you!) just because you’re not as keen on a novel which is highly regarded.  It’s only a good book if you enjoy it!  However, for the sake of balance, I wanted to share a review with you from someone who loved The Warden: here’s Stuck In A Book’s thoughts on the novel.

AJ made the point in his review that he was disappointed with The Warden having read and loved Persuasion; he feels that Austen has the upper hand at bringing domestic situations to life.  I guess I’d have to agree, but I tend to look at this in a different way.  Jane Austen only wrote six novels.  I’ve read them all and while I can always re-read them, it’s lovely to discover something new.  Trollope provides me with a similar sort of gentle read, with a bit of safe drama that I can get lost in and forget any more serious, pressing problems.  As I say, I didn’t love The Warden, but as I’ve heard a lot of people say now that the series only gets better, I can see myself enjoying the rest.

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