The Warden


The Warden is the first book in Anthony Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire series, a satire of church politics in Victorian England. Trollope allegedly never revised what he wrote, and it shows. The prose is often ponderous and meandering, with the author inserting a diatribe against The Times and Charles Dickens midway through the novel. Trollope is sharply critical of the many institutions that feature in the novel, but at the same time mocks efforts to reform them. He has a keen sense of irony when setting up his characters; Nobody is spared ridicule. Unusually for a novel of its time, Trollope breaks the fourth wall, inserting himself as a character and talking to the reader as if relating a piece of gossip. However, like many parodies of current events, it aged quickly – many of the references went over my head, and I’m sure I missed a lot of jokes a Victorian reader would have understood.

Synopsis


Barchester is a fictional cathedral town in Victorian England. Four hundred years ago, John Hiram willed his land to the poor and destitute of Barsetshire. The will provided for twelve men, known as beadsmen, to be taken care of at Hiram’s Hospital. The will also provided funds for a warden to look after the men, who would be appointed from the clergy of Barchester Cathedral. As the centuries passed, the value of the land increased, and so did the income of the hospital. However, while the funds allotted to the beadsmen was fixed at one shilling a day (£18.25 a year), the warden’s salary was not fixed. As a result, the warden position has become a profitable sinecure, providing an annual salary of £800 a year in a society where the average laborer earned £30 a year.

Mr. Harding is the current warden of Hiram’s Hospital, a position granted to him by his son-in-law, Archdeacon Grantly. He is a kind man, supplementing the beadsmen with an extra twopence a day from his own salary. He takes his duties easily, spending his days playing the cello for the beadsman and leading worship at the cathedral. He has two daughters, one, Susan, married to the archdeacon; the other, Eleanor, lives with him. Mary is interested in a young reformer, John Bold, who practices medicine among the poor.

The story begins when John Bold realizes that almost 80% of the funds paid out by the hospital go to the warden rather than the intended beneficiaries. Despite being interested in Mr. Harding’s daughter and being a friend of Mr. Harding, Bold convinces the beadsman to initiate a lawsuit. Archdeacon Grantly, concerned about protecting the church, attempts to dissuade the men from filing the lawsuit, telling them they are ungrateful and did not deserve the money. Failing to do so, Grantly then seeks a legal opinion from the attorney-general of England, Sir Abraham Haphazard. Sir Haphazard argues that the current lawsuit Bold has filed is not strong, but there is an alternative way of attacking the warden Bold did not consider. The archdeacon tells Mr. Harding that he should not worry about the lawsuit but keeps the opinion secret lest Bold discover the weakness of their own position. 

At the same time, the lawsuit has gotten the attention of The Jupiter, the leading newspaper in Britain. The paper writes several op-eds attacking the church and Mr. Harding personally for taking such a lavish salary. Other authors get in on the action, with Mr. Popular Sentiment (Charles Dickens) writing a novel portraying Mr. Harding as a greedy, evil glutton and the beadsmen as starving saints. Mr. Harding, affected by what is written about him and the beadsmen turning against him, begins to doubt that he is entitled to the salary he draws, despite assurances from his friends and family. He considers resigning, but his son-in-law, the archdeacon, says that if he resigns, the entire church will be threatened by similar lawsuits.

However, Mr. Harding’s daughter, Eleanor, approaches John Bold and tells him that she will not continue to see a man who is engaged in a lawsuit against her father. This persuades Bold to drop the lawsuit, much to the relief of the clergy. However, Mr. Harding’s conscience still bothers him, and he secretly travels to London to discuss the matter with Sir Haphazard. While Mr. Haphazard tries to persuade him that he is right to maintain his position as warden, he does not convince Mr. Harding. Mr. Harding resigns, putting him into poverty, but at least his conscience is clear. Rather than finding a new warden and reviving the controversy, the money is stored in a bank account, where it helps no one. The beadsmen do not see a single extra penny and lose the extra twopence a day given by Mr. Harding. 

Themes


Irony

Much of the humor of the novel comes from how the characters muddle through without thinking ahead. When placed with an obstacle to their plans they didn’t consider, the characters tend to reverse course rather than surmount it. However, when they do try to reverse course, they find it is not so easy to do so. John Bold initiates the lawsuit without thinking how it will impact his relationship with Eleanor and Mr. Harding. Once Eleanor threatens to stop seeing him, he immediately drops the lawsuit, though now many other people are involved now and he cannot easily stop it. Mr. Harding is another example, accepting his £800 a year unthinkingly. Only when the newspapers start attacking him does he consider if he is really entitled to so much of the hospital’s funds. He is easily bullied by the archdeacon into retaining his position, and sneaks off to London so that the archdeacon cannot influence him further.

The characters have mixed motives, often telling themselves they are doing something for good reasons when they in fact have ulterior motives. John Bold, for example, wants to be seen as a reformer rather than actually reforming the hospital. That’s why he files a public lawsuit and feeds information to The Jupiter when he could quietly try to reform the hospital through his influence on Mr. Harding. Archdeacon Grantly publicly says he is defending the church but, in reality, wants to keep his wealth and power.

Often, the characters’ mixed motives end up hurting their cause rather than helping. John Bold fails to reform the hospital and ends up hurting the beadsmen who are deprived of a warden and the extra funds Mr. Harding allotted them. Archdeacon Grantly fails to stop Mr. Harding from resigning, and the Church’s power and prestige is damaged by the negative publicity, even if the lawsuit was squashed. 

Legacy Institutions

I found it curious that the characters do not consider a rather obvious solution: to increase the number of beadsmen cared for by the hospital. This would increase the amount of work for the warden while reducing the salary of the position. It is quite hard to be admitted to Hiram’s Hospital; the archdeacon personally selects the beadsmen. Perhaps the reason for this is that Hiram’s will specified that twelve men be taken care of, and the will cannot be modified.

Many of the problems of The Warden involve institutions that made sense long ago not keeping up with the times. When granting that his estate be dedicated to twelve old men, John Hiram did not consider that in the far future, the land might be worth far more than it was in medieval times, or that the population of Barsetshire might be far larger. The Church of England is also portrayed in the novel as stuck in its ways, with members like Archdeacon Grantly defending their right to exercise power through patronage positions because of tradition rather than righteousness.

While Trollope recognizes the problems of legacy institutions, he does not sympathize with the reformers either. The reformers in the novel do more harm than good, and Trollope uses an entire chapter to attack media institutions advocating reform, such as The Times. What, then, does Trollope think is the answer? Is it better to leave well enough alone, even when something is clearly being abused? He doesn’t say, and the ending is left ambiguous.

The Media

Newspapers, pamphlets, and novels are hugely influential in the world of Barsetshire, and Trollope has a negative opinion of other writers and their power. He dedicates an entire chapter to criticizing the media through his thinly disguised parody of The Times, The Jupiter. The Jupiter takes up the cause of Hiram’s Hospital enthusiastically, attacks Mr. Harding personally without even interviewing him, and then connects the hospital to broader church scandals. The articles are all written anonymously, but John Bold suspects they come from reporter Tom Towers, to whom he leaked the information. Bold appeals to Tom to stop attacking Mr. Harding, but Tom Towers said that allowing such things to influence him would compromise his journalistic integrity. Towers is portrayed here as hypocritical, invoking journalistic integrity when it suits him. He is also shown to be power-mad, secretly enjoying his position of anonymous influence, where he can attack great men without any regard for the consequences. The Jupiter destroys Mr. Harding’s life and reputation without a second thought.

In general, Trollope has a rather low opinion of the sensationalism of the media. None of the other writers in the novel are portrayed positively, most notably Mr. Popular Sentiment (Charles Dickens). In the novel, Mr. Popular Sentiment publishes a novel, The Almshouse, that portrays Mr. Harding as greedy and unscrupulous. It bears little resemblance to the actual situation at Hiram’s Hospital. Trollope finds his work simplistic and lacking in nuance:

In former times great objects were attained by great work. When evils were to be reformed, reformers set about their heavy task with grave decorum and laborious argument. An age was occupied in proving a grievance, and philosophical researches were printed in folio pages, which it took a life to write, and an eternity to read. We get on now with a lighter step, and quicker: ridicule is found to be more convincing than argument, imaginary agonies touch more than true sorrows, and monthly novels convince, when learned quartos fail to do so. If the world is to be set right, the work will be done by shilling numbers.



Of all such reformers Mr Sentiment is the most powerful. It is incredible the number of evil practices he has put down: it is to be feared he will soon lack subjects, and that when he has made the working classes comfortable, and got bitter beer put into proper-sized pint bottles, there will be nothing further for him left to do. Mr Sentiment is certainly a very powerful man, and perhaps not the less so that his good poor people are so very good; his hard rich people so very hard; and the genuinely honest so very honest…



Perhaps, however, Mr Sentiment’s great attraction is in his second-rate characters. If his heroes and heroines walk upon stilts, as heroes and heroines, I fear, ever must, their attendant satellites are as natural as though one met them in the street: they walk and talk like men and women, and live among our friends a rattling, lively life; yes, live, and will live till the names of their calling shall be forgotten in their own, and Buckett and Mrs Gamp will be the only words left to us to signify a detective police officer or a monthly nurse.

I personally think the author protests too much here. While there is no doubt that many of the sentiments he expresses are true, there was no era where influence was earned only via learned tomes. Satire and sensationalism have always been with us and always will be. That being said, I did enjoy seeing Dickens taken down a peg by a contemporary. This is one of the reasons Trollope’s novels have stayed classics; his targets are still around with us today. While I found the prose long-winded and unwieldy, the book is a classic satire of Victorian society.


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