Book Review

"Barchester Towers" by Anthony Trollope

David Alenskis
Anthony Trollope
Monday, July 2nd 2012
Jul/Aug 2012

Despite the existence in print of odd genres like Young Adult Fiction, Manga, or Online Harry Potter Fan Fiction, I suggest that perhaps the strangest literary genre today is something I call "Dramatic Clergy Fiction." Impossible, you say, that such literature could yield a profit in today's economy. Yet recent novels set in pastoral-sounding towns like Gilead or Mitford should be enough to demonstrate otherwise. For my purposes here, however, I prefer to call to memory that great fictional city epitomizing the whole corpus of romantic pastoral literature. I am referring, of course, to the cathedral town of Barchester.

In 1857, Anthony Trollope, by day a bureaucrat in Her Majesty's postal service, published Barchester Towers, the expansive and ambitious follow-up to his novel The Warden. Like its predecessor, Trollope's sequel humorously intertwines ecclesiastical drama with romantic intrigue connected to the family of Septimus Harding, a humble minister in Barchester and father of the now-widowed Eleanor Bold. The quaint yet tumultuous narrative woven together in its pages provides a window, not only into church controversies still raging today, but also into the way human nature and human character affect such bitter controversy.

The central ecclesiastical conflict of the book emerges in the first few pages: who is competent to take the reins of diocesan power in Barchester now that a new bishop has been enthroned? Curiously enough, it is not the new bishop; in fact, the pitiful prelate has been left quite spineless by the relentless and ever-present wife of his youth. In the ensuing power vacuum, various contenders join in the contest to control the bishop and rule the diocese, including the diocese's all-time most insufferable archdeacon, the bishop's social-climbing chaplain, and (most intimidating of all) the bishop's own beloved helpmeet.

The contest escalates when a chaplaincy position for a geriatric rest home becomes vacant and the new bishop must choose a warden to care for a dozen elderly men. Immediately, manifold interests’political, personal, and petty’all come to bear on the warden's appointment, and the manipulation of the bishop's decision becomes the prime objective of both the old High-Church and the new Low-Church factions of Barchester. Practically everyone assumes that the "winner" in this struggle will rise to supremacy in the diocese, and all the various combatants end up clashing in a sort of winner-take-all Spaghetti Western showdown. For many of us who have served Christ in his not-quite-perfect church, there is some pleasure, albeit wincing pleasure, in watching this titanic battle play out.

Nevertheless, Trollope actually manages to pull off a convincing love story, in spite of this bloody backdrop, when a simple romance develops between Eleanor and a clergyman who is new in town. It is a tale as old as time: nerd boy meets girl, nerd boy falls in love with girl, nerd boy infuriates girl, girl has other suitors besides nerd boy, nerd boy bungles communicating his feelings to girl, and then for some inexplicable reason girl falls in love with nerd boy, and they live happily ever after. Though the details of their courtship are inextricably bound up with the ecclesiastical controversy swirling about them, Trollope paints a picture of love that transcends factions and parties and demonstrates just how human the entire story truly is.

It is precisely this quality of enduring humanity welling up within Barchester Towers that puts it on the must-read list, even if it is "Dramatic Clergy Fiction." On the one hand, Trollope's characters function almost like archetypes of humanity; in fact, some of them even have archetypal names like Mr. Quiverful (the impoverished clergyman who never knew when to quit having children), Mr. Slope (the Low-Church clergyman whose ways will lead down into ruin), or Mrs. Proudie (whose name needs no further explanation). A reader getting to know one of Trollope's characters soon realizes that this is not the first time they have met.

On the other hand, Trollope's exposition of humanity goes much deeper than this: communicating the unique personhood of each character is his foremost concern. In all honesty, the plot of Barchester Towers is not just predictable but actually predicted: the narrator continually gives away major plot points ahead of time in order to build trust with readers. Instead of making the enjoyment in reading his novel dependent on suspense, Trollope surprises his readers by unveiling each of his characters as complex, individual persons with strengths and weaknesses, virtues and vices, positions and parties. Regardless of which side of the ecclesiastical infighting is wrong or right, this novel presents people as people no matter how crazy they or their agendas might be. The author found delight in creating his characters as people, and he expects us to find similar delight in getting to know them as people. And by the end, it really is a delight.

At this moment in our shared history, public positions appear to have become polarized, religion saturated with political shenanigans, politics overrun by religionists. I believe, now more than ever, that the deep humanity of Barchester Towers, and its presentation of people in controversy as people, strongly recommends it to readers today. And without a doubt, it is always deeply rewarding to discover, whether it be in fiction or in real life, that true romance, genuine love, and Christian charity can be found in the church, even among its clergy.

Monday, July 2nd 2012

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology