Sunday, October 19, 2008

Anthony Trollope: Barchester Towers

Who will be the new bishop? Will Mr. Harding get his old job as warden back? Whom will Eleanor marry? Who will become Dean? This novel is full of questions that pull us in and hold our attention, while the narrator makes pithy comments and never lets us forget that the author is in full control of his story, giving us only such information as he cares to:

“It is hardly necessary that I should here give to the public any lengthened biography of Mr. Harding, up to the period of the commencement of this tale. The public cannot have forgotten how ill that sensitive gentleman bore the attack that was made on him in the columns of the Jupiter, with reference to the income which he received as warden of Hiram’s hospital, in the city of Barchester.”

This is the second volume of the Chronicles of Barsetshire published between 1855-67, and although the language at times feels circuitous and old fashioned, it is also extremely funny. The characters’ names are delightful: Mr & Mrs Quiverful (who’ve had a productive marriage with14 children!), Obadiah Slope (slippery fellow!), Dr Fillgrave (whose medical skills we can’t help but question), Mr Omicron Pie, Bishop and Mrs Proudie (and very proud of themselves they are too), among others. Through the names and the addition of skilfully scattered words and phrases the author allows his feelings about his characters to show:

“Mr. Slope having added to his person all such adornments as are possible to a clergyman making a morning visit, such as a clean neck tie, clean handkerchief, new gloves, and a soupçon of not unnecessary scent, called about three o’clock at the doctor’s door.”

Barchester Towers is a classic, and it’s not by accident that Trollope’s work is still current – another of his stories was recently serialized on BBC Radio 4.