Anthony Trollope’s The Warden is the kick-off novel for the 6-book series, The Chronicles of Barsetshire, so it’s an introduction to the social environment of the region with an emphasis on the clergy and gentry. The plot of The Warden is simple: mild, unassuming Reverend Septimus Harding is the warden of Hiram’s Hospital and preceptor of Barchester cathedral. He’s a widower and has two daughters: Mrs Susan Grantly who is married to the indefatigable Archdeacon Grantly (son of the Bishop of Barchester) and unmarried Eleanor who lives with her father in a very pleasant home on the grounds of Hiram’s Hospital. Hiram’s Hospital, an almshouse established in the 15th century for elderly wool-carders, houses 12 men. Recently, the warden stepped in and gave each man an extra tuppence a day which is added to the meagre amount of one shilling and fourpence each resident receives from the almshouse. Septimus Harding, who has been warden for ten years, receives 800 pounds a year, and in addition has 80 pounds a year as preceptor of Barchester.
All the trouble starts when John Bold, a local doctor whose practice has not exactly taken off, launches a campaign of legal action and social awareness regarding Harding’s pay. Bold contends that it was never the intention of the hospital founder that the lion’s share of the money should go to a warden while the residents receive a relatively meagre amount. The whole Hiram Hospital set-up is somewhat wobbly for the manner in which its mission has strayed from the founder’s original intent. Wool-carders in Barchester no longer exist, and now the residents are handpicked “so the bishop, dean and warden, who took it in turn to put in the old men, generally appointed some hangers-on of their own: worn-out gardeners, decrepit grave-diggers, or octogenarian sextons, who thankfully received a comfortable lodging and one shilling fourpence a day.” The fact that Harding was appointed by his old friend the Bishop and that Harding’s elder daughter is married to the Bishop’s son smacks of nepotism, and those facts add to the argument that Harding is wildly overpaid. Harding is a humble, sweet man, and he’s horrified to find himself the subject of public censure. He investigates the veracity of Bold’s legal argument, and all this is complicated by the fact that Bold is courting Harding’s daughter Eleanor.
While the plot is simple, The Warden is a study in human nature: the lambs vs, the wolves. Pride, power, stubbornness, the power of the press, the misguided machinations of the reformer, and the absolute authority of the church all come under scrutiny. The peaceful, well-established structure of Barsetshire is disrupted when Bold, a “strong reformer,” turns his energy towards Hiram’s Hospital:
His passion is the reform of all abuses; state abuses, church abuses, corporation abuses (he had got himself elected a town councillor of Barchester, and has so worried three consecutive mayors, that it became somewhat difficult to find a fourth), abuses in medical practice, and general abuses in the world at large. Bold is thoroughly sincere in his patriotic endeavours to mend mankind, and there is something to be admired in the energy with which he devotes himself to remedying evil and stopping injustice.
Bold’s directed attack on Harding’s pay–although acutely personal, is undertaken with a blind zeal which ignores the likely consequence. After all, Bold loves Eleanor, and yet it’s pride that blinds him to the consequences of his actions. But then reformers are so often about tearing down without consideration of the human consequences. Then there’s Harding, a doddery man who is happy to take this generous living until it’s pointed out that the pay he receives for is basically given for doing ‘nothing.’ And that’s an argument which festers on both sides of divide–the Archdeacon thinks his father in law is mad to give up this cushy job that requires so little of him, and yet it’s the very same argument, great pay, no labour, that the reformers and the press use. Most of the humor here comes from the insufferable Archdeacon Grantly who tries to bully his father-in-law, Harding into keeping the job. His very argument that Harding gets 800 pounds for basically nothing is exactly the argument to make Harding cringe and run. The Warden examines the layered structures of society: Law, Church, Clergy–those who prop up those structures, those who pontificate and tear them down, and the finally the humans who are supposed to be helped by both established structure and reformers but who are far more likely to be victims:
Did you ever know a poor man yet better for Law or for a lawyer?