“There is no happiness in love except at the end of an English novel.“
Time for a revisit to Barchester Towers. I’m glad I re-read this after recently re-reading The Warden. Many of the characters appear in both novels, so reading Barchester Towers reunites us with those in The Warden. But also in reading the two novels close together, I was struck by issues that appear in both books. The plot of The Warden focuses on the humble, meek Reverend Septimus Harding, a man in his 60s, a widower and father of two daughters, who has the wardenship of Hiram’s Hospital. Harding lives in a lovely home on the premises of the hospital and receives 800 pounds to boot. All the trouble starts when local reformer, Dr. Bold, takes issue with the amount of Harding’s wages. So the main dilemma in the novel is what is going to happen to Harding and the wardenship. Another issue is whether Harding’s daughter, Eleanor, will marry Bold or not.
In Barchester Towers, the old Bishop dies and although Archdeacon Grantly, the Bishop’s son, and also Harding’s son-in-law expects to be made the new Bishop, that position falls elsewhere. So there’s a new Bishop in Barchester–namely Bishop Proudie, but… wait… is he indeed the Bishop? The Bishop’s fearsome wife, Mrs. Proudie controls the reins and then there’s Mr. Slope, a chaplain who has ingratiated himself into Mrs. Proudie’s good graces but whose ambition dictates that he will run the diocese. Barchester Towers, then is a novel which explores the struggle for ecclesiastical power in the town. Barchester Towers is incredibly funny. Some of the humour resides in the fact that while religion is the profession of many of the main characters, religion has very little to do with what takes place. Try ambition, pride, class and status. And even add a bit of lust.
The book opens with Archdeacon Grantly at his father’s bedside calculating his “chances” of securing the Bishopric, knowing that much depends, for political reasons, on the timing of his father’s death. The Archdeacon was one of the more unappealing characters (IMO) in The Warden, but in Barchester Towers, he seems rather defanged, or at least his more unpleasant characteristics are swamped by Mr. Slope’s queasy obsequiousness. Archdeacon Grantly is obviously bruised when the Bishopric falls to another, but an initial social visit to the Bishop’s palace turns into a verbal skirmish. The vulgar, bossy, “despotic” Mrs. Proudie, with the insufferable Slope as her henchman, is determined to put the Archdeacon into his place and let him know that while her husband may have the title of ‘Bishop,” it is she who rules the palace.
As for the Bishop, he has learned for the sake of peace and sanity, to submit to his wife’s tyranny: “all hope of defending himself has long passed from him.” Mrs Proudie is not a particularly intelligent woman, but her lack of intelligence is compensated by her fierce bossiness and complete absence of manners. So while the Bishop could outmaneuver her in the brains department, he has learned that independence comes with a price he’s not willing to pay. Mr. Slope appears to be Mrs. Proudie’s creature, but he sees his allegiance to her as a stepping stone. His allegiance is temporary and serves only to gain the position of chaplain. Now in Barchester, Slope intends to wield the power. He intends to liberate the Bishop from the thrall of his wife (and place the Bishop under his thrall), but the Bishop must choose domestic comfort over marital liberation. And Mrs. Proudie plays to win.
Mr. Slope is tall and not ill-made. His feet and hands are large as has ever been the case with all his family, but he has a broad chest and wide shoulders to carry off these excrescences, and on the whole his figure is good. His countenance however is not specially prepossessing. His hair is lank and of a dull, pale reddish hue. It is always formed into three straight lumpy masses, each brushed with admirable precision and cemented with much grease, two of them adhere closely to the side of his face and the other lies at right angles above them. He wears no whiskers and is always punctiliously shaven. His face is nearly the same colour as his hair though perhaps a little redder. It is not unlike beef. Beef, however one would say, of a bad quality. His forehead is captious and high but square and heavy and unpleasantly shining.
The whole question of who has the power, Mrs. Proudie or Mr. Slope, erupts over who will get the wardenship of Hiram’s Hospital. So once again who will run Hiram’s hospital is a central plot dilemma.
Trollope seems to have great fun with this novel, and it’s when I read a book such as this, I realise how fantastic it must be to create this hodge-podge of characters, throw them together and then describe what happens. The lines between the characters (the Slope party, the Grantly party) are sharply drawn, and the battle scene seems set, but then Trollope throws the Stanhope family into the fun. Dr. Vesey Stanhope is the prebendary of Barchester cathedral but he’s been living, with his awful family, in Italy for the last 12 years. Mr. Slope advises the Bishop to recall Stanhope and so the Stanhopes reluctantly arrive in Barchester.
Ahhh.. the Stanhopes. What a perfectly dreadful family; yet they are not completely dreadful; some of them have a sort of malicious, toxic, seductive and destructive charm. They move to Barchester and their exoticism sends its warping tendrils into society. Who will emerge unscathed?
The great family characteristic of the Stanhopes might probably be said to be heartlessness but this want of feeling was, in most of them, accompanied by so great an amount of good nature as to make itself but little noticeable to the world. They were so prone to oblige their neighbors that their neighbours failed to see how indifferent to them was the happiness and wellbeing of those around them. The Stanhopes would visit you in your sickness, provided it were not contagious, would bring you oranges, French novels, and the last new bit of scandal and then hear of your death or your recovery with an equally indifferent composure. Their conduct to each other was the same.
“Bon vivant,” Dr. Stanhope’s main concern in his life is his dinner. His well-dressed wife doesn’t appear before three in the afternoon. They have three children: Charlotte, the eldest daughter manages the household. She is the one who appears ‘normal.’ There’s a wastrel “idle” son, Bertie whose lackadaisical pursuit of various careers (poet, art) is secondary to running up huge debts. The younger daughter is Signora Madeline Vesey Neroni, a very beautiful woman, who ran off to marry some ne’er do well, impoverished Italian with “oily manners.” She returned home after having a child and sustaining some sort of crippling accident. In any other woman, such an injury would be a deficit, and yet she manages to turn this injury into a mystery, and the old injury is a powerful weapon in terms of being the centre of attention. She has reinvented her past, and her penniless husband has become the scion of a noble family while her child is “the last of the Neros.”
Madame Neroni, though forced to give all up all motion on the world, had no intention of giving up the world itself. The beauty of her face was uninjured and that beauty was of a peculiar kind. Her copious rich brown hair was worn in Grecian bandeau around her head, displaying as much as possible of her forehead and cheeks. Her forehead, though rather low, was very beautiful from its perfect contour and pearly whiteness. Her eyes were long and large and marvelously bright. Might I venture to say bright as Lucifer’s. I should perhaps express the depth of their brilliancy. They were dreadful eyes to look at such as would deter any man of quiet mind and easy spirit from attempting a passage of arms from such foes. There was talent in them and the fire of passion and the play of wit but there was no love. Cruelty was there instead and courage. A desire of masterhood, cunning and a wish for mischief and yet as eyes they were very beautiful.
Madeline Neroni, now she’s shackled by marriage, and hampered by physical limitations, is left with one hobby: to enchant, seduce and torture her many male admirers. Mr. Slope, whose dominant characteristic is ambition, makes himself a complete idiot for Madeline, and she, like a spider, draws him in, leads him to make overtures and then, when the opportunity is ripe, twists the knife into Slope, delivering the coup de grace But, hell, he deserves it. But since this is Trollope, even the villains have some degree of humanity. While Madeline Neroni, that latter-day Cleopatra, and the nasty Slope steal the show here, I cannot forget the Thornes, siblings violently set in their ways or the desperate Quiverfuls, a large needy family whose poverty is in contrast to the Stanhopes.