It was time for my last visit to some familiar characters with Anthony Trollope’s The Last Chronicle of Barset. This rich, multi-plot novel examines the social fabric and morality of Victorian England through the complex layers of money, debt, and materialism. In this novel, some of Trollope’s characters are shown in London, a place in which the moral issues afoot in Barsetshire are magnified.
The main plot of the novel concerns the Reverend Josiah Crawley, a morose, joyless man who appeared earlier in this six-novel series. Crawley, the perpetual curate of Hogglestock, his long-suffering wife and surviving children live in great poverty, for the living at Hogglestock is but 130 pounds a year. Crawley has become scarred by his poverty, his inability to provide for his wife and children, the deaths of many of his children, and also the promotion of those men who are less educated than he.
Crawley is a fascinating, complex character. When it comes to religion, this is a man who walks the talk. He is “hardworking, conscientious” and will tramp miles in the rain and cold to visit the poor. The farmers in his parish discuss Crawley “as though he were a madman,” and even his wife sometimes deals with him as she would “with an acknowledged lunatic.” He doesn’t patronise the poor, but rather actually helps the women with their chores. And it’s telling that the poor in the area respect Crawley as they realise he’s “sincere.” These are Crawley’s good points, but he also has many bad points–pride arguably being the worst of the lot. Whereas other ecclesiastical characters in Crawley’s age-cohort, Dr Arabin and Mark Robarts, both have excellent livings (make more money), they also mingle in higher society. Arabin for example and his wife Eleanor are on an extended trip through Europe and the Holy Land for most of the novel, and Mark Robarts, at one point known as the hunting curate, who is the protégé of Lady Lufton (his story is in Framley Parsonage) lives a very privileged life which is unblighted by the sorts of tragic events that have marred Crawley’s past. It’s easy to see why Arabin and Robarts have done well in life as they can both hold their own in local society. Crawley cannot. Yes, it’s partly that his clothes are shabby etc., but even if he were to show up to a party (not in a million years), he’s a natural born killjoy. Over the years, Crawley has become bitter, and while he’s a very moral man, he’s inflexible and prideful, wearing his hardships and poverty as badges of honour.
The Reverend Crawley is accused of stealing a 20 pound cheque which he used to pay his butcher bill. The cheque was written by Lord Lufton and was in the possession of his “man of business,” Mr. Soames. Mr Soames swears that he lost the cheque at Crawley’s house, and since the cheque was used to pay Crawley’s butcher (who was demanding payment and threatening public scandal if he did not get his money), the case against Crawley is strong. To make matters worse, Crawley, who is always his own worst enemy, cannot remember where he got the cheque. Crawley’s wife and Reverend Mark Robarts both beg Crawley to employ a lawyer, but with the ever-acrid smell of burning martyr, Crawley refuses. He has very definite opinions on the subject of lawyers.
And presuming an innocent man to have the ability to be ruined root and branch, self and family, character and pocket, simply because, knowing his own innocence, he does not choose to depend on the mercenary skill of a man whose trade he abhors for the establishment of that which should be as clear as the sun at noon-day!
The local magistrates agree to hold a trial.
As the case, with its dreadful ramifications, against Crawley gains momentum, all of Barchester hears of the scandal. A few people who know Crawley believe him to be innocent, but muddled or even possibly mad. Factions are formed with popular opinions rooted in ecclesiastical loyalties rather than knowledge of Crawley’s rigid character. The Bishop’s wife, Mrs Proudie, is determined to oust Crawley from Hogglestock even before the trial. Lady Lufton, who loathes Mrs Proudie (a “vulgar virago“) sides with the Crawleys. A very funny scene takes place at the Bishop’s palace when the Bishop summons Crawley (per Mrs Proudie’s demands) and she insists on joining the meeting between the Bishop and Mr. Crawley. Mr. Crawley decides to just ignore Mrs. Proudie until he can do so no longer and then he basically tells her to be quiet.
As usual with Trollope, there are sub-plots galore. One subplot concerns the widower, Henry Grantly who is in love with Grace Crawley. When Grace’s father faces trial, Henry believes he should step up and propose to Grace as a sort of protection. Henry’s father, Archdeacon Grantly, realising that he could soon have a felon in his family, threatens to cut Henry from the will if he continues with his plan to marry Grace. Another sub-plot takes us back to Lily Dale who was so cruelly jilted by Adolphus Crosbie in The Small House at Allington. Lily has sworn to remain an old maid, but John Eames, who also appeared in the same novel, still loves Lily and still holds hope that she will marry him one day. Adolphus Crosbie, however, having married into the horrid de Courcy family is now a widower. Will he leave his law suits against the de Courcy family long enough to pursue Lily again?
Another sub-plot concerns John Eames who, while hoping for Lily, amuses himself with a dangerous flirt, Madalina Demolines. Another sub-plot concerns the society painter, Conway Dalrymple, who is enjoying a flirtation with the married Mrs. Dobbs-Broughton. Mrs. Dobbs-Broughton who loves drama has decided to arrange a match between Conway and the heiress Miss Van Siever, the daughter of a very strange woman who is involved in lending money at high rates of interest. Mrs Van Siever is loud and bizarrely dressed:
She was a ghastly thing to look at, as well as from the quantity as from the nature of the wiggeries which she wore. She had not only a false front, but long false curls, as to which it cannot be conceived that she would suppose that anyone would be ignorant as to their falseness.
And I must mention a modest hero in this tale, the lawyer, Mr. Toogood. He is Mrs. Crawley’s cousin and he acts as detective in the case–yes his family’s reputation is at risk, but he’s also genuinely intrigued by the case.
Usury, suicide, bankruptcy, adultery, skullduggery, theft all these elements are in the novel. But through all these darker aspects of human nature, Trollope weaves the tale with his usual humour and generosity. We see John Eames cleverly managing his awful, blustery employer, Sir Raffle Buffle, which renders the pompous bully quite impotent, and we see Mr Toogood making financial sacrifices to get to the bottom of the Crawley case. John Eames seems to be destined to have horrible troubles with women, and that theme continues here to great comic entertainment. It’s noteworthy to see the lifestyle of Henry Grantly, the son of the Archdeacon. The Archdeacon prides himself on the fact that his son is as well heeled as many a young lord, and this affluence is one of the things Crawley abhors. We see some clergymen able to take extended holidays on the continent while Crawley has to walk in the mud and the rain. The vast inequities amongst the ecclesiastical community are highlighted by Crawley’s case. Certainly no one can accuse Crawley of being a clergyman for lucrative reasons, and yet ambition brews in many a clergyman’s heart in this series. This book is a wonderful conclusion to the Barsetshire series, and I was reluctant to say goodbye. More on some of the great characters in the book to follow. …