Some Thoughts on The Warden by Anthony Trollope

I was emailing a friend who has read quite a bit of Trollope and he remarked that this author’s novels are rather entertaining but when one closes the last page of some of his tales, they are soon forgotten.  After reading his messages about Trollope, and also seeing a thread on literary Twitter about The Warden,  I was very eager to give Trollope a try for myself.  I have rather mixed feelings about this first novel; some parts of it were amusing but overall I was a bit underwhelmed with my first experience in Barsetshire.

No one in Trollope’s narrative, which story involves an attempt at economic reformation of the Church,  is spared his sarcasm and ridicule.  The Warden, a kind, old man who lives with his daughter Elenor, has served his position as leader of Barchester hospital that cares for poor, elderly, retired, working class men who would otherwise be homeless.  It was established in the benefactor’s will in the 15th century that, in exchange for his minimal work, the Warden receives a yearly salary of 800 pounds and the use of a comfortable, some might even say lavish, home.  Reformers, led by a local doctor named John Bold, believe that the old bedesmen living at the hospital ought to receive a larger share of the income from the hospital’s estate.  When lawyers, other reformers, and the newspaper weigh in on the matter, the Warden is, rather unfairly,  made out to be a prime example of the greed of the clergy who take money from the poor in order to live in the lap of luxury.

The archdeacon, also the son-in-law of the Warden, is satirized by Trollope as a prime example of the Church clerics who will defend this institution at any cost:

Though doubt and hesitation disturbed the rest of our poor warden, no such weakness perplexed the nobler breast of his son-in-law.  As the indomitable cock preparing for the combat sharpens his spurs, shakes his feathers, and erects his comb, so did the archdeacon arrange his weapons for the coming war, without misgiving and without fear.  That he was fully confident of the justice of his cause let no one doubt.  Many a man can fight his battle with good courage, but with a doubting conscience; such as not the case with Dr. Grantly.  He did not believe in the Gospel with more assurance than he did in the sacred justice of all ecclesiastical revenues.

The reformers are equally a target of ridicule in Trollope’s tale.  John Bold, who had good intentions when he stirred up the whole controversy and genuinely wanted to help out the poor, old bedesmen, is easily swayed to put the matter aside because of love.  Bold is courting the Warden’s daughter, Eleanor, and when Eleanor pleads with her lover to put aside the case against the hospital and her father, he is very quick to oblige:

‘I would give her my soul, if it would serve her,’ said Bold still addressing his sister; ‘everything I have is hers, if she will accept it; my house, my heart, my all; every hope of my breast is centred in her: her smiles are sweeter to me than the sun, and when I see her in sorrow as she now is, every nerve in my body suffers.  No man can love better than I love her.’

Even though Trollope makes Bold seem a bit of a fool by giving up his attempt at reform for a woman, I was glad that Bold made this decision.  The sappy, romantic in me was glad Bold chose love over a law suit.

Trollope goes on and on poking fun at various parties involved in the attempt to redistribute the Warden’s salary among the bedesmen.  But the book ends on a rather sad note when it is the Warden and the old men at the hospital who suffer the most from the fight between the clergy and the reformers.  Although they are themselves not entirely blameless in the matter, it is their lives that are most negatively affected by the arguments of more important and influential men.

Despite my mixed feelings, I will continue with the Barsetshire Chronicles.  My friend, who I mentioned above, did remark that Barchester Towers, the next book in the series, is definitely worth a “quick spin through the eyeballs.”

25 Comments

Filed under British Literature, Classics

25 responses to “Some Thoughts on The Warden by Anthony Trollope

  1. Very nice review.

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  2. I have a very dim memory of reading The Warden many years ago but have read nothing by Trollope since however my partner raves about both The Way We Live Now and Can You Forgive Her?

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  3. Interesting response, Melissa. I’ve tried The Warden a couple of times and never got very far into it. Perhaps the subject matter is the issue, and I *have* heard good things about his non Barsetshire novels, so maybe I’ll start with a stand alone book.

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  4. What’s the aspect of the book you thought was not good? I am somehow not seeing that in your post.

    I will add that, unlike your friend, I remember, in some way at least, each of the fourteen Trollope novels I have read, and suggest, again disagreeing with the friend, that Barchester Towers be read attentively, put not just into the eyes but the brain.

    I mean, Trollope is not Dickens or Eliot, but he is a reasonably complex artist.

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  5. The ending felt particularly sad to me and the tone of it didn’t quite match with the humor and sarcasm of the rest of the book. My problem might also be that I was measuring him against Eliot and that’s not quite fair.

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  6. I just finished this, and also had reservations- as my post tried to show. Am finding B. Towers far superior even though it reprises much the same plot – but with greater finesse. As Tom says, he’s no Dickens (even though he satirised him in The Warden, while pinching some of his character-defining techniques, like Harding’s habit when nervous of playing an invisible cello) – but he narrates with aplomb, & creates some complex characters.

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    • I read both of your excellent posts after I finished it. I completely agree with your thoughts. The ending was the most disappointing part. But I did enjoy his humor and he is a master writing narrative, so I’ve decided to try the next one. I’m so glad to hear it’s better than the first one.

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  7. Ali

    The only Trollope I’ve read is The Way We Live Now, which I do think is a very good book. I own several others by him in including Barchester Towers and Can You Forgive Her. Every time I sit down to read another book of his, I get bored within the first few pages, and think to myself that I don’t want to spend time reading such a long novel that I am only finding average at best. So I usually just stop reading him and I’m satisfied I’ve read enough of him to last a lifetime!

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    • I am afraid that I may end up in the same boat if I read a few more of his novels! I will have to try The Way We Live Now since several people have now recommended that to me. Thank you!

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  8. Oh dear, having read everything that my library had decades ago, I am an unabashed Trollope enthusiast, but based on what you and Simon say, I fear that if I re-read him now I might not love him so. I think I’ll leave my memories undisturbed…

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  9. I remember that The Warden felt like it was starting the whole time I read it, and at the end I was surprised to find it already over. I thought it still portrayed well a moral dilemma, and also is just a nice look at how the benefices of old functioned.

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  10. Jonathan

    This is the only Trollope book that I’ve read so far. I liked it enough to want to read some more of his work but I doubt if he’ll ever become a favourite author.

    My OUP copy had a short story included called The Two Heroines of Plumplington which I enjoyed more than The Warden. Does your edition have that story as well?

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  11. I almost joined in with those reading The Warden having never read Trollope. I always thought he was regarded as second rate (which, judging from the comments, seems to be the case) and resented the fact he seemed to be forever in print while better writers were neglected! It may happen yet, but I suspect your lukewarm response has pushed it back a year or two!

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  12. I read Trollope for the first time not too many years ago, starting with The Warden, and while he doesn’t come up to Eliot and Hardy in my mind, he tells a v good story and has memorable characters, and I have been working my way through the Barsetshire Chronicles ever since. I really enjoyed Doctor Thorne.

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  13. I haven’t read any Trollope since my MA days, when we read his autobiography, and Phineas Finn. I’ve been tempted by the Barsetshire Chronicles, but it sounds like this first book is not a rousing success. I wonder if one can skip to the other volumes without anything being lost?

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    • I do think all of his books can be read as individual novels without reading an entire series. I am actually liking the second book much better and I really could have skipped the first one. At least the first one was short at only 200 pages.

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  14. I love Trollope, but I think of him as a meeting the people and enjoying the company author rather than comparing him with Eliot and others. I liked this rather more than you did, but I think he does better with bigger books where he can be a little more expansive.

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