The second and most popular of Trollope’s six Barsetshire novels, Barchester Towers chronicles the struggles for power and position in an imaginary county in Victorian England. Passions start seething when an "outsider," Dr. Proudie, is appointed bishop of Barchester. Soon, his ambitious, domineering wife and the smarmy, scheming curate, Mr. Slope, are hatching plots and counter-plots as they try to control the choice of a new warden for Hiram’s Hospital and a new husband for Eleanor, a lovely young widow and the daughter of the former warden, Mr. Harding.
The novel combines the realism of later fiction (including Trollope’s own) with such Victorian devices as Dickensian character names and a comically interruptive narrator. The narrator’s sharply satiric comments enhance the story’s richness, while his playful, reassuring, and mocking asides subvert the reader’s expectations, giving the book an unexpectedly post-modernist flavor. Ultimately, we see that Trollope’s characters’ petty jealousies, selfishness, and meanness are not metaphors for larger issues, they are the issuesthe same human failings that, in other contexts, can lead to serious social strife and civil unrest.
Edward Mendelson is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He is W. H. Auden’s literary executor and has written widely on nineteenth- and twentieth-century novels.
Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) was one of the most successful, prolific, and respected English novelists of the Victorian era. Some of his best-known books collectively comprise the Chronicles of Barsetshire series, which revolves around the imaginary county of Barsetshire and includes the books The Warden, Barchester Towers, Doctor Thorne, and others. Trollope wrote nearly 50 novels in all, in addition to short stories, essays, and plays.
Barchester Towers pretends to be nothing more than a comic novel about fierce but harmless battles over power, status, and marriage that divide the secure world of an English cathedral town, a place where nothing serious ever happens. Anthony Trollope narrates his story in a familiar and realistic style, as if he were telling a story after dinner, a style that prompted Nathaniel Hawthorne to praise Trollope’s work as “solid, substantial, written on the strength of beef and through the inspiration of ale, and just as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case.” Barchester Towers is one of the greatest comic novels ever written, but it is also much more than that. In its portrait of a small community altered by vast changes in politics, religion, and culture, it is also an ambitious study of the ways in which large forces affect individual lives. And in its account of the anarchic power of sex in the repressed and proper world of an Anglican cathedral town, it rises to the level of myth: It is a story in which the instinctive force of Eros disrupts the civilized order and defeats those who want power rather than love.
Trollope can always be relied on for a readable story with a varied cast of plausible characters in a plausible social setting, and for many decades he was valued for the comfort and security that his books seemed to offer. One widely cited example: In England, sales of his novels markedly increased during World War II, especially in times of massive bombing raids over London. Trollope also had a darker edge than he wanted to admit to himself, especially in such later novels as The Way We Live Now, a cynical account of personal and public corruption, and He Knew He Was Right, a story of obsessive and destructive marital jealousy. Even his lighter novels, such as Barchester Towers, are complicated by Trollope’s mixed feelings about relations between men and women, about historical and technological change, and about the nature of novel writing itself. Trollope often expresses his feelings about culture, society, and the sexes with table-thumping intensity, but his most intense feelings were always mixed feelings, even if he was not consciously aware of how mixed they were.
The love stories in his novels illustrate his way of combining overt simplicity and covert complexity. His love plots almost invariably involve a diffident young man who is too tongue-tied to express his love and a shyly feminine young woman who manages to misunderstand the young man’s intentions until almost the last minute, when she accepts in the most modest way imaginable, and then withdraws to exult in private. Trollope repeatedly declares his preference for the reticent, unassertive women suitable to this kind of plot, and equally often declares his distaste for overbearing women such as Mrs. Proudie in Barchester Towers and for the independent-minded young feminists who appear in his later novels. Yet Trollope tends to give his unassertive young heroines at least one moment of assertiveness that he clearly regards as triumphant. Eleanor Bold, the retiring, beautiful young widow in the love plot of Barchester Towers, seems to be the exact opposite of the meddling, finger-pointing, domineering Mrs. Proudie; butt by the end of the book they have both acted against the same enemy (although neither knows about the other’s action), and Eleanor has resorted to a small but momentous act of physical violence when defending herself against sexual aggression. Trollope devotes four extravagantly comic paragraphs to his own response to this violent act, first imagining the disgusted reactions of imaginary readers, then defending Eleanor against those reactions, then affirming the perfect suitability of her action to the provocation she received, finally pretending to conclude that she ought not to have done it—but only because she herself feels ashamed of it. Trollope admires enterprising, independent-minded women more than he wants to admit to himself, and his mixed feelings can be traced to his memories of his mother, the formidable Mrs. Frances Trollope, who took over the family finances from Trollope’s father when his law practice failed and then transformed herself into a well-known and prolific author of novels and travel writings who wrote forty-one books—not as many as her son’s sixty-seven, but an impressive number for any writer.