The Warden by Anthony Trollope
It has been a blustery, wintry couple of days up here by Lake Superior. I moved into winter cooking mode yesterday, making pea soup with ham hock, champ (a British potato and greens dish), and refried beans. The pea soup has been delicious and perfect – warming. It has been hard to warm up after taking the dogs out for a hike – lots of soup and mint tea, layers and a hot shower, and the heat turned up a bit – all helping. It is a particularly good time to read a good book and I’m pleased to say that I found one.
122) Anothony Trollope’s The Warden (hard copy)
I mentioned in my last post that, in my search for something wonderful to read, I was persuaded by Book Snob to try Trollope. I have some on my kindle, but went with a hard copy from my shelves, the only Anthony Trollope that was there: The Warden.
I had not read Trollope before (and frankly I was confusing him with Thackerey) but I had seen a British production of How we live now which I enjoyed. Since I was desperate for something enjoyable, I read a few pages first and then decided that I would like the book. And I did – Trollope is delightful. Born in 1815 he died in 1882 – 67 was probably quite a ripe old age in that era. It is interesting to learn that Trollope was not always a success in any way. He came from poverty, mostly lived in England, but spent some time in America. He worked for the postal service and was really bad at it in the beginning. He seems to have had something of a bad attitude. Meanwhile, he was working on writing. The Warden came toward the beginning of his writing career, but it wasn’t his first book, just the first that really pleased him.
Published in 1854, it was the first in the Barsetshire series of six books based in the same county (Trollope is known for writing series, including the Palliser series). Somewhere I read that Trollope was the master of writing about human relationships to money – having read this book, I completely understand. His sensibilities are quite modern. Trollope has a keen eye for human nature and a delicate, intricate manner of conveying human relations. He has a good sense of humor. The world is not black and white to him – he sees all the complexities, that no decision of any gravity is easy, and that good people struggle to make the right decision. Of course, this flies in the face of much easy writing and acting (just watch 90% of American television and film), but it is a thoughtful approach reminiscent of Elizabeth Bowen and Alice Munro.
Trollope likes to deflate and skewer hypocrits and fools. In The Warden he takes on the clergy, lawyers, “radicals”, politicians, and most poignantly, the press. And he does it brilliantly. He also goes after novelists of the day, most notably and funnily, Dickens. I enjoy Dickens – he was a brilliant writer with a strong social conscience, but after reading Trollope, I’ll never be able to see Dickens in the same way. Trollope calls him (without ever saying his name, but it is easy to see of whom he speaks) “Mr. Public Sentiment” and demonstrates how Dickens went after the easy stereotype, saying “The artist who paints for the millions must use glaring colors.” (p. 229) For instance, in a play on the idea that Dickens has seized hold of the warden’s story and published it as a book, Dickens portrays the warden as a demon and “he was one who looked cruelly out of a hot, passionate, bloodshot eye; who had a huge red nose with a carbuncle, thick lips, and a great double, flabby chin, which swelled out into solid substance, like a turkey cock’s comb, when sudden anger inspired him: he had a hot, furrowed, low brow, from which a few grizzled hairs were not rubbed off by the friction of his handkerchief: he wore a loose unstarched white handkerchief, black loose ill-made clothes, and huge loose shoes, adapted to many corns and various bunions” (p. 227). Oh, what fun Trollope must have had conjuring the easy exaggeration of Dickens. I have not read enough Dickens to know whether I can safely challenge Trollope’s assertion that his world view (as portrayed in his books) was simplistic. I can, however, recognize the crude brush strokes he uses to name and describe people.
As mentioned in my last post, the story focuses on an accusation that a trust established to support down on their luck tradesmen is being misappropriated. The Church of England administers the trust through a warden (who is part of a complex set of church roles that I gave up on making heads or tails out of). The trust was created 400 years prior and, basically, although it is administered as written, the warden is doing quite well while the poor taken into Harem’s Hospital live a comfortable, but much less well-to-do life. The challenge to the trust has the effect of throwing some people into their knee jerk, often hypocritical positions, while the warden is given a lot to think about. If you’ve ever worried about having an income that is many times more than most people around the world (which it is likely that most of us reading blogs have even if we are not particularly well-off in our own country) and not really known what to do about it, you understand his dilemma. Trollope recognizes that the truth is slippery, ego is a powerful force, and that the right decision is not always apparent or easy.
What a delightful, intelligent book! To think it was written nearly 160 years ago boggles the mind. I always love to think of the people who wrote amazing Chinese poetry millennia ago and people who, like Trollope, living in a distant age like the Victorian age, could have thought much like many of us today. It is like meeting intellectuals from a very different culture – deeply satisfying feeling that sense of kinship with someone so distant in space or time. I look forward to reading more Trollope in the future.
Happy Reading! Ruby