Thursday, 21 April 2016

Taking Leave of Barset

"What are you doing, now that you're retired?" I'm often asked. Answering that question is a work in progress. It's a big step to take on that R-word. I sometimes answer jokily, "trying to save the UK from leaving the European Union - and when not doing that, watching daytime TV".

I hope no one takes me too seriously. I have a few projects and hope that time will show that they were not just "dreams - ideal dreams". One is to read through the novels of Anthony Trollope. Not all of them, but at least the greatest, starting with the Barsetshire and Pallliser chronicles. Today I reached the end of the Barsetshire set. Having lived in that fictional county each night for the past six months, it was poignant to turn over the final page of the immensely long Last Chronicle of Barset and read the author's touching farewell to a place that has become an essential part of the literary landscape of England, and of my own landscape of the mind.

Clergy have always loved these books: they are a disconcertingly accurate mirror in which we see reflected back to us all that is worst and all that is best in the lives and attitudes of the ordained. Many great novelists have written about the clergy, but none have ever equalled the devotion - some would say obsession - with which Trollope dissects and exposes their characters, their roles and relationships, their inner strengths and contradictions. He knew the Church of England of the 19th century well. Reform was in the air. Then as now, the Church found itself torn between an intellectual recognition of the need for change, and a strong emotional attachment to the old ways that would soon pass into history. 

The Last Chronicle draws together threads from all the earlier books - The Warden, Barchester Towers, Doctor Thorne, Framley Parsonage and The Small House at Allington. We meet almost all our favourite clerical characters once more (the exception being Mr Slope, the Bishop's marvellously drawn and utterly odious chaplain in Barchester Towers). Mr Harding, the sweet-tempered lovable Warden whose death in old age is related in one of the most moving chapters of the Last Chronicle. Theophilus Grantly the energetic, irascible but, you always feel, ultimately admirable Archdeacon (a role model for more than a few senior clergy I have known). Francis Arabin the Dean, not depicted as colourfully as the others but another of Trollope's good, wise and learned clergy (all things that a dean of course must be). Mark Robarts the incumbent of Framley who gets into trouble as a result of his ambition and social climbing amidst the wrong "set", yet is redeemed by the excellent women in his life. And Bishop Proudie whose arrival as one of the new breed of reforming prelates forms the central storyline in Barchester Towers; weak, vacillating, manipulated, unrespected, Trollope nevertheless dares to hope at the end of the chronicles that as a humbled man, better things may be expected of him in the future. 

But the most memorable of them all is Josiah Crawley, the unfortunate Perpetual Curate of Hogglestock. Trollope's portrait of him, sustained at such length in the Last Chronicle, to my mind makes this novel into a masterpiece of characterisation. The story itself is absurdly simply. Crawley, one  of the desperately poor rural clergy, is accused of stealing a £20 cheque. He hasn't the faintest idea how it came to be in his possession. The magistrates refer him to the assizes, and the Bishop sets about depriving him of the living. That's about it. Only after several hundred pages is the truth disclosed. If you haven't read the book, I am not going to give in to the cheap pleasure of a spoiler.

What's so powerful in this portrait is how chronic poverty breaks the spirit or threatens to. Trollope was clearly troubled by the vast inequalities of wealth and privilege among the clergy of his day and the Last Chronicle can be read as a loud protest against clerical poverty. Crawley is a learned man, a student friend of the Dean who has fallen on hard times. He has his scriptures and his beloved classical texts to sustain him (he teaches his daughter to read Greek tragedy, and claims that his Hebrew is a lot better than the Dean's). He is a conscientious parish priest - and with it, eccentric, angular and dogged. But it's his anger at the injustice of his destiny that is so well drawn. The accusation of theft is itself the theft of the last thing he has left to cherish - his own integrity. It acts as a lens that focuses his lifelong resentment which, turned inwards, gives birth to a profound depression that is on the verge of tipping him into a pit of despair. Like Job, he cries out to heaven to be vindicated. But the sky is deaf to his pleas.

Here's where Trollope shows how well he understands the complexity of the human psyche. Maybe his own father inspired the character. What I've realised is that we shouldn't underestimate Trollope as a tragic writer. His prose flows so effortlessly that you're tempted to read too quickly, stay on the glittering surface rather than linger to plumb the depths he reveals within the soul. Yet there is a truly tragic dimension to these novels that reaches its apogee in the Last Chronicle. Who will ever forget Crawley's bitter refusal to accept his old friend the Dean's outstretched hand of kindness? Or his cruelty to his wife and children in their parsonage-hovel while nevertheless loving them with complete devotion? Or the terrible miles of his long winter journey on foot to the Cathedral Close for a fateful encounter with the Bishop in his palace, an event that almost destroys them both? 

Where to stop? This blog mustn't emulate The Last Chronicle of Barset in its length. But how can I have written even a few words about these wonderful Barsetshire novels without so much as mentioning Mrs Proudie? She would never have forgiven me.

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