Strangely, before these I had not read any Anthony Trollope before but “The Warden” (1855) proved a good introduction to the Chronicles of Barsetshire. It was actually a much lighter read than I was anticipating and also light on the pocket as it was a free book from Kindle. To be fair, not a lot happens and if action is your bag you might think twice about this, but I have to say that not a lot happens very nicely. Main character, Harding, is a vicar who alongside his other work is given an honorary post as warden at an alms hospital with a very healthy stipend. A suitor of his daughter discovers that this was not the intention of the foundation who set the charity up. It snowballs (slightly) from here with Trollope’s tongue in cheek look at honorary posts and the privileges of the Church of England together with the ramifications of challenging those. It’s a perfect winter’s day novel, gentle, readable and with considerable charm.
“Barchester Towers” (1857) is a longer and more thoroughly plotted novel. I did feel, however, that some of the simple charm of the first book was missing and it is more weighed down by the tale of intrigue amongst men of the cloth. It picks up a couple of years after “The Warden”. Vicar’s daughter Eleanor’s happy marriage at the end of the book is no more. She is a widow and open to the attentions of others. There are some new characters which add life and colour to the novel. A new bishop, Proudie, and his formidable wife arrive to take up their (and it is very much their) appointment, bringing with them a chaplain, Mr Slope. He is a man keen on plotting his way to the top by getting the better of the traditionalists sat in his way. The Signora Neroni is Trollope’s best female character I have encountered to date. She is the daughter of a cleric, forced back from his Italian retreat with family in tow, including Bertie Stanhope, the good-for-nothing son and his sister, The Signora, who is unable to walk and needs to be carried everywhere soon has the men of Barchester wrapped around her finger. The characters stir and plot, the job of the warden comes up again, the status and advancement of the local clergy is central as is the question as to whether Eleanor will remarry.
I like both books very much but for different reasons. “The Warden” for its readable charm but “Barchester Towers” is a rich, denser work and so I think it just has the edge. A series which is getting better is very promising.
There are free versions of both “The Warden” and “Barchester Towers” available in e-book. For those who want the real thing there are reasonably priced editions from Penguin, Oxford World Classics and Wordsworth amongst other publishers.