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Gwen Raverat from The Bedside Barsetshire, Daisy Hay on Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire novels, SF Issue 73

A Year in Barsetshire

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In the spring of 2020, amidst the early devastation of Covid-19, I found myself unable to read. I was grappling with the after-effects of an accident when the pandemic struck, so my concentration was already fractured by the time the streets fell silent. Deprived of the consolations of print, one April afternoon I pressed play on the first chapter of the audiobook of Anthony Trollope’s The Warden as I left the house for my daily walk. I did so without much expectation that the noise would do anything other than provide a mild distraction from the exigencies of the day, but within minutes the cathedral close of Barchester had opened up before me and I was hooked. What follows is an account of the year I spent among the inhabitants of Barsetshire, and of the solace I found in the connected stories of the Barchester novels.

*

On this cloudless April afternoon, as I shut the front door of my house in Exeter, my route takes me out of town and into the Devon countryside. Multi-coloured crayon rainbows in the windows of my neighbours’ houses give way as I walk to verges of bluebells and forget-me-nots; then to meadows where the first daisies and buttercups are just beginning to emerge from their hiding places in the grass. In Barchester the warden of Hiram’s Hospital, Septimus Harding, is blissfully unaware of the trouble soon to be visited on him by the twin personages of his putative son-in-law, John Bold, and his actual son-in-law, Archdeacon Theophilus Grantly. John Bold is bent on uncovering the corruption that enables Mr Harding’s comfortable sinecure as the warden of the Hospital. Archdeacon Grantly is equally determined to maintain both his father-in-law’s position and the rightful order of ecclesiastical things.

The Warden tells the story of the battle between John Bold and the Archdeacon, a battle in which Mr Harding finds himself most uncomfortably entangled. Although John Bold wins the

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In the spring of 2020, amidst the early devastation of Covid-19, I found myself unable to read. I was grappling with the after-effects of an accident when the pandemic struck, so my concentration was already fractured by the time the streets fell silent. Deprived of the consolations of print, one April afternoon I pressed play on the first chapter of the audiobook of Anthony Trollope’s The Warden as I left the house for my daily walk. I did so without much expectation that the noise would do anything other than provide a mild distraction from the exigencies of the day, but within minutes the cathedral close of Barchester had opened up before me and I was hooked. What follows is an account of the year I spent among the inhabitants of Barsetshire, and of the solace I found in the connected stories of the Barchester novels.

*

On this cloudless April afternoon, as I shut the front door of my house in Exeter, my route takes me out of town and into the Devon countryside. Multi-coloured crayon rainbows in the windows of my neighbours’ houses give way as I walk to verges of bluebells and forget-me-nots; then to meadows where the first daisies and buttercups are just beginning to emerge from their hiding places in the grass. In Barchester the warden of Hiram’s Hospital, Septimus Harding, is blissfully unaware of the trouble soon to be visited on him by the twin personages of his putative son-in-law, John Bold, and his actual son-in-law, Archdeacon Theophilus Grantly. John Bold is bent on uncovering the corruption that enables Mr Harding’s comfortable sinecure as the warden of the Hospital. Archdeacon Grantly is equally determined to maintain both his father-in-law’s position and the rightful order of ecclesiastical things. The Warden tells the story of the battle between John Bold and the Archdeacon, a battle in which Mr Harding finds himself most uncomfortably entangled. Although John Bold wins the hand of Mr Harding’s younger daughter, Eleanor, he is a cipher compared to the formidable figure of Archdeacon Grantly. The Archdeacon’s magnificence is most fully revealed as he presides over his breakfast table at Plumstead Episcopi. Trollope’s description of the ‘ordinary fare’ of the household at breakfast demonstrates both Grantly’s de-termination to have and be the best in all things, and Trollope him­self at his funniest:
The tea consumed was the very best, the coffee the very black­est, the cream the very thickest; there was dry toast and buttered toast, muffins and crumpets; hot bread and cold bread, white bread and brown bread, home-made bread and bakers’ bread, wheaten bread and oaten bread; and if there be other breads than these they were there; there were eggs in napkins, and crispy bits of bacon under silver covers, and there were little fishes in a little box, and devilled kidneys frizzling on a hot-water dish; – which, by the bye, were placed closely contiguous to the plate of the worthy archdeacon himself.
Mr Harding is a mild, well-meaning man and he is particularly vulnerable to the kind of strength the Archdeacon gathers to himself through the acquisition of church patronages and bread products. Mr Harding does succeed, temporarily, in thwarting the will of his son-in-law, but despite this at the end of The Warden Trollope leaves his reader in little doubt about where power in Barchester really lies. Archdeacon Grantly only meets a foe worthy of his strength in the second novel in the series, Barchester Towers, in which we are intro­duced to Mrs Proudie, the wife of the new Bishop, and her oleaginous chaplain, Mr Slope. The battles of the Proudie and Grantly factions in Barchester Towers take me through the spring of 2020 and into summer. Listening, rather than reading, slows down the progress of the story, so that I have no choice but to walk alongside the characters for as many hours as it takes their narrative to unfold. The recordings I have chosen of the Barchester novels are brilliantly read by Timothy West, and amongst a huge cast of characters it is possibly the determinedly low-church Mrs Proudie whom he captures most acutely. While I walk through fields of cow parsley and showers of hawthorn blossom the voices of Trollope and West take me in my imagination to Miss Thorne’s fête at Ullathorne, where Mrs Proudie is in her pomp and where Eleanor Bold, now widowed, dispatches Mr Slope by boxing his ears in a secluded corner of the garden. Barchester Towers con­cludes with the Proudies still regnant at the Bishop’s Palace, but with Archdeacon Grantly’s chief high-church ally, Mr Arabin, ensconced both in the true seat of ecclesiastical power at the Deanery, and as Eleanor’s new husband.

*

The Warden was published in 1855, following a favourable reader’s report submitted to Trollope’s publisher, Longmans. The anonymous reader conceded that the subject – Church corruption – was not ‘very promising’. But ‘such is the skill of the author that he has contrived to weave out of his materials a very interesting and amusing tale’. Trollope was sufficiently enamoured of the characters he had created to return to them in Barchester Towers, published in 1857, but it was not until he embarked on the fourth title in the series, Framley Parsonage (1861), that he began to consider the novels as a cohesive group. The third novel, Doctor Thorne (1858), shares only a location and some peripheral cast members with the first two Barchester stories; Framley Parsonage extends the clerical circles of the Deanery of Barchester outwards into the county, taking in a new generation of clerics, gentry and aspiring politicians as it does so. By the time the young heroes and heroines of the two final novels in the series are attempting to make their way in the world, Mr Harding is an old man, Mrs Proudie’s reign is coming to an end and even Archdeacon Grantly has mellowed enough to allow his son’s marriage to Grace Crawley, the daughter of the impecunious and temporarily disgraced cleric whose sufferings form the substance of the final volume of the series. The three later novels – Framley Parsonage, The Small House at Allington (1864) and The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867) – were all first published in serial form, which may partly explain why they suit the leisurely pace required by audiobook reading. Their plots meander, taking in sub-groups of characters who populate the offices, clubs and lodging-houses of London. These novels are also characterized by shifting preoccupations – national and clerical politics, love affairs, class differences, loneliness, family relationships and much more – and different themes and characters fade in and out of focus as Trollope’s fancy dictates.

*

I resume my year in Barsetshire in the autumn of 2020, as the news fills again with rising infection numbers and the reality of a looming second lockdown. On chilly October mornings I make my way back up the hill and out of town once more, dodging puddles and ice-rink patches of fallen leaves as I go. I am now in the company of Dr Thorne and the Greshams of Greshamsbury and am following the trials and tribulations of Frank Gresham’s wooing of Mary Thorne. As the country locks down again in November, I make my way to Framley Parsonage, where I meet Mark Robarts and his sister Lucy, as well as his friend Lord Lufton and Lord Lufton’s intimidating mother. There I am also reintroduced to Griselda Grantly, daughter of the Archdeacon and granddaughter of Mr Harding, a young woman so immaculately dim-witted and calculating (and voiced with such insipid venom by Timothy West) that she takes her place alongside her father as one of Trollope’s most memorable creations. My autumn at Framley Parsonage also gives me my first glimpse of the seemingly omnipotent Duke of Omnium, in whose house young Mark Robarts is corrupted, and of the political machinations that fall under the Duke’s control. As autumn fades into winter, and as 2021 opens with yet another lockdown, I take refuge with Mrs Dale and her daughters at their small house at Allington, walking through the rain as the afternoon light fades in order to snatch some moments alone and outside. Trollope wrote that Lily Dale was his favourite heroine, but the moments I cherish in The Small House at Allington have less to do with Lily’s romantic travails than with the adventures of her suitor John Eames’s fellow-lodgers at Mrs Roper’s London boarding-house. The novel’s masterstroke lies in the depiction of the downfall of Augustus Crosbie, who is punished for jilting Lily first by his mar­riage to Lady Alexandrina de Courcy and then by the activities of Alexandrina’s family, who I first met at the Ullathorne festivities in Barchester Towers. Crosbie knows that he has been caught in a trap of his own making from the moment he is taken carpet-shopping by his prospective bride and her powerful sister Lady Amelia, and that his fate will be to be poked and nagged and worn down just like the carpet he cannot afford:
‘That might do,’ said Alexandrina, gazing upon a magnificent crimson ground through which rivers of yellow meandered, carrying with them in their streams an infinity of blue flowers . . . Lady Amelia poked it with her parasol as though to test its durability, and whispered something about yellows showing the dirt. Crosbie took out his watch and groaned.
Alexandrina gets her carpet, along with a house in St John’s Wood to put it in which Crosbie rapidly comes to hate. A kinder fate awaits Lily Dale, who remains in the small house at Allington with her mother, determined to remain her own woman in the face of her family and friends’ objections. Lily Dale keeps to that determination in The Last Chronicle of Barset, to which I turn as spring appears again in the Devon lanes through which I walk. The crayon rainbows have faded now, but the hedgerows are once again ablaze with colour. As the nation emerges blinking into the sunshine, unsure of its future and counting its losses, I count down the hours left before I must leave Barsetshire behind me. At the Palace the Bishop is vainly attempting to wrest control of the diocese from his wife; and in the clergyman’s house at Hogglestock Mr Crawley is enmeshed in a nightmare from which there is apparently no escape. Salvation comes through the good offices of John Eames and the fortunate reappearance of Eleanor Arabin, who now only very occasionally dwells on the afternoon when, as a young widow at Ullathorne, she boxed Mr Slope’s ears.

*

My year in Barsetshire has come to an end now. As I look back on the time I spent in the company of Trollope’s characters I find myself wondering why they caught my attention so completely, and why the experience of hearing their stories, rather than reading them, felt both significant and right. I think it is because of the brilliance with which Trollope weaves his characters in and out of the novels, so that you truly feel you are inhabiting their world. In the gaps of time between the novels the characters age as the generations shift, but they always remain true to themselves and the stories about them already told. The result is that as a listener you feel as if you are just dropping in at the cathedral close, the Deanery and Plumstead Episcopi, or at the small house at Allington, Framley Parsonage, Greshamsbury and the clergyman’s house at Hogglestock. These places and their occupants seem as real and substantial as it is possible for an imagined community to be, and the experience of listening to their stories is more akin to catching up with the news of absent friends than it is to reading a novel. In this year of crisis the voices of Barchester have offered me the best kind of distraction. I would be desolate at losing their company were it not for the fact that I have now followed the Duke of Omnium and his young cousin Plantagenet Palliser into Trollope’s parliamentary novels, and am currently listening to the intertwined stories that make up the Palliser series. I also know, from the testimony of just a few among the millions who discovered the delights of the Barchester novels long before me, that the county is not a place you visit only once. Although the circumstances will be different, I hope it won’t be too long before I am able to spend a year in Barsetshire once again.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 73 © Daisy Hay 2022


About the contributor

Daisy Hay’s new book, Dinner with Joseph Johnson (2022), tells the story of the men and women who gathered around the publisher Joseph Johnson in the final decades of the eighteenth century, and of the dinner parties at which he brought them together. The cast at these dinners was extraordinary – Mary Wollstonecraft, Joseph Priestley, Henry Fuseli, William Wordsworth, Thomas Paine and William Blake were just a few of those who joined the table – but the catering was nothing like as magnificent as that on offer at Plumstead Episcopi.

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