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A true classic of the period
on 31 August 2011
I confess that Anthony Trollope is my favourite author and, whilst I have not read all of his work by any means, I have read a significant chunk, indcluding all of the Barsetshire series of which "The Last Chronicle of Barset" is the sixth and final novel. I can honestly say that this is one of Trollope's finest works and the second best of the series behind only Barchester Towers for me. Trollope is a much underrated novelist, superior to Dickens in my opinion, and it is a real shame that his work is not more widely recognised as this book is as fine an example of Victorian literature as the reader could ever hope for.
The main storyline revolves around the very poor curate Josiah Crawley, who uses a cheque to pay a bill which is then found to have been recently stolen. Crawley is unable to explain how it came in his possession, despite his best efforts to recall where it came from, and he is charged with theft and a trial scheduled. Before long the whole of Barsetshire world is talking about these events and is divided between those who think him guilty and those who believe him to be innocent. Alongside this main storyline runs a continuation of the story of Lily Dale and John Eames from the previous book in the series, as well as the romance between Archdeacon Grantly's son Henry and Mr Crawley's daughter Grace.
Trollope skilfully weaves together these main storylines whilst also neatly tying up some loose ends from elsewhere in the series. Despite this being a long book, it never felt like it to me. The story moves at a decent pace, with some minor repetition which I suspect is due to the serialisation of the novel when originally published and which is only a very minor irritation. With the end of every chapter I wanted to keep reading on and it never felt like a slog to get through which can be the case with long books. The storyline surrounding Crawley actually has more suspense in it than many of Trollope's novels, although most keen eyed readers will be able to guess the resolution before it comes. The suspense created helps keep the story moving forward at a decent pace. Part of Trollope's genius is to be able to create a fascinating story which, when summarised does not seem like it should be so, and yet in Trollope's hands it just works.
Arguably Trollope's great skill is his characterisation, and this is on show at it's finest in this novel. The storyline is fairly thin and yet the characterisation means that despite this the book never becomes tiresome. Many of the characters we have come to love or hate in the previous novels are revisted here with great effect as well as the introduction of some wonderful new characters such as Madalina Demolines, Clara Van Siever and Mr Toogood. Mrs Proudie, perhaps Trollope's most splendid creation, is magnificently devious and wicked in this book and yet she does get her comeuppance and I almost felt sorry for her that it was so, and was very sad to see the back of her. Trollope's observation of human nature is nothing short of genius, with his observations about the feelings and motivations of all his characters acutely observed and written. His depiction of Crawley, who these days would undoubtedly be diagnosed as clinically depressed at the very least, is nothing short of stunning. Crawley remains a largely unlikeable figure due to his stubborn, moralistic and judgemental nature, and yet Trollope manages to create massive sympathy for the character through his depiction of a man driven to the edge of his sanity by events over which he has no control. Trollope's characters are human, that is the mastery of his achievement. None are perfect, none are out-and-out evil, but all a mix of everything that makes people human and because of this the characters leap of the page and you almost feel you could reach out and touch them.
The only slight criticism I have, if any, of this wonderful book is the London aspect of the story which is only loosely tied to the Crawley events by the character of John Eames. Whilst it was interesting to revisit the Lily Dale/John Eames/Adoplhus Crosbie story and for it to be resolved, some of the additional storyline that came along with it felt a little unneccessary and perhaps should have been another book in its own right. I would also have liked to see more of Mrs Thorne (the former Miss Dunstable) in this book - she is a brilliant character to rank alongside Mrs Proudie in my view and underused throughout the Barset novels.
I am very sad to have come to the end of both this book and the series as a whole, and look forward to the day when I can pick them up and start all over again in the future. Not many books stay with me enough to keep me awake at night and then to dream of the characters when I fall asleep, but these have surely done so. Perhaps the best compliment I can give to this book, and indeed this series of books, is to quote Trollope's onw words from the last chapter of The Last Chronicle of Barset, which sums up brilliantly both how Trollope felt about these works, how I feel about them and how I am sure any reader who picks up these wonderful novels will feel about them - "But to me Barset has been a real country, and its city a real city, and the spires and towers have been before my eyes, and the voices of the people are known to my ears, and the pavements of the city ways are familiar to my footsteps. To them all I now say farewell."