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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Daily Mail in novel form, 7 Mar. 2014
This review is from: The Warden (Kindle Edition)
Septimus Harding is warden of a home for retired labourers, Hiram's hospital, named after it's founder who set up a charitable trust for the support of its inhabitants. Over the years the trust has grown in value, but that value has gone to increase the warden's income rather than for the direct benefit of the pensioners. When passionate reformer John Bold decides the situation is unjust, the quiet idyll in the neighbourhood of Barchester Cathedral is overturned.

One of the characteristics of great literature is that it identifies and comments upon recognisable and believable human characteristics, no matter when or where it is set. In putting his characters into four distinct political camps, Trollope does indeed provide a portrait of society which very clearly establishes his own political position, which is is surprisingly recognisable today, and which is also somewhat depressing in illustrating how little politics has progressed since Victorian times.

SirJohn Major is reported to be very fond of Trollope and of the Barchester Chronicles, of which this is the first book. That, to me, says a great deal about The Warden. This is absolutely a world in tune with "spinsters cycling to evensong". Broadly the characters fall into five groupings. Firstly, women, whose roles are to be dutiful daughters, loyal but privately dominant wives, or gushing lovers, and little else. Harding, and his immediate superior, the bishop, are old school, one nation Tories who are perfectly entitled to their privilege, and who achieve virtue through patriarchal benevolence. The reformer, John Bold, is portrayed as part of the privileged middle class who mistakenly seeks to overturn a stable society, but the love of a good woman soon shows him his mistakes.

At the extremes of this cosy little world are Harding's son in law, Dr Grantly, who is a sort of hard nosed proto-thatcherite, and the militants among the pensioners whom Trollope portrays as grasping n'er do wells. At one level, Trollope is simply conservative with a small 'c', resisting any change which brings unhappiness to a stable society. Less benignly, I fear that Trollope would have much in common with apologists for slavery, making it clear that the lower orders, the rude mechanicals, are much happier when they have a master, albeit a benevolent one.

The centre of the book could be viewed as being two parodies, one of pamphleteer Thomas Carlyle, in the person of "the Pessimist Anticant" and Dickens, "Mr Popular Sentiment". The former, while his prose is almost indecipherable to this modern eye, does seem strangely reminiscent of a modern blogger. In the case of Dickens, Trollope attacks two supposed characteristics, the stereotypical nature of his characters, and his reforming zeal. In terms of the former Trollope is spectacularly guilty of the crime of the pot commenting upon the colour of the kettle. His descriptions of lawyers, journalists, "the lower orders" are every bit as generic as those of his supposed rival, and actual superior, but while Dickens writes with wit and warmth in generating knowingly larger than life and entertaining characters, Trollope simply sneers. That sneering comes to a head in the description of Grantly's children, who for no reason whatsoever are introduced, imbued with odious characters, then dropped out if the narrative after a couple of chapters having contributed nothing to it. When it comes to the latter, I find Dickens' targeted, purposeful satire much preferable to Trollope's empty negativity. A third criticism by Trollope of Dickens is that his characters are polarised, black and white. Trollope's idea of introducing shades of grey seems to be to paint Grantly as black as possible, then at the end, in a irritating voice with which he, Trollope, directly addresses the reader intermittently throughout the book, suddenly to say "oh but he was a good man really"

Aside from the irritation of the breaking of the fourth wall the other great annoyance of the book for me was the supposed hero, Harding. A sort of non malicious Uriah Heap. Oh, I'm so 'umble I am. Oh dear, I've been leaching off this charitable foundation for years, and didn't notice the iniquity, sorry I'd better resign. And when for the umpteenth time he started playing air cello in moments of stress, I'm sorry but I just wanted to slap him (or wish that somebody would).

I find I've given the book a bit of a kicking. It's not actually all bad. The fact that the characters, and caricatures are recognisable today is of merit. There are also some entertaining passages, in particular when Harding finds himself at a loose end and has to entertain himself in London for a day.

In summary, the predictable cliche is peculiarly apt here, this really is a curate's egg of a book, but if you are looking for Victorian satire, Dickens just did it all so much better.

PS this isn't an Amazon verified purchase as I actually bought the Kindle version of the complete works.
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