Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope

Back in April I read my first Anthony Trollope book, The Warden, and enjoyed it so much I immediately bought a copy of Barchester Towers, the second Chronicle of Barsetshire, with the intention of going on to read the whole series. As it turned out though, other books seemed more tempting and poor Barchester Towers was pushed further and further down my tbr pile until The Classics Circuit’s Anthony Trollope Tour reminded me that it really deserved to be read as soon as possible!

Barchester Towers is set five years after the conclusion of The Warden. At the beginning of the story, the Bishop of Barchester dies, leaving a vacancy to be filled. It is expected that the Bishop’s son, Archdeacon Grantly, will take his place, but a change of government ruins his chances and newcomer Dr Proudie is appointed instead. When the new Bishop and his wife, the formidable Mrs Proudie, arrive in Barchester accompanied by their chaplain Mr Slope, Grantly becomes determined to prevent them from gaining too much power and changing the Barchester way of life.

This might not sound like a very exciting plot, and I have to admit it isn’t. Barchester Towers is a character-driven novel, and fortunately, the characterisation is excellent. Trollope’s characters are multi-faceted, complex and real; the villains are not completely evil and the heroes have their flaws. Archdeacon Grantly, for example, was portrayed quite negatively in the previous novel, but we see things more from his perspective in this book and I found that I was rooting for him against the Proudies and Slope.

Almost all of the characters are well-rounded and interesting. There’s the Signora Madeline Vesey Neroni, left crippled by her abusive Italian husband, who manages to get every man in Barchester to fall in love with her. There’s Miss Thorne, the local squire’s sister who lives in the past, dreaming of the days of knights and chivalry. And I was pleased to meet some old friends from The Warden, including my favourite characters, Mr Harding and his daughter Eleanor.

I’m not sure who I would recommend Trollope to. As far as comparisons to other Victorian authors go, I would say his style is a lot closer to George Eliot than Charles Dickens, for example. He tells his stories at a gentle, leisurely pace with some subtle humour, witty observations, and clever insights into human nature. He has a habit of talking directly to the reader and never lets us forget that we’re reading a novel, but rather than being annoying or disruptive, this style gives his writing the warm, conversational feel that I love. If you prefer stories with a lot of suspense and tension, though, you’ll be disappointed because Trollope keeps telling us in advance what is and is not going to happen, which has the effect of building an intimate and trusting relationship between the author and the reader. But even though it may seem quite obvious what the outcome of the book is going to be, the fun is in seeing how the outcome is reached.

Much as I love Trollope though, I can see that he won’t appeal to everyone – the gentle pace that I mentioned, in addition to the long descriptions and character introductions, might make the book too slow for some readers (it did take me almost 100 pages before I really got absorbed in the story). Some of his comments on gender, race and religion could also be considered offensive, although as a male Victorian author his views were probably consistent with the time period and society in which he lived. If you have read and enjoyed other Victorian writers, I would highly recommend giving Trollope a try to see what you think.

Although this one was a better book, I think I would still suggest that newcomers to this series start with The Warden. The shorter length means it’s less of a commitment if you find you don’t like Trollope’s writing style. It’s also the first in the series and although I’m sure Barchester Towers would work as a stand-alone novel, The Warden does introduce us to several of the characters and their backgrounds.

Based on the two books I’ve read so far, Trollope is quickly becoming one of my favourite Victorian authors. I definitely don’t want to let seven months go by again before I pick up another of his books! I’m already looking forward to the third Barsetshire novel, Doctor Thorne.

Anthony Trollope has been visiting my blog today as part of the Classics Circuit Anthony Trollope Tour. See this post for a list of other stops on the tour.

19 thoughts on “Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope

  1. Tony says:

    “He has a habit of talking directly to the reader and never lets us forget that we’re reading a novel, but rather than being annoying or disruptive, this style gives his writing the warm, conversational feel that I love.”

    This is what I love about Trollope, so I find it strange that it’s what puts many people off! I’ve read 14 of his books in total now (The Barchester Chronicles, The Palliser Novels, The Way We Live Now and, for this tour, He Knew He Was Right), and I’ll be reading more in the near future 🙂

    I’ve noticed that a lot of posters have been cautioning about his attitude, but he’s really no better or worse than most other Victorian writers. I sometimes think that Vic-Lit books should have a big sticker on the front saying “Warning – this writer died a long time ago and probably had very different values to you”…

    • Helen says:

      Yes, things have changed so much since the 19th century so it’s not really fair to judge by today’s standards. As you say, Trollope’s attitudes are similar to a lot of the other Victorian writers.

      I’m impressed that you’ve read so many of his books! I’ve only read two so far but am hoping to finish the Barchester series in 2011.

  2. Mel says:

    Really well done review. I haven’t read any Trollope and didn’t have any idea what his work might be like. I enjoy the Victorian novelists generally. Your review gives me a really good idea what to expect. I like both Dickens and George Eliot (The Mill on the Floss I found hard to put down, as long as it is). I have David Copperfield set aside for my next big Vic novel.

    Thanks for very interesting review.

    • Helen says:

      Thanks Mel! I hope you’ll decide to give Trollope a try sometime. If you like Victorian authors in general there’s a good chance you’ll like him too. And I hope you enjoy David Copperfield!

  3. Amanda says:

    I’m not fond of Victorian Lit in general, but I haven’t given Trollope a fair chance. I read a bit of The Way We Live Now but kept putting it aside until eventually I gave it up. It wasn’t bad, but it also didn’t capture me. I’m thinking I just need to try a different book.

    • Helen says:

      It’s probably worth trying another one. I’ve only read two of his books though so I’m not really in a position to recommend anything! Maybe you would find The Warden easier to get through as it’s one of his shortest?

  4. Veens says:

    I think I would have to be in the right moofd to enjoy this. But i am definitely going to give him a try.

    Thanks for the wonderful review.

  5. Nymeth says:

    I so agree with you about his conversational narration style! I don’t know how he makes it work, but he really does. And yes, his novels really are more about the characters than the plot. I’m really looking forward to reading him again.

    • Helen says:

      I can’t wait to read my next Trollope, which is probably going to be Dr. Thorne. I think his writing style might actually be my favourite of all the Victorians, apart from maybe Wilkie Collins. I’m glad you like him too!

  6. Desperate Reader says:

    I felt just the same abour reading this book and have sat here reading through this nodding in agreement. I’m one of those appaling people who will turn to the end of a book to see what happens so Trollopes habit of letting me know whats going to happen suits me perfectly!

    I agree with Tony as well “Warning – this writer died a long time ago and probably had very different values to you”… I might even start using that if he doesn’t mind.

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad you agree! I don’t usually turn to the end of a book first (I prefer to be surprised) but I did quite like the way Trollope told us what was going to happen.

  7. BuriedInPrint says:

    The Warden was my first of his earlier this year as well and I, too, ran for BT, but there the similarities end, because I lost track of it about 100 pages in, and finally sent it back to the “T” shelves, regretfully. Thanks for the nudge in his direction once more; I must start afresh and do it justice this time around!

  8. FleurFisher says:

    You have convinced me that I failed with Trollope only because I picked the wrong book and it wasn’t the right time anyway for me to read a Victorian novel. Usually I love slow reads with well observed characters. And I have no problem with values now considered outdated. The past was different, we do learn and evolve and react to a changing world!

  9. rebeccareid says:

    I agree that Trollope is not for everyone, but I’m with you in being amazed the characterization. I’m looking forward to reading more Trollope in the future, and someday I’ll get to the Barchester books…

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad I chose to begin with the Barchester books as I’ve loved the first two in the series so much, but I’m looking forward to eventually giving the Palliser series a try too. I love the way Trollope’s characters aren’t completely good or completely bad, but somewhere in between.

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