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.