The Warden – Anthony Trollope

And so to the second in the series of books AJ and myself have chosen to read by ‘canon authors’ that we have called ‘Classically Challenged’ and to a book that I feel very conflicted about writing about to be honest. Though really the good things about a book like Anthony Trollope’s ‘The Warden’, and indeed any canon classic, is that the author is dead so they can’t take offence and the book has legions of fans already. Plus can anyone’s book thoughts really do justice to books with so much fame/infamy? Interestingly AJ and I have been saying how hard these books are to write about when you think about the legions of academics who have studied and poured over the books in the past, I would never simply say a classic was’ boring rubbish’ or just ‘dead good’ but you know what I mean. Can you tell I am procrastinating actually writing about my thoughts on this book at all?

Oxford University Press, paperback, 1855 (2008 edition), fiction, 336 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

‘The Warden’ is the first in the series of the Chronicles of Barsetshire/Barchester Chronicles, tales all constructed around a fictional English Cathedral town. The novel doesn’t have a particular date in which it is set but as you read on you realise it is very much about the Victorian period in which it was written. Really ‘The Warden’ centres on Mr Harding who is the precentor of the cathedral and also the warden of Hiram’s Hospital, an almshouse supported by a previous and now deceased Diocese of Barchester which supports several men in it and also the warden themselves. It is this income that has been bequeathed that a certain John Bold, a zealous reformer, wants to look into as it seems that Mr Harding gets around £800 a year for really doing very little, is that really what the Diocese wanted and that money not benefit more people in better ways? Throw in the fact Mr Bold is in love with Mr Harding’s youngest daughter Eleanor and all becomes rather awkward.

I have to admit that I just didn’t ever really get into ‘The Warden’ for several reasons. Firstly there was the problem of utter confusion. At the time this was published everyone reading would most likely know what a precentor of a cathedral was, I had no clue and going off an d looking it up I was given a mass of contradicting definitions, some simply said a clergyman others said a man in charge of the choir. I also just got confused with how an almshouse worked; again I went off a researched and still didn’t really get it. So coming to it from that angle, no matter how much I wanted to understand it was a slight issue.

My second issue with confusion was why John Bold was making such a fuss. Not because, as I agreed, the money was extravagant at the time but what on earth it had to do with him. Here I will be as honest with a well respected classic author as I would be with a debut novelist as I like to compare books as a reader not an academic… It seemed simply do be done for the story, throw in this love for Eleanor and there we have a vague plot of a Victorian Robin Hood when actually Mr Harding isn’t really a villain. Plus if you have read the book and see the outcome this all becomes all the more unsatisfying frankly.

I also found ‘The Warden’ a bit boring, both in terms of the subject matter, no offence to anyone of the cloth but it just doesn’t interest me much though that said if I’d enjoyed the book more I would have been happy to find out more, and also the writing. The first few chapters were really tedious trying to build a picture of the town, the history of Hiram’s hospital and Mr Harding situation itself, all ultimately being very confusing. It is also a book of a lot of ‘and then he did this, and then he did that, and then he did another thing’ which some people might like but I find the writing equivalent of those colouring in books where the colour matches the numbers, eventually there’s a picture but the effort wasn’t quite worth all that colouring in.

“As soon as he had determined to take the matter in hand, he set about his work with his usual energy. He got a copy of John Hiram’s will, of the wording of which he made himself perfectly master. He ascertained the extent of the property, and as nearly as he could the value of it; and made out a schedule of what he was informed was the present distribution of its income. Armed with these particulars, he called on Mr Chadwick, having given that gentlemen notice of his visit; and asked him for a statement of the income and expenditure of the hospital for the last twenty-five years.”  

Though in the main I found it rather dull and dry I did like some of his writing. Trollope does describe the setting of the town very well, if a little long windily, at the start of the ‘The Warden’. I could also see that there was some deeper under workings about class and social morality going on, they were just to encased in the mundane, which reminded me of ‘Mary Barton’ by Elizabeth Gaskell only much shorter thankfully. It even manages to put some dampners on some wonderful names and characters Trollope creates, Mr Sentiment, Sir Abraham Haphazard etc.  Also, when there is dialogue I felt the book really came alive it is just a shame this was few and far between.

“‘Why not!’ almost screamed the archdeacon, giving so rough a pull at his nightcap as almost to bring it over his nose; ‘why not! – that pestilent, interfering upstart, John Bold – the most vulgar young person I ever met! Do you know he is meddling in your father’s affairs in a most uncalled for – most…’ And being at a loss for an epithet sufficiently injurious, he finished his expression of horror by muttering, ‘Good Heavens!’ in a manner that had been found very efficacious in clerical meetings of the diocese. He must for the moment have forgotten where he was.  
 ‘As to his vulgarity, archdeacon’ (Mrs Grantly has never assumed a more familiar term than this in addressing her husband), ‘I don’t agree with you. Not that I like Mr Bold – he is a great deal too conceited for me; but then Eleanor does, and it would be the best thing in the world for papa if they were to marry. Bold would never trouble himself about Hiram’s Hospital if he were papa’s son-in-law.’ And the lady turned herself round under the bed-clothes, in a manner to which the doctor was well accustomed, and which told him, as plainly as words, that as far as she was concerned the subject was over for the night.”

So all in all I am really rather disappointed in ‘The Warden’. Partly because I got on so well with Jane Austen so hoped I would every classic I tried and also because my Granddad Bongy, who used to make those books for me as a child and is no longer with us, loved this book and indeed the whole series was a favourite so I hoped I would love it too. I haven’t written Trollope off though, especially since discovering this was his fourth and apparently most disliked novel, so maybe I should try more?

In fact why did so many of you vote for AJ and myself to read this book as the first Trollope if it is so dire, not that I am saying AJ disliked it you will have to check his review yourselves. I am a little more panicked about read Charles Dickens and ‘Great Expectations’ next now. Speaking of which check the post below to win a copy.

So what are your thoughts on ‘The Warden’? Have I missed something? Should I ever read another Barchester Chronicle, or try something else by him instead?


Filed under Anthony Trollope, Classically Challenged, Oxford University Press, Review

39 responses to “The Warden – Anthony Trollope

  1. What a pity you didn’t get on with The Warden! Rather than list everything I *did* like about it, I’ll just point you in the direction of my review, if that’s ok –
    Mostly I just loved Septimus.

    • I liked the characters I was meant to, I will admit that, otherwise sadly though the book left me really cold. You should have seen Granny Savidge’s face when I told her. Oh dear.

  2. david73277

    As someone who recommended Barchester – albeit the second volume – as your Trollope selection, I feel I ought to apologise for putting you through what appears to have been a less than satisfying reading experience. Barchester Towers is more lively and comic than The Warden, though I’m guessing in could be quite some time before you feel up to giving it a try. In the meantime, I am quietly confident that you will enjoy Great Expectations, even though it is not among my own favourite Dickens novels. I think it shares many characteristics with ghost stories, which appear to be something you enjoy.

    • You have nothing to apologise for. I didn’t enjoy it but that isn’t the end of the world and won’t be the end of my reading Trollope either. I have heard the second is the best place to start actually.

      I will stay schtum on Dickens for now, partly because I have only just started it this morning, very late, but should have it done for Sunday.

  3. Erm, yes, struggling with this one too. I didn’t finish it, might go on to Barchester Towers, if it’s more enthralling. I’ve heard good things about ‘Can You Forgive Her’, the first in the Palliser novels. I do want to give Trollope another chance.

  4. I really liked ‘The Warden’ though ‘Barchester Towers’ is better – as you really didn’t like this one however I’d put him on the back burner for now. Like you I half wanted to read Trollope because a much loved god father had adored him, and finally got round to him about 2 years ago. I wouldn’t have got on with him earlier in my life but he suits my mood now (that’s not an age thing as such, much more a mood thing), I really do think Trollope is brilliant, but he’s also a bit annoying sometimes and can be impossibly heavy going and long winded if you’re not in the mood.

  5. Hmm, still waiting for the copy I won to turn up, am rather less excited about it after reading your review though! The series was a fave of my grandad’s too, I’ve never ready any though.

  6. Sarah Cubitt

    I haven’t started it yet, as I was late finishing Persuasion and needed to read something else before embarking on another classic. I haven’t actually got a copy of it yet, so I think I’ll give it a miss and go straight to Dickens after I’ve finished my current book. Like you often say, life’s too short to read a book you don’t think you’ll enjoy when there’s so many great ones out there!

  7. Shukriyya

    I’m still waiting for the copy I won as well. Reading your review doesn’t exactly make me want to start reading the book, but having low expectations often helps with enjoying something, so no complaints from me! 😉

  8. “I find the writing equivalent of those colouring in books where the colour matches the numbers, eventually there’s a picture but the effort wasn’t quite worth all that colouring in”
    Lovely! It is a shame you didn’t enjoy this one. I haven’t read any Trollope so can’t really comment on The Warden, but I feel fairly confident that you will fare better with Great Expectations. It’s one of the few books I was forced to dissect at school that I remember actually enjoying.

    • Glad you liked that quote Marie. I wasn’t wanting to be mean about the book at all, it just wasn’t one for me really now. Only a few days to go till I unleash my thoughts on Dickens!

  9. Too bad The Warden didn’t work for you, Simon. I read it a couple months ago and moved on to Barchester Towers, which I had abandoned two years ago. I would never have considered returning if it weren’t for a tutored read on LibraryThing for both books. The “tutor” brought tremendous insight to book, explaining the church references as well as a lot of the social issues of the day. We also had a modern-day vicar join in who could add even more to the discussion. I ended up adoring Septimus Harding and was pleased to meet him again in Barchester Towers.

    I hope you enjoy Dickens more!

  10. I read the six books of the Chronicles of Barset years ago and really enjoyed them. I suppose I have always read quite a lot of these old novels and I think the more of this type of novel one reads the easier those old fashioned terms are to understand. I can understand they can be off putting but i think them worth the effort. Also i think the later books in this series might be more interesting, the Warden is something of an introduction. I will be hosting a month of re-reading in January and I am thinking of putting The Warden on my pile of books to be read – i wonder what I will make of it now all these years later?

    • You could be right about having to have regular submergence into the old language. I am hoping Classically Challenged will do that for me more and more. That said I have never struggled with Wilkie Collins or the sensation novels, or indeed Austen.

  11. Laura Caldwell

    I really liked the book, although not “loved.” I read an old Penguin Classics copy that had notes explaining just about everything that I needed. The beginning was slow, but Chapter 16 “A Long Day in London,” was great! I pushed for this book because I wanted to read the series and will go on to read Barchester Towers in the not too distant future. Your read-along got me to read the book that’s been sitting waiting for two years. I am not too sure about Great Expectations, though. I WILL be starting it soon.

    • By Chapter 16 it could have had me in hysterics internally and I would have been stone faced on the outside. Just not the book for me alas. Well not alas, some books just don’t work for us do they.

  12. The subject matter was no great issue – though I too had to hit the dictionary to discover almhouse, bedesmen and precentors.

    At the outset I found Harding to be frustrating – seemingly wanting to close the door on the issues around his income, and hide away from the controversy.

    As his resolve grew, so did my enjoyment of the book – and once Harding settled his feeling on the challenges made against him:

    “What good to us is this place or all the money, if we are to be ill-spoken of?”

    the story came to life.

    My favourite character is Dr Grantly – and I thought Trollope painted a vivid picture of a self-important near-bully, whilst letting us peek behind the curtain at his lazier, gluttonous, not particularly Christian, traits (though these are tempered by Trollope in his closing remarks). I very much enjoyed the barnstorming Dr Grantly acting as meek as a mouse when his wife put him in his place behind closed doors.

    Simon, I agree with your nark about why Bold is so intent on disruption at the outset. I feel that is there had been a little more background (even an implied link to one of the hospital patients) would have brought some much appreciated context – and may draw additional sympathy from the reader.

    I’m going onto Great Expectations next, I’m not ready to continue with Trollope just yet, but can’t rule out a return.

    • Did you find that the varying online dictionaries gave you lots and lots of varying definitions of each one, which I then found all the more confusing.

      I think the context with Bold might actually have been my biggest issue. If I don’t believe in a books motivation or story, no matter how outrageous, because there seems a loop hole I switch off.

  13. I’ve not read it, but I’ve heard most people read it as the set up for the next book in the series, which is apparently amazing. I think it must be one of those books in a series that is necessary but not enjoyable – you prefer it once it is over.

  14. It’s great to read your take on it Simon. I was putting off reading yours until I had posted my thoughts too, but looks like we both had a fairly similar experience with this one.

    The more I think of it, I think we were definitely spoilt by having Austen first. She was a hard act to follow!

    Still, really looking forward to Dickens now!! 🙂

  15. KateG

    I left a similar reply on AJ’s Blog ( I am sure there is a way to copy to both but….). I was waiting eagerly for the copy I won from AJ and am now relieved that I didn’t miss much. After reading both your reviews, I realized that this might have been assigned way back in college when I took a course on 19th Century British novels. I found several impossible to get through (always thought I was too young) and I think if I finished The Warden it was by the skin of my teeth. When it arrives, I will use it to decorate my shelves to make me look smarter in case my son needs it for school. I read Great Expectations 2 years ago and really enjoyed it. I thought the writing was more accessible and the story kept me very interested. I also loved Persuausion after the first page and don’t remember if I commented on that post. I will keep going with you and AJ as I am loving the contrast between reading old and new ( sorry if I am rambling:))

  16. I really enjoyed The Warden but I already knew about the workings of the Church of England at that time. I think John Bold was probably supposed to be a ‘muscular Christian’ which was a type of Christianity which became popular at that time. They saw the CofE as corrupt,arrogant. elitist and in need of being pulled down a peg or two. Nothing much changes does it!

    • I imagine knowing the workings of a church would really, really, really help with this book. I would have maybe got the book more. If I had read it, had I been alive at the time, I would have undoubtedly understood it all. Well, that is what I am telling myself.

      And no, nothing changes haha.

  17. Becky Y

    So I really enjoyed The Warden and wanted to thank you for getting me to read my first Trollope. Didn’t you find the reference at the end to Dickens as Mr. Popular Sentiment very funny?
    I liked the theme of reform and how he treats both sides with a certain evenness. Everyone is contemptable, Harding and Grantly who are both the fat cats living high off of other people’s toil and not doing anything to earn it as well as Bold, who sees the wrongdoing. I see these kinds of issues a lot in modern life, particularly in the American Medical industry where I work, so in a way it was comforting to see that these issues have been going on forever. I liked his writing and will try some more Trollope I think.

    • Well do you know what Becky, that comment has made me reading it and getting others to join in with AJ and myself worth it. If someone discovered a new author they loved through this process/challenge then that is wonderful, hoorah!

      I agree on the evensidedness, though this is in hindsight, at the time I thought it was a cop out haha.

  18. Pingback: Book Review: The Warden by Anthony Trollope « TheBrontëSister

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