Monday, 17 January 2011
'Oh no! It'd be like reading a set text at school', was one reaction when I announced at the reading group that I'd found a copy with an introduction and footnotes.
The book was Anthony Trollope's The Warden , written in 1850 and dependent on a reader's knowledge of contemporary political characters and events.
The eponymous hero is Septimus Harding, warden of an estate that includes medieval alms house set up to provide food and shelter for a dozen deserving old paupers. Harding lives well in a seperate big house with servants and even keeps a horse for his daughter. Luckily for him, the Church of England manages the estate to ensure he pockets three quarters of the annual income, in addition to his earnings from light preaching in the parish.
More of an old bumbler than a villain, he's outed partly because similar abuses have been scandalised by the national press. Harding's clerical superiors tell him to hang on, and not set a dangerous precedent, but the elderly cleric shrinks at being vilified in the neighbourhood. To add more drama, the champion threatening to sue on the old men's behalf is a young doctor who hopes to marry Harding's daughter.
I wasn't the only one to find this a tedious read. Meandering sentences and a thin plot were the main failings. Restricted to a a very narrow social stratum - the old paupers don't get much of a look-in - there's too much sitting around chatting over glasses of port. Some relief, but not much, is provided by scenes where father and daughter fall on each other's necks, weeping over their predicament. The classical allusions just add to the general air of cant and hypocrisy.
There's some irony, but for me the book only really catches fire around page 200, when Trollope mounts an attack on his rival Charles Dickens, thinly disguised as 'Mr Popular Sentiment'.
A conversation about a fictitious novel, called The Almshouse, criticises the author's style whilst admitting its effectiveness:
'The artist who paints for the million must use glaring colours, as no one knew better than Mr Sentiment when he described the inhabitants of his alms-house'
The trouble with Trollope, is that he obviously sympathises with the exploiting classes, underlined in the irritating 'we' point-of-view he uses to addresses the reader:
'As John Bold will occupy much of our attention, we must endeavour to explain who he is, and why he takes the part of John Hiram's bedesmen'
I believe that the sequence of novels , the so-called Barsetshire Chronicles , of which this is the first, have more substance. As I'm told they are even more political, though, I'd definitely recommend footnotes. I suspect they may turn out to be the best parts.