A review of Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope

Reviewed by Tom Frenkel

As far as I know, Anthony Trollope is the only novelist in the accepted canon of great writers, to have written his books (well, at least some of them) in series. By this I mean that there is some continuity, from one novel in the series to the next, in plot and in characters. (Can anyone successfully challenge my finding of Trollope’s uniqueness?) Trollope has a “Palliser” series, which I really know nothing about (yet!). My acquaintance so far has been with the first two novels of the “Chronicles of Barsetshire” series. This runs, in order, as follows:

The Warden
*** Barchester Towers (1857) ***
Doctor Thorne
Framley Parsonage
The Small House at Allington
The Last Chronicle of Barset

If you set out to read _any_ of these books, you should start with the first — _The Warden_ — and read them in the above order, so that the developments in the earlier books are not revealed to you, prematurely, in the later ones. And if you read _The Warden_, and like it, I think you will like _Barchester Towers_ as well. My review of _The Warden_ is available online. [1] These two novels are rather different, however. _The Warden_ is more focussed on one individual (Mr. Harding) and his inner moral struggles. _Barchester Towers_ presents more of a panoramic scene, parading before you quite a number of characters, some sinister, some hilarious, and some others too complex to describe easily. It would be hard for me to say which of these two novels I prefer, since it is an “apples and oranges” comparison.

If you’ve read my other book reviews, you might recall that when possible (i.e. with public-domain materials, usually downloadable from the Internet for free) I often read books on my “Palm Pilot” handheld PDA. Some of my reviews give detailed steps on how to do this. [2] Among the various advantages in this approach, I found a new one in the case of _Barchester Towers_. As some of you may know, I highly dislike “spoilers”, anything that gives away the plot that is to come. I even do not like chapter headings, since I feel they often “spoil” some of what is about to transpire. So what I did this time was to write a short computer program which stripped off the descriptive chapter headings, leaving only “CHAPTER I”, “CHAPTER II”, etc. I know that some will call me neurotic, but if doing such a simple thing can add to my enjoyment….

If you are interested in trying the downloading idea, I will just give you one word of advice: Take some care in selecting your electronic “edition”. Let the following story of my experience be cautionary! I followed my usual procedure, going to the “Online Books Page” [3] to locate an “e-edition”; the only one listed was a Gutenberg text [4], “Etext #2432”. It turned out that this e-edition was rife with typographical errors! After enduring one or two chapters, I went back to the Web and did a more thorough search. It turned out that there was another e-edition, in fact also put out by Project Gutenberg and called “eBook #3409”, that was much more carefully prepared. And not only was it virtually free of errors; it also made good use of one of my favorite typographical conventions: using a leading and trailing underscore for italics, as in _nolo episcopari_ (to use an example appropriate to the clerical ambience of the work). This, in my opinion, is superior to the use of CAPITALS, since it leaves no question as to whether the original text really had italics, or was in upper case.

At one point in _Barchester Towers_, Trollope does something that caused me considerable anxiety. Let me first explain that at a number of places in the book, he “breaks the fourth wall”, i.e. addressing the reader directly. This procedure (which I suppose you could call modern, except that Henry Fielding does it repeatedly — though admittedly in separate chapters — in _Tom Jones_, way back in 1749), in itself does not bother me. In fact, it makes me feel even more connected with the author. But in the one anxiety-provoking instance, Trollope deliberately “spoils” his plot with regard to one of his major characters, telling what is going to happen to them … or more accurately, what is _not_ going to happen to them. He is clear on his reasons for this action. Here is an excerpt from his explanatory passage:

… And then how grievous a thing it is to have the pleasure of your novel destroyed by the ill-considered triumph of a previous reader. “Oh, you needn’t be alarmed for Augusta; of course she accepts Gustavus in the end.” “How very ill-natured you are, Susan,” says Kitty with tears in her eyes: “I don’t care a bit about it now.” Dear Kitty, if you will read my book, you may defy the ill-nature of your sister. There shall be no secret that she can tell you. Nay, take the third volume if you please–learn from the last pages all the results of our troubled story, and the story shall have lost none of its interest, if indeed there be any interest in it to lose. [Chap. XV]

Incidentally, “third volume” refers not to some forthcoming novel in the “Chronicles of Barsetshire” series, but to the Victorian practice of publishing novels as “three-deckers”. [5] And, let it be noted, this was evidently more than a simple mechanical publishing convention: Trollope is careful, for example, to introduce an important new character, in Chapter XX (just one-third of the way through the work) as “worthy of a new volume”.

I’m not sure why it is better for the author to spoil the plot, than for some purported friend of the reader to do the same! But — if I may be permitted to issue a meta-spoiler, or a spoiler about spoilers — there is no need to worry that Trollope is going to go off the deep end in this respect. You will still find suspense a-plenty.


[1] My review of Trollope’s _The Warden_: go to my home page (address below) and click on “book reports”.

[2] Detailed instructions on how to read a book on a Palm handheld PDA: See the “literature” section on my home page (address below)

[3] Online books page: http://digital.library.upenn.edu/books/

[4] Project Gutenberg is the best-known source of public-domain etexts. It lives at: http://www.gutenberg.org/wiki/Main_Page

[5] Victorian “three-decker” novels: See e.g. the article “Three-volume novel” in Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page

Tom Frenkel
email: frethoa AT aol DOT com
website: http://members.aol.com/frethoa