There was a time when I devoured many, many Trollope novels, I loved them. The famous Barchester chronicles are maybe his best known, understandably so for they are brilliant. The Warden is the first of those chronicles, and a novel I had remembered well. I am pleased to say therefore I still love it as much after this re-read. I gobbled it up in no time, as it is probably the shortest of Trollope’s novels, many of them actually being quite thick.
Septimus Harding, the warden of the title is a kind hearted old clergyman. For ten years, as the story begins, this good old Anglican priest has been the warden attached to an alms-house the Barchester hospital, which was set up under the terms of a will in the fifteenth century to provide comfort and shelter for twelve old single working men who without such charity would starve. The old men are thus well provided for, being well fed and comfortably sheltered, and having in addition 1 shilling and fourpence a day for all other wants they might have. In four centuries the value of this bequest has risen considerably – and so the stipend of the warden is now considerably more than it would have been originally. John Bold, a young friend of Mr Harding’s and suitor for his youngest daughter’s hand in marriage, fancies himself something of a reformer, and takes it upon himself to exposing what he sees as an abuse of privilege. The old men are now in receipt of an extra twopence a day – a gift from Mr Harding out of his own money, that he is not obliged to provide them with, however the reformers talk has unsettled them and some of the old men begin to believe they will soon be each able to claim £100 a year (a considerable sum in the 1850’s). Having been previously very well satisfied with their lot, as well as extremely fond of Mr Harding who has become a dear and true friend to the old men, there are now dissenting voices quick to believe that the warden is receiving money he should not. A couple of the old men are loyal to Mr Harding and refuse to believe him to in way wrong, but they are shouted down by their friends – who persist in believing in the miracle of £100 a year.
The warden has two daughters, his eldest daughter is married to the archdeacon, Dr Grantly a rather terrifying figure – who is always certain he is right and a little given to bullying his father in law who is a quiet gentle man and really not up to battling his fierce son in law. Dr Grantly is naturally on the side of his father-in-law as the law suit gets underway. His opinion in non-negotiable – the idea that the warden’s stipend is unjust or illegal is ridiculous to him, even the possibility that the case should go against them Dr Grantly believes will damage the church of England forever. The warden’s closest friend the bishop is Dr Grantly’s father – and even he is rather bullied by Dr Grantly, though he at least has some understanding of Mr Harding’s pain. For Mr Harding is unsure, now that the question has been raised poor Mr Harding doesn’t know if his position is right or not. The doubt is enough to drive the poor man to absolute misery. He is a good and honest man, rather bad at managing his money and very bullied by his son in law, he has always been a popular friend to all, so now he feels he can’t just carry on in the face of criticism – he begins to feel that maybe the wardenship is unjust.
“Mr Harding was a sadder man than he had ever yet been when he returned to his own house. He had been wretched enough on that well-remembered morning when he was forced to expose before his son-in-law the publisher’s account for ushering into the world his dear book of sacred music; when after making such payments as he could do unassisted he found that he was a debtor of more than three hundred pounds; but his sufferings then were as nothing to his present misery; – then he had done wrong, and he knew it, and was able to resolve that he would not sin in like manner again; but now he could make no resolution, and comfort himself by no promises of firmness. He had been forced to think that his lot had placed himself in a false position, and he was about to maintain that position against the opinion of the world and against his own convictions.”
What I love about the ‘The Warden’, aside from the lovely old warden himself – who is just such an endearingly lovable character – is Trollope’s use of irony. The reformers who say they want to improve the lot of the old bedesmen of the Barchester hospital – can’t foresee what will happen to the hospital or to the old men concerned – but the reader fears straight away for their future. Their lives so comfortable at the start – an honest old friend and clergyman who cares dutifully and faithfully for them, a little money in their pockets, a good roof above their heads and food in their stomachs – how will they fair when lawyers, journalists and senior churchman start wrangling?
“Did you ever know a poor man made better by law or a lawyer!’ said Bunce bitterly.”
There is always a little romance in an Anthony Trollope novel, and here of course we have the story of Eleanor Harding and her love for John Bold, the man who really sets the cat among the pigeons. Trollope was concerned with the motivations of people, and of social morality – something many Victorian novelists concerned themselves with – and he uses the quite political story of the warden to do so. The Warden brilliantly presents both sides of the matter – therefore the reader, like Mr Harding himself is unsure of the rightness of the case, there is sympathy for both Mr Harding a truly innocent man, but also sympathy for the old men, and the intentions of that fifteenth century man John Hiram who left his money to do good.