An Easy Intro to Anthony Trollope

The Barchester Chronicles (1982)
Directed by David Giles; Adapted by Alan Plater
BBC TV, 7 episodes (55 minutes each)

Years ago, Emily and I used to have delightful afternoon teas–in proper china cups–with a friend’s (now deceased) elderly uncle. He was a mild-mannered, erudite bachelor who reveled in literature. The closest he ever came to pique was to express shock that his local bookstore did not stock the complete works of Anthony Trollope. We never had the heart to tell him that we had never seen a bookstore that did so. Not in Boston, Midtown Manhattan, the Village, or even in Paris’ legendary Shakespeare & Company. 

Trollope was a man of the mid-19th century, not a writer for short attention spans. I’ve just begun The Way We Live Now, which is considered his master work, and it runs close to 1,000 pages. This brings me to another passĂ© phenomenon. Do you remember when Masterpiece Theatre used to feature actual masterpieces with occasional forays into lighter fare rather than the other way around?* Writers like Trollope lent themselves well to dramatization. Trollope’s The Warden and Barchester Chronicles together run about 550 pages. You might prefer Masterpiece Theatre’s 1982 The Barchester Chronicles, a 7-part series that brought both Trollope stories to the screen.

It is a superb way to familiarize oneself with Trollope in easy-to-digest portions. As fine a stylist as Trollope was, he could not paint in words the central character of Septimus Harding with the color and humanity of actor Donald Pleasence (1919-95). It as if Pleasence was born to play a mild-mannered and guileless cleric in a quiet English village. The widowed Mr. Harding is the warden of Hiram’s “hospital”–think retirement home–for a dozen elderly men. He loves, in order, God, his daughter Eleanor (Janet Maw), music, the old men under his charge, his eldest daughter Susan Grantly (actual offspring Angela Pleasence), and quiet contemplation. He has no stomach for power, anger, gossip, or scandal. Alas, too many around him favor the very things he abhors, including his son-in-law, Archdeacon Grantly (Nigel Hawthorne).

Mr. Harding’s peace is punctured when Eleanor’s fiancĂ©, John Bold—a crusading journalist­—investigates the Hiram’s charter and raises the question of whether the warden’s pay is too high. That cause is taken up by a radical newspaper and Mr. Harding becomes the tempest in a very large teapot. The archdeacon sputters and rails, but the magnanimous Harding suspects that Bold is correct and that he should renounce his comfort. At heart, Trollope’s six Barsetshire** novels capture a moment in history in which the Church of England was (rightly) under attack for its greater devotion to luxury and the English upper system than to faith or the poor. In the game of politics, Harding is a lamb among lions, one who—in Grantly’s estimation—suffers from distressing bouts “of Christianity.”

The tidy world of Barchester will be disturbed by further challenges. John Bold dies of flu (!) leaving Eleanor a widow with an infant child, but also a small fortune and too many disingenuous suitors. The local archbishop also passes, leaving the appointment of a new warden to his successor, Archbishop Proudie. An exotic prodigal returns from Italy, the beautiful but lame Signora Madeline Neroni (Susan Hampshire), and holds court with two equally suspect friends. The new Archbishop is a milquetoast incompetent, but he is really just a pawn in a truly venomous battle of wits between Mrs. Proudie (Geraldine McEwan) and the Archbishop’s odious chaplain Obadiah Slope (Alan Rickman). Watch the petticoats and the cassocks fly!

It is rare to see acting of this quality. We watch Pleasence battle to keep his calm, yielding now and then to the nervous tic of playing air cello when pushed to the brink. Hampshire strikes the right balance between seduction and boundaries, and Maw likewise hews a thin line, as hers is a world in which women are in a seam between scripted social roles and tentative liberation. I think that Nigel Hawthorne goes over the top in his histrionics but all can be forgiven in David Giles’ direction, as he had the good sense to let McEwan and Rickman go at each other with nail and claw. McEwan’s very glance can separate the wallpaper from its paste, and few have ever done obsequious villainy as well as Rickman. Let’s also give a shout to Trollope, who like many 19th century novelists, embedded meaning in character names: Proudie, Bold, Slope, Neroni (Italian for black), and even a secondary character named Quiverful, who has fathered 14 children!

To risk an anachronistic analogy, Trollope’s Barchester is a cleric-riddled version of Peyton Place. If there is anything good about being in quarantine, it is that it encouraged us to revisit The Barchester Chronicles. I think I’m now steeled to dive into The Way We Live Now. Someone we miss would be delighted.

Rob Weir 

* In 2007, Masterpiece Theatre aired some cherished past offerings. The next year it dropped “threatre” from its name and now favors contemporary works over classics.
**The spellings differ because Barchester is the name of the fictional village and Barcester that of Trollope’s fictional county. Trollope based the investigation that sets things in motion on a real case, an 1849 query into St. Cross Hospital in Winchester, England.

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