In graduate school I read several of Anthony Trollope's novels, including one installment of the Chronicles of Barsetshirethe six-part series that begins with The Warden (1855). But I was unprepared for the delights of this short book. Part of my praise must go to the narrator of this award-winning audio edition, Simon Vance, who has a keen sensitivity to language, and a variety of voices and tones. Here's the same edition, with a nicer cover.

As an aside, I've taken to audiobooks (and podcasts) quite a bit in the last year, since I have a long daily commute. It is a slower form of reading, which is probably good. But I've noted two significant problems, at least with the books I tend to read. My audiobooks are all digital downloads, and without a disc jacket, publication information can be hard to find. Which version of the book is being performed? With a Victorian novel, for instance, is it the original serial, or the triple-decker? The differences between the two can be significant. What about the author's subsequent revisions? Are they incorporated or not? If a modern critical edition is available, has it been consulted, or have the producers simply chosen an out-of-copyright edition? If the latter, did they amend the text in any way? Why or why not? In a print book, such questions are usually addressed in a preface, or a "Note on the Text," or, at the very least, on the copyright page.

If such things matter to you, and if you don't complement your listening by simultaneously reading a print or e-book edition (not advisable while commuting), problematic moments in the text may slip by unnoticed. So when possible, I read with the audiobook. I was doing so when Mr Vance interrupted a paragraph in Chapter 16 of The Warden to register and read a footnote that was missing from my (free) Kindle edition. I was able to pause, jump back, put down my e-edition and just listen. In this case the note was unimportant, but that's not typically the case with fictional footnotes and the like.

There is a second, more important problem with audiobooks. However sensitive the performer, every so often I find myself bewildered by a sentence, phrase, or word. Now this isn't unusual when you're reading an old book with your eyes. If I don't know the word, I can easily enough look it up and get back to reading. But when your reading with your ears, vocabulary isn't always the issue. Inevitably the reader will omit a word, or, perhaps ever so slightly, mislay the emphasis. Here's an example from The Warden:

"But if this income be not justly mine, what if she and I have both to beg?" said the warden at last, sharply, and in a voice so different from that he had hitherto used, that Sir Abraham was startled. "If so, it would be better to beg."*

The second clause in the first sentence must be read, "What if she and I...?" In modern idiom, the warden means "So what if she and I...?" As a conscientious man who suspects he has been unjustly paid, he would rather turn honest beggar than continue receiving morally dubious remuneration. But Simon Vance (who again is the best audiobook reader I've heard, with Tim Curry coming in a close second) doesn't read it this way. He reads it as if the warden were seriously asking the question: "What if she and I...?" His eyes widened as, with growing horror, he realized beggary was in their future -- if he insisted on his principles. This doesn't make sense at all; just look at the last sentence in the paragraph.

But enough about the medium. The Warden is an excellent short novel of twenty-one chapters. Here are some of the high points:

  • The narrator is utterly charming throughout. With the large exception of Archdeacon Grantly, Trollope is generous and gently ironical toward every character in the cathedral town and countryside. (Even the critique of the archdeacon is moderated before the end.) His commentary on the discrepancies between conscious and actual motives is wise, but not satirical. "There is something remarkably tender and friendly in his feeling about all human perplexities," wrote Henry James, shortly after Trollope's death in 1882. Trollope does not intend to tear down his characters or their local institutions, though he can be vicious toward other authors, London journalists, and MPs. In fact...
  • Chapter 15, Trollope condemns the fiction of Dickens ("Mr Popular Sentiment," author of The Almshouse**) for being politically effective, but bad (unrealistic) art. Dickens's villains are too villainous, his heroes and heroines too heroic; only their "attendant satellites" act naturally: "They walk and talk like men and women, and live among our friends a rattling, lively life; yes, live, and will live till the names of their calling shall be forgotten in their own, and Buckett and Mrs Gamp will be the only words left to us to signify a detective police officer or a monthly nurse." Inspector Buckett realistic? Whatever you make of that remark, this whole section is fascinating to the student of Victorian fiction, as are the remarks on the Pre-Raphaelites in Chapter 14. Trollope also attacks Thomas Carlyle: "Dr Pessimist Anticant was a Scotchman, who had passed a great portion of his early days in Germany; he had studied there with much effect, and had learnt to look with German subtilty into the root of things."
  • The women are not seen often enough, but they are lively. Eleanor, the younger of the warden's two daughters, remains single, and Susan, the elder, is the archdeacon's wife. Eleanor is dutiful but not cloying (contrast the golden-haired heroine of A Tale of Two Cities), and Susan knows how to control her otherwise omnipotent husband. There is a curious ambiguity about Eleanor's Iphigenian sacrifice: is it found in her willingness not to marry her suitor, or in her humiliating act of begging him to change his course? Eleanor's friend Mary also becomes interesting, once we get past her introduction.
  • The Archdeacon Dr Grantly is a wonderfully contradictory bundle of motives: this knight of the Church Militant's temporal affairs is also a sneak (he reads Rabelais in his study while pretending to write sermons), and in a moment of pride he turns devilish (Chapter 12). I suspect Simon Vance's performance elevated this creation, but Trollope's description of his household (Chapters 8 and 12) is a thing of beauty. I can see Dr Grantly's study right now, as well as his three untrustworthy boys. Henry James is exactly right: "No charge of exaggeration is possible, for we are made to feel that [Grantly] is conscientious as well as arrogant, and comfortable as well as hard."
  • The Warden Mr Harding is also a wonder. His keen conscience has already been mentioned; among his friends and family, only Eleanor sees and understands his dilemma. His meekness is plausible, as is his one moment of independence, because it is directed toward the only conceivable action for a man of his character: self-denial.
  • Chapter 6 ("The Warden's Tea Party") is a hilarious, extended metaphor on courtship as war. Vance is triumphant.

And several remarks for the student of the English Catholic novel:

  • Chapters 7 and 14 contain choice remarks on the London press. One office (The Jupiter) is called "the Vatican of England," since its judgments are followed implicitly.
  • An anti-Catholic piece of legislation is introduced in a subplot, not to excite any action for or against religious liberty, but to reveal the character of the hired lawyer, Sir Abraham Haphazard, and the Government in power. It becomes quite amusing when the religious fervor supposedly behind the bill is revealed as a farce; the whole point is to divide and cripple the Irish bloc along the lines of its Catholic and Protestant members.
  • If we would understand Graham Greene's remark about the hint of nihilism in Trollope's fiction, we must look first to Plumstead Episcopi, the residence of the archdeacon, where he and his family appear to live by bread alone. But we might also consider the genial Bishop's neglect of duty, and (at least until the very end) the Warden's. Trollope may not be bothered by these men; he is most gentle to them; not so Greene, who had a different conception of the nature and role of the Church. Finally, we might recall that both the prosecution and the defense in the lawsuit against the warden are animated by vanity, greed, ambition, and the love of temporal peace. Justice and charity are not really in question; not that is, until the Warden's final decision.

One more slightly pedantic observation. Apropos of the second volume of this series, Barchester Towers, Henry James complained in the article cited above that Trollope had an especially "wanton" narratorial habit: "He took a suicidal satisfaction in reminding the reader that the story he was telling was only, after all, a make-believe." Yet James also judged that "Trollope never did anything happier than" the first volume of the series, viz., The Warden, this "picture" of a "sweet and serious little old gentleman." He reiterates that "there is nothing finer in all Trollope" than the vivid contrast between Harding and Grantly. But oddly enough, Trollope does the exact same thing in The Warden that James laments to find in Barchester Towers. And in fact, both moments in the two novels concern the same character (Eleanor) and the same situation (the drama of her nubility). Here's the relevant line: "As to the full success of her generous scheme, and the ultimate result of such a project, no one conversant with human nature and novels can have a doubt" (The Warden, Chapter 11).

* Trollope, Anthony (2012-05-17). The Warden (p. 112). Kindle Edition.

** Conceived as a combination of Oliver Twist and Bleak House.

Bonus: Here are a few great podcasts:

AuthorSeth Holler