The Blackstone Audio edition

One blog post is not suited to the full discussion of a novel, especially a long one. Barchester Towers (1857), the second volume in the "Chronicles of Barsetshire," is almost three times the length of The Warden (1855). So I'll organize my remarks (perhaps in several installments) around one peculiarity of the novel: literary allusions.

Trollope builds out various characters with allusions to famous English novels. An early instance is the opening of Chapter 4:

Of the Rev. Mr Slope's parentage I am not able to say much. I have heard it asserted that he is lineally descended from that eminent physician who assisted at the birth of Mr T. Shandy, and that in early years he added an "e" to his name, for the sake of euphony, as other great men have done before him. If this be so, I presume he was christened Obadiah, for that is his name, in commemoration of the conflict in which his ancestor so distinguished himself. All my researches on the subject have, however, failed in enabling me to fix the date on which the family changed its religion.

I find this sort of thing -- "intertextuality" is the term in literary critical jargon -- enormously fun. Tristram Shandy (1759-67) is one of the great English novels. Not only is it funny (I may never have laughed harder in reading a work fiction than I did at the chestnut scene), but it is exceedingly strange. The book seems an impossible creature for its time. Eighteenth-century fiction is not my speciality, but I can't imagine that many other novels from Sterne's day exploited typography and printing conventions to anything like the same degree, and it's all done for narrative and dramatic purposes (both comic and tragic). The strangeness is artful.

"Obadiah Slope," Trollope tells us, purportedly combines the names of Obadiah, a servant in the Shandy household, and Mr Slop, the "man mid-wife," a ridiculous figure who serves the Shandy family (and rather poorly). The "conflict" is an incident in Sterne's novel. These two characters, each riding his horse, crash into one another outside the Shandy home -- Obadiah having been sent to fetch Mr Slop in preparation for Tristram's birth, and the doctor traveling thither already, and in fact nearly arrived, to check on the mother. Slop gets the worst of the crash. When he realizes what is about to happen, he (a Catholic) drops the reins to cross himself. Slop ends with his rump a full foot deep in the mud, and his whole person besplattered by the hooves of Obadiah's frightened steed.

It is understandable that Trollope would want to link his novel to a glorious predecessor. Whether or not he does so convincingly is another matter. What do Slope, Slop, and Obadiah share in common? The Reverend Mr Slope, who is the private chaplain to an Anglican bishop, is also an evangelical, and like many other evangelicals in Victorian fiction,* odious. In church allegiance he is thus rather the opposite of a Catholic, and his Slop-ism seems inapposite.

(The problem of Catholicism is raised several times in Barchester Towers, notably because the hero Mr Arabin studied at Oxford under Newman, around the time of the latter's conversion. But I'm starting to think that despite their popular designation as "clerical novels," in the Barsetshire stories religion is not very important. It is seen as social phenomenon, a pretext for revealing the virtues, hypocrisies, and foibles of his characters. Trollope frequently anatomizes his characters' consciences, but this interest is moral rather than spiritual, or more moral than spiritual.)

Again, Rev. Slope has a way with words, especially when discussing stereotypical low-church concerns (sabbatarianism, well-run Sunday Schools) with wealthy, pious (or seeming-pious) ladies. He is a fearsome preacher, and quite offensive to most of the people of Barchester. After a beautiful and energetic service of worship at the cathedral, led by Mr Harding the former warden, Slope preaches his bishop's inaugural sermon. His text is 2 Timothy 2:15, "Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." But since "the preacher's immediate object was to preach Mr. Slope's doctrine, and not St. Paul's," the main point his auditors take away is that in all ecclesiastical controversies, especially in liturgical practices and concerning moral questions, the "high churchers" are wrong and the "low churchers" are right.

Curiously enough there is a sermon in Tristram Shandy. It is delivered in a home rather than a cathedral, but the speaker is a man particularly fond of his own voice, and (like Slope) his vocation is that of a personal attendant -- but alas this speaker is not Obadiah, but Corporal Trim. He reads the sermon (on Hebrews 13:18) from a manuscript belonging to the author, Parson Yorick (there's another fascinating intertextual moment, but, to use one of Tristram's favorite expressions, that's by the bye). The sermon is on the human conscience, so there is a thematic resemblance to Mr Slope's sermon.

Still, I can't shake the opinion that Trollope was anxious to cover up an allusion to another, more recent figure in English fiction. The name Obadiah Slope is quite reminiscent of Uriah Heep, the "umble" lowborn villain of Dickens's David Copperfield (1849-50). Uriah and Obadiah both try to marry into the fortune of a eligible beauty, who is above him in rank, and whose father is too weak to interfere. Each thus represents a foil to the novels' respective heroes, David (the novelist-narrator) and Mr Arabin (the cleric). Uriah and Obadiah even share the gross personal characteristic of perpetually slimy hands.

I'm not asserting that Trollope noticed and consciously obscured the link to Dickens, but in this regard there is a noteworthy (and sly) remark in the first chapter of Barchester Towers. The book opens with the death of the aged bishop of the diocese. His son Dr Grantly (a wonderful character who, like his father, we met in The Warden) has been overlooked in the appointing of a successor, for political reasons. 

On the day subsequent to the dispatch of the message [Dr Grantly] heard that the Earl of ---- had consented to undertake the formation of a ministry, and from that moment he knew that his chance was over. Many will think that he was wicked to grieve for the loss of episcopal power, wicked to have coveted it, nay, wicked even to have thought about it, in the way and at the moment he had done so.

Then Trollope indulges in his familiar and comfortable habit of interrupting the story to address his audience more directly (a habit Sterne took to extremes):

With such censures, I cannot profess that I completely agree. The nolo episcopari, though still in use, is so directly at variance with the tendency of all human wishes, that it cannot be thought to express the true aspirations of rising priests in the Church of England. A lawyer does not sin in seeking to be a judge, or in compassing his wishes by all honest means. A young diplomat entertains a fair ambition when he looks forward to be the lord of a first-rate embassy; and a poor novelist when he attempts to rival Dickens or rise above Fitzjeames, commits no fault, though he may be foolish.

In discussing The Warden I referred to a passage where Trollope mocks Dickens and Carlyle. He is doing somewhat the same thing here (Fitzjeames, it seems, is Thackeray). Perhaps an unseemly "attempt to rival Dickens" -- all the more real since he admits and jokes about it -- led him to create a secondary literary paternity for the antagonist of Barchester Towers.

* Cf. the aunt who raised Esther Summerson in Dickens's Bleak House (1852-3), and the tract-bearing narrator in Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone (1868).

AuthorSeth Holler