This is a sad day for me, my friends. I have finished the sixth and final installment of Anthony Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire and there is a hole in my heart. I’m generally very bad at keeping my own reading promises to myself; yet, somehow, it’s become increasingly possible–doable and pleasurably so, even–since I began reading the Victorians in earnest over two years ago. And this year, probably for the first time in my life, I kept a relatively large reading promise and read all six of the Barset novels in 2012: The Warden, Barchester Towers, Doctor Thorne, Framley Parsonage, The Small House at Allington, and The Last Chronicle of Barset.
I finished the last one today. I wept like a child for various reasons, not the least of which is that I already miss everyone. I feel like I’ve just moved away from a home I sometimes found exasperating but always deeply loved. Yes, it has all seemed very real to me, which was one of Trollope’s aims. He rejected Dickens’s bombast, Eliot’s philosophical musings. He is unfair, I think, but what he offered was good too: homely, down-to-earth stories of people who were often very nice but almost never unflawed. It’s refreshing. Also, comforting. I will say that in terms of caricatures, Trollope has, in this series, limited himself to two. Well, one and a half.
I was going to begin with Mrs. Proudie, a lady who in all six novels exemplified the characteristics of the virago, the harridan, and the shrew. God, she’s just awful. But having killed her dead in this his last Barset installment, Trollope generously built her a little back story (or realized how deeply into the Dickensian territory of the loud, hand-waving, shrieking stereotype of the self-righteous bully he’d gone and used his last opportunity to redeem himself). Having finally pushed her milksop of a husband too far in her attempts to do his job as bishop for him, Mrs. Proudie finds herself forced to engage in some serious reflection on how she’s lived her life:
She had loved him dearly, and she loved him still; but she knew now,–at this moment felt absolutely sure,–that by him she was hated! In spite of all her roughness and temper, Mrs. Proudie was in this like other women,–that she would fain have been loved had it been possible. She had always meant to serve him. She was conscious of that; conscious also in a way that, although she had been industrious, although she had been faithful, although she was clever, yet she had failed. At the bottom of her heart she knew that she had been a bad wife. And yet she had meant to be a pattern wife! She had meant to be a good Christian; but she had so exercised her Christianity that not a soul in the world loved her, or would endure her presence if it could be avoided! She had sufficient insight to the minds and feelings of those around her to be aware of this. And now her husband had told her that her tyranny to him was so overbearing that he must throw up his great position, and retire to an obscurity that would be exceptionally disgraceful to them both, because he could no longer endure the public disgrace which her conduct brought upon him in his high place before the world! Her heart was too full for speech; and she left him, very quietly closing the door behind her. (p. 706)
She dies shortly after this; she was, it seems, too much for herself alongside being too much for everyone else. That’s a sad, lonely way to shuffle off the mortal coil.
And then there’s Grace Crawley–a perfect, beautiful, intelligent, graceful, adoring, submissive limp rag of a girl. Don’t get me wrong, I want her to be happy! I just don’t know where she came from after Trollope’s nuanced portraits of his other heroines, but especially Lucy Robarts and Lily Dale! These were real people with real dilemmas and painful internal contradictions. Grace Crawley is a cipher of familial piety and she is not very interesting. But then, The Last Chronicle of Barset is not really about her, so maybe Trollope’s lack of effort on her behalf is forgivable.
The novel is really about ecclesiastical and spiritual pride, Mr. Crawley’s especially, but also Archdeacon Grantly’s. Mr. Crawley, an impoverished perpetual curate with a large family, is accused of having stolen some money and he can’t prove otherwise; the novel follows his wandering through the labyrinth of his own pride and shame, as well as the other characters’ various adventures undertaken to try to clear him–or help him in any way at all, which he tries adamantly at every turn to disallow.
Archdeacon Grantly wrestles with his own issues of pride and shame surrounding money, status, and family when his favourite son insists on marrying the disgraced curate’s daughter. He is angry a great deal and quite possibly in danger of giving himself an apoplexy, but all comes right in the end–for almost everyone anyway.
One of the most important things that comes right in the end is that Mr. Crawley finds that there are many more good men in the world than he’d reckoned on. Archdeacon Grantly discovers–the same, perhaps–but also that family happiness is, in spite of Tolstoy’s famous claim, something that comes in many different guises.
The quiet moral centre of this novel–as he was of The Warden, of course, as well–is Septimus Harding. A gentle, good man–caring, thoughtful, and kind. The world seemed too many for him from the get go, as he is attacked by the press, the Proudies, and even his own family at times as he tries to figure out how to be both good and right in his religious duties. He seemed to disappear for the most part after his persecution in the first novel of Barset, lingering about only as a somewhat lonely and ineffectual but still kind, good, and loving little old man.
And in this last installment he takes his earthly leave of us (just the thought of which is making my eyes water again). He does so quietly and with contentedness–and reminds the family that what he leaves behind is the truth that kindness is all. He never scolds or preaches or corrects; he kindly never takes them to hard task on their many failings and leaves them space to look closely at themselves when they may. Septimus Harding gently leaves the world better than he found it. And now he’s gone, all we can do is let Trollope lead us away:
And now, if the reader will allow me to seize him affectionately by the arm, we will together take our last farewell of Barset and of the towers of Barchester. I may not venture to say to him that, in this country, he and I together have wandered often through the country lanes, and have ridden together over the too-well wooded fields, or have stood together in the cathedral nave listening to the peals of the organ, or have together sat at good men’s tables, or have confronted together the angry pride of men who were not good. I may not boast that any beside myself have so realized the place, and the people, and the facts, as to make such reminiscences possible as those which I should attempt to evoke by an appeal to perfect fellowship. But to me Barset has been a real county, and its city a real city, and the spires and towers have been before my eyes, and the voices of the people are known to my ears, and the pavement of the city ways are familiar to my footsteps. To them all I now say farewell. That I have been induced to wander among them too long by my love of old friendships, and by the sweetness of old faces, is a fault for which I may perhaps be more readily forgiven, when I repeat, with some solemnity of assurance, the promise made in my title, that this shall be the last chronicle of Barset. (p. 861-62)
He kept his promise; this is the last we hear of these characters. Now, I will keep mine–to keep reading Trollope until the only Trollope left to read will be glorious re-reads. I think I know where I’ll start; for while I thought Doctor Thorne to be a fairly weak novel, the rest of the Chronicles of Barset are absolutely wonderful and I will revisit them someday like the dearest of old friends. Until then: more new Trollope, the end of Dickens and Gaskell, back to Collins, a new adventure with Proust and I don’t know who else.