An introduction to Barchester Towers

  • Article by: John Sutherland
  • Theme: The novel 1832–1880
  • Published: 15 May 2014
Although set in a fictional county, Anthony Trollope's novel Barchester Towers resonated with many aspects of contemporary Victorian society. Professor John Sutherland approaches the novel in terms of its contemporaneity, depiction of reform and handling of dilemma.

Anthony Trollope’s career as a novelist had a number of false starts.

He found his way with Barchester Towers, his fifth work of fiction and the second in the Barsetshire series. He was 42 years old when it was published.

The series had begun, falteringly, with The Warden, published two years earlier. Trollope recalled in his autobiography the moment in which he was inspired to write his saga. His work for the post-office had brought him to Salisbury. After work he stood for a full hour, on a warm midsummer evening, on a small bridge, regarding the cathedral. Thus was Barsetshire born. 

There is, geographically, no Barchester Cathedral and no county called Barsetshire. Trollope mixed the physical aspects of Salisbury Cathedral with those at Winchester and Exeter - both of which he had known in childhood. John Constable’s painting Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows is often chosen as a frontispiece to Barchester Towers.

A number of things fell into place with the writing of Barchester Towers. Trollope developed, with this novel, his sense of epic scale. The Warden had been a short, one-volume work: intended, initially, as a one-off. So too was the original idea for Barchester Towers modest. When, however, The Warden began, by word of mouth, to find admirers, bringing revenue to its publishers, Longmans, they encouraged Trollope (hitherto not a highly valued author) to enlarge his sequel to the full ‘three-volume’ length preferred by the great lending libraries.

But even the generous dimensions of the ‘three decker’ were too small for what was hatched in Trollope’s mind on that little bridge at Salisbury. What he came to project was a composite work on the lines of Balzac’s Comedie Humaine. The ‘Barsetshire Novels’ would eventually comprise six works, and two million plus words.

The Last Chronicles of Barset by Trollope

The Last Chronicles of Barset by Trollope

Anthony Trollope's 'Barsetshire novels' comprised six works in total; as its title suggests, The Last Chronicle of Barset was the final instalment in the series, published in 1867.

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Trollope’s writing process

If readers know nothing else about Trollope, they know he got up early in the morning to write his novels, before going off to work in the Post Office. He developed his unusual ‘system’ while writing Barchester Towers and describes it in An Autobiography. He would draw up calendars, projecting how long the novel would take him, and record, daily, how many words he wrote. His work rate was 250 words every 15 minutes. A servant, paid an annual bonus of £5, would wake him in morning, at 5.30, with a cup of coffee so that he could get his morning stint in before breakfast and the day’s business.

Trollope and the Post Office

He was, at the period he wrote Barchester Towers, a rising man in the Post Office (then a branch of the Civil Service). He, along with his superior, Rowland Hill, was instrumental in the innovation of the penny post - something that revolutionized communication in Britain. Trollope is personally credited with introducing the pillar box into Britain.

Letter from Anthony Trollope to the Postmaster General, 1852

Letter from Anthony Trollope to the Postmaster General, 1852

This letter, written on 25 November 1852 at the beginning of the decade in which Trollope began the Barchester series, concerns the novelist's application for a new position as Superintendent of Mail Coaches.

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The world's first postage stamp

The world's first postage stamp

Created in 1840, the Penny Black postage stamp revolutionised communication in Britain, making it far cheaper to send post.

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Institutional power structures

As a civil servant, Trollope was interested in institutional power structures. Not what they contained, ideologically, theologically, or politically but how they work. Civil Servants, in England (unlike America), are, by profession, ‘neutral’, serving whichever party may be in power. Their role is to keep the machine running. Trollope was interested in the machine, not where it was running to.

The Barchester novels are not ‘religious’ fiction, any more than the Palliser novels (‘parliamentary’ novels, he called them) are ‘political’ fiction. There were any number of ‘novels of faith and doubt’ in the Victorian period. Barchester Towers is not one of them.

It will be useful, at this point, to summarise Barchester Towers - remaining aware that summary cannot capture Trollope’s easy-going, clubman, humour:

The novel opens with the cathedral’s bishop dying and his son, Archdeacon Theophilus Grantly, mourning by his bed. But his grief is contaminated by ambition. If his father dies quickly, the son will inherit the bishopric. If the old man lingers for too many hours, there will be a change of government and the new administration will prefer its own candidate. Grantly is disappointed - the telegram which would appoint him is sent too late.

 

Bishop Proudie descends on the ancient cathedral with an evangelical new broom. In-fighting between the reform and reactionary factions constitutes most of the novel’s comedy. Proudie (pronounced with a blend of ‘proud’ and ‘prude’) is dominated by his harsh-tempered wife - one of Trollope’s finest comic creations - and his odious domestic chaplain, Obadiah Slope. Eleanor Bold, the heroine of The Warden, is now a widow, and Slope, coveting her £1,200 per annum, sets out to win her. But he has a rival in the dilettante Bertie Stanhope. Bertie appears on the scene when Proudie recalls his prebendary father, Dr Stanhope, from a luxurious absentee life in Italy. Dr Stanhope’s daughter, Signora Madeline Vesey, also returns with the household entourage. A femme fatale with a mysterious past, the Signora exercises a bewitching power over men. Slope becomes entangled, and is dismissed. Eleanor eventually marries Francis Arabin, the amiable and high-church new Dean of Barchester. Many of the novel’s characters reappear in later novels in the sequence.

There are a number of interpretative points to be made about Barchester Towers. They can be summed up in three words: contemporaneity, reform, and dilemma.

Contemporaneity

One of the things which distinguishes Trollope from his fellow greats in Victorian fiction is the contemporaneity of his settings. One of his late masterpieces is called The Way We Live Now. All his mature fiction could be so called - with the stress on ‘now’.

Why is this unusual? Because writers such as George Eliot, Charlotte Brontë, Thackeray, Dickens, and Hardy ‘antedated’ the action of their narratives - usually by about 30 to 40 years. Barchester Towers is set firmly in the present and resonates with current affairs.

Fair copy manuscript of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre

Fair copy manuscript of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre [folio: 1r]

Written in 1846-47 and published in 1847, Charlotte Bronte's novel Jane Eyre is set in the early decades of the 19th century.

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Reform

If there is one word which sums up the Victorian era it is Reform. One thinks, principally, of the great Reform Acts of 1832 and 1867, but there were many other radical reforms. Divorce law, for example (touched on in the Madeline Vesey subplot), was liberalised in 1857. 

Following the logistics debacle of the Crimean War (1853-1856) Trollope’s own profession, the Civil Service (the ‘Circumlocution Office’, as Dickens called it in Little Dorrit in 1856), was subjected to root and branch reform by the Northcote-Trevelyan Report of 1854. The old system of entrance by patronage was replaced by competitive examination (Trollope strongly disapproved).

Central to Barchester Towers are reform pressures, and opposing resistance to reform, which were causing ructions with the Anglican Church in the mid-1850s. It crystallised into a struggle between 'high church’, and ‘low church’, orthodoxies. Conflict was sharpened by the so-called Papal Aggression, of 1850, when the Catholic Church set up an ‘establishment’ (i.e. parishes) in England. Were the mid-50s, it was wondered, the right time to seek some compromise with Rome or should Anglicanism go to all-out war against its old foe?

Archdeacon Grantly fights for the old ways enshrined his beloved Cathedral. The Proudie faction, with their odious henchman, Slope, wish to bring the Cathedral out of the middle-ages into the modern day. Trollope’s own position on ecclesiastical reform is withheld. He sees interesting conflict and comedy. That is sufficient for a novel.

Parliamentary Reform: the Act to Amend the Representation of the People in England and Wales

Parliamentary Reform: the Act to Amend the Representation of the People in England and Wales

Abstract of the Act (2 Will.IV., Chap.45.) to Amend the Representation of the People in England and Wales, better known as the 1832 Reform Act.

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Dilemma

Trollope handles dilemma masterfully. In the fine opening scene of Barchester Towers Archdeacon Grantly is torn. Can he wish his father to die, so that he can fire off the telegram which will ensure him the bishopric? Or should he, as a devoted son, pray for his father to live on? A similar string of dilemmas afflicts the character clearly closest to Trollope himself, Francis Arabin. Read, for example, Chapter 20 (‘Mr Arabin’).

There are many points of entry into the massive fictional territory of Trollope’s 47 novels. Barchester Towers will always be one of the best.

  • John Sutherland
  • John Sutherland is Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus at UCL. He has taught principally in the UK, at the University of Edinburgh and UCL, and in the US at the California Institute of Technology. He has written over thirty books. Among his fields of special interest are Victorian Literature and Publishing History. He is a well known writer and reviewer in the British and American press.

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