‘Wars about trifles,’ said he, ‘are always bitter, especially among neighbours. When the differences are great, and the parties comparative strangers, men quarrel with courtesy. What combatants are ever so eager as two brothers?’ (pp. 183-4)This is Mr Arabin, the Puseyite clergyman brought to Barchester to combat the newly installed forces of Evangelism, which have arrived in the form of a bishop, his wife and his chaplain – Dr and Mrs Proudie, and the odious Mr Slope. He is defending himself – and clergymen generally – from the charge of argumentativeness, asserted by Eleanor Bold, the wealthy young widow upon whom so much of the plot of Barchester Towers turns. Both Mr Arabin and Mr Slope want to marry her, and they are joined in this by Bertie Stanhope, the artistic, wastrel son of Dr Stanhope, a prebendary. Mr Slope has a simultaneous affection for Dr Stanhope’s daughter, Madeline Neroni, whose hand he is fond of holding, and kissing:
everything about her was fine and refined; her hand in his looked like a rose lying among carrots, and when he kissed it he looked as a cow might do on finding such a flower among her food. (p. 243)The ‘carrots’ gibe is aimed at Mr Slope’s disgustingly red complexion. He’s not unlike Uriah Heep in his combination of red hair, red skin, low cunning and obsequiousness. There is no subtlety, no ambiguousness about the way Trollope portrays him: he’s malignant, designed to make your skin crawl. He’s like a mean, new boss, stripping away the rights and understandings accumulated under the previous administration, stamping authority for the sake of it; or rather, for the sake of his own reputation, rather than any other end achieved.
It is this feeling, of good old practices threatened by dubious new ones, which lends Barchester Towers its urgency, and its interest. The factions concerned, topical though they may have been in 1857, hold little interest today, and John Kenneth Galbraith’s preface makes the point that politics in Trollope are ‘quite devoid of issues […]. What is important is not what wins but who wins.’ (p. ix). I don’t know about you, but the idea of a set of Tory / High Church characters doesn’t fill me with sympathy; though neither do their antagonists, the Whig / Evangelical camp. The first group are divided according to class: bishops, deans (and wardens, of course) are very highly paid, and are likely to have gone to Oxford university. Dr Stanhope abuses even this cosy system, by living abroad, in Italy, and never visiting the location of his ostensible ‘living’ (he dashes back in a panic with the arrival of the new bishop). Lower down the scale, you find clergymen like Mr Quiverful, with his wife and fourteen children, living on the brink of poverty. This is the old order. The new Whig government wants to clip the Church’s wings, reduce salaries, abolish sinecures, reduce ostentation. On the face of it, the Whigs win the moral argument.
In the same way that The Warden asked a novelist’s question (‘what if a genuinely good man held an indefensible post?’), Barchester Towers’ insight is that, even if the old order is wrong, any attempt to replace it is likely to attract opportunists like Mr Slope, for whom a seat on the new economy class gravy train is vastly preferable to no seat at all. He and Mrs Proudie, in league to begin with, achieve self-aggrandisement by imposing austerity measures on sleepy, traditional Barchester (the bishop just does what they tell him to). They want to bring about changes which actually don’t sound all that terrible: to encourage congregations to think about doctrine for themselves, and to use Sunday schools as a way to promote this amongst children. Both insistently refer to Sunday as ‘the Sabbath’, which is quite creepy, and they are against the church music which Mr Harding, the old warden, leads and holds dear. Galbraith is right, though: it is not the changes themselves that are shown to be wrong, but the upstarts who are trying to implement them. The great split between Mr Slope and Mrs Proudie triggers the glorious and drawn out fall of Slope, who fights in vain for his two prizes (Mrs Bold’s hand and the vacant deanship) long after Trollope has explicitly said, in his candid way, that he is not going to get them. The eight-chapter-long episode of the garden party at Ullathorne is the climax of the book, and a wonderful cross-section of country life, with the tensions of class divided by a ha-ha. Mr Slope gets one comeuppance here, and another later, back in Barchester. But he is not ruined, he makes a new start. Trollope is more even-handed than Dickens is with Uriah Heep; he never conflates what should happen with what does happen.