Monday, February 01, 2016

Anthony Trollope – ‘The Last Chronicle of Barset’

Jael & Sisera, who feature in a sub plot.
There’s nothing quite like the winding down of a big Victorian novel: the hard part is done, for writer and reader, and all that remains is a series of farewells and tyings up of loose ends, maybe a sneaked glimpse into the future to make sure that the happy part of the ending really is happy. In a sense, The Last Chronicle of Barset is a victory marathon, recycling plots and characters from the five preceding novels, adding little; but that little is precious, because it’s the end. There are more simultaneous and more loosely connected plots here than previously (the Trollope Society site refers to the strands as ‘congeries’), but the main one concerns a stolen cheque for twenty pounds. Lord Lufton’s man of business, Mr Soames, last saw it at Mr Crawley’s house, and a few months later Mr Crawley, the impoverished perpetual curate of Hogglestock, had it cashed. ‘How Did He Get It?’ is the opening chapter’s title, and it’s six hundred odd pages before anything further is revealed on the subject. As a plot device, it’s a bit of a MacGuffin, lacking the pull of Mark Robarts’ spiralling debt in Framley Parsonage, partly because of its static nature. Robarts makes various bad choices in the former book, but Crawley is passive: misfortune falls upon him, first the accusation, then the progression from magistrate’s court to the prospect of a full trial at the next assizes, not to mention a clerical commission investigating his fitness to continue church duties, contrived by Mrs Proudie and ordered by her long-suffering husband the bishop. When he feels that the public believe in his innocence, he stands up to the misfortune, refusing to give up his parish while awaiting trial; but when they start to doubt it, and he starts to doubt it himself (not thinking he has deliberately stolen, but that he has inadvertently taken up the cheque), he relents, and almost relishes the act of giving up his parish unconditionally, before the trial can take place.

Mr Crawley is something of a masochist. This was already apparent in Framley Parsonage, when he refused his friend Mr Arabin’s help at a time of dire need for his family. In The Last Chronicle his character is expanded, but not altered. If Lily Dale was the refusenik of The Small House at Allington (refusing to marry Johnny Eames after Crosbie’s desertion), Crawley fulfils that role in this novel – and he does it much better:
He pitied himself with a commiseration that was sickly in spite of its truth. It was the fault of the man that he was imbued too strongly with self-consciousness. He could do a great thing or two. He could keep up his courage in positions which would wash all courage out of most men. He could tell the truth though the truth should ruin him. He could sacrifice all that he had to duty. He could do justice though the heaven should fall. But he could not forget to pay a tribute to himself for the greatness of his actions; nor, when accepting with an effort of meekness the small payment made by the world to him, in return for his great works, could he forget the great payments made to others for small work. It was not sufficient for him to remember that he knew Hebrew, but he must remember also that the dean did not. (pp. 532-3)
Which makes me think of this:
You know I’ve been wondering
You know all the way home
Whether the world will see
I’m a better man than others by far
        (The Sundays, ‘Skin & Bones’)
Who hasn’t listened to that and thought, ‘It definitely won’t!’ with a certain sense of pride? Not me, certainly. Mr Crawley is made to be the comical hero of anyone who was ever so foolish as to believe that thinking or working, rather than schmoozing, is what gets you on in life. In this he is the opposite of Archdeacon Grantly (who I still see as Nigel Hawthorne, though the series he was in didn’t make it past Barchester Towers), who is as in love with wealth and society as a clergyman can be – that is to say, as much in love with it as any lay person. The coming together of these two personalities through the engagement of their children is one of the great struggles of the book. These are his reasons for opposing the match of his son Henry with Grace Crawley:
One of his children had married a marquis. Another might probably become a bishop, – perhaps an archbishop. The third might be a county squire, – high among county squires. But he could only so become by walking warily; – and now he was bent on marrying the penniless daughter of an impoverished half-mad county curate, who was about to be tried for stealing twenty pounds! (p. 484)
This clash of father and son is strongly reminiscent of Lady Lufton’s opposition to her son’s marriage to Lucy Robarts in Framley Parsonage, and she does her best to soften his attitude because of her own experience. Another great clash is Mr Crawley vs. Mrs Proudie (who is forever Geraldine McEwan, even more than Archdeacon Grantly is Nigel Hawthorne); yet another is Mrs Proudie vs. Bishop Proudie, which has two surprising outcomes, the one I shall mention here being the bishop almost catatonic with depression after she too-obviously directs his official actions in front of outsiders, destroying his self-respect: ‘You have brought on me such disgrace that I cannot hold up my head. You have ruined me. I wish I were dead; and it is all through you that I am driven to wish it.’ (p. 577). He, like Lily Dale and Mr Crawley, finds his greatest strength is to refuse. Everywhere in this story are Bartlebys, declaring ‘I would prefer not to’.

There are also a few instances of young men – John Eames and the artist Conway Dalrymple – getting dangerously close to committing themselves to young women (Miss Demolines and Mrs Dobbs Broughton respectively), before finally finding a way to say ‘I would prefer not to’. To a greater or lesser extent, the women are trying to entrap them. Eames here is no improvement on the Small House at Allington edition: he is just as besotted with Lily Dale and just as likely to flirt with other women to distract himself. Trollope attempts an intervention against this interpretation of his character, but he is ultimately trivial: ‘light of heart’, as Lily puts it. The London scenes generally do not match up to the Barsetshire ones, but the whole I found more satisfying than The Small House at Allington, and it brings everything nicely to a close. It was good, too, to say goodbye to Mr Harding, the sweetest of the Barsetshire characters, and an important presence here, in his declining years. He even coaxes from his creator a half-decent grand-daughter (children are not Trollope’s strong suit), Posy, with whom he plays cat’s cradle as long as his strength allows.

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