Thursday, November 19, 2009


Thoughts on Anthony Trollope's Barchester novels, especially The Last Chronicle of Barset
The dearest person in all the six Barchester novels is Mr Septimus Harding, once Warden of Hiram's Hospital. He is far from being the cleverest or the most active, or the most effective. He figures a great deal in the first two books, The Warden, and Barchester Towers, but only appears again as a very minor character, and dies in the last novel, yet this is what Hugh Walpole had to say about him:
"Mr Harding holds the Barchester novels together ... When the final page of the Last Chronicle is turned and the reader looks back over that marvellous expanse of country, it is the gentle 'cello-playing, courageous, slightly ironical, tender creation of Mr. Harding that hovers as a kind of symbol of that manifested world, over the scene. ... He is Trollope's grandest gentleman."
And Trollope himself ended Barchester Towers with these lines:
One word of Mr Harding, and we have done.
He is still Precentor of Barchester, and still pastor of the little church of St Cuthbert's. In spite of what he has so often said himself, he is not even yet an old man. He does such duties as fall to his lot well and conscientiously, and is thankful that he has never been tempted to assume others for which he might be less fitted.
The Author now leaves him in the hands of his readers; not as a hero, not as a man to be admired and talked of, not as a man who should be toasted at public dinners and spoken of with conventional absurdity as a perfect divine, but as a good man without guile, believing humbly in the religion which he strives to teach, and guided by the precepts which he has striven to learn.

The account of Mr Harding's extreme old age is very moving and very true:
It was sometimes sad enough to watch him as he sat alone. He would have a book near him, and for a while would keep it in his hands. It would generally be some volume of good old standard theology with which he had been, or supposed himself to have been, conversant from his youth. But the book would soon be laid aside, and gradually he would move himself away from it, and he would stand about in the room, looking now out of a window from which he would fancy that he could not be seen, or gazing up at some print which he had known for years; and then he would sit down for a while in one chair, and for a while in another, while his mind was wandering back into old days, thinking of old troubles and remembering his old joys. And he had a habit, when he was sure that he that he was not watched, of creeping up to a great black wooden case, which always stood in one corner of the sitting-room which he occupied in the deanery. Mr Harding, when he was younger, had been a performer on the violoncello, and in this case there was still the instrument from which he had been wont to extract the sounds which he had so dearly loved. Now in these latter days he never made any attempt to play. Soon after he had come to the deanery there had fallen upon him an illness, and after that he had never again asked for his bow. They who were around him,—his daughter chiefly and her husband,—had given the matter much thought, arguing with themselves whether or no it would be better to invite him to resume the task he so loved; for of all the works of his life this playing on the violoncello had been the sweetest to him; but even before that illness his hand had greatly failed him, and the dean and Mrs Arabin had agreed that it would be better to let the matter pass without a word. He had never asked to be allowed to play. He had expressed no regrets. When he himself would propose that his daughter should "give them a little music,"—and he would make such a proposition on every evening that was suitable,—he would never say a word of those former performances at which he himself had taken a part. But it had become known to Mrs Arabin, through the servants, that he had once dragged the instrument forth from its case when he had thought the house to be nearly deserted; and a wail of sounds had been heard, very low, very short-lived, recurring now and again at fitful intervals. He had at those times attempted to play, as though with a muffled bow,—so that none should know of his vanity and folly. Then there had been further consultations at the deanery, and it had been again agreed that it would be best to say nothing to him of his music.
In these latter days of which I am now speaking he would never draw the instrument out of its case. Indeed he was aware that it was too heavy for him to handle without assistance. But he would open the prison door, and gaze upon the thing that he loved, and he would pass his fingers among the broad strings, and ever and anon he would produce from one of them a low, melancholy, almost unearthly sound. And then he would pause, never daring to produce two such notes in succession,—one close upon the other. And these last sad moans of the old fiddle were now known through the household. They were the ghosts of the melody of days long past. He imagined that his visits to the box were unsuspected,—that none knew of the folly of his old fingers which could not keep themselves from touching the wires; but the voice of the violoncello had been recognised by the servants and by his daughter, and when that low wail was heard through the house,—like the last dying note of a dirge,—they would all know that Mr Harding was visiting his ancient friend.
She found him preparing himself for his visit to the cathedral. Some year or two,—but no more,—before the date of which we are speaking, he had still taken some small part in the service; and while he had done so he had of course worn his surplice. Living so close to the cathedral,—so close that he could almost walk out of the house into the transept,—he had kept his surplice in his own room, and had gone down in his vestment. It had been a bitter day to him when he had first found himself constrained to abandon the white garment which he loved. He had encountered some failure in the performance of the slight clerical task allotted to him, and the dean had tenderly advised him to desist. He did not utter one word of remonstrance. "It will perhaps be better," the dean had said. "Yes,—it will be better," Mr Harding had replied. "Few have had accorded to them the high privilege of serving their master in His house for so many years,—though few more humbly, or with lower gifts." But on the following morning, and for nearly a week afterwards, he had been unable to face the minor canon and the vergers, and the old women who knew him so well, in his ordinary black garments. At last he went down with the dean, and occupied a stall close to the dean's seat,—far away from that in which he had sat for so many years,—and in this seat he had said his prayers ever since that day. And now his surplices were washed and ironed and folded and put away; but there were moments in which he would stealthily visit them, as he also stealthily visited his friend in the black wooden case. This was very melancholy, and the sadness of it was felt by all those who lived with him; but he never alluded himself to any of those bereavements which age brought upon him. Whatever might be his regrets, he kept them ever within his own breast.
As they passed down the stairs and out of the doors she was astonished to find how weak were his footsteps,—how powerless he was against the slightest misadventure. On this very day he would have tripped at the upward step at the cathedral door had she not been with him. "Oh, papa," she said, "indeed, indeed, you should not come here alone." Then he apologised for his little stumble with many words and much shame, assuring her that anybody might trip on an occasion. It was purely an accident; and though it was a comfort to him to have had her arm, he was sure that he would have recovered himself even had he been alone. He always, he said, kept quite close to the wall, so that there might be no mistake,—no possibility of an accident. All this he said volubly, but with confused words, in the covered stone passage leading into the transept. And, as he thus spoke, Mrs Grantly made up her mind that her father should never again go to the cathedral alone. He never did go again to the cathedral—alone.
[When he went next, it was in a coffin.]
"Papa," said Mrs Grantly to him as soon as she had succeeded in getting both Posy and Mrs Baxter out of the room,—against the doing of which, Mr Harding had manoeuvred with all his little impotent skill,—"Papa, you must promise me that you will not go to the cathedral again alone, till Eleanor comes home." When he heard the sentence he looked at her with blank misery in his eyes. He made no attempt at remonstrance. He begged for no respite. The word had gone forth, and he knew that it must be obeyed. Though he would have hidden the signs of his weakness had he been able, he would not condescend to plead that he was strong. "If you think it wrong, my dear, I will not go alone," he said. "Papa, I do; indeed I do. Dear papa, I would not hurt you by saying it if I did not know that I am right." He was sitting with his hand upon the table, and, as she spoke to him, she put her hand upon his, caressing it. "My dear," he said, "you are always right."
She left him again for awhile, having some business out in the city, and he was alone in his room for an hour. What was there left to him now in the world? Old as he was, and in some things almost childish, nevertheless, he thought of this keenly, and some half-realised remembrance of "the lean and slippered pantaloon" flitted across his mind, causing him a pang. What was there left to him now in the world? Posy and cat's-cradle! Then, in the midst of his regrets, as he sat with his back bent in his old easy-chair, with one arm over the shoulder of the chair, and the other hanging loose by his side, on a sudden there came across his face a smile as sweet as ever brightened the face of man or woman. He had been able to tell himself that he had no ground for complaint,—great ground rather for rejoicing and gratitude. Had not the world and all in it been good to him; had he not children who loved him, who had done him honour, who had been to him always a crown of glory, never a mark for reproach; had not his lines fallen to him in very pleasant places; was it not his happy fate to go and leave it all amidst the good words and kind loving cares of devoted friends? Whose latter days had ever been more blessed than his? And for the future—? It was as he thought of this that that smile came across his face,—as though it were already the face of an angel. And then he muttered to himself a word or two. "Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace. Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace."

Trollope is full of insights in the Last Chronicle, and all of them so painfully true, whether it is the Archdeacon's comment on Mr Harding's failing life ("he was always somewhat old for his age. He will be eighty, if he lives two years longer, I think. But he'll never reach eighty;—never"), or the account of Dr Proudie's sudden collapse under the stress of Mrs Proudie's long tyranny. In the case of the Proudies it is mistreatment of one partner by another, and when Mrs Proudie sees the effect of her behaviour – the cumulative effect – she herself dies of heart failure. That is a neat end to one conflict because so arranged by the novelist. Life, alas, is not so just. No, Life is not just.
It only remains to strive for the patience of Septimus Harding, or, failing that, to pay heed to the lesson taught to Josiah Crawley:
. . . the remainder of the day applied himself to learn the lesson which Hoggett had endeavoured to teach him. But the learning of it was not easy, and hardly became more easy when he had worked the problem out in his own mind, and discovered that the brickmaker's doggedness simply meant self-abnegation;—that a man should force himself to endure anything that might be sent upon him, not only without outward grumbling, but also without grumbling inwardly.

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