17) The Warden, by Anthony Trollope
Picked this up on a whim from a four-for-a-pound box in Wiltshire yesterday. I remember watching the BBC adaptation with Donald Pleasance years ago. Actually a rather good book, which I found myself reflecting on rather a lot as I drove across England and Belgium today.
I was particularly intrigued by trying to work out what Trollope was really trying to say. While we are made to feel very sympathetic to Mr Huntley, the eponymous warden, the fact is that he is getting a substantial amount of money for doing almost nothing; and the argument that the old men of the almshouse would be incapable of spending the money wisely, if it was theirs, seems pretty patronising – is Harding’s expenditure of it, on music and soft furnishing, so much more moral? And the ending of the story, where all goes to rack and ruin – well, this is actually the fault of the bishop, for not getting the confused legal situation sorted out, rather than the fault of the zealous Dr Bold for raising the question.
Having said that, I rather liked some of the very conscious ironies that Trollope puts in the book: Dr Bold, after all, is himself the beneficiary of unearned income, which is what allows him to bring the case in the first place. I relished even more the brief descriptions of British policy on Ireland, particularly since The Warden is set in 1855, precisely because I just read my father’s book on the same period. Where my father declined to attribute anything other than the usual kneejerk bigotry as being behind the outrageously anti-Catholic policies of the British government of the day, Trollope (writing at the time, rather than a century later) is much more vicious:
Sir Abraham Haphazard was deeply engaged in preparing a bill for the mortification of papists, to be called the “Convent Custody Bill,” the purport of which was to enable any Protestant clergyman over fifty years of age to search any nun whom he suspected of being in possession of treasonable papers or Jesuitical symbols… The bill had all its desired effect. Of course it never passed into law; but it so completely divided the ranks of the Irish members, who had bound themselves together to force on the ministry a bill for [Irish economic development, though rather a silly policy].
So some at least of this is meant as simple satire. And yet his entire chapter – “Tom Towers, Dr Anticant, and Mr Sentiment” – about the baneful and pernicious influence of the media seems pretty heartfelt (and also helps explain why this author appealed so much to John Major). I will just have to read more and see what I think.