Thursday, December 6, 2012

Book Review: The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope

The Last Chronicle of Barset , last and longest of the Barsetshire Chronicles, is tied together by the central mystery of whether or not Josiah Crawley, curate of Hogglestock, stole a check. One way or another, all of the characters from previous novels become involved in the affair. It also picks up the trailing threads left from The Small House at Allington, and introduces another romance, this one between Grace Crawley and Henry Grantly, son of Archdeacon Grantly (first seen in The Warden).

This proved the hardest of the Barsetshire Chronicles to read because it is a little too brilliant. Reading a novel with Josiah Crawley at the center means spending a good portion of the book inside the mind of someone who is severely depressed. It's a sympathetic view, showing all of the external circumstances that led to Crawley's depression, but it's also a merciless look at all the ways he makes it worse for himself and harder for his family. It is exhausting spending time in his head.

As with prior novels, this is also apolitical issue, since one of the big issues at the time Trollope wrote was church reform, including the question of the wildly uneven pay scale for clergy, and Trollope puts a human face on some of the abstractions; Crawley works at least as hard as Dr. Grantly and receives a fraction of his salary. As with The Warden, Trollope avoids oversimplifying or coming down too definitely on any given side to the issue. Crawly may be underpaid, but it is not Dr. Grantly's fault, and it is hard to condemn him for enjoying the comforts of his life or for arranging for his family to enjoy them.

I admit that I sighed a bit over the Grace-Henry romance. Here was yet another good girl being rejected by the man's parents on the grounds that she wasn't of a sufficiently high class and being ultimately accepted in part because she is a "good" girl who does not push herself forward. The saving grace here, as in prior novels, is the characters. While this is, at heart, the same romance plot used in prior novels, the people involved are very different, making it seem nearly new.

The issue of class, contentious since Dr. Thorne is partially resolved at the end of the novel: A "gentleman" is someone who is educated and has the right set of manners, regardless of income and, possibly, even of background. Here, as elsewhere, however, Trollope does not show this as the easy answer: It works for the characters at the end, but there's also no doubting that money helps, nor that Lord Dumbello will always receive more deference from the world at large than Josiah Crawley.

The series has been quite a ride. I think only The Warden and Barsetshire Towers are going to go on my reread list, but I am very glad to have read the whole. Trollope is one of the most brilliant creators of character and scene it has been my pleasure to encounter.

I'm now wondering if I have the stamina to tackle the Palliser novels.

(1)I started my grand read-and-review of the Barsetshire Chronicles over at The Geek Girl Project. My review of The Warden is up there, as is my review of Barchester Towers. My reviews of Dr. Thorne, Framley Parsonage, and The Small House at Allington were on this blog. It's been fun!

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