Peaceful Barchester is thrown into turmoil when the state of affairs at the warden’s hospital is called into question. Several hundred years before, a notable aristocrat made provision for unfit working men in his will, that a hospital be built for them and a warden appointed to oversee them. Since then, however, the land from which the hospital derives its funds has grown in profits, and one man, John Bold, decides that the warden, kindly Mr. Harding, is earning far too much money. He and the majority of the 12 hospital patients sign a petition and take the matter to Parliament, but hadn’t counted on the warden’s reaction to their protest.
This was quite an interesting book. I’d heard before that it wasn’t as good as later books in the Chronicles of Barsetshire series, but I found a lot to like about it. Almost immediately I knew I liked the way Trollope wrote, so almost as soon as I began I knew that I’d have no problems there. Trollope is a talented writer and it’s easy to sink into his story. The characters are well-drawn and opinionated, and I found myself hoping that they would show up in the later books of the series.
The book demonstrates the strangeness of Victorian society, particularly with the warden’s son-in-law, Archdeacon Grantly, who is a firm man in public but in private is ruled by his wife. She is obviously wise and intelligent in many ways, and he often takes her advice to heart, but in public she sits quietly by his side, letting him talk about the conclusions they come to together. Trollope lightly mocks this situation and I liked that he was giving voice to the women, even if they weren’t given a voice in society itself.
There is a very strong ideological underpinning behind the story of this novel. Dr. Bold intends to do good by giving the men their extra £100 per year, rather than having the warden receive all the funds. But the men don’t really need £100 extra per year; apparently all their needs are satisfied by the hospital, and because he was aware that there was a question before he took the wardenship, Mr. Harding had already given them slightly extra out of his own allotment, which no other warden had done before. The men were perfectly happy before they realized that they were owed this money, but their desire for it slowly destroys all that they had previously enjoyed. Trollope criticizes the newspaper scandals of the day by damaging the characters with them and questions whether something that seems morally right is always the right choice when considering the feelings and situation of the people in question. This is especially so given Mr. Harding’s choices, as he has to decide whether or not to continue doing something that is now regarded as wrong by almost everyone he knows, and quite a bit of the book is dedicated to his own moral dilemma. Trollope doesn’t explicitly mark any of the characters out as right or wrong, but rather allows the reader to draw his/her own conclusions about who is right and who is wrong, or whether it’s really that concrete in the first place.
The Warden was a fascinating little book. I’m really looking forward to reading more by Anthony Trollope. I would definitely suggest this if you have an interest in Victorian society.
I am an Amazon Associate. I borrowed this book from my local library.