Picking up my rather unattractive copy of the novel with yellowing pages and an ugly font didn’t exactly fill me with joyous anticipation. The beginning of chapter one certainly didn’t help. As one book club member pointed out, a great first line is necessary to capture attention right from the beginning and this book is far from achieving that. In fact, as another member added, the first line of the novel is an extended version of the first chapter heading – “Who will be the new bishop?”, which inspired little interest in the first instance, let alone the second. Thus, the first few chapters fail to pull you into the story and I found myself zoning out. This certainly didn’t bode well for the next 520-odd pages.
Nevertheless, Trollope manages to turn around this bleak state of affairs and produce nothing short of wonderful, barring the odd relapse into boring doldrums and long winded descriptions. Once it got going, it became very funny, capturing my attention along with my heart and taking away any chance of sleep I had until the book was completed. It takes off slow, when Grantly and Harding meet the Proudies for the first time but is running at full speed by chapter six, in which Harding and more so Grantly rant about those who they have just met. Perhaps if read on its own, the passage would seem a lot less humorous but in comparison to the first five chapters and the previously presented demeanour of these two men, it is absolutely brilliant. Not only is it amusing but it is so easy to see clearly in one’s mind. What with the crows watching and the gravel crunching, it is almost like a comedy sketch. Such examples run throughout the novel and I think that the caricatures that are these characters make the humour all the more impressive. Characters such as the Signora, Mrs Bold, Grantly, and Slope are all both believable yet larger than life and ridiculously one dimensional (in the best possible way) all at the same time.
Even the characters’ names are something special. Reminiscent of the kind of names you might find in an old fashioned morality tale, Trollope links the characters to a name that suits them down to the ground. Slope is a slippery character and Mrs Proudie is proud. However, my favourite ones were the more subtle ones: Mr Quiverful, the quivering wreck; Mr Goodenough, who puts up with substandard accommodation; Dr Rerechild, the baby’s doctor; Mrs Lookaloft who strove above her station and of course, who could forget the doctor named Fillgrave. Trollope has managed to give a clear, snapshot description of even the smallest characters with just one name and make the reader laugh at the same time.
Trollope also manages to turn something usually infuriating into something wonderful and comic. An author directly addressing the reader through his work in a ‘dear diary’ fashion is something that should be avoided at all costs. Much of the joy of reading novels is derived from the almost sinister voyeurism that comes with examining people’s lives so closely – something wholly unacceptable in real life. For an author to recognise the reader in the narrative surely makes the reader uncomfortable, much like when any ‘peeping tom’ is caught.
Nevertheless, this technique seems to suit Barchester Towers, whether this is because of the story or the abilities of Trollope I am uncertain. A perfect example of it working well in this novel is Trollope’s rant about half way through the first volume. Trollope’s outrage at the use of cliff-hangers in novels is spectacularly droll and the notion of “how grievous a thing it is to have the pleasure of your novel destroyed by the ill-considered triumph of a previous reader” is wonderfully observant and brilliantly witty.
Much of the humour through the book reminds me of Terry Pratchett and his Disc World series. In particular, the treatment of death in such a hierarchical situation. As soon as a member of the clergy dies, the excitement and questioning that ensues is hysterical. Just reading about it can make one feel the buzz and anticipation that is being held down by a sense of duty to grieve. The priests can barely contain their delight at discovering who will become the successor. This brought memories of Pratchett’s wizards in the Unseen University, bumping each other off in order to achieve a higher ranking, only to find themselves next on the assassin’s list. Who knows, perhaps Pratchett took inspiration from a novel such as Barchester Towers, or perhaps such behaviour is typical of any hierarchical vocation, especially one in which old men cling on to their position until death.
The dazzling humour, superb characters, and admirable narrative, however, is somewhat offset by the long, boring, wholly unnecessary passages in which one phases out and desires to skip to the next chapter. The pace of the novel, and indeed the enjoyment, dramatically decreases when Trollope embarks on long-winded introductions of characters (Arabin, the Thornes) – or even worse, buildings (St Ewolds, Ullathorne). The marvel of the novel is certainly in the characters more than the story and passages such as the games of quintain at Ullathorne make this abundantly clear. Such parts make little difference to the tale or the characters and I believe the novel would work just as well, if not better, if such episodes were omitted.
In all, Trollope has succeeded in what he set out to do quite spectacularly. Despite the incredibly dull extracts aforementioned, the novel reads smoothly, humorously, and brilliantly. It is certainly no mean feat to make clerical politics both interesting and funny but Trollope has managed it. Anyone can relate to the novel as everyone knows a Slope or Proudie in one way or another and this book should be read by everyone.