FOR A NUMBER OF YEARS I’ve been saving up the fiction of Anthony Trollope as a sort of mid-life treat. At least I hoped it would be a treat. Trollope is the kind of author who is often ridiculed as a literary lightweight: a Victorian lacking the range and energy of Dickens; a drawing-room chronicler without Jane Austen’s tart irony or powers of observation. Even as I turned to the first page I was braced for disappointment.
So far I can report that Trollope—for all his gentle romantic farce and clerical satire—stands up quite well as a distinctive literary voice, capable of striking deep social and political resonances upon the gossamer strings of his comedy. While the pages go down easily, Trollope is not merely a fashioner of escapist fluff but a writer who summons issues as profound as those his more earnest contemporaries wrestled with.
I began with The Warden, the first in a sequence known as The Chronicles of Barsetshire (which includes most famously Barchester Towers). The title refers to the novel’s protagonist, the Reverend Septimus Harding, a clergyman nearing sixty who lives in a sleepy English shire where time seems to pass more slowly than in the great metropolis of London. No one in the town of Barchester is more happily attuned to this timelessness and obscurity than the good reverend. But to his horror he suddenly finds himself at the center of national attention.
As precentor of Barchester Cathedral, Harding is also given the wardenship of Hiram’s Hospital, an almshouse for elderly or disabled working men. Like many such institutions, this almshouse was founded by a local worthy in the Middle Ages. The income from the donated properties has increased substantially over the centuries and is largely given to the warden. Thanks to the efforts of a well-intentioned, young, reform-minded doctor, John Bold (who happens to be in love with Harding’s daughter), the reverend Harding and Hiram’s Hospital become a cause célèbre, the subject of newspaper articles about social inequality and the power of the Church of England.
On one level The Warden is about the human toll inflicted on good people by crusading reformers intent on winning points on the political stage. The Reverend Harding, while never particularly guilty about the eight hundred pounds he received as warden, sees the point of the critique. Because Trollope always wanted to depict his characters as mixtures of good and bad he shows us a man who resigns his position (against the wishes of his clerical colleagues) as much because of an aversion to publicity as from a newly awakened conscience about social justice.
But if that was all the book was about I don’t think The Warden would be as beloved as it is. What makes the story special is that while Harding’s weaknesses are clear—he is an excessively shy, retiring person who may not act or think for himself as he should—nonetheless, he participates in an ancient, organic union of faith and community that stretches back into the medieval world that produced Hiram’s Hospital.
Trollope takes care to give the Reverend Harding a highly specific role within the church: he is a liturgist and choirmaster. Early in the novel we are given an economical introduction to Harding’s passions:
Mr. Harding’s warmest admirers cannot say that he was ever an industrious man; the circumstances of his life have not called on him to be so; and yet he can hardly be called an idler. Since his appointment to his precentorship, he has published, with all possible additions of vellum, typography, and gilding, a collection of our ancient church music, with some correct dissertations on Purcell, Crotch, and Nares. He has greatly improved the choir of Barchester, which, under his dominion, now rivals that of any cathedral in England. He has taken something more than his fair share in the cathedral services, and has played the violoncello daily to such audiences as he could collect, or, faute de mieux, to no audience at all.
The small touches here are delightful—and telling. That book of ancient church music is published so beautifully, it turns out, at Harding’s personal expense, much to the exasperation of his son-in-law, the Reverend Theophilus Grantly, the officious and money-conscious archdeacon of Barchester Cathedral. It is perhaps the warden’s only extravagance but it is clearly an extravagance of love and a celebration of beauty. Harding’s passion for the cello, which later in the novel is described as “that saddest of instruments,” is manifest whenever he is emotionally overwrought; at such times he is given to silently “bowing” a passage of music, much to the consternation of his interlocutors.
Harding’s faith is played out in the minutiae of liturgy and music rather than the grand thoughts of preaching and theological exposition. His other gift is simply that of friendship. Significantly, his two deepest relationships are with the bishop and the de facto leader of the Hiram’s Hospital community, a simple old soul named Bunce—two men who represent the top and bottom of the social order. Harding and his bishop love to spend companionable evenings by the fire. As for Bunce: “The precentor delighted to call him his sub-warden, and was not ashamed, occasionally, when no other guest was there, to bid him sit down by the same parlor fire, and drink the full glass of port which was placed near him. Bunce never went without the second glass, but no entreaty ever made him take a third.”
Trollope’s observations about his characters are generous but rarely sentimental, as that small detail of class consciousness (“when no other guest was there”) makes clear. Septimus Harding lives in what essentially remains a feudal world, and if that dispensation is both static and guilty of certain inequities, the new world of the reformers has little of its warmth and humanity, its rootedness in a historic community.
The high-minded idealism of activists like John Bold, for all its rhetoric of compassion and equality, does not grow out of direct contact with the poor. Its motives are thoroughly mixed. Good intentions shade into personal vanity; lofty (if vague) goals for the reform of allegedly corrupt institutions are quickly exploited by newspapers that profit from controversy. Neither the reformers nor the media have any real stake in the ongoing life of this community.
And a bewildered Septimus Harding is reduced to playing melancholy notes on his air-cello.
I read The Warden at a time when I was reflecting on the now ubiquitous contemporary phrase: “I’m spiritual but not religious.” I asked a friend about this phrase and he replied: “Many associate the word ‘religious’ with fanaticism, irrationality, intolerance, and closed-mindedness, while ‘spirituality’ suggests something more detached, thoughtful, tolerant, and open.” The “binding” (re-ligare) of religion is seen as overly constrictive.
No doubt this is an accurate assessment of a widespread feeling. And yet—call me contrary or misguided if you will—the Reverend Harding makes me think that I’m religious but not spiritual.
Communities, like families, can be healthy or toxic, but western individualism provides no true alternative. Ironically, the spiritual-but-not-religious embrace a consumerist mentality that in other contexts they harshly criticize. The irony is compounded when one realizes that these spiritual individualists—inheritors of an “I” culture—most often pluck items off the shelf of “we” cultures. Spiritual tourism offers the benefits of wisdom derived from those who submit to authority and discipline and tradition without having to do so oneself.
But spiritual tourists have no home to return to; they are always restlessly consuming new experiences. They can’t eat, pray, and love enough.
At the level of popular culture the tremendous longing we feel for the integrated life of a “we” culture is overwhelmingly clear. Take a film like Avatar, which presents us with a thinly veiled allegory of rapacious consumerism confronted by a seemingly primitive tribal culture that is grounded in taboos, strict social roles, and corporate worship. The bulldozers that plow through the jungle seek to rip out a precious piece of the whole and turn it into a commodity.
The mid-twentieth-century theologian Romano Guardini noted that his conversion experience began with the spiritual desire to “lose his life in order to find it.” At that moment he ran into a dilemma:
To give my soul away—but to whom? Who is in the position to require it from me? So to require it that, in the requiring, it would not again be I who lay hold of it? Not simply “God.” For whenever a person wants to deal only with God, then he says “God” but means himself. There must also be an objective authority, which can draw out my answer from self-assertion’s every refuge and hideout. But there is only one such entity: the…church in her authority and concreteness. The question of holding on or letting go is decided ultimately not before God, but before the church.
The word authority is another contemporary bugbear, I know, but in the end, authority as Guardini sees it is less about someone handing down judgments from on high upon hapless members and more about the force that compels us to stick together. God knows just how hard and messy that sticking can be.
How, I wonder, is it possible to learn tolerance outside of a community?
The older I get the more suspicious I am of spirituality as something ethereal, exotic, and otherworldly—something found elsewhere. The poet William Carlos Williams coined the phrase “No ideas but in things” to express a poetic that preferred concreteness to abstraction. By the same token, I know of no spirituality outside the relationships that constitute the daily life of my community.
This is where Trollope’s genius lies in The Warden. For in making Septimus Harding a liturgist he emphasizes that the quintessential activity of a religious community is not the purveying of doctrines and ideas but the worship of the presence that has called the community into being. In common prayer and song we lay aside the burden of self-consciousness; we recount the story of the encounter that brought us together. In worship we become participants, living members of a body, rather than observers and connoisseurs.
Liturgy is where art and community life meet. Where spirit is not thought but made flesh through hands, knees, and vocal chords. In worship the stuff of art is offered up in the name of the community, not the ego of the artist—or the clergy. Ingmar Bergman, one of the great film directors and an artist capable of rendering dysfunctional religious communities with unrelenting, devastating accuracy, nonetheless wrote late in his life: “Art lost its basic creative drive the moment it was separated from worship. It severed an umbilical cord and now lives its own sterile life, generating and degenerating itself. In former days the artist remained unknown and his work was to the glory of God.”
After Septimus Harding resigns his wardenship of Hiram’s Hospital he is assigned to the tiny church of Saint Cuthbert, “no bigger than an ordinary room.” “Here he performs afternoon service every Sunday, and administers the sacrament once in every three months. His audience is not large…but enough come to fill his six pews, and on the front seat of those devoted to the poor is always to be seen our old friend Mr. Bunce, decently arrayed in his bedesman’s gown.”
My kind of place.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.