I’m not sure what I expected of this last book of Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire. Old Home Week, perhaps, and it is that: most of the characters we know from the previous books reappear in this one, from dear Septimus Harding to Dean Arabin and his wife to the terrible Mrs. Proudie (but no Obadiah Slope) and Mark Robarts and Dr. Grantly and Dr. Thorne and his daughter and the former Miss Dunstable and Lily Dale and Johnny Eames. The pages are crowded with characters, most of whom have been developed and indeed married off in previous books. I suppose I expected a little gentle clerical fun with them, and a marriage or two for a garnish: a reward for longtime readers. You cannot say I had not been led to expect it.
But this novel has a different tone altogether: one that is deeply sad if not actually tragic. It begins with the Reverend Josiah Crawley — so terribly poor and so fiercely proud — being accused of a crime: he has cashed a check for twenty pounds that was not his to cash, and cannot account for his possession of the check at all. As the novel goes forward, his slow grinding at the hands of the law, his paradoxically proud submission to ecclesiastical law at the hands of his weak and incompetent bishop, his family’s shame, his fear that he is losing his fine mind because he cannot remember where he received the check — all this, Trollope makes us feel and understand. Even when Crawley is wrong, even when he submits his family to worse punishment than they need have taken, even when he’s uselessly proud, Trollope shows his strengths. You can so seldom accuse him of making caricatures, except around the edges of his work!
Of course, the rest of Barset falls into camps: those who assume Crawley has stolen the money and should be sent to jail, and those who assume he could not possibly have done such a thing and wish to help him. All sorts of relationships and power dramas play out over this, including the love affair of Crawley’s daughter, Grace, with Dr. Grantly’s son, Henry. Grace will not hear of bringing disgrace on the Grantly family by marrying Henry while her father is under a shadow (though she knows him to be innocent in her heart), but then Dr. Grantly is very displeasingly prejudiced against her when we would prefer him to be pleading her to marry his son. It’s very like the story in Dr. Thorne: will Dr. Grantly be won over to the marriage before the resolution of the crime?
There are several other minor plot lines that intersect with Crawley’s story — what else would you expect from Trollope? Several of these are also very sad, if not, again, actually tragic, often dealing with the same themes of justice and pride that affect Crawley’s story. There is the slow decline of Mr. Harding in the shadow of his beloved cathedral. There is the far-from-silent crisis in the lifelong battle between the bishop and his ignorant, power-hungry wife Mrs. Proudie. And there is the resolution of the story of Lily Dale and Johnny Eames. (Some people will tell you that it is not resolved, but it most certainly is.)
There is less intervention of Trollope-the-narrator in this book than in some of the others. He still appears — I wonder if he could prevent himself — but with more restraint; the characters have to shine a little more on their own this time. The deliberate pace of Crawley’s trial, the risks Johnny Eames undergoes, and the behavior of Dr. Grantly mostly speak for themselves. It creates a marvelous, melancholy, deeply thoughtful and memorable book. I’m sorry to leave Barsetshire; good thing the Palliser novels await me.