The Last Chronicle of Barset

last chronicleI’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.

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14 Responses to The Last Chronicle of Barset

  1. You would never guess beforehand that Rev. Crawley would be the protagonist. I mean, I sure would not have guessed, even given a big clue like “minor character in Framley Parsonage“.

    • Jenny says:

      Aw, geez. I’ve been away on vacation for the past week and didn’t see you had just written a whole series on this book, far better and deeper and more interesting than my short post. Well, I do appreciate it, and everyone should go read it immediately.

    • I believe our posts can co-exist.

      For example, I basically made an entire post out of the first sentence of your last paragraph. It is not obvious that that was a good idea.

      “The deliberate pace of Crawley’s trial” – I think I am just beginning to see how skilled Trollope was at matching the pace of the novel to the fictional time that is passing. Without cataloging every transition (“a month passed”), it feels right. The entire imagined world moves along at the same pace.

      • Jenny says:

        As I said, it’s a bit like Dr. Thorne — the trial and the pace of Grace’s courtship are carefully matched, by necessity. And Johnny Eames’s downfall (if you can call it a downfall; it’s more of a quiet retirement from the field of battle) comes the same way and at the same pace. It’s a lovely novel. Hard to imagine pacing it so beautifully through serialization.

  2. Lisa says:

    I think this may be my favorite of Trollope’s novels, though that’s always a close call. At the very end, he talks about seizing his reader “affectionately by the elbow,” which seems a perfect metaphor for the pull of his stories (if metaphor is the right term). And where he says, “For myself I can only say that I shall always be happy to sit, when allowed to do so, at the table of Archdeacon Grantly…” or wander the streets of Barchester, or stand in the Cathedral – it makes me wonder if like Jane Austen he continued to tell stories about these dear characters – just not writing them down.

    • Jenny says:

      It’s wonderful, isn’t it? What a lovely idea, that these characters sort of go on. I am particularly fond of Lily Dale, myself.

  3. vanbraman says:

    I am behind on my Trollope reading. I usually read Trollope when I travel, but on my last trip did not even open the cover of the one I took with me. I still have two of the Palliser novels to finish.

    • Jenny says:

      I’m about to embark on the Pallisers, though I think I’ll read The Way We Live Now, first, I’ve read The Eustace Diamonds already, but I’ll probably re-read it on my way through. Nice that he was so prolific!

  4. Harriet says:

    I read and reviewed this very recently, and like Lisa I am pretty sure it is my favourite Trollope so far. Mr Crawley is indeed an amazing creation, and the novel extremely fine and moving. Thanks for this excellent review.

    • Jenny says:

      Like Tom, I wouldn’t have expected Mr. Crawley to be the hero (?) of the novel, but he is wonderful: so complex. I took a great deal of pleasure in watching the way the book wound the themes around his painful dilemma. Lovely book.

  5. rebeccareid says:

    You have reminded me that I have three Palliser’s left. I am excited to get to the Barset books. They sound so lovely!

  6. Karen K. says:

    I loved this series too, I hope the Pallisers can live up to it! Lately I’ve been reading more of the standalone Trollopes before I dive into the Pallisers series.

    I did find Lily’s story to be extremely frustrating and I am beginning to see a pattern with the noble, selfless young ladies who refuse to marry until they are convinced they won’t disgrace their husbands. I think I’ve seen it in five or six of his novels now and it’s beginning to get on my nerves.

    • Jenny says:

      I wonder why you found Lily’s story frustrating? I did not at all. Lily is one of my very favorite of Trollope’s characters; she is wry and witty and knows her own mind without leaning on anyone else to make it up for her. She is extremely generous of spirit and doesn’t mind upsetting social expectations to live up to her own expectations of herself. I think she’s terrific.

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