Trollope’s “The Warden”: An Exceptional Law and Religion Novel

A small distraction from various present horrors. I have written about Anthony Trollope before, one of the greatest and most unjustly under-appreciated (at least in the United Trollope, The WardenStates) novelists of the Victorian period. But particularly for those interested in law and religion, may I recommend “The Warden”–the first of Trollope’s Barsetshire Novels–as one of the greatest little novels I’ve read in years. A few notes on the plot:

The story concerns a will by one John Hiram, who establishes in the 15th century a “hospital” (really a kind of sanatorium) for the care of several bedesmen (needy pensioners). An Anglican churchman–the warden–is given the care of this hospital, with an attendant salary. But over the years, as the property increases in value, so does the warden’s income, which by the time of the story sits at a very comfortable 800 pounds. The warden at the time of the telling, Septimus Harding, is a kind, gentle, caring, and honorable man who takes exceptional care of his charges. Nevertheless, a question arises about Mr. Harding’s entitlement under the will to so generous an income. A reform-minded young man named John Bold (who also happens to be the suitor of Mr. Harding’s daughter) begins to make inquiries–with the utmost good faith–about the nature of the original bequest. And this unleashes a bitter contest between the local archdeacon and the reformers (as well as other unscrupulous and nasty types) about the propriety of the income of the wardenship at Hiram’s Hospital.

Part of what makes the novel so good is the delicacy with which the characters are drawn. Unlike in Dickens, where the characters are perhaps a bit too often either the purest angels or the most abject devils, Trollope’s novel is populated with characters who have doubts about what is right. Mr. Harding himself is a deeply good man, but also one with sincere and real qualms about the justice of the matter. As Trollope puts it, Mr. Harding was far less concerned to be proved right at law than to be right.

Though their lives are entirely comfortable, many of the bedesmen are lured into joining a law suit when the promise of 100 pounds a year is dangled in front of them by an exploitative lawyer who strikes the appealing notes of self-righteousness in tandem with legal entitlement. In the end, after his name is repeatedly dragged through the mud by the local press, the warden resigns and the bedesmen don’t see a cent. In a touching scene at the end of the novel, as the warden is leaving the hospital, he says goodbye to a bedridden bedesman who is destined to die within the week, “poor old Bell”:

“I’ve come to say goodbye to you, Bell,” said Mr. Harding, speaking loud, for the old man was deaf.

“Are you going away, then, really?” asked Bell.

“Indeed I am. And I’ve brought you a glass of wine; so that we may part friends, as we lived, you know.”

The old man took the proffered glass in his shaking hands, and drank it eagerly, “God bless you, Bell!” said Mr. Harding; “good bye, my old friend.”

“And so you’re really going?” the man again asked.

“Indeed I am, Bell.”

The poor old bed-ridden creature still kept Mr. Harding’s hand in his own, and the warden thought he had met with something like warmth of feeling in the one of all his subjects from whom it was the least likely to be expected; for poor old Bell had nearly outlived all human feelings. “And your reverence,” said he, and then he paused, while his old palsied head shook horribly, and his shriveled cheeks sank lower within his jaws, and his glazy eye gleamed with a momentary light; “and your reverence, shall we get the hundred a year, then?”

How gently did Mr. Harding try to extinguish the false hope of money which had been so wretchedly raised to disturb the quiet of the dying man! One other week and his mortal coil would be shuffled off; in one short week would God resume his soul, and set it apart for its irrevocable doom; seven more tedious days and nights of senseless inactivity, and all would be over for poor Bell in this world; and yet, with his last audible words, he was demanding his moneyed rights, and asserting himself to be the proper heir of John Hiram’s bounty! Not on him, poor sinner as he was, be the load of such sin!

There is so much more in this superlative story of law, rights, religion, justice, reform, tradition, personal frailty, and the complicated nature of human motivations and character. One of the very best.

One response

  1. Marc: If I may add to the “must-read Trollope on law” list: Orley Farm. And surely at the top of reading lists of any kind, Barchester Towers. Thanks, Jeffrey Shulman

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