It took Anthony Trollope almost fourteen years to write The Chronicles of Barsetshire. It’s taken me about eight to read the 3469 pages that make up his series of six books set in the fictional rural English county of Barsetshire. But now, having finished The Last Chronicle of Barset, I can declare my work is done.
Trollope claimed in his autobiography that The Last Chronicle of Barset was “the best novel I have written …there is a true savour of English life all through the book’.”. I can’t judge whether that’s true since I’ve not yet read his other major series — the Palliser novels — but it’s certainly one of the best in the Chronicles. I’d been hoping after the disappointing fifth book — The Small House at Allington — that Trollope’s final visit to Barsetshire would mark a return to his previous form. He didn’t fail me.
The main storyline of The Last Chronicle of Barset concerns the plight of the Reverend Josiah Crawley, an impoverished curate of a small parish, who is accused of stealing a cheque. He doesn’t deny that used it to pay debts to local tradespeople. But he’s at a loss to understand how the cheque came to be in his possession in the first place.
His case sends ripples through the world of Barsetshire. Some members of the community shun him, others want more decisive action, including the Bishop’s wife, Mrs Proudie. So certain is she that Cawley is guilty, that she schemes to get the man instantly dismissed. The Reverend does have friends who would come to his aid if only he would let them. But Cawley is a proud man, refusing all assistance and almost enjoying his new status as local martyr.
Meanwhile there are affairs of the heart that demand our attention.
The Reverend’s daughter Grace Crawley wins the love of Major Grantly, son of the Archdeacon. But she refuses to accept his offer of marriage because she doesn’t want to damage the Major’s reputation through any association with her family. It’s not the only obstacle the Major faces in his path to the altar: his father threatens to cut him off if he marries Grace because she is so far beneath him in social status.
A second romantic sub plot, which picks up from The Small House of Allington, sees John Eames once more in pursuit of Lily Dale. Will she accept him this time or is she still pining for the cad Adolphus Crosbie who ditched her once before when he saw a more adventagous match within his grasp.
As always, Trollope draws the reader in with these multiple interwoven plots which all connect to themes of pride and dignity. Just like the earlier titles, he captures the essence of Victorian society, showing its concerns about property, status, connections as well as its social conventions.
The principal attraction of the novel for me however, is his cast of characters. We’ve met many of them in the earlier titles like the clergyman Mark Roberts from Framley Parsonage, Archdeacon Grantly from Barchester Towers and Dr Thomas Thorne the titular character of book two.
They’re never portrayed as anything other than thoroughly human, a mix of virtues and flaws.
Some of those who feature prominently in the Last Chronicle of Barset are irritating —Grace Cawley was just too nice and insipid to hold my attention. Some are despicable, particularly Augustus Musselboro, Mrs. Van Siever and Dobbs Broughton, the three partners in a dodgy moneylending and stockbroking enterprise. Others are gentle, kind and thoughtful like Mrs Dale.
The Last Chronicle of Barset sees a welcome return for my two all-time favourites: the Bishop’s wife Mrs Proudie and the former warden Septimus Harding.
Mrs Proudie has always worn the trousers in the palace but in this novel she is more redoubtable than ever, imperiously making decisions about the Reverend Crawley’s future without the Bishop’s approval. Even this weak-willed man has his limits however and Mrs Proudie discovers she has exerted her authority for the last time.
The Mr Harding we meet in this final novel is but a shadow of the man who began the series in The Warden. There’s a distinct note of sadness attached to his appearances in The Last Chronicle of Barset. He’s in the twilight of his years, gradually losing all the pleasures that once meant so much to him. Physical frailty means he has to stop attending the Cathedral services each day and he packs his beloved cello away, finding no comfort in this once treasured instrument. His life is reduced to games of cat’s cradle with his young granddaughter. As he takes to his bed, awaiting the inevitable outcome, his one wish is see his favourite daughter once more, praying she returns from Italy in time.
It’s left to his son in law, the Archdeacon, to pay homage to Mr Harding. Though the two of them were never close, the Archdeacon shows at the end a full appreciation of Mr Harding’s qualities:
I feel sure that he never had an impure fancy in his mind, or a faulty wish in his heart. His tenderness has surpassed the tenderness of woman; and yet, when occasion came for showing it, he had all the spirit of a hero…The fact is, he was never wrong. He couldn’t go wrong. He lacked guile, and he feared God – and a man who does both will never go far astray. I don’t think he coveted aught in his life – except a new case for his violincello and somebody to listen to him when he played it.
I’m going to miss this kindly clergyman and all his acquaintances. I’ve followed them through good times and bad, through marriages and deaths, and through love affairs and scandals. The novels are not perfect — Trollope sometimes doesn’t know when to stop writing and he falls too often into the trap of too many sub plots. But I still feel sad to be leaving the world of Barset.
Trollope puts it perfectly on his final page:
… to me Barset has been a real county, and its city a real city, and the spires and towers have been before my eyes, and the voices of the people are known to my ears, and the pavement of the city ways are familiar to my footsteps.
The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope: Footnotes
The Last Chronicle of Barset was serialised in The Cornhill between 1866 and 1867 and later published as a 2 volume work in 1867 by Smith, Elder and Coas. it’s the final book in the Chronicles of Barsetshire which began with The Warden published in 1855. My edition has 890 pages, making it the longest of all the books. The shortest is The Warden at about 300 pages.
The Chronicles are said to have been inspired by a visit Trollope made to Salisbury while working for The Post Office, though he didn’t actually begin writing until the following year. The first two books were not a huge success though did sell better than Trollope’s earlier work. It was not until the third title, Dr Thorne, that Trollope star began to rise . As a result he was approached by The Cornhill to request he write a novel for serialisation in the magazine.