The author has kindly shared with readers of the Victorian Web this transcript of a talk given to the Trollope Society on 28 June 2020 by video link, during the coronavirus lockdown. The talk is currently available here. The line illustrations come from our own website. Please click on them for larger images and more information. The last two stills were provided by the author herself. The text has been lightly edited and formatted for the Victorian Web by Jacqueline Banerjee
his past spring a small group of people interested in "Trollope and His Contemporaries" read The Last Chronicle of Barset together over a period of about thirteen weeks. Trollope called it “the best novel I have written” (Autobiography, Ch. 15). By the end, I felt convinced that even if this cannot be termed objectively accurate, he was right to see it as a masterpiece that deserves to be singled out from his novels. When we began reading the book, a couple of us worried that it might have become dated. It is no longer the famous signature book that Trollope readers go to first, or are recommended to read. How could this work set in an upper middle-class world, semi-rural or suburban, which D.A. Miller once characterized as “The Novel as Usual” (107-45) — a place where there are literally no police to be found — be connected to us?
Yet no one here on-screen with me will be surprised to learn that we discovered The Last Chronicle of Barset is by no means obsolete. Early on, we had been particularly struck by parallels between the way the Rev. Mr Crawley is treated, and Victor Hugo's Jean Valjean, also the relevance to the plight of African-Americans in the US, and the way they are placed beyond sympathy. John Berger argues that all art is experienced in a context; and our context was the coronavirus quarantine we were all experiencing, and, later, the protests, demonstrations and violence on our streets. As we started, someone right away wrote of how in Framley Parsonage Mrs Crawley comes perilously close to dying of typhus fever while Lucy Robarts selflessly risks her health and life, nursing her night and day. In previous group reads and discussions, I had found the lack of sympathy for Crawley and the character I had regarded as the primary heroine of the book, Lily Dale, very grating. But this time, at book’s end, I had become so involved with Mrs Crawley's plight that at long last I read Joanna Trollope’s The Rector's Wife, which I had been told in passing had much in it that recalled Barsetshire. Joanna Trollope confirmed my new sense that the central heroine of the Last Chronicle ought to be Mary Crawley. So I sat down and wrote two blogs to call attention to the value and modernity of Trollope's Last Chronicle of Barset and today I've come to tell some of what I wrote.
There is just no doubt in my mind that had the Rev. Josiah Crawley’s story unfolded today, he would have become infected with the coronavirus, and perhaps died, compromised as his health was after years of arduous hard work on scarcely any food — years of intense stress from grief, loss, and humiliation because his pay as perpetual curate was egregiously derisory, while the nature of his work took him perpetually among the poorest in the community, who, of course, would have been sick and dying in large numbers. Josiah Crawley is more of a hero for our time than Hugo’s Jean Valjean, for Trollope’s theme is how inequality works. Trollope in the Last Chronicle dramatizes what he does elsewhere too: he is seriously and at length accounting for, not how Crawley came about the £20, but how and why, having it, this man ends up being indicted on a serious criminal charge. Trollope examines the humanly-made phenomena and ideas that provoke such a distrust and lack of respect for a man as to render him vulnerable to prison; he uncovers the danger and wretchedness of Crawley's social identity in the context of the community which rules over him.
Mr and Mrs Crawley, in a sympathetic portrayal by illustrator George Housman Thomas.
Like Jean Valjean, Crawley is accused of the smallest of crimes: he cannot remember where he got a £20 note, which seems to have been used to pay off a debt for desperately needed groceries; but unlike Hugo’s hero, the point our author makes is not that Crawley was driven to steal — neither our author nor most of the characters in the book can bring themselves seriously to believe Crawley could ever mean to do something considered morally wrong; it is rather that those living under deprived conditions like Crawley's must daily endure the embitterment of depending on open charity.
In the book’s opening chapter, the first thing we see is how the men who are privileged to become magistrates and sit on juries regard Crawley with distaste and suspicion. He is disliked, and has been the subject of complaint by one creditor in particular. He is not the only man whom the local middle class look at askance: a Hogglestock brick-maker has asked for change from another bank and been refused, and is only paid when he comes back with a cheque bearing Mr Crawley's name (Ch. 1). Of course, that check is then scrutinized.
In the Last Chronicle, Trollope provides another set of characters in London, who I am not going to deal with much, and who are much richer, and get away with very crooked dealings — as stockbrokers with other people’s thousands of pounds - but not one of them comes near to having anyone threaten to arrest him or her.
A £20 pound note: I risk the charge of presentism by aligning Mr Crawley with George Floyd in our own times, whom a clerk called the police on because he was a black man who tried to buy a small item with a $20 bill that the clerk thought might be counterfeit. We all know what happened. There are many literary allusions in this novel. One is to an old battered copy of Milton's Samson Agonistes, which Mr Crawley likes to read with his children. Crawley identifies with the man in the line, “Eyeless in Gaza, at the mill with slaves.”
Time constraints force me to summarize many dialogues before we get to the jury trial. Some suggest there is no pity due this man: why did he take this position, when he knew the salary by itself would not provide enough money for him to live as a clergyman with a family? The community feels it is somehow his own fault that his family starves, and live in embarrassingly worn-out clothes — his personality is to blame; otherwise, it is implied, he would have been promoted. Chapter 4 depicts the acute poverty of the Crawleys. Not one person challenges the establishment which has created such a position, with such a derisory salary, for a learned gentleman to occupy. No one but his daughter, Grace, seems to pay attention to or value her father’s learning, and she is after all forced to, by him; and it does her no economic or social good in a school at which she is an unpaid teacher, once it is discovered that her father is disgraced.
The domineering Mrs Proudie dismisses the Rev. Crawley as a convicted thief, another illustration by Thomas.
We do learn that any scene involving money is traumatic for Josiah Crawley. That is why he was a vulnerable scapegoat for those who might have stolen the check, as a convenient cover for their own crimes. The bishop’s wife, Mrs Proudie, exploits the sort of loophole that often exists in power shared by various people: in this case it is unclear that the Bishop has the authority to stop Crawley from preaching because he has not been found guilty. We watch Crawley stand up to this treatment and express the agony of his soul in a letter to the Bishop:
I am in a terrible straight. Trouble, and sorrow, and danger are upon me and mine. It may well be, as your lordship says, that the bitter waters of the present hour may pass over my head and destroy me. I thank your lordship for telling me whither I am to look for assistance.... But the deeper my troubles, the greater my sorrow, the more pressing my danger, the stronger is my need that I should carry myself these days with that outward respect of self which will teach those around me to know that, let who will condemn me, I have not condemned myself. [“The Bishop’s Angel,” Ch. 13]
To Mrs Proudie he defends his behavior by saying ever so succinctly in a sentence just now my favorite in the book “Opposition to usurped authority is an imperative duty” (Ch. 18).
Let me say I am not here as a member of Team Josiah Crawley, lest you mistake my drift. I see the solution to the book’s mystery (“Where did he get it?”) as capable of being given a peculiar anti-Crawley, anti-feminist and contemporary feminist twist all at once. The origin of all the Crawleys' misery is (as is, alas, not uncommon with Crawley) partly self-inflicted. The Dean's wife, Mrs Eleanor Arabin, has inherited a legacy from her first husband (John Bold, way back in
"They will come to hear a ruined man," the Rev Crawley maintains, when he persists in preaching at the local church (also illustrated by Thomas).
Now for the feminist twist: hitherto the Arabins had been slipping these sums of money and other gifts into the silent willing hands of Mrs Crawley, but the husband, indignant and irate that his wife should take it upon herself to accept such moneys and not tell him, demanded that people no longer give Mrs Crawley anything but rather make the offers to him. Now had it been given to Mrs Crawley, whose mind is clear, she would have been able to account for its presence in the folder. So his taking over the will of his wife, demanding her abject obedience, backfired. I am not sure Trollope meant us to see (or himself saw) this whirligig of time taking its revenge on Crawley as a merciless bully over his wife. (I do think Joanna Trollope, in her novel The Rector’s Wife (1991), understood how cruelly Mrs Crawley is robbed of any selfhood by this man, and, seeing her unable to bear her abject life, wrote a post-text to free her. But I will come to that later.)
The book’s second traumatized character, Lily Dale, is nowadays frequently attacked online and off, and in conventionally published writing too, for refusing to marry. I cannot say Trollope is wholly on Lily’s side. The Last Chronicle in part rehashes a story told in The Small House of Allington where Lily Dale is stunned, and her deepest private feelings violated; she also experiences a Crawley-like public humiliation. After not only engaging herself to Adolphus Crosbie, but making it plain to all that she has given him her heart and soul (and some have argued perhaps body too), making herself abjectly his, Lily is, within less than a week of the engagement, cast aside by Crosbie for a cold, apparently rich, titled woman. Not long afterwards, a young man, Johnny Eames, who has loved Lily since boyhood, offers himself in marriage (as it were, once again), but apart from Lily never having been attracted to Eames sexually, she is emotionally shattered in ways analogous to those of a raped girl. Lily, I maintain, is a version of Mary Pipher's Ophelia in Reviving Ophelia, her sociological study of abrasive punitive experiences of heterosexuality in modern young women’s teen years, such young women sustaining severe damage and requiring help. In Last Chronicle, Crosbie, now a widower, of small yet barely adequate means (his wife’s family having fleeced him), thinks to offer himself again to Lily.
The problem is that, paradoxically, Lily still loves this man whose resemblance to an ultimately destructive ideal of manhood allured, enthralled, and deluded her. When Mrs Dale, Lily's mother, explains Crosbie's audacious letter with “Perhaps he thinks he is offering a remedy for your misery,” Lily is stung: Crosbie considers he is making up for what happened!? he assumes he is doing her a favor? And we have seen and see again in this book, given Crosbie's nature (so much shallower than Lily's), were she to marry him, he would soon act on the idea that she needs him far more than he does her. He would let her know it: he would not appreciate her since she did not value herself enough. Her mother loathes him far more than Lily and writes what one would think would make him cease (Ch 23). It does not.
Thomas's illustration of "The Last Denial" (when Lily Dale refuses Johnny Eames for the final time).
There is another parallel with Crawley: Lily’s pride is as strong as his. We see in London that she would have had to endure a life of isolation with Crosbie, who is not accepted by any of her friends. In all Trollope’s novels, pride is central to people’s mental health itself, so badly do we need to think well of ourselves. I see the reply that Lily gives to Eames's final proposal face-to-face, as the same one she would and does in effect (in the London scenes of the book) give to Crosbie: “I will not have myself planted out in the middle, for people to look at. What there is left would die soon” (Chapter 77).
The later parts of the Last Chronicle which concern Lily (Chs. 45, 52, 76 and following) are there to show us how or why Lily’s comes to choose an unmarried life. She goes to pieces when she is directly confronted by Crosbie in front of all the others. She rejects Emily Dunstable's notions of what marriage is (she is not keen on the Bernards of her world), and denies that married women have “the best of it” (Ch. 77). Mrs Thorne (formerly Miss Dunstable) accuses Lily of allowing “a horrid morbid sentiment” to “destroy her life” (Ch. 59). Trollope's narrator, whom many people tell us is not Trollope, insists that Lily loves Eames, and that she was near saying yes until knowledge of Eames’s affair with yet another woman, and lying notes to this woman, turned her off him once again. But this narrator also admits that Eames's refusal to give up shows Eames's pride: Eames is also driven to produce some symbol of his prowess (even if it is only hours on a train without sleep). Our narrator implies that Eames wants to show others he is the preferred hero. Granted, it is not Eames’s strategy to confront Lily with the assumption she must marry to have a legitimate life, but he sends Mrs Arabin who makes just this point: Lily must open up to another man, compromise. But Lily sees from Eames's “toying” words that here is another person she cannot trust. My point is the book takes seriously Lily’s shattered state.
Trollope's brilliant metaphor for Lily is the “shattered tree” (Ch. 77). Lily Dale is the closest Trollope ever comes to depicting for us a respectable girl who has been sexually “shipwrecked” (another word the narrator and Lily use of her). The buried image is of wood, wrecked, shattered. Once you axe the wood’s fibers, it is so much weaker. It could be that Johnny will be kind, generous, and mostly loyal, but that does not mean she will be able to respond to what he is. She cannot be what he wants.
In my blog I wrote that when I was maimed as a teenager by sexual encounters and abuse, I was told I should not have been, and that there was something wrong with me. I was told to get over it. Mrs Thorne is of the same opinion. Sometimes it is implied in ordinary life that the admirable person is the one who just emerges the stronger. In a conversation I once had with my father, he presented as an explanatory image (in sympathy with what I felt then and still can re-imagine now) a piece of wood, originally strong and fine — but then someone took a big axe to it, and struck hard, and the wood was never the same again, becoming immeasurably shaky, un-sturdy. To switch from these metaphors to people, sometimes such a person needs to take care of herself differently from others, to keep herself intact. That can be a contemporary lesson this book suggests, and is (I would maintain) unusually empathetically feminist.
Many more modern readers could at least sympathize more if Lily were to go traveling, write for the newspapers, have a vocation. But here was Trollope's limitation as a feminist. He is profoundly against regarding women as having value individually. They must be wives and want to be mothers to be seen as useful and respectable and whole. So he will not permit Lily to travel or have a vocation or even get a job. In Trollope’s fiction Lily Dale can only vanish to the peace and security of the kind uncle, mother and small house.
But is the romance of Major Grantley and Grace Crawley hopelessly past its sell-by date? Major Grantley insists on (so his parents see it) shaming them because he wants, as his second wife, the daughter of the impoverished and indicted Crawley. Major Grantley repeats that he values, esteems and loves Grace, and no one has the right to interfere with such a central life choice. The modernity in this story that matters is not that wealthy parents have ever prevented, and probably still do what they can to prevent, even an adult child from marrying "down." Major Grantley is a widower just under 30 with a daughter whom Grace has shown herself capable of caring for and loving. So my argument is that the particularly contemporary and ironic take in this upper-class Victorian story derives from the crux that almost immediately comes up as the story unfolds (Chapters 2-3).
Grantley’s father, the Archdeacon, had persuaded his son to give up a good income in the military in order to live the life of a gentleman of leisure near his parents. Now he is heavily dependent on that father to carry on such a life, and the father says he will take back this “allowance” if the Major marries Grace. Trollope's narrator and even the Major empathize with Grantley’s parents’ idea they have the right to pressure even a fully adult son not to lower his status in the world by his life choices, lest he seem to lower theirs. I suggest that Trollope can today be taken as showing, and meaning us to see, how dangerous it is to give up one’s monetary independence based on promises that come without signed contracts. There is a suggestive disquiet about the limits of family bonds.
Two stills from the TV mini-series of Joanna Trollope's The Rector's Wife (1994). Left: Anna Lindsay Duncan as Anna Bouverie, the Rector's wife, waiting for her daughter at a bus stop. Right: Jonathon Coy as Peter Bouverie, the troubled Rector.
Now I come to Joanna Trollope. Although this present-day novelist denies having had the earlier Trollope in mind when writing either her Caroline Harvey series, or the later books under her own name, there are certain obvious references. The very title of her Parson Harding's Daughter (1979), is an example. The whole of The Rector's Wife seems to me to be the story of the Crawleys transposed to a contemporary setting. Here she creates a closely analogous married couple with troubled lives: the Rev Peter Bouverie, a highly intelligent and well-meaning but underpaid, disrespected, and therefore humiliated, proud, inwardly raging cleric, and his (up to this point) selfless, equally intelligent, compliant, overworked and totally unpaid wife, Anna Bouverie. Change the vowel sounds there and you have Emma Bovary. Only Anna does not seek romance or a lover; she seeks a job that pays enough to make her independent. This monetary independence gives her what she feels is the right to make an independent choice and put her daughter in a better school that she can thrive in – albeit Peter does not approve because it is Catholic, and his salary does not cover it.
Striking moments bring the Bouverie and Crawley stories together. Anna is accused of choosing to be a clerk in a supermarket to reveal to the world that the church establishment is refusing to pay her husband adequately, and exploiting and preying on his silenced loyal family. We follow Peter as he becomes more and more rigid, more destructive of his own marriage, and as he demands his own way and obedience to his will. Joanna Trollope’s vicar behaves in ways that are particular to depressed people: he sits and stares at space; he forgets that he has been replaced and begins to write a sermon. He finally takes the extraordinary step of quitting Anna’s job on her behalf, and challenges her to show the world he did it without her permission. When he is told that she is now sexually unfaithful too (the charge is mistaken), he becomes traumatized. So much so that during a reckless car drive taken immediately after being told, he possibly wills his own death when his car rams into a bus. There are moments in the Last Chronicle where Trollope’s Josiah Crawley may be accused of courting death.
To my mind, the way in which Anna's behavior is discussed in the context of her women friends’ choices and their various fates constitutes a feminist reaction to (especially) Mary Crawley. Joanna Trollope has her heroine say explicitly that she will no longer be defined and controlled in her behavior by an imprisoning category, "The Rector's wife" — Anna Bouverie says this to Isabel Thomson, a deacon and her supposed friend. In the TV mini-series based on the novel, the screenwriter Hugh Whitemore has Lindsay Duncan, who plays Anna, repeat this line in a realization of just this powerful scene. But Joanna Trollope's novel can be related to all three of Trollope's heroines in The Last Chronicle. The point of this more recent work is, more generally, that Anna refuses to spend her time supporting a male institution with work no man would do, following a man around, with no salary of her own — as Marjorie Richardson, the Colonel's wife, says to her. In other words, unlike Crawley's wife and daughter, and to an extent Lily Dale (although Lily does have an allowance left to her by her uncle), she refuses to be defrauded of a life of her own.
I have omitted much that is enjoyable and beautifully done in The Last Chronicle: the slow gradual pace, as the pairs and trios of chapters unfold, and reach emotional climaxes consonant with the action; its very carefully planned patterning of instalments, with contrast and comparison, and interwoven themes. There are a host of minor characters, all well-observed. I call attention to the pragmatic philosophy of that wonderful sleuth, Mr Toogood – his unbiased eye to the pragmatic (where did this check come from?) saved the Crawleys and his selfless behavior derived from his goodness. The ironic allegorical name is pitch perfect. There are the wonderfully realized believable types: Dr Temple, man of business as clergyman; Mark Robarts, now grown older, ever the partisan. I agree with Stephen Wall that Mr Harding’s visits to his cello are among the most moving passages Trollope ever wrote:
But he would ... gaze upon the thing he loved, and he would pass his fingers among the broad strings, and ever and anon he would produce from one of them, a low, melancholy almost unearthly sound. And then he would pause, never daring to produce two such notes in succession — one close upon the other. They were the ghosts of the melody of days long past. He imagined that his visits were unsuspected .. but the voice of the violoncello had been recognised by the servants, and by his daughter, and when that low wail was heard through the house — like the last dying note of a dirge — they would all know that Mr Harding was visiting his old friend. [“Near the Close,” Ch. 49]
It is not useful to remain too uncritical. I have not gone into the London chapters because I feel they are a failure: too artificial and hostile to unmoored women. A couple of people in the group reading felt there was too much repetition from or dependence upon the earlier Barsetshire novels. What had been done with such freshness and subtlety in the love stories of The Small House was here reduced — Eames and Lily were a bit tiresome. The thick ethnographic landscape of the Framley Parsonage world had become too neat. Miss Dunstable as Mrs Thorne was too complacent. But not Lady Lufton, who in her generous-hearted and manipulative charity to Mrs Crawley springs to complex life once again. I loved her at any rate. A rare strong good woman, still (however disguised) in charge, guardedly yet full-heartedly, intelligent, generous, cleverly forceful, and acting independently.
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Moody, Ellen. “The Last Chronicle of Barset: Josiah Crawley, Trollope’s JeanValjean; and Lily Dale, the Shattered Tree.” Ellen and Jim have a Blog, Two. May 5, 2020. Online: https://ellenandjim.wordpress.com/2020/05/05/the-last-chronicle-of-barset-josiah-crawley-trollopes-jean-valjeanandlilydaletheshatteredtree/
_____. “Joanna Trollope’s The Rector’s Wife: Joanna Trollope’s Recreation of Trollope’s Rev and Mrs Crawley, A Disconcerting Liberation.” Reveries under the Sign of Austen, Two. June 13, 2020. Online: https://reveriesunderthesignofausten.wordpress.com/2020/06/13/therectorswife-joanna-trollopes-re-creation-of-rev-mrs-crawley-a-disconcerting-liberation/
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_____. Framley Parsonage. Ed., introd., notes by Katherine Mullin and Frances O’Gorman. New York: Oxford Uuniversity Press, 2014.
_____. The Last Chronicle of Barset. Ed., introd., notes by Sophie Gilmartin. New York: Penguin, 2002.
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Created 18 July 2020