Trollope’s Warden and the Problem of Medievalism

Rev. Stephen Harding, the warden of Hiram’s Hospital, is a gentle and humble man. He wants nothing more than to continue as precentor of the local cathedral in Barchester, leading the liturgy and filling the church with his voice, within his comfortable position as a beneficed clergyman at the hospital. There he has a comfortable house, his loving younger daughter, twelve bedesmen as neighbors, and £800 annually.

That is the premise of Anthony Trollope’s 1855 novel, The Warden. I recently finished it as part of a Victorian reading list and thought we would look at it together today.

That £800 that enables the comfortable middle class lifestyle that Harding enjoys becomes the central problem in the novel. Coming at about 46,824 modern pounds or 60,880 modern dollars, the benefice is a very generous preferment from the bishop for a clergyman. This time mid-century, there was conflict over beneficed clergymen who received preferments of this nature without perhaps direct ministry. Rather than a priest being a parson who directly served a flock, he may be a pluralist (meaning that he had more than one parish or appointment that came with a living) who was also a nonresident (meaning that he hired a poorer priest to fulfill pastoral duties). Unlike Stanhope, who holds multiple livings and resides in Italy, Harding may not seem as clear an example of these abuses, but he still becomes caught up in the conflict between comfortable high churchmen and ecclesiastical reformers.


Septimus Harding in BBC’s Barchester Chronicles

In his case, the question revolves around how the circumstances of a medieval will should be carried out in the Victorian present. Hiram’s Hospital was founded in 1434 as a place for elderly wool carders who could no longer make a living to live out their lives. They were allotted a specific income and their needs were to be met. Throughout the years, that allotment had to remain constant while the living of the warden fluctuated. By the Victorian era, the estate has grown to the point where the warden no longer had to go without but could receive a higher living for merely filling the position. The problem in this is that the bedesmen have the same income centuries later and do not share in the increased profits of the hospital.

This discrepancy comes to the attention of a young reformer, John Bold, who engages a suit on behalf of the bedesmen. His expressed purpose is to discover exactly what the will requires. He employs a lawyer who speaks with the bedesmen and encourages them to sign a petition to the bishop so that they may receive their entitled £100 a year instead of the warden receiving £800.

To further complicate matters, John Bold is in love with Harding’s daughter, Eleanor.

This claim is countered by the archdeacon and son-in-law of Harding, Dr. Grantley, a zealous high churchman who sees any attack on preferments or benefices as an attack on the dignity of the Church of England. He also employs a lawyer, the highest in the land, with the argument that the bedesmen receive a comfortable living and see all their needs supplied. That lawyer, with the wonderful name of Abraham Haphazard, finds only that the warden is but a servant and cannot be the target of such a suit.

In the end, the warden comes to doubt his own entitlement to the living of £800 and worries that he has taken from the poor what was not his. He is also worn down by the attacks of the press that present him as a greedy sinecure. His final decision is both an expression of his humble nature and a turn from his conflict-adverse personality.

At the heart of the conflict is the question of how the medieval past relates to the present.

Hiram’s Hospital is a medieval and Catholic institution continuing in the Victorian and Anglican present. It’s founding was closer to the death of Chaucer than the birth of Shakespeare. The economy has changed. Even the pronunciation of English has changed. A central question of the novel is if the running of the hospital should change too. The lawyer, Haphazard avoids deciding whether or not the will of Hiram’s Hospital is correctly carried out by instead proposing that “None of such institutions are…nor can they be; the altered circumstances in which we live do not admit of it.”

As a high churchman himself, it would seem that Trollope would be on the side of Dr. Grantley, thundering for the privileges of the priesthood. But his take on the relationship between past and present seems a little more slippery than that. Grantley, for one, is not all that sympathetically painted in the story. The narrator even goes so far as to suggest in the end that the nature of the story lead to Grantley’s more sympathetic details being left out.

Instead, the reader seems drawn to relate to Harding and respect his final decision concerning his position as warden.

Altogether, Trollope has an ambivalent relationship with medievalism.

On one end, there is the dignity of the Church of England, with its liturgy, tradition, and priesthood. Like a J. F. Powers story, part of the delight of a Trollope novel involves some kindly interest in priests and religious rather than a hatred for all things ecclesiastical. And how could someone who so lovingly crafted the character of Harding not love sacred music?

On the other hand, part of the humor of The Warden is the absurdity of looking backward. The architecture of Hiram’s Hospital is so old that it’s trendy again and “shows the correct taste with which the ecclesiastical architects of those days were imbued.” But I’m sure arch-hipster Grantley liked Gothic architecture before it was cool.

Even the backward-looking medievalism of the Pre-Raphaelites doesn’t escape Trollope’s wit:

Our modern artists, whom we style Prae-Raffaellites, have delighted to go back, not only to the finish and peculiar manner, but also to the subjects of the early painters. It is impossible to give them too much praise for the elaborate perseverance with which they have equalled the minute perfections of the masters from whom they take their inspiration…It is, however, singular into what faults they fall as regards their subjects: they are not quite content to take the old stock groups—a Sebastian with his arrows a Lucia with her eyes in a dish, a Lorenzo with a gridiron, or the virgin with two children. But they are anything but happy in their change. As a rule, no figure should be drawn in a position which it is impossible to suppose any figure should maintain. The patient endurance of St. Sebastian, the wild ecstacy of St. John in the Wilderness, the maternal love of the virgin, are feelings naturally portrayed by a fixed posture; but the lady with the stiff back and bent neck, who looks at her flower, and is still looking from hour to hour, gives us an idea of pain without grace, and abstraction without cause.

The painting that Trollope satirizes here is Charles Collins’s “Convent Thoughts.”


It seems that Trollope is concerned with how looking backward can be as absurd as “abstraction without cause.”

I guess not everyone can combine the “dignity of an ancient saint with the sleekness of a modern bishop” so well as Dr. Grantley…

But there is a way that these two positions can be paradoxically reconciled. The parish church of the archdeacon, Plumstead Episcopi, seems to be symbolic of this possibility as a most idiosyncratic building:

Few parish churches in England are in better repair, or better worth keeping so, that that at Plumstead Episcopi; and yet it is built in a faulty style: the body of the church is low—so low, that the nearly flat leaden roof would be visible from the churchyard, were it not for the carved parapet with which it is surrounded. It is cruciform, though the transepts are irregular, one being larger than the other; and the tower is much too high in proportion to the church: but the colour of the building is perfect; it is that rich yellow grey which one finds nowhere but in the south and west of England, and which is so strong a characteristic of most of our old houses of Tudor architecture. The stone work also is beautiful; the mullions of the windows and the thick tracery of the gothic workmanship is as rich as fancy can desire; and though in gazing on such a structure, one knows by rule that the old priests who built it, built it wrong, one cannot bring oneself to wich that they should have made it other than it is

I think this church might be the heart of Trollope’s peculiar medievalism. The past is faulty, but perhaps from Trollope’s perspective, we wouldn’t have it any other way. In contrast to the barely veiled satire of Charles Dickens in Mr. Sentiment, Trollope is not a reformer, but then again he is not a believer in the myth of decline promoted by Thomas Carlyle’s Dr. Pessimist Anticant. For Trollope, “no good is unalloyed.”

Okay, maybe there is one unalloyed good in Trollope’s world: coffee with a good book. As Trollope puts it, “What on earth could be more luxurious than a sofa, a book, and a cup of coffee?”

alan-rickman-1And apparently there was something called a cigar divan in 1850’s London that put all of this together. You go in and it’s a cigar shop. Go up to the counter and give the man a shilling and you’ll get yourself a cigar and a ticket. Take that ticket upstairs and get yourself a coffee. There you can have your cigar and your coffee. Wonderful!

If you want to learn more about Trollope, check out the Trollope Society or their page on The Warden.

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