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September 2017

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I am in a classics reading group, which during 2016 I mostly failed to show up for, excepting January's David Copperfield (1850) and December's The Warden (1855).

You might therefore assume I give special precedence to British books written during the 1850s, though I do not know that to be the case.

The only Trollope I had ever read before was Barchester Towers (1857), in second or third year uni. It is, of course, the sequel to The Warden, but I'd never read that. I don't know why.

Reading choices in early university seem in retrospect both more random and more joyful. I read a book on Provencal poetry, for example, and acquired a permanent affection for Langue d'oc, though I followed up on that in no way. Maybe my reading the book had something to do with Pound? I don't think so, though. I hadn't heard of a lot of big names at seventeen through nineteen, though I wanted to think I was literary.

All I remembered about Barchester Towers until this re-read, so many years later, was Eleanor's shrinking widow's cap and her stomping her "little foot" at one point, which had startled me at the time, as until then I had been assuming she was a fully developed female character.

I mean, Trollope is pants at writing women -- let's just agree on that now. Or not quite at writing them, but at writing about them, in philosophizing about their "hearts", and through making ghastly jokes about their life ambitions. This is an annoyance in The Warden, but it really reads almost as a provocation in Barchester Towers.

We're now, you will gather, reading Barchester Towers for the classics group. I think I am a better reader now than I was the first time through, that I understand more of what's happening and how this works according to the rules of its genre and time, but that makes me wonder what the hell I made of this book all those years ago. It is, in many ways a very silly book -- often deliberately so -- yet I can't think that I caught all the rather cumbersome low-church/high-church humour then (I'm sure I don't catch it all now).

Plotwise, BT reworks a number of ideas from The Warden, including the suitor who reverses his political position for love, though enacted this time in the sleazy person of Mr. Slope and not the righteous (now deceased) Dr. Bold. Yet even the repellent Mr. Slope is not completely without pathos -- that love scene with the signora! I almost felt sorry for him.

In reading The Warden, I found myself identifying with Dr. Harding -- a man in a position of moderate privilege and comfort who is forced to wrestle with his own conscience about that privilege, and who attempts to make an ethical choice which nevertheless is imperfect and not all that effectual. I liked The Warden quite a lot -- it had some slow passages, but I thought its picture of human emotions well-drawn, and I liked (spoilers, I guess) the way no one got what they wanted.

In Barchester Towers, I feel a twinge at Mr. Arabin's reassessment of his youth's stubbornly deliberate unworldliness:

He had, as it were, proclaimed himself to be indifferent to promotion, and those who chiefly admired his talents, and would mainly have exerted themselves to secure to them their deserved reward, had taken him at his word. And now, it the truth must out, he felt himself disappointed--disappointed not by them but by himself. The day-dream of his youth was over, and at the age of forty he felt that he was not fit to work in the spirit of an apostle. (197)

But I was never myself in line for any livings in Barchester, so.

Enough of Trollope for now, I think. I've a drawing date with a friend down the road. This three-week cold has left me short of puff, but I should just about be able to make it a block and a half.


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