Escape from Barsetshire

October 18th, 2011

While recovering from a cold over the weekend, I finally finished The Last Chronicle of Barset. I nearly shouted for joy as I turned the final page. Not that I didn’t enjoy my Trollopian sojourn this year, but really, enough is enough. I am sure I shall eventually tackle the Pallisers, and I even have a copy of The Way We Live Now lurking on my shelf. For now though, I’ve had my fill.

Like Hardy’s Wessex, Barset has become a real county to me. I am conversant with its geography, topography, politics, and social moires. I know which families I’d be likely to get on with, and which invitations I’d do better to decline. I am familiar with everybody’s strengths and failings, and what they like to drink after a big dinner. And you can bet I took lots of notes, culling quotations in support of various topics I’ve been researching. I’d share some with you, but I fear all the good ones are still in the little notebook of “gleanings” that I keep on my night table, waiting to be transcribed.

Map of Barsetshire
Map of Barsetshire, courtesy of The Trollope Society.

For me, Trollope is alternately enthralling and deadly dull. The action often proceeds like a radio soap opera, inching along painfully toward an obvious conclusion. But for chapters at a time, he hits a kind of a rhythm and you are borne along most pleasantly on a rush of clever dialogue, intriguing thought, and perfectly believable emotion.

My favorite part of the Chronicles of Barsetshire was the glimpse they offered into clergical doings. I’m fascinated by the minutiae of religious doctrines and requirements in the mid-19th century. The dread of Roman Catholics is amusing, as is the mistrust of Jews, and curiosity about the mysterious “Musulmen”  and “Hindoos.” But I particularly love the partisanship within the Church of England (or similar American sects). It seems silly to quibble over such tiny details, but I suppose it was all quite serious to them at the time — particularly as their cherished hope of heavenly reunion with departed loved ones depended on getting it right!

As is my wont, I couldn’t help applying Trollope to the world I see around me in 2011. I began to imagine how he might write about the scandal rocking the Catholic Church in America today — particularly as the news reports last week announced the first bishop to stand trial. It’s wicked I know, but somehow I can’t stop myself from laughing at the seedy priests and ineffectual bishops that Trollope would have written into the story. Alas, even were he alive today, I fear Trollope wouldn’t touch it with the proverbial ten-foot pole. It would be left to sharper pens, a la Dickens or Fielding, though they might not do it so much justice. Now Mark Twain might have a shot. Or perhaps Melville?

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