Anthony Trollope’s lengthy “Chronicles of Barsetshire,” demand, and reward, patience. They also seem best suited for people with the luxury of sunny afternoons lounging on Victorian settees; privileged people, would go the modern accusation. Maybe that’s not fair: they’re not entirely escapist entertainment. In its time, a novel like “Barchester Towers” must have had some gentle venom in its satire of internecine warfare between the nearly-Papist pageantry of old-school High Churchers and the fashionable febrility of then-new-school Evangelicals. But if the above sentence left you nonplussed don’t feel bad: it just means you were born sometime after the 1880s, and your upbringing took place in a location that didn’t end with the suffix of -Shire or -Hampton.It’s not that a novel like “Barchester Towers” is hopelessly old-fashioned, or unentertaining: it’s that it’s hard to picture anyone entering its parochial world of low-stakes gossip unbidden, unless they’re period nostalgists (it’s fine: as long as the BBC exports Anglophilia, there will be plenty of us.)
When Death comes for the Bishop of Barchester , a vacancy is opened, and mild impoliteness rages between the candidates: presumptive heir Archdeacon Grantly and out-of-towner Bishop Proudie. Bishop Proudie’s testicles are being squeezed and tugged (in different directions) by the odious Mrs. Proudie and the unctuous Obadiah Slope. Slope, the book’s best character, is plotting to marry (a.k.a. acquire the fortune of) the unwitting, recently widowed Eleanor Bold, Grantly’s sister-in-law. Then things get (very mildly) complicated when Prebendary Stanhope arrives in town with a dissolute son, Bertie, and a daughter, Madeline Neroni (the book’s second best character) whose licentious, scandalous past involves marriage to an abusive Continental Eyetalian AND, if you were doubting as to the deformity of her character, she also LIMPS. Slope begins to flirt with Neroni, Bertie flirts with Eleanor. Will Eleanor fall for sloppy Slope or burn-our Bertie? We might have wondered for three volumes, except that Trollope’s intrusive narrator comes in, in a suspense-killing moment of proto-post-modernism, to let us known Eleanor’s much too pure to see herself compromised this way and none of these things will happen.
Alan Rickman, it should be mentioned, played the conniving Mr. Slope in a BBC adaptation of “The Warden” and “Barchester Towers”; perioxploitation mastermind Julian “Downton Abbey” Fellowes is working on a TV version of “Doctor Thorne,” book 3 in the “Barsetshire Chronicles.”