Books: Barchester Towers

I picked up this audiobook some time ago and was intrigued by what I read on the back cover about it. But it said it was a sequel, so I figured I ought to read the first book first to properly enjoy it. And the library didn’t have the first book on CDs.

A few weeks ago, though, I was chatting with my friend who works at the library (and leads our monthly book club), and she was suggesting books on CD I might enjoy. One she suggested was Barchester Towers, and she assured me that it didn’t matter whether I had read the first book, and that this one was better anyway.

I had never read anything by Anthony Trollope before, and I had no idea until after finishing Barchester Towers that a lot of people have been reading it this year, it being the 200th anniversary of his birth. I think I had some idea that Trollope was a nineteenth century novelist, but as I did not remember having read anything by him in an 11th grade survey of British literature, I did not think of him as someone of great literary merit.

There are those, of course, who would say that his works do not, in fact, have much literary merit. This article explores some of the reasons both his contemporaries and people today have disdained his novels.

I’m not prepared to argue to whether Barchester Towers is a great work of English literature. I just know that I enjoyed it thoroughly. I like Trollope’s style, even his occasional departures from the story itself to talk to the reader about how he is telling the story. If you had described the overall plot to me I might not have thought it sounded very interesting, but the way Trollope tells the story captivated me.

I admit it helps that I happen to enjoy reading about churches and people associated with churches. Even in this case, where little attention is given to matters of faith (though there is some interesting though fairly brief discussion of high church versus low church), that aspect of the setting and characters made the book more interesting for me.

I did find myself wishing for a glossary to help me understand the terms referring to what seems like a great number of different clerical posts within a single city and its environs. I know what a bishop is, and a vicar, and I have some idea of an archdeacon. Warden I can guess at, given the context provided in the novel, and likewise curate.

But precentor? Prebendary? Minor canon? Not to mention dean, who plays a significant role in the plot but I have no idea what role he plays in the church.

Still, the context of church services and church leadership is a familiar one to me, and because of that the unfamiliar terms didn’t bother me, they just piqued my curiosity. In a similar manner, I imagine a sports enthusiast would feel that way about unfamiliar terms in one of the less well-known sports, while I would find even stories about the most familiar sports full of terms and concepts foreign to me.

Primarily, though, the book is not about church but about people and their relationships with one another. Church is simply the context where people vie for position and power, as in other novels it might happen in politics, sports, the military, or business.

And there are also family relationships – some good relationships, most not so good. Even those with mostly good relationships deal with misunderstandings, often due to unwillingness to be open about what is bothering them. The characters in this novel are constrained by considerations of what is “proper.” People today seems to feel far less constrained by that, but still seem often to muddle through misunderstandings and hurt feelings in very similar ways.

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