I have, once again, managed to make it to fifty books fairly early in the year, and I can think of no more fitting way to bring up the half-century (a metaphorical drive back over the bowler’s head for six) than with the final instalment of Anthony Trollope’s Barchester series, The Last Chronicle of Barset. The sixth of the Barchester novels, it brings together many of the characters from the first five from all over Barset to parade before the reader one last time, creating new ties between old friends (and enemies) and tying up a few loose ends before allowing the citizens of Barset to fade into the sunset.
Barset is a small place, and it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that people like Lily Dale (the heroine of The Small House at Allington) and Archdeacon Grantly (one of the original ‘cast members’ from The Warden) should find their paths crossing; however, through a plot which manages to inflame interest and imagination across the county, Trollope manages to tie his favourite characters together even more tightly than this. In doing so, he reintroduces us to some old friends, and it is to his credit that most of these old friends have not stayed the same but have developed since we last met them, some for the better, some for the worse. And the whole kerfuffle all hangs on a little cheque for twenty pounds.
The story revolves around the Reverend Josiah Crawley, a supporting character in Framley Parsonage who takes centre stage this time, and the mystery of the aforementioned cheque, which he has used to pay his butcher’s bill. When the owner of the cheque charges him with unlawful possession of the money, Crawley is forced to explain where he got it; otherwise, he will be in trouble with the authorities (both civil and ecclesiastical). The trouble is that he doesn’t know…
The reason for this is that Crawley is an eccentric, a poor curate from the fire and brimstone days, who lives in poverty alleviated by his unwavering belief in his religion. Driven half to madness in spite of (or partly because of) his intellect, his mastery of Greek and Latin, and his desire to do his best for the souls of his parishioners, he is simply unable to account for his possession of the cheque. However, the more he begins to doubt his sanity, and his fitness for the role he carries out, the more our old friends rally round him, refusing to believe that such a pillar of the church could commit petty larceny. As things get blacker and blacker for Crawley, such Barchester luminaries as John Eames, Lady Lufton and Mark Robarts do their best to help him out, in the process irritating the notoriously prickly Crawley even further.
The plot though is most definitely NOT the thing; this is all about the people and the place. For those who have read the whole series in order, it is a joy to meet our old friends again, and it is, perhaps, for this reason, that Trollope’s only minor failings occur. The scenes in London, where John Eames whiles his time away with Madalina Demolines, and where the minor plot involving an artist and his love affair unfolds, fail precisely because they mostly involve newly introduced characters who add nothing to the main theatre of events and for whom the reader feels very little. You can’t help but feel that Trollope would have been better advised to stay in Barchester a little more (despite these little excursions pointing to how life will go on after Barchester).
Of course, as always, the book contains some more unforgettable confrontational scenes. Crawley’s memorable audience with Bishop (and, naturally, Mrs.) Proudie at the palace ranks alongside other famous moments in the series, with Crawley triumphant and striding majestically through the country lanes back to his house. However, the truly moving scenes here are more pathetic than triumphant, and most of them involve our old friend, formerly The Warden, the Reverend Septimus Harding, one of the most angelic, lovingly-created characters in literature. I don’t want to give away some of the later events, but one passage sticks in the memory, where Mrs. Grantley accepts her daughter’s request not to invite the old man to stay as she (the daughter) is now too high in the world to associate with mere mortals like her grandfather. She calmly tells her husband:
‘Do not let us say anything more about it. Of course we cannot have everything. I am told the child does her duty in her sphere of life, and I suppose we ought to be contented.’ Then Mrs. Grantly went up to her own room, and there she cried. (Wordsworth Classics, 1994, p.21)
This final, subtly written sentence, stopped me dead in my tracks, and other, similarly subtle passages later in the book had me welling up with tears. For those who have gone the whole journey, this novel can be extremely emotional.
And so, after 712 pages of the final chapter in the history of England’s most famous fictional county, the author addresses the reader for the final time, summing up why he has been able to create a locale which fascinates twenty-first century readers as much as it did those who read the novels in instalments in the nineteenth century:
… to me Barset has been a real county, and its city a real city, and the spires and towers have been before my eyes, and the voices of the people are known to my ears, and the pavement of the city ways are familiar to my footsteps. (p.712)
It is this immersion in his fictional world which enables Trollope to create such an intriguing and enticing series of books, and it is not just the author who feels pangs of regret on leaving the English countryside behind (in Trollope’s case, to move on to writing more about London and Politics – in mine, to return to the Australian winter and my family). It’s with a heavy heart that I must say that this really was the last chronicle of Barset. However, as alluded to in the title to this post, it’s not really the end. Firstly, there’s always the Palliser series of novels (with guest appearances from certain of our Barset friends) to go on to (perhaps not this year though!); and, of course, in a few years’ time, I’ll be standing in front of my bookcase, eyes roaming casually over my collection, looking for the next book to scratch the ever-present reading itch, when The Warden will catch my eye…
And it all starts over again.