Saying goodbye is difficult. When I finished The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope (four years after picking up The Warden, the first in Trollope’s delightful series), it was with tears streaming down my face and the sense that I was parting from dear old friends. But the beautiful thing about books is that I can always revisit these friends, as long as they remain on my shelves (which they will do – forever).
Much has changed since we were first introduced to the cathedral town of Barchester in The Warden. Children have grown to adulthood (or been wordlessly killed off, in the case of two of the Grantly offspring), ecumenical battles have been waged, marriages both good and bad have been made, and, as is only natural with the passing of time, our beloved central characters have aged. Mr Harding, surely the sweetest and most beloved of all Trollope’s creations, is slowly begininning to drift out of this life. The Grantlys are rejoicing in the worldly success of their children, though youngest son Henry, now a widower, is less certain of his path than his siblings. In Allington, Lily Dale, still in her early twenties, is settling down to a life of pleasant spinsterhood while in London Johnny Eames is progressing steadily at work and, when he’s not too busy, still pining after Lily. And, at the bishop’s palace, a quiet revolution is being to take shape.
At the heart of the story is the very Trollope-esque mystery of Mr Crawley and the stolen cheque. Mr Crawley, the morally uptight and perpetually cheerless perpetual curate of Hogglestock, stands accussed of stealing a cheque. Never a particularly attentive man, he can’t adequately explain how the cheque came to be in his possession. He thought it came from Dean Arabin, but Arabin thought not. Already poor and relatively friendless, Crawley settles in to enjoy his martyrdom and alienate those friends who do try to assist him in his time of need.
And those friends are legion, though they are in truth really the friends of his long-suffering wife and eldest daughter, Grace. The Luftons and the Robarts at Framley try to help, as do Lily and Mrs Dale, and various Grantlys – particularly Henry, who is in love with Grace Crawley. But Crawley is a stubborn man and is determined to suffer until his innocence is proved. Meanwhile, he goes a little mad.
With such a father, I can forgive a great deal in Grace Crawley. She is perhaps the dullest Trollope heroines I’ve yet to come across – certainly the dullest in this series. She is so sweet and good and morally upright that she refuses to marry the man she loves, Henry Grantly, as long as her father stands accused. Her reasoning is peculiarly Victorian: she will not taint her love and his illustrious family with her father’s shame. And, of course, she is beautiful and graceful and a true lady, etc, etc. When the archdeacon finally meets Grace, he quite falls in love with her and is moved to tears by her plight (a situation easily foreseen by Mrs Grantly, who knows her husband’s sentimental heart). A fine pair.
I can’t bring myself to like Grace. Trollope’s other heroines are equally good and moral but they have a bit more fun and fight in them. Grace is a sad creature with no discernable sense of humour. She’ll make Henry Grantly a lovely wife but a dull one – which is fine as he seems quite dull too, as do his two surviving siblings. None of the archdeacon’s passion or Mrs Grantly’s well-concealed cunning seem to have been passed down to the next generation. As they are two of my favourite characters – indeed, the archdeacon is probably my favourite of all Barsetshire residents – this is a sad thing indeed.
All the youthful female spirit and wit (I say youthful since the elder generation – such as Mrs Proudie and Mrs Grantly – has never for a moment been lacking) was saved for that determined spinster, Lily Dale. I love Lily. I was enchanted and beguiled by her when I read The Small House at Allington but Trollope gives us even more to love about her here. Further encounters with both Crosbie and Johnny Eames leave her determined to remain an old maid – a choice I would probably also make if my only choice were between those two. Crosbie is now a poor widower, losing his hair, with none of the brilliancy that attracted Lily before. Johnny continues to grow into a promising man and there are times when Lily does seem tempted. And Trollope certainly thinks she should be:
My old friend John was certainly no hero – was very unheroic in many phases of his life; but then, if all the girls are to wait for heroes, I fear that the difficulties in way of matrimonial arrangmenets, great as they are at present, will be very seriously enhanced. Johnny was not ecstatic, nor heroic, nor transcendental, nor very beautiful in his manliness; he was not a man to break his heart for love or to have his story written in an epic; but he was an affectionate, kindly, honest young man; and I think most girls might have done worse than take him.
Much as I love Johnny, I can’t think he would make Lily a good – or constant – husband. He is always falling prey to some artful female, always too happy to neglect his duties, always, in short, thinking of himself and the present moment. No, as a husband for Lily he will not do and so the author sentences them both to eternal singledom. Something I suspect they will both excel at. They are friendly, selfish creatures, much loved by others. They shall never lack for friends and never need to think of anyone else.
Johnny remains a touching figure and clearly one Trollope identified with. He is, Trollope points out to us early on, much improved from his earlier days:
With his own mother and sister, John Eames was in these days quite a hero. He was a hero with them now, because in his early boyish days there had been so little about him that was heroic.
He has worked his way up in the world, inherited a little money, and made a few more influential friends. He has a gift for making friends and, by instantly and carelessly sharing his heart and innermost thoughts with them, turning them into his devoted supporters. Those who know him a little better would wish him to work harder and with less complaints – both in matters of commerce and the heart. He shares his feelings and his dreams with everyone he meets – endearing, no doubt, but concerning if you are Lily Dale and constantly being petitioned on his behalf by near strangers. He still keeps less respectable company in town, with no true friends to reign him in and steer him in less dangerous directions (though Conway Dalrymple tries). Trollope, better than almost any writer I’ve found, understands how lonely and scary it is to be in your twenties and starting a career, hating the dull, grinding work, wanting to move up but not really wanting to expend the necessary effort. Any distraction is welcome and any chance to be heroic should be seized. God bless Johnny Eames for seizing what adventures come his way.
There are two major deaths in The Last Chronicle of Barset: the entirely expected passing of Mr Harding, after a long and satisfying life, and the unexpected death of Mrs Proudie, the bishop’s reviled wife. Mrs Proudie’s death comes as a shocking blow to her husband, who had only just begin tto assert himself after decades under the rule of that virago. Dr Proudie has always been a pitiable character but never moreso than here.
It was the peaceful departure of good, sweet Mr Harding that left me wiping away tears as I finished the novel. The archdeacon’s tribute to his father-in-law was what did it:
“I seem to have known him all my life,” said the archdeacon. “I have known him ever since I left college; and I have known him as one man seldom knows another. There is nothing he has done – as I believe nothing that he has thought – with which I have not been cognisant. I feel sure that he never had an impure fancy in his mind, or a faulty wish in his heart. His tenderness has surpassed the tenderness of woman; and yet, when occassion came for showing it, he had all the spirit of a hero…The fact is, he was never wrong. He couldn’t go wrong. He lacked guile, and he feared God – and a man who does both will never go far astray. I don’t think he coveted aught in his life – except a new case for his violincello and somebody to listen to him when he played it.”
I cried less for Mr Harding – so certain that he is going to his reward – than for the archdeacon. They never truly understood one another but they were family, friends and allies for so many years. My dear archdeacon will miss him.
In the end, this was not my favourite Barsetshire book; The Small House at Allington retains that honour. A dull romance and over-long plot about the stolen cheque detracted from the really excellent elements: the return of Lily Dale and Johnny Eames, the archdeacon’s emotional outbursts over any number of things, and the beautifully touching depiction of Mr Harding’s final days. Yes, not the best book in the series but still a wonderful conclusion to an absolutely absorbing saga.