I have spent the last week in Barsetshire. I had been wanting to re-read The Last Chronicle for a while now, ever since I re-read Framley Parsonage. Once I realized that the TBR Double Dare means only new books, no re-reads, I had an extra incentive to fit it in this month. And then the whole time I was reading The Turn of the Screw, especially when I was trying to puzzle out one of Henry James' abstruse sentence constructions, I kept thinking of Trollope's easy flowing narration.
In his autobiography, Trollope wrote of The Last Chronicle of Barset: "Taking it as a whole, I regard this as the best novel I have written." It is certainly one of his most ambitious, bringing together a large cast of characters from the previous five novels in the series, as well as adding new ones. I count at least seven major plotlines, developed in alternating chapters, which intersect as characters become involved in the different stories and as the action shifts around Barsetshire and to London and back.
The central story involves Rev. Josiah Crawley and his family, who play an important part in Framley Parsonage. Mr. Crawley is the Perpetual Curate of Hogglestock, a poor parish encompassing the brick yards and industrial area of Hogglestock (future home of Angela Thirkell's Sam Adams). He is accused of stealing a £20 cheque from Lord Lufton's man of business. He cannot account for how he acquired the check, thinking that it came as a reluctantly-accepted gift from the Dean of Barchester, a friend of many years. He doesn't know how he got it, but he insists he did not steal it. Since he cashed the cheque, however, he is bound over for trial at the next assizes in Barchester. Mr. Crawley is a sympathetic character, a true shepherd to his rough flock, a tireless worker, clearly a man of honor and honesty. But he is also a repellent character at times, drowning in self-pity for his poverty, resenting others' success, and stubbornly refusing all assistance. He can be harsh to his long-suffering wife, who actually seems the more heroic character, and in some ways the stronger.
Mr. Crawley's predicament weighs heavily on his eldest daughter Grace, a teacher in nearby Silverbridge, in the second major plotline. It is common knowledge in Silverbridge that Major Henry Grantly has fallen in love with her, and she has also formed an attachment. Major Grantly is the son of the formidable Archdeacon Grantly of Plumstead, and also the grandson of Mr. Harding, the Warden of the first Barsetshire story. Though he is a widower with a small child, he is, in vulgar terms, a great catch for Grace in her Cinderella state. But though she does not mind her poverty, she does mind the thought that her father might be found guilty of theft. Believing him innocent, she still cannot bring alliance with a felon's family to the Grantlys. That is exactly the idea of the Archdeacon, who threatens to disinherit Henry if he marries Grace. Henry resents this interference, threatening in his turn to marry Grace and go live on a pittance at Pau in France.
While this family struggle is raging, war breaks out on another front. The Bishop of Barchester - or rather, the Bishop's wife Mrs. Proudie - declares that a thieving clergyman cannot retain his pulpit. She calls on Mr. Crawley to resign his curacy, planning to install one of her pet clergymen. In Barsetshire, of course, that alone is enough to make some people throw their support to Mr. Crawley. The battle between Mr. Crawley and Mrs. Proudie, with the miserable bishop caught in between, eventually draws in other clergy from around the diocese. Dean Arabin and his wife are unfortunately out of the country; many believe the Dean could solve the mystery of the cheque. Mr. Harding, Mrs. Arabin's father, lives with them at the Deanery; he is an elderly man whose health is beginning to fail. He is one of my favorite characters in all of Trollope, a lovely gentle man, and his story here is like himself, quiet and poignant.
I had forgotten that there are three other plots woven into this story, centered in London. One concerns Lily Dale, the heroine of The Small House at Allington, and my least-favorite character in all of Trollope. Having been jilted by her first love, she resolves never to marry, because she will never again love with the first love of a woman's heart - very noble but to my mind very silly. In The Last Chronicle, she is being pressured to marry an old friend, John Eames, who is also cousin to Mrs. Crawley. Johnny, while faithfully in love with Lily, is like many young men in Trollope also a flirt. He becomes involved with the mysterious Madelina Demolines. His friend Conway Dalrymple, a rising Society painter, tries to warn him away from Miss Demolines, but he himself is involved in a similar situation with the married Maria Broughton. None of their stories were as interesting to me as Mr. Crawley's or Grace's, and at times I almost resented their interruption.
I loved reading this book again, and as always with re-reading I saw new things. I noticed for example that Lord Lufton holds the great tithes of Hogglestock, which from reading Jane Austen and the Clergy I knew means that he has impropriated them. Last year I read A Highland Lady in France, a journal Elizabeth Grant kept during her family's "retrenchment" in Pau in 1844-1845, so I had some idea of what Major Grantly's life there would have been like, if he carried his threat against his father into action. And I was also reminded very strongly of the later books in Angela Thirkell's 20th century Barsetshire series, where Grace and Tom Crawley, Silverbridge and Hogglestock, play such parts.
In the final pages of The Last Chronicle of Barset, Trollope writes,
"For myself I can only say that I shall always be happy to sit, when allowed to do so, at the table of Archdeacon Grantly, to walk through the High Street of Barchester arm in arm with Mr. Robarts of Framley, and to stand alone and shed a tear beneath the modest black stone in the north transept of the cathedral on which is inscribed the name of Septimus Harding."To seize him affectionately by the arm" - what a wonderfully apt description of the almost irresistible pull of Trollope's stories. Like the creator of Barsetshire, I too will always be glad to return to its country lanes and city streets, and most of all to its marvellous people.
"And now, if the reader will allow me to seize him affectionately by the arm, we will together take our last farewell of Barset and the towers of Barchester."