©2007 BBC Audiobooks Ltd; (P)2007 BBC Audiobooks Ltd
Timothy West reading Anthony Trollope is one of those perfect coincidences of author and narrator that seem too good to be true; in fact I have sometimes wondered whether strange necromancy might not have been at work and West actually is Trollope. Not a single inflection of the author's wry irony is missed, devestatingly honest, but charitably and affectionately too.
Barchester Towers is of course the most famous of the Barsetshire novels, but as it is really a sequel to The Warden, it is better to begin with the earlier novel. All six Chronicles of Barsetshire, as well as all the Palliser novels, are available in West's performances on Audible, and few audiobooks have given me so much enjoyment.
I enjoyed The Warden first so this was like coming back to old friends. Mr. West does an excellent job with the text and voicing the characters and it blends very well with Trollope's style of speaking with the reader directly. The character names are as entertaining as ever, though I confess that the Lookalofts might edge out the Quiverfulls for my favorite. The story was well-conceived and well-told and I enjoyed the light-hearted look into the church and cathedral town life of the mid-century.
Your choice of Timothy West was inspired. Barchester Towers is an outstanding classic and worthy of regular exposure to the modern reader/listener.
I love reading and listening to books, especially fantasy, science fiction, children's, historical, and classics.
War in Barchester. The army invading the quiet cathedral town is spearheaded by the low church, hen-pecked, gormless new Bishop Proudie, his evangelical, despotic wife ("the she-bishop," the "Medea of Barchester"), and their odious, duplicitous, ambitious, bad-beef complexioned and clammy-handed chaplain Mr. Slope, who, fancying himself the true new Bishop of Barchester, plans to promote Sabbath-day schools and to throw the music and ceremony of the Anglican service out with the rubbish. The outraged local defending forces are comprised of the modest, mild, weak, but stubborn ex-Warden of Hiram's Hospital Mr. Harding, his arrogant, righteous, and hot-tempered Archdeacon son-in-law Dr. Grantly, and the high church "champion," the thoughtful former Oxford professor of poetry and new vicar of St. Ewold, Mr. Arabin. Amid the warfare run rumors of courtship: Eleanor Bold, the younger daughter of Mr. Harding, with a beloved baby son and 1200 pounds per year, is a very eligible widow for suitors calculating, feckless, or inexperienced. Also mixed in the conflict is the Stanhope family, back in Barchester after a twelve-year sojourn in Italy, during which the father, a prebendary of the cathedral, was catching butterflies while supposedly caring for his sore throat. The Stanhope son Bertie is a lazy, good-natured, and unprejudiced parasite, his sister Madeline (AKA La Signora Neroni) is a crippled, beautiful, arachnoid man-catcher with eyes bright as Lucifer's and compelling as a basilisk's, and the first-born daughter Charlotte does her best to enable the predilections of her younger siblings.
In his second Barchester Chronicles novel, Barchester Towers (1857), then, Anthony Trollope sets these colorful characters in play with and against each other in a largely unpredictable and wholly entertaining comedy of manners with much to say about mid-nineteenth-century gender, class, age, reform, religion, love, family, and novels, all in a way that is particularly Victorian British and universally human.
Trollope's writing is witty, elegant, suspenseful, knowing, allusive, and quotable. I enjoy, for example, his epic similes using classical literature, Elizabethan drama, or the Bible, as when he hilariously compares Mrs. Proudie to Achilles or Mr. Slope to Lady Macbeth. Trollope's narrator and characters say pithy things like:
"If honest men did not squabble for money in this wicked world of ours, the wicked men would get it all."
"A man must be an idiot or else an angel, who, after the age of forty shall attempt to be just to his neighbours."
"Gentlemen do not write to women about their tresses, unless they are on intimate terms."
"There is no happiness in love, except at the end of an English novel."
And Trollope relishes sympathetically mocking his characters, as when with heroic formality he encourages the Bishop to stand up to his wife:
"Now, bishop, look well to thyself, and call up all the manhood that is in thee. Think how much is at stake. If now thou art not true to thy guns, no Slope can hereafter aid thee. How can he who deserts his own colours at the final smell of gunpowder expect faith in any ally. Thou thyself hast sought the battlefield; fight out the battle manfully now thou art there. Courage, bishop, courage! Frowns cannot kill, nor can sharp words break any bones. After all the apron is thine own. She can appoint no wardens, give away no benefices, nominate no chaplains, an' thou art but true to thyself. Up, man, and at her with a constant heart."
The novel is not without a disappointment or two. Eleanor's sister-in-law Mary Bold has devolved from an intelligent and independent woman who writes reform-minded newspaper pieces in The Warden (1855), the first novel in his Chronicles, to a bland live-in nanny in Barchester Towers. And some things, naturally enough, feel dated, like the ideas that the ideal condition of wife and husband is for the woman to be a beautiful parasitic plant like ivy decorating a wall (the man) and that independence is a "heavy burden" for women.
But mostly I listened to Barchester Towers chuckling, grinning, and generally reveling in Trollope's characters, story, and prose and in Timothy West's virtuoso reading of them. As Juliet Stevenson was born to read Virgina Woolf, West was born to read Anthony Trollope. He's perfect with people young and old, high and low, male and female, and unlike Simon Vance reading The Warden, West's Eleanor has no irritating falsetto. His Mr. Slope (nasally unctuous), Mr. Harding (mild, good, and weak) and Signora Neroni (provocative ersatz Italian charm) are all wonderful.
Charles Dickens had crowded Trollope out of my life until I read The Warden, the first novel in his Chronicles, and was so delighted by it. Both authors write colorful and comical characters we care about, but while Dickens leans towards caricature, Trollope leans towards realism. Dickens' characters are often wholly good or wholly evil, while Trollope's are often very mixed indeed. (Compare Dickens' villain Uriah Heep with Trollope's Obadiah Slope.). Trollope feels less sentimental and melodramatic than Dickens, but after all they both wrote entertaining and page-turning, socially-conscious, humorous, and dramatic novels. I warmly urge fans of 19th century novels, especially readers familiar with Dickens but unfamiliar with Trollope, to read Barchester Towers. (Though both The Warden and Barchester Towers tell self-contained stories, reading the first book first would increase one's pleasure in the sequel.)
Wonderful story, beautifully plotted, distinct and memorable characters, a wise and ironic narrator, and a reader who catches all the nuances of the text and voices.
There's something of Austen, Dickens, and even an anticipation of Oscar Wilde in Trollope
I'm a retired English teacher who enjoys reading and absolutely loves listening to books. It has changed my world.
I agree with the other reviewers...this book is a fascinating listen. Trollope's story is well-written, tightly woven throughout with a thread of gold. I admire his vocabulary and his use of it in telling the story of Barchester and its people. The variety and number of characters is impressive, and Trollope evokes my sympathy or disgust at will. I also enjoyed the way Trollope takes the reader deeper into the psyche of the characters as the story moves along. And don't we all enjoy poetic justice? I loved the book and enjoyed the narrator very much. I'll be listening to more of both by A. Trollope and recommend you do the same.
"Strong characters, but weak plot"
I have a great fondness for 19th century fiction, being a fan of Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Gaskell, George Eliot, the Brontes and Jane Austen (all 'popular stuff'). I didn't really know anything about Trollope, but was hoping to find another author from another time for a bit of escapism.
I read 'The Warden' rather than listened to it, as for such a short novel felt is wasn't worth downloading. I was not overly impressed, but had read such good reveiws of 'Barchester Towers' that I was still looking forward to downloading it and listening to it.
Trollope creates very entertaining and distinct characters and dialogues. This could be compared to Jane Austen, who also focuses her stories around the characters and their interactions, often with amusing results. However, what Trollope avoids is plot devices and suspense, which for me makes it all a bit bland and pointless.
We all know more or less how the story will end, there is little room for guessing and whilst the outcome is a satisfying one, the journey towards it is somewhat uneventful.
So whilst I enjoyed the characters, I really struggled with the slow pace of the story.
Another thing that slightly irritates me about this book is the inexplicable death of a main character from the first book. I suppose you cold argue that that is a plot device, but it's a weak one, in my opinion.
I got through to the very end, but that will be that last Trollope novel I will choose to encounter.
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