Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Anthony Trollope’s The Warden (1855)

Antony Trollope’s The Warden (1855)
Random House, 2003

When a reading friend first got bitten by the Trollope bug a few years back, I rushed out to buy a copy of this novel, the first in his Barsetshire series; of course I intended to read it immediately, but you know how that goes.

What I really intended to do was read it immediately *after* I had finished a couple dozen other books — or a couple hundred other books — although it was of paramount importance that I have a copy close at hand for that much-anticipated opening in my reading schedule. (Of course I’ll tell you this, but I realize that most other people would think this insane.)

Eventually — but not a few weeks later, or even a few months later, but years, actually — I started reading. Not just once, did I try this, but three or four times, never reading further than 30 or40 pages before setting it aside again. Too much Church talk, too many Bishop-like people: I was uncommitted.

I didn’t feel too guilty because I’d been warned that some people skipped that one entirely, moving on to the next Barsetshire novel instead, sometimes heading back to The Warden after having gotten cozy with the series, sometimes simply leaving it unread. But I am stubborn about beginning at the beginning when it comes to books, so I simply set it aside repeatedly.

And then I put it on my list of Must Reads for 2010. I cannot express how incredibly guilty I feel when a Must-Read has gone unread, all the Must-ness sapped out of it, so this I was sure would settle the problem. But then my attempt at The Warden earlier this year fizzled out, like the other attempts before it. I started to wonder if my classics-reading braincells had permanently atrophied.

Then in June, sheer panic about the year’s Must-Read list settled in. Not only had I not touched any of the classics on my list, but Trollope’s installment was clearly the least demanding which seemed to suggest certain failure. If I could’t finish 210 pages of a Trollope novel, I most certainly wouldn’t be able to manage the remaining 1000 pages of War and Peace. And, so, suddenly I had something to prove.

Which, fortunately, coincided with the rainiest Saturday ever. Mr. BIP and I had just enough time to get to the neighbourhood coffee shop and fetch iced americanos and croissants before the steady stream settled in. It rained for the entire day, not dramatically, but leisurely, like it had filled out a request form in advance and knew it had the whole day reserved, so why rush it. And so we settled onto the porch, adding layers to combat the increasing chill and damp.

Of course we didn’t realize at the time that it was going to be an all-day-rain affair, so we, at first, were simply waiting it out. Even discussing the options for city exploring that awaited us in the afternoon ahead on this long holiday weekend, as we refilled the glasses with iced jasmine tea and then hot tea, and then slipped from shorts to pants, from T-shirts to sweaters to light coats, from sprawling to burrowing in the chairs.

And if I don’t sound like I’m complaining about that entirely rain-soaked Saturday, it’s because I’m not; it was just the perfect amount of time to read The Warden. And to feel as though the whole world had set aside that perfect reading opportunity for me to realize that reading Trollope wasn’t something to be endured, not at all, but an honest reading pleasure.

Sure, there are wordy bits, and because my other current reads include an Agatha Christie novel (I’m determined to give her another try after The Mysterious Affair at Styles) and the sixth novel in Kelley Armstrong’s Otherworld sries (I recently finished the fifth), it did take some adjusting to the style.

Here is how the Reverend Septimus Harding describes his current state of affairs. “It was so hard that the pleasant waters of his little stream should be disturbed and muddied by rough hands; that his quiet paths should be made a battlefield; that the unobtrusive corner of the world which had been allotted to him, as though by Providence, should be invaded and desecrated, and all within it made miserable and unsound.” In that, and a dozen sentences like it.

So, yes, a contemporary author might have cut to the chase: the Reverend is going through a rough patch. But not only did I adjust to that pacing readily enough, but it quickly became not only manageable but comfortable, seductive even.

I mean, check this out: “The tea consumed was the very best, the coffee the very blackest, the cream the very thickest; there was dry toast and buttered toast, muffins and crumpets; hot bread and cold bread, white bread and brown bread, home-made bread and baker’s bread, wheaten bread and oaten bread, and if there be other breads than these, they were there….”  Yes, please. More, please.

The  Reverend’s ecclesiastical entitlements are being challenged and the stakes are high; his living and his unmarried daughter’s comforts and marriageability are fundamentally affected by John Bold, who is questioning the tradition of allocating a particular sum to the warden. And, yes, it’s true: it does take a bit of doing keeping all the church officials and church folks straight. But it was nothing that a rainy Saturday morning couldn’t settle out.

Anyhow, Trollope shortened the tale substantially. “What had passed between Eleanor Harding and Mary Bold need not be told. It is indeed a matter of thankfulness that neither the historian nor the novelist hears all that is said by their heroes or heroines, or how would three volumes or twenty suffice!” He might well have taken twenty volumes to tell the tale of the warden. Instead he confined it to just a few more than 200 pages.

Which means that, now that I feel that the prose style of both Christie and Armstrong are so straightforward as to appear naked, I must turn to the next in this series, Barchester Towers, to satisfy my newest addiction. It does, indeed stretch to three volumes rather than one, so I will likely have to resort to sunny-day reading as well. My pleasure.

Have you been recently surprised to find yourself enjoying a book or author whose works previously frustrated or disappointed you? Do you sometimes read things just to prove something to yourself, or to disprove something?

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5 comments to Anthony Trollope’s The Warden (1855)

  • I’m kind of embarrassed to call myself a fan of Victorian literature and yet not have read any Trollope. I wonder I should start with the second in the Barsetshire series, though… I guess I’ll see how I get along with The Warden. I’m glad this worked for you in the end – always a nice surprise!

  • It took me about three tries to read ‘Kiss of the Spider Woman’ by Manuel Puig, but now I love it. I sometimes think that the books you have to try a bit harder with are sometimes the most enjoyable.

  • I really struggled with the work of A.L. Kennedy at first. She’s an uncompromising stylist and her work is quite bleak, and I just didn’t think we could get along. Then I had to read her novel Paradise for a contemporary literature class. The first time I couldn’t get on with it; I huffed and puffed and moaned about it. But as we talked about it in class and the more I thought about it, the more I saw what a *good* novel it was and what a good writer Kennedy is. I went home and read it a second time, then wrote an extremely enthusiastic essay about it. 🙂

    As for Trollope, I just love, love, love him. Not because he’s like the other Victorian writers I’ve read, but because he’s so different. I particularly like the fact that he writes about the man’s private world in the 19th century – the hunt, the gentleman’s club, clergy circles. At the same time I think he is fair to his female characters, who are always interesting and real. I’m really looking forward to reading more of him.

  • Kat

    I’m a diehard fan of Trollope, but confess I prefer his long books to his short. The Warden I remember as a very slight funny novel, nothing but an introduction to the richness that follows. So I hope you continue! You can go out of order: it doesn’t matter.

    I can’t off the top of my head think of a writer whose books previously frustrated me, but I know they’re out there.

  • Thanks for the comments! I’m about 50 pages into Barchester Towers and I do get the sense of what you’re referring to, Kat, a “richness”; I think I’m going to enjoy this one even more. But, having said that, Nymeth, I’m really glad I did read The Warden first although I don’t think it’s necessary; I love the brief references to the characters in it that make me feel like I’m catching up on community gossip as I settle into this longer work, so if you like that, too, you might want to start at the beginning.

    Fliss, I agree that having to try harder can add to the enjoyment of a book; I had that experience with Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. And Victoria, I think I love A.L. Kennedy’s work based on having seen her show “Words” last year. But I should actually read something, and so I’ll put Paradise at the top of my ALK list.

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