My love of Barchester Towers, which I regard as one of the funniest books in English, dates back to 1966 when I had to read it (and The Warden to which it’s a sequel) in connection with the Bishop Otter College English course. BOC taught me pitifully little about teaching, as I often comment, but the English main course was quite something. At the time there was a witty TV programme on TV about cathedral doings called All Gas and Gaiters and I quickly realised that Barchester Towers (1857) is, in many ways, a Victorian forebear. I giggled, marvelled and fell in love with Barchester. I read the remaining four books in the series, from choice and curiosity, over the next couple of years.
Full Catholic Emancipation is barely one generation old and some clergy and thinkers are beginning to flirt with the glamour of the old religion – especially at Oxford. The Oxford Movement and the heartfelt loathing of it in some quarters is the background to Barchester Towers. There’s Conservatism, conservatism and the sort of evangelism which loathes church music and wants to set up earnest Sunday Schools for the indoctrination (sorry – education) of the young for whom school is not yet compulsory. It’s a power struggle.
I once made the mistake of trying – and failing dismally – to teach this wonderful novel as an A level text. They simply wouldn’t engage with the church politics. Then I made it worse by trying to get them on side by sharing the 1982 TV version (Alan Rickman, Nigel Hawthorne, Geraldine McEwan et al) which I never thought a great deal of and the students loathed even more than they did the novel. Time to move on hastily …
The characterisation is one of the best things about Barchester Towers. Even Dickens rarely got quite as much colour and personality into a single novel. There’s the irascible Dr Grantley – unassailed by anyone except his wife who tells him what’s what in the bedroom where she still addresses him as “Archdeacon” – and the unctuous, scheming, manipulative Obadiah Slope. Or meet henpecked, querulous Dr Proudie the bishop. And everyone’s favourite man, cello playing Mr Harding who can see a whole range of points of view and usually accedes to them much as it distresses him. Then there’s Mrs Proudie, one of fiction’s most famous viragos, and glamorous, exotic Madeleine who, mildly disabled, lies all day on a couch, entices men for her own amusement and dominates with sexy glee whenever she’s present. And what about Eleanor, the pretty young widow? She clearly has to remarry so everyone is scheming – for different reasons – to bring this about but no one asks her what she thinks or wants so there’s a lot of beautifully plotted misunderstanding and situation comedy.
Yes, the church politics are there and it helps to have a vague idea what the issues are but it’s not a religious book at all. God hardly gets a mention. This is primarily a book about people – lots of them, all with prejudices, cares, concerns and ambitions which are not usually compatible with what seems to be happening. If you haven’t yet read it, then trust me you’re in for a treat. I think it gets better each time I re-read it too.