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Rev. Robert Hampson

ON LEARNING FROM ANTHONY TROLLOPE

I am a great fan of Anthony Trollope, writing at much the same time as Dickens and somewhat later. He writes frequently of clergymen in the Church of England and their ecclesiastical politics.

His most famous such rendering is in Barchester Towers, the second of six novels in the Barsetshire series, where we meet high churchmen like Archdeacon Grantly and the Revd Septimus Harding on the one side and what Trollope evidently regards as abominable evangelicals like Mrs Proudie and the Revd Obadiah Slope on the other. Bishop Proudie, the husband of Mrs Proudie, is hopelessly beholden to his wife, who rules him with a rod of iron, and she in turn, at least to start with, is under the influence of Mr Slope. We see the two factions clash, but Trollope is clearly on the side of the Archdeacon’s party and some form of victory (however weak) is generally theirs.

What is interesting to me is the study of character that Trollope makes. In the final novel of the Barsetshire series, The Last Chronicle of Barset, we see a clergyman, Mr Crawley, pitted against Mrs Proudie with the abjectly weak bishop in the middle. Mr Crawley stands up to the bishop (that is to Mrs Proudie). He does so by refusing to deal with anybody but the bishop, that is refusing to recognize Mrs Proudie as the rightful mouthpiece of the bishop.

Mr Crawley rightly reminds the bishop that he can't exceed his powers, which have limitations. He stands by his own moral integrity, an integrity that the bishop cannot match because of his inability to stand up to his wife or indeed anyone. Whether through the example of Mr Crawley or not, Mr Proudie does finally stand up against his wife who, in utter shock at the effrontery of the bishop, dies, and the bishop, finally humiliated by his recognition of his wife's rule over him, resigns his see. The bishop may have position and the power that it gives, but in Mr Crawley he meets somebody with character and inner strength, entirely due to his moral character, and it is this strength that ultimately wins the day.

In another novel near the end of his life, Trollope again visits the theme of a well-meaning but largely weak bishop, stronger than Mr Proudie but still without moral strength and therefore easily manipulated by others. The clergyman standing up against him is Dr Wortle and the novel is Doctor Wortle's School. Here is an excerpt on the character of the bishop:

"The bishop was a goodly man, comely in his person, and possessed of manners which had made him popular in the world. He was one of those who had done the best he could with his talent, not wrapping it up in a napkin, but getting from it the best interest which the world's market could afford. But not on that account was he other than a good man. To do the best he could for himself and his family – and also to do his duty – was the line of conduct which he pursued. There are some who reverse this order, but he was not one of them. ... The church had become his profession and he had worked hard at his calling. He had taught himself to be courteous and urbane because he had been clever enough to see that courtesy and urbanity are agreeable to men in high places.

"As a bishop he had never spared himself the work a bishop ought to do. He answered letters, he studied the characters of clergymen under him, he was just in his patronage, he endeavoured to be efficacious in his charges, he confirmed children in cold weather as well as warm, he occasionally preached sermons and he was beautiful and decorous in his gait and manner, as it behoves a clergyman of the Church of England to be. He liked to be master; but even to be master he would not encounter the abominable nuisance of a quarrel. When he first came into the diocese he had had some little difficulty with our doctor; but the bishop had refrained from violent assertion, and they had, on the whole, been friends. There was, however, on the bishop's part something of the feeling that the doctor was the bigger man, and it was probable that, without active malignity, he would take advantage of any chance that would lower the doctor a little, and bring him more within episcopal power. In some degree he begrudged the doctor his manliness."

I think this short passage deserves very close scrutiny. We see again and again little moral evasions that finally amount in toto to a weak character. Externally he has it all, but internally he does not. Dr Wortle is not as strong as Mr Crawley, but despite his weakness he does make a significant moral stand. It is precisely here that growth of strength of character lies. The bishop is fated to use what he can against his subordinate purely because he knows deep down that he himself lacks that personal power to make a moral stand. This is the essence of the drama.

In all these novels we see that one's personal morality is what makes a man either strong or weak. It is in learning to take the hard road, as opposed to the easy way out, that this strength is nourished and advanced. Some who take the easy road may appear as strong, like Mrs Proudie, but in reality they are, like her, bullies and follow the rule of bullies, that is, so soon as they are challenged they capitulate. There is no short cut to moral strength of character. It always comes through trials that beset us, the overcoming of which, through the determination to follow the truth come what may, results in strong character. There is a lesson for all of us there!

Fr Robert
May 2017

Read Previous Articles: February 2009 / March 2009 / August 2010 / September 2010 / January 2011 / May 2012 / February 2014

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