The clergy in Victorian novels are often the butt of derision, their foibles highlighted over their virtues. Anthony Trollope offers a more nuanced portrait and his Barsetshire Chronicles are as wonderful and insightful today as when they first appeared 150 years ago.
In The Pickwick Papers (1837) Dickens presents the reader with Reverend Stiggins, otherwise known as the Reverend Gentleman with the Red Nose. Stiggins is an alcoholic, evangelical minister, who starts a fight at Bob Sawyer’s party. Dickens uses satire to show the uselessness of such Puritanical devices as temperance in society. Stiggins is a lazy, unmotivated minister who seems to have no interest in his duties. Moreover, his perpetual red nose, which is the result of his excessive drinking, is made even more humorous by the fact that his church is supposedly an advocate of temperance.
Scenes of Clerical Life (1857) is the title under which George Eliot’s first published fictional work, a collection of three short stories, was released in book form. The three stories are set during the last twenty years of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century over a fifty year period. They take place in and around the fictional town of Milby in the English Midlands. Each concerns a different Anglican clergyman, and Eliot examines, among other things, the effects of religious reform and the tension between the Established and the Dissenting Churches on the clergymen and their congregations, and draws attention to various social issues, such as poverty, alcoholism, and domestic violence.
The locus classicus for the life of Victorian clergy is Anthony Trollope’s The Chronicles of Barsetshire (or Barchester Chronicles). A series of six novels set in the fictitious English county of Barsetshire and its cathedral town of Barchester, the stories concern the political and social dealings of the clergy and the gentry. Beginning with The Warden (1855), and continuing with Barchester Towers (1857), Doctor Thorne (1858), Framley Parsonage (1861), The Small House at Allington (1864), and ending with The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867), each book takes us to a different part of the county. We meet the local parsons and the parishioners, the wealthy and the poor, the titled and those without rank or fame.
In the last novel, almost all of the important personages of the first five are drawn together and allowed a final curtain call, and for almost all, in some way or other, the problems which haunted them while their story was being told are finally resolved.
Anthony Trollope (1815-82) was one of the most prolific and respected English novelists of the Victorian era. After an unhappy childhood, and an unpromising start to his career, he went on to write 47 novels and to rise to the top of his profession as a senior civil servant in the Post Office. In 1851, Trollope was charged with investigating and reorganizing rural mail delivery in a portion of the country. The two-year mission took him over much of Great Britain, often on horseback, described in his autobiography as “two of the happiest years of my life”. In the course of it, he visited Salisbury Cathedral and it was there that he conceived the plot of The Warden.
Trollope is sympathetic to the plight of the clergy in an age of radical political reform and theological controversy. His humour is barbed, but he does not neglect the psychology of his characters as the following passage about Mr Arabin in Barcherster Towers reveals:
“It often surprises us that very young men can muster courage to preach for the first time to a strange congregation. Men who are as yet little more than boys, who have but just left, what indeed we may not call a school, but a seminary intended for their tuition as scholars, whose thoughts have been mostly of boating, cricketing, and wine parties, ascend a rostrum high above the heads of the submissive crowd, not that they may read God’s word to those below, but that they may preach their own word for the edification of their hearers. It seems strange to us that they are not stricken dumb by the new and awful solemnity of their position. How am I, just turned twenty-three, who have never yet passed then thoughtful days since the power of thought first came to me, how am I to instruct these grey beards, who with the weary thinking of so many years have approached so near the grave? Can I teach them their duty? Can I explain to them that which I so imperfectly understand, that which years of study may have made so plain to them? Has my newly acquired privileges, as one of God’s ministers, imparted to me as yet any fitness for the wonderful work of a preacher?”