The Last Chronicle of Barset is the final act of a cycle of richly imagined novels set in the mythical county of Barsetshire. It centers on the fate of a clergyman, Josiah Crawley, a minutely observed character who, by modern standards, is depressive, emotionally abusive, controlling, fanatically puritanical, and without so much as a soupçon of humor. Trollope describes him: "an unhappy, moody, disappointed man, upon whom the troubles of the world always seemed to come with a double weight." Trollope took a mighty chance that he could make us care what happens to this pathetic creature, and in the chancing, wrote what many consider to be his greatest novel. Tonight, I'll talk about the structure, the themes, and the characters in this book, but I'll also argue that the novel can claim further significance, that its implications go far beyond the fate of a particular clergyman.
I thought to begin with a synopsis of all six Barsetshire novels, to put this grand summit of a book into context, to remind you that when we encounter many of these characters in The Last Chronicle, they're old acquaintances with full stories of their own. But that synopsis began to sound in my own ears like the late Anna Russell recounting the story of the Ring of the Nibelung—only not so funny.
The Ring isn't a farfetched comparison. Great panoramic works of art were very much the fashion just then: Wagner wrote his Ring Cycle from 1848 to 1874, virtually the same time Trollope was writing first, his Barsetshire cycle, and then his overlapping Palliser cycle: composer and author were contemporaries. (Such epics haven't yet gone out of fashion. What else is The Sopranos, ER, Six Feet Under, or any other series that revolves around a continuing set of characters that fascinate us?)
As you well know, Trollope's two great epics address somewhat different levels of English society. The Palliser novels, of course, are set for the most part in London, and take up some of the political issues that bedeviled Victorian England. Their characters are at the top of the social pyramid, dukes and duchesses, earls and countesses, plus those plucky few like Phineas Finn and the marvelous Madame Max who find their way into such society. The Barsetshire books, however, are country novels, their settings the sweet and slow—the idealized—provincial towns outside London, their aristocracy country folk. From time to time, the spheres overlap: Barsetshire characters appear in Palliser books, and vice versa.
Some eighteen months ago, I spoke to you about the fifth book in the Barsetshire series, The Small House at Allington. To make sense of its main character, Lily Dale, I often had to refer to The Last Chronicle, where her story concludes. I felt a bit uneasy, as if I were poaching on the talk of whoever would speak about The Last Chronicle. George Newlin fixed that problem nicely by suggesting that I do it, and here I am. Thus I won't say much about Lily Dale and her adventures tonight, but if you wish to read, or even re-read, what I said eighteen months ago, you can find that talk on my website.
To the novel: We first meet the clergyman Josiah Crawley by name in Framley Parsonage, the fourth novel in the series. That book offers almost geometrically parallel stories of Crawley, who has been given too little too often, and Mark Robarts, also a clergyman, who has been given too much too soon. Trollope shows how either extreme can corrupt, and the portrait of Crawley as a depressive is nearly too painful to read—a man with such financial burdens, such existential disappointments and setbacks, that sometimes he cannot get out of bed for days on end. His pride is toxic, both to him and his family. Crawley and Robarts each have loving, supportive, blameless wives. Both wives suffer grievously nevertheless.
From the moment we meet him, then, Crawley is described to us as mad, strange, dark, unstable, fanatic. At the same time, we know that he's a conscientious clergyman, held in high regard by that "lawless, drunken, terribly rough lot of humanity, " his parishioners in Hogglestock, not only because he lives in difficulties and works hard, but also because "he does his duty in spite of the world's ill-usage." He does indeed, but he's hardly uncomplaining. Listen to this:
"Therefore I will not restrain my mouth;
I will speak in the anguish of my spirit;
I will complain in the bitterness of my soul"
This is Job, but it could just as easily be Josiah Crawley.
The major difference between them is that while Job is the innocent victim of a sporting God, Crawley has been much the agent of his own downfall. Crawley is a well-educated (an expensively educated, he tells his wife more than once) gentleman. At Oxford he's been the intimate friend of Francis Arabin, who will become the dean of Barchester. Earlier, when Arabin suffers a spiritual crisis, tempted to go over from the Church of England to the Church of Rome (like his famous colleague John Henry Newman) it's Crawley, unnamed, in Barchester Towers, the second novel in the series, who sees him through it. Arabin, we learn in that novel, will visit Crawley in Cornwall annually after that, and eventually secures for Crawley a somewhat better paid post at Hogglestock, which is where we finally meet him.
In The Last Chronicle, hints soon emerge about Crawley's excessive nature. Consider the Greek books that Trollope names, read and loved in the Crawley household: Euripides, whose most famous plays are about extremes of human behavior such as Medea and The Bacchae; the poems of Anacreon, famous for praising wine, women and song. When Crawley bests and banishes the ineffectual Mr. Thumble, messenger of Mrs. Bishop Proudie, he summons his daughter to come and read aloud in triumph with him Seven Against Thebes. These are not the readings of a moderate man.
I say that Crawley is the agent of his own destruction, and here's what I mean. Crawley's original sin is that he has married too soon. Pressed by the need to support his wife and children, he's forced to take a precarious living in the wilds of Cornwall. He's had "many children," most who have ended in the grave. Please stop for a moment and consider this. Unlike his friends and colleagues, who defer marriage, contain themselves until the proper situation is obtained, the right woman met, Crawley has impetuously, passionately married a genteel but poor woman; and to add insult to injury, has had too many children for his slender means. One of his fellow clergymen, commenting on Crawley's poverty, says he shouldn't have married on that small income, unaware, as Trollope points out, that Crawley originally married on an even smaller income. (You might argue that the Reverend Quiverful is also blessed with too many children, and no one seems to hold that against him, but Quiverful is a tertiary and comic figure, as his name implies, whereas we are meant to take Crawley altogether seriously.)
So I contend that Crawley's original sin is erotic, an ardor that has warmed yet blighted his life. He has violated not only the canons of the English gentleman he was bred up to be; he has also violated the decorum of the classics he reveres: restraint, rationality, pondered thought, self-control, and continence. To put it into Judeo-Christian terms, of the Seven Deadly Sins, we see Josiah Crawley wallowing in four of them: Lust, Wrath, Envy and Pride. No sign of Sloth (unless you count those occasional days when, in the grip of the deepest depression, he cannot get out of bed), no sign of Greed or Gluttony. But still! Four out of seven! Bear this in mind, for I'll come back to it.
Let me say again what an enormous artistic chance Trollope took by putting at the center of his novel such a desperate, depressive, abusive man as Crawley. How can we feel sympathy for this prickly man, who has been forced to crawl through life? He knows very well—he prides himself on it—that his learning is better, deeper than that of other men. He knows his faith before his God is truer, and much more profoundly tried. He works harder than other men in his class do; in return, he sees nothing but grinding misery, while they seem to work not at all, and live in luxury. (You might gather from these novels that the Church of England was a splendidly lavish welfare scheme for refined English gentlemen.) As Crawley's children go hungry and his beloved wife threadbare, self-pity is irresistible, and who can really blame him? In both Framley Parsonage and in The Last Chronicle, his pride, which seems to grow directly in proportion to his misery—and his abusive, controlling nature—is a staggering burden not only to himself, but also to his family and to those who would reach out to help them all.
He's not a lovable man, or for that matter, a lovable character. Yet in a novelist's act of bravura, Trollope puts him at the center of his greatest novel, for The Last Chronicle hinges on the final degradation, and the ultimate redemption, of this most unfortunate creature—indeed, that degradation opens the book.
That degradation is, of course, the terrible event of the twenty-pound check. Where has it come from? How did Josiah Crawley come by it? Mr. Soames, Lord Lufton's man of business, has accused Josiah Crawley of theft, and so the Silverbridge magistrates, laymen all, must meet to decide whether, on the evidence, he is to be committed to the assizes, a real trial. The early scene where the magistrates gather, most of them so very eager to exonerate Mr. Crawley, is poignant. A reader of the previous Barsetshire novels will recognize that most of these men have themselves been gravely tested, tempted—and only triumphed by the skin of their teeth. They are good and generous men, who carry the memories of their own tests and lapses in their hearts. But the lawyer Mr. Walker puts it to the magistrates in no uncertain terms: Mr. Crawley must, if sane, be locked up as a thief, and if mad, locked up as a madman. They sigh, these well meaning, oh so very human English gentlemen, and concede that Mr. Walker is right.
But if Josiah Crawley's story is the engine of the novel, a half dozen other plots revolve around it, some of them dependent on the outcome of Crawley's trial, and some of them simply reflective of the novel's great themes.
For example, Grace Crawley refuses to marry Major Henry Grantly until her father is found innocent, though she, of course, has nothing to do with the twenty-pound check. Major Grantly's parents have strong feelings about this possible marriage too, which leads to a painful rupture between parents and son.
Lily Dale and her London encounter with her former Apollo, Adolphus Crosbie, changes not only her life, but the life of her suitor Johnny Eames, and of course Crosbie's life too.
We meet again Lily's cousin Bernard who will finally marry Emily Dunstable, the niece of the richest woman in England, the Ointment of Lebanon Queen. Emily Dunstable has been the woman whom the Grantlys had picked out for their son, Henry, before they understood he would defy them by marrying Grace Crawley.
The conflict between Bishop Proudie and his wife is a gripping business—often written as delectable comedy, but serious nevertheless—that must end badly.
Mirroring these from below is the courtship between the painter Conway Dalrymple and Clara van Siever, a kind of low-life burlesque, with Clara posing as Jael murdering Cisera; Clara's friend Mrs. Dobbs Broughton, who pines only for an interest in life; and Adolphus Crosbie, whose financial calamities echo those of Josiah Crawley. A cat's cradle of filaments ties these London characters to those in Barsetshire, the cat's cradle embodied in old Mr. Harding's slow and sweet games with his granddaughter Posy.
These plots and subplots, which reflect and play off each other in a brilliant hall of literary mirrors, comprise the structure of this novel, elegant in its symmetries, elegant in its constant combination of anticipation and surprise. For what is structure except how the story is told?
Now to the novel's themes. Early in the book, a dramatic scene summarizes the greatest theme of The Last Chronicle, and possibly the entire Barsetshire series. Josiah Crawley has been called to the bishop's palace to explain why he refuses to follow the bishop's orders —really, Mrs. Bishop Proudie's orders—that he give up his parish duties under the circumstances of his indictment. "I was most unwilling, my lord. Submission to authority is at times a duty—and at times opposition to authority is a duty also" "Opposition to just authority cannot be a duty, Mr. Crawley." "Opposition to usurped authority is an imperative duty," Crawley replies.
Opposition to usurped authority recurs throughout the novel. Mad, suspect Josiah Crawley stands up to the usurped authority of Mrs. Bishop Proudie in scenes that crackle with drama—we nearly want to cheer aloud for his backbone, so lamentably absent from her henpecked husband, Mr. Bishop Proudie.
Again: Archdeacon Grantly threatens his son, Major Henry Grantly, with cutting off his fortune if the young man marries the woman he loves, Grace Crawley. Blameless she might be, but in the archdeacon's eyes, she is unspeakably tainted by her father's possible crime. We wish Major Grantly, who has served heroically in India (a Victoria Cross, no less) would stand up to his own father with half the brio Mr. Crawley shows in defying Mrs. Bishop Proudie, but the major's way is to resist quietly, for he too must oppose his father's presumptuous, usurped authority. Even Grace Crawley, who seems to be the epitome of the sweet, unformed, and innocuous fair maiden, resists the usurped authority of the same Archdeacon Grantly, a man far above her in station and wealth, when he tries to squash the marriage, and this she does by a firm, preemptive strike.
Though I treated this in my last talk, recall that Lily Dale resists all the expectations that her family, her friends, and society have for her, that she should marry the deserving Johnny Eames and become his obedient wife. Or marry anyone, and become anyone's obedient wife. She chooses to remain independent—as she puts it, an Old Maid, but as she, and we, finally understand, an autonomous human being.
Finally, Mrs. Crawley herself—as saintly a character as Trollope has ever written, because she is saintly in the face of great, great trials—Mary Crawley herself stands up to her husband and his usurped authority, sometimes to his face, more often by subterfuge, indirection, and omission.
This resistance to usurped authority appears among the minor characters, where the old harridan Mrs. van Siever demands her daughter Clara marry the odious financial goon Mr. Musselboro, else go penniless. But Clara defies her mother and marries—perhaps to her future sorrow—the painter Conway Dalrymple.
I think these are not miniature acts of bravery but genuine and great ones. These characters risk everything dear to them to stand up for what their conscience tells them is right. The aggregate of these confrontations is a major source of the novel's great psychological energy.
A second mighty theme of this mighty novel is marriage. In this book—indeed, in the whole Barsetshire series—Trollope presents an array of different marriages for our examination. Some marriages fulfill and nourish a couple; some marriages are ghastly prisons; some marriages simply fail; some marriages succeed against great odds. (I have in mind here the improbable marriage of the reclusive and thoughtful Dr. Thorne and his wife, the richest woman in England, the Ointment of Lebanon Queen. Mrs. Thorne appears in this novel only as a hostess of abundant generosity, but you must read Dr. Thorne to know what an odd but happy match this is.)
Some marriages cannot take place—as between Lily and John Eames—and some should never have taken place, as the near burlesque of a marriage between Maria Clutterbuck and her terrible husband Bernie Madoff—no, I mean Dobbs Broughton. We see that Lily Dale's Apollo, Adolphus Crosbie, has not only contracted a horribly failed marriage, but as a consequence, he's on the hook at Hook Court for money to Mr. Dobbs Broughton and his silent partners. When Mrs. Bishop Proudie is dying, she acknowledges to herself, perhaps for the first time, how her husband loathes her; in fact, how loathsome she is to everyone.
We've considered structure and themes; now let me say something about character, another source of the novel's great strength. There's Lily Dale who will not submit to the conventional happy ending all of England seemed to want for her. Lily, I said last time, is no tragic drama queen, but instead the harbinger of the New Woman, independent, self-sufficient, submitting to no man, but choosing contentment in a room of her own. Her rejected suitor, John Eames, may be tied to this love of his youth, yet is ever susceptible to the charms of later and lesser women; he's a thorn in the side of his pompous employer, Sir Raffle-Buffle, yet genuinely heroic—it's he, you remember, who in a magnificent mad dash across Europe, winkles out the actual origin of the infamous twenty-pound check.
There's the preposterous Mrs. Bishop Proudie—Bishop! God love her because nobody else does—although that's not quite true because readers know that some of the richest comic scenes that Trollope ever wrote concern Mrs. Bishop Proudie: we do love it when she's on the scene. The clerical sycophants who surround the bishop's palace are each a little sketch, gorgeous in its economy, of opportunism and poltroonery, beautifully mirrored by the lowlifes at Hook Court. There's the Bishop, more cowed by his wife than by his God, and, at the end, paying a terrible price in his own self-respect. He creeps forth (he crawls, an intended parallel with the least of his charges, Mr. Crawley) from his study at his wife's summons, with distressed face and shaking hands, hurrying steps, not venturing to assume an air of masterdom even if he only meets a housemaid on the stairs. There's Archdeacon Grantly, disappointed in his churchly ambitions, who takes far too much prideful pleasure in the marriage of his marmoreal daughter Griselda to the Marquis of Hartletop, the possible elevation of another son to a bishopric, even an archbishopric.
Then there are the Crawleys themselves. You might first see Mary Crawley as one of Trollope's stereotypical long-suffering angels: uncomplaining, self-effacing, a ladies-magazine version of the perfect wife. Her own husband abuses her for what he calls her lack of pride, "for she stooped to receive from others on his behalf and on behalf of their children, things which were needful, but which she could not buy. He had told her that she was a beggar, and that it was better to starve than to beg. She had borne the rebuke without a word in reply and had then begged again for him, and had endured the starvation herself." But a closer reading of Mary Crawley shows a deeper, more interesting personality. Listen to her when, after the magistrates commit him to stand trial, Crawley is in despair, up in the dark before the dawn. She found him standing with his hat on and with his old cloak, as though he were prepared to go out. "Why do you do this?" she said. "You will make yourself ill with the cold and the night air; and then you, and I too, will be worse than we are now." "We cannot be worse. You cannot be worse, and for me it does not signify. Let me pass." "I will not let you pass, Josiah. Be a man and bear it. Ask God for strength, instead of seeking it in an over-indulgence of your own sorrow." "Indulgence!" "Yes, love—indulgence. It is indulgence. You will allow your mind to dwell on nothing for a moment but your own wrongs." "What else have I that I can think of? Is not all the world against me?" "Am I against you?" "Sometimes I think you are. When you accuse me of self-indulgence, you are against me—me who for myself have desired nothing but to be allowed to do my duty, and to have bread enough to keep me alive, and clothes to make me decent." "Is it not self-indulgence, this giving way to grief? Who would know so well as you how to teach the lesson of endurance to others? Come, love. Lay down your hat. It cannot be fitting that you should go out into the wet and cold of the raw morning." Tough love, but love nonetheless; Mary Crawley's voice from the whirlwind, not God's. Her words urging him to stand up and be a man will be echoed by Mrs. Bishop Proudie to her own husband much later in the book, when the bishop hesitates to persecute Crawley any more than he already suffers.
Without Mary Crawley, there would not only be no food on the Crawley table, but there would be no effective help from the community. She's known much better times than her husband has ever provided for her, yet she never complains, nor does she ever falter. We know it costs her a great effort, but she pays that cost silently and with discretion. She never undermines him except in his own best interests. Finally, it's Mary Crawley who remembers correctly where the twenty-pound check has come from, but no one, least of all her husband, believes her. Paradoxically, the angelic Mary Crawley is also the object of her husband's original sin.
Finally, Crawley himself. Last year, the Metropolitan Museum had a dramatic retrospective of the work of Gustave Courbet, and its signature image was a painting called "Desperate Man," perhaps the artist's self-portrait. I often looked at that "Desperate Man," his eyes wide open in horror, his lips just parting to cry out, both hands tearing at his wild hair. I saw Josiah Crawley, another deeply desperate man, at one moment proud, at another obsequious, raging with envy, puffed up with pride, wrathful against fate, dashed down in his utter helplessness, his diction growing ever more pompous and Latinate, ever more seventeenth-century Miltonic, as his fate presses down on him; yet a pillar of strength to his parishioners, who admire him so much that they actually get up a collection for him out of their pittances.
Four of the Seven Deadly Sins, I said: Lust, Wrath, Envy and Pride. His pride not only extends to so loathing to take charity that he'd watch his beloved family go hungry, but he's intellectually vain—he consoles himself for his humble place in life with the certain knowledge that, poor as he is, his Hebrew is better than the dean's, his Greek better than the bishop's, his trigonometry better than Dr. Tempest's, and he urges his daughters to compete with each other in their Greek verbs and aim always to be the best.
His pride sometimes takes the form of naïveté. He won't engage a lawyer for his appearance before the assizes— he's an honest man, he protests, so why does he need a lawyer? Anyway, he can't afford legal representation, so won't engage a man when he cannot pay him. Luckily, Mary Crawley has appealed to her cousin Mr. Toogood, a lawyer in London, and Toogood—whose own marriage is as full of fun and happiness as Crawley's is not—takes on the case pro bono and very nearly sub rosa.
Crawley's despair is profound. He refuses to say grace at a midday meal, and when his wife presses him to, for the sake of his child, he replies bitterly: "Shall I say that I thank God when my heart is thankless? Shall I serve my child by a lie?" Job again.
Yet, when Mark Robarts, the neighboring vicar, visits with advice that Crawley put his case into the hands of a lawyer, Crawley affects a mock humility that Robarts detects and understands at once, "for behind the humility there was a crushing pride." And Robarts wonders at it all. "There were many clergymen in the country with incomes as small as that which had fallen to the lot of Mr. Crawley, but they managed to get on without displaying their sores as Mr. Crawley displayed his. They did not wear their old rusty cloaks with all that ostentatious bitterness of poverty which seemed to belong to that garment when displayed on Mr. Crawley's shoulders. Such for a moment, were Mr. Robarts' thoughts." And such, Trollope suggests, might be ours.
The passages that describe Crawley's despair, his humiliation in his poverty, the temptation of suicide in such a state, are surely written out of Trollope's deepest heart, and sadly, as we know, his deepest experience: "the taunt of the poor servant who wants her wages; the gradual relinquishment of habits which the soft nurture of earlier, kinder years had made second nature; the wan cheeks of the wife whose malady demands wine; the rags of the husband whose outward occupations demand decency…" The passage goes on in heartbreaking detail, ending with the observation that this is why the Crawleys of the world entertain suicide.
Crawley's wife sees truly that he has succumbed to reveling in his afflictions, in "the sense of the injustice done to him." He dwells obsessively on how successful his education was; how his vocation was genuine; he recalls the short sweet days of his early love, in which he had devoted himself again—thinking nothing of self, he argues to himself pridefully, but everything of her; his diligent labor, in which he had ever done his utmost, and always his best for the poorest. But he dwells too with wrath and envy on the success of other men whose charity he must now take. He thinks of his children, who have been carried off from his love to the churchyard, and then, perhaps most terrible of all, he knows that his still living children love their mother much better than they love him.
Lesser people laugh at him, because Crawley "persisted in walking ten miles through the mud instead of being conveyed in the dean's carriage—and yet, after that, he had been driven to accept the dean's charity! No one respected him. No one! His very wife thought that he was a lunatic. And now he had been publicly branded as a thief; and in all likelihood would end his days in a gaol!" Unlike many a man, Crawley understands, and in his heart of hearts, acknowledges, his failings. He proudly congratulates himself that his wife "did not know that he knew all this of himself also."
Toward the end of the book, Crawley compares himself to Polyphemus, the giant whose only eye has been put out by Odysseus; and to Belisarius, the brilliant general said to have been blinded by his ungrateful emperor, Justinian. When Crawley muses that great power reduced to impotence, great glory reduced to misery by the hand of fate, is tragedy, we don't read these words as vainglorious but as all too true. The grandeur of the Last Chronicle is largely the paradoxical grandeur of this strange man, a character so large and beautifully imagined that we can never forget him.
Let's return to the dilemma that Crawley faces. In his distraction, he cannot remember how he came by the twenty-pound check. Is he a common thief, driven to theft by overwhelming need? Then he must no longer be a clergyman, for even in overwhelming need, clergymen must not steal. Is he so forgetful that he picked the twenty-pound check up who knows where, held on to it for a while, and then, in direst need, used it? This is both lunacy and theft, and either one disqualifies him from being a clergyman.
Around this dilemma, this dreadful fate, the novel turns.
Structure, themes, character—the novel rewards many approaches, and I can only begin to suggest them tonight. But there's one further point I'd like to make, and that is the possible larger symbolism of Josiah Crawley. Trollope has sometimes been criticized for how hermetic his novels are—you'd hardly believe that anything exists outside the idealized English villages he so lovingly depicts.
But perhaps this is an incomplete reading. Let me propose that the figure of Josiah Crawley also evokes a fundamental tension in English society in the second part of the nineteenth century. It's a tension that will advance into contradiction, and at last into destruction. If Trollope doesn't explicitly name the monstrous elephant in the room that generates such tension, he has nevertheless introduced it, and all his characters are deeply affected by it.
This elephant is, of course, the British Empire. In the so-called Imperial Century, 1814 – 1914, Britain adds ten million square miles and 400 million people to its Empire. The Last Chronicle appears at just about the midpoint of the Imperial Century, and already tensions have emerged—British colonialism has become imperialism. What else is imperialism but usurped authority, a usurped authority that begs to be resisted?
Some examples: At about the time of this novel, Great Britain is engaged in serial wars with China for the right—the right, mind you!—to force India's opium upon the Celestial Kingdom. The Chinese desperately do not want this poisonous trade, but the British Raj needs the income, and might makes right. Ten years before the novel's publication, the Indian mutiny has erupted against the Raj itself, unsuccessful then, but success will come. In Africa, trading relationships are transforming themselves into wars, occupations, annexations, and seized territories. By the mid-1860s, the time of this novel, Empire is overtaking industry and agriculture as the source of national wealth, since other countries, especially Germany, and the United States, are successfully industrializing in more modern ways, soon to surpass British industry. To be blunt, one indirect source of that handsome wealth we see the clergymen enjoy here is derived from Empire.
Englishmen rationalize this aggressive imperialism, this usurped authority, with the grotesque claim that they are out in the Empire to enlighten and raise up the heathen, save them from themselves—what Rudyard Kipling will later call the White Man's Burden, though whether he means it seriously or satirically is to this day a matter of debate.
What has this got to do with Josiah Crawley? To repeat myself, Crawley's life, until his late university days, is that of a typical young English gentleman and scholar: learned and well within bounds. This is how his friendship with Francis Arabin begins.
But at a crucial moment, his life is deformed by a hasty and premature marriage, the very sign of an uncontrolled libido. What an unseemly lapse for a Victorian gentleman, a future clergyman; what an affront to the classics he so honors. Add to that the begetting of more than a couple of children—another sign of sexual excess—and Josiah Crawley is a marked man.
Now where, in the mythology of Victorian England, is the fetid swamp of uncontrolled libidos to be found? To put it another way, who or what might Mr. Crawley stand for?
By abandoning the responsibilities of sexual discipline and continence, he has of course become part of the undeserving poor, who always have more children than they can afford. But more important to my point here, and perhaps more telling, scholars have shown that in Victorian England, a myth prevailed that luxuriant sexual excess was always to be found in the subjugated peoples of the Empire. That's why they must be subjugated! It's a breathtaking psychological projection upon the subjects of Empire, but it serves a very practical economic purpose. As a consequence, English literature at this time abounds with inflammatory fictions about the sexual excesses of the savages, excesses that respectable Englishmen have a duty to suppress, not only among the unwashed of the Empire, but that they must suppress in themselves as well. 1
Here is Josiah Crawley's tragic failure. His overheated libido has not only deformed the circumstances of his personal life, but it has put him on a symbolic level with the heathen abroad. Of course Crawley himself is contradictory—while he's indulged his own earthiness, so to speak, he is utterly and to the end intolerant of the earthiness of others, whether they take a glass of port wine or hunt foxes.
Josiah Crawley rages against those whose lives are so much better materially: he believes he deserves such comforts more. He sees men enjoying worldly success whose intellectual superior he is; he envies their carriages, their tables, their fine clothes; he feels undeservedly abused by life.
Is it so very farfetched to imagine that this rage, this frustration, this envy and self-pity, might also be found in the hearts of men of the ancient civilizations of India, China, and Africa, who must walk ten miles through the mud while the sahibs pass them by in their fine carriages? Is it so hard to imagine those men suffering and raging against the usurped authority of English imperialism the same way Crawley suffers and rages against the Bishop of Barchester? Against fate itself?
If Trollope intended such a reading, he knew that only by indirection could he safely criticize, and foretell the inevitable catastrophe. To state outright that imperialism must bring disaster upon its two parties, the perpetrators and the victims, would've been a very great heresy in 1860s London. No reason why he needed to be so obvious. He could practice plausible deniability a century before American politicians re-invented it
Consider another set of possible symbols. Death is an unusual event in a Trollopian novel except to enrich a struggling and deserving hero—so perhaps the three deaths in The Last Chronicle function only as plot devices. But suppose they're also symbols, with deeper resonances?
Is Dobbs Broughton's suicide a novelistic convenience? Or is it an artist's judgment upon the vulgarity, speculation and financial fraud that was then rife in London? In fact, a large-scale financial collapse will take place in London in the decade following this novel's publication.
Sweet natured Septimus Harding, whom everyone loves, who can barely drag himself to his cherished cathedral as the end comes near, seems to have what we might think of as a good death, full of years, surrounded by his loving family, mourned by all of Barsetshire. But could his death also symbolize the end of a kind of literal religious faith that Trollope's contemporary, Charles Darwin, has finished forever?
Is Mrs. Bishop Proudie's death—in the writing, far sadder in its human desolation than any other Trollopian death I can think of—symbolic of the lonely and despised end that any tyrant can expect, any tyrant deserves, another prophetic allusion to usurped authority, to British imperialism?
Perhaps Trollope had no such ideas, conscious or unconscious: we can never know what the artist intends. It hardly matters. The power of a great work of art lies not in the artist's intentions, but in the ideas and feelings that his art evokes from the reader.
At last Crawley is redeemed—although he nearly blows it yet again with his wretched pride, and not a little self-righteousness—and his daughter Grace may, with clear conscience, marry her Major Grantly. At last the Bishop of Barchester is emancipated from his terrifying wife. At last things are tying up nicely for nearly everyone except a few disappointed lovers, most prominently our old friend Johnny Eames, who will never marry the independent Lily Dale. So all seems well in Barsetshire, at least on the surface.
But we know that the contradictory, difficult character of Josiah Crawley will never be at peace. All things in his nature conspire against his tranquility. Whether Josiah Crawley is an ominous symbol of the already troubled relationship between England and the subjugated people of its Empire, cannot be said for certain. Ultimately, it doesn't matter.
What matters is that Anthony Trollope has given us a novel—a series of novels—of extraordinary depth and breadth, that go well beyond their manifest concerns with country clergymen. It's an imagined world that takes us in, makes us laugh, vexes us, involves us intimately in as glorious a group of characters, as finely wrought a structure, as deeply engaging a set of themes, as anything else in English literature.
The Last Chronicle of Barset is a radiant achievement.
Addendum: In the Q&A period after my presentation, someone wanted to know why I hadn't mentioned that the key to this work is Anthony Trollope's forgiving his father for all the father's bad behavior to his family. Didn't I realize this was the key to understanding this book? If I didn't, this analysis can be found in the psychoanalytic literature. It leapt to my mouth that, yes, I knew about the psychoanalytic approach, and for my taste, it was a tediously reductionist way of looking at a mighty work of art. But instead I politely nodded, said that such an aspect was surely to be found in there, and moved on to the next questioner. My first questioner was not at all satisfied, and found me afterwards, repeated the questions more obdurately: didn't I realize that this was the key? That this is what the book was about? Again, I mumbled something about it surely playing a role, and my questioner dismissed me impatiently, convinced I was a dolt.
I'm aware that many people want to make the psychoanalytic case, but I'm not among them. Genius is not equivalent to pathology. To say that the character of Crawley is all about Trollope's coming to terms with his father, and therefore the key to the novel, seems to me to confuse source with oeuvre, as if the key to Shakespeare is the Holinshed Chronicles. To put it another way, all over Manhattan's psychoanalytic couches, every day of the week, people come to epiphanies about their parents. Forgiveness is extended, reconciliation made, personal tranquility found. Worthy stuff, but we don't call it art.
Whatever psychological pain Trollope suffered (and suffer he surely did) he transcended that pain and left it far behind in The Last Chronicle of Barset. With brilliant powers of observation and representation, with careful attention to structure, with a subtle absorption and judgment of the Zeitgeist, and finally, with his mastery of the English language, Anthony Trollope created great art.