I'm so glad The Warden was included this year. I've sometimes included this in the syllabus for my British Literature students but rarely find another friend or adult who has read it to discuss it with me! I was also surprised by this episode because while I disagreed with David's initial "distaste" and frustration with the book in the earlier episodes, I think his critique that "there is no hero" is entirely correct. If I read this book as a serious story, wherein we applaud Harding for finally taking a stand, the story still falls flat and is unsatisfactory for me. Upon considering the humorous tone of the narration though, and the sad, ironic end for the hospital, I think it is more accurate to consider this as realistic unveiling of the effects of our pithy dramas. Everyone was trying to do the right thing - in their eyes - and it was so good of Harding to finally stand up for his opinions. However, his stand was to basically withdraw - how much more courage it would have taken him to endure the scandal, wrestle with his own uncertainty until he actually judges the situation for himself, and make sure those originally entrusted to him were cared for. Were I to follow his example, I would have quit motherhood long ago, and no one would deem that heroic. :) The ending of this story reminds me so much of the conclusion of Vanity Fair, where all is shown to be "vanity of vanities". When Dobbin returns to Amelia's call, we readers are so happy his affection for her is finally recognized but it is too late - we understand that Dobbin is superficial and manipulated as are all the other characters..."Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?" Trollope is gentler though; Thackeray mocks, whereas Trollope simply reveals and chuckles softly. If Trollope were to write about us, he would probably uncover our hidden flaws too - which we attempt to mask with "virtue" - but in seeing them, we can laugh at the characters - and ourselves. Our story doesn't have to be a huge tragedy or transformation - as Dickens prefers - but a simple resolve to be honest with ourselves and make sure that our loved ones will not be collateral damage like the bedesmen.

Expand full comment

Like Heidi, I was bothered by Harding's abandonment of the bedesmen. I thought they were his friends and it seems he turns his back on them at the end. Were they just a job to him after all? I was unsatisfied. But I think Trollope means it to be unsatisfactory: "Mr. Harding, indeed, did not desert them; from him they had such consolation as a dying man may receive from his Christian pastor; but it was the occasional kindness of a stranger which ministered to them, and not the constant presence of a master, a neighbour, and a friend." But there's one word in the alternate vision of what Harding could have been that still feels off-- 'master'.

Overall, I thought the novel was a fairly strong condemnation of a kind of institutional thinking among all the clergymen. They're more about preserving the church and their place in it and maintaining their own power and comfort and the distinctions of rank and position than they are about serving and loving the poor and being in solidarity with them . Ultimately the church is a job and they have families to feed. Even Harding falls short. Though I think he does have genuine love and concern for the bedesmen as long as he is Warden. Still, he lets his thinking get muddled and he loses sight of the men themselves. He's fumbling towards an idea of justice but his thinking is muddled and he doesn't have the tools he needs to properly understand the problem. And yet I'm not sure how he could do better. He's caught between Bold's misplaced activism and Grantly's stodgy institutionalism and the bishop's kind but useless ineffectualness and his concern for the "due difference in rank and income between a beneficed clergyman and certain poor old men who were dependent on charity"-- All of them are a far cry from what Jesus actually says about rank and place and lifting up the lowly and loving one's neighbor.

At one point it says of Dr Grantly: "He is a moral man, believing the precepts which he teaches, and believing also that he acts up to them; though we cannot say that he would give his coat to the man who took his cloak, or that he is prepared to forgive his brother even seven times." This was the closest the novel got to pointing at the Gospel as a source in which the moral life might be rooted. But I wanted the novel to probe this question more deeply. And I wondered as I read if that would also be true of the other clergymen and of the church as a whole. No, Harding and the bishop aren't as hardhearted as Grantly, but are they also deeply living a life of discipleship and service patterned on the Gospel? Or are they mostly going through the motions? I keep thinking about the significance of the fact that there are 12 bedesmen. Does Harding serve the 12 bedesmen in the same spirit of Christ washing the feet of his 12 disciples, or is there something profoundly lacking in his service of them? The question niggles at me.

Also, this struck me: "The tone of our archdeacon’s mind must not astonish us; it has been the growth of centuries of church ascendency; and though some fungi now disfigure the tree, though there be much deadwood, for how much good fruit have not we to be thankful?" That phase 'centuries of church ascendency' is a very good one and again I wanted the novel to look more carefully about what those centuries of ascendency have done to the heart of the church. I wonder how much I agree with the narrator's dismissive tone? Is the wood of the church actually shown to be sound in this story? Is this just a matter of much deadwood and some fungi, as the narrator claims, or is there rot at the heart of the tree? (I confess that maybe here as a Catholic I've got a bit of a prejudice against the reformed church?)

I think it's pretty clear the bedesmen would have been better off had Bold had never entered the scene but was Bold the only problem or was there something secretly rotten in the relationship between Harding and the bedesmen? What are the fruits for which we are supposed to be thankful? That the bedesmen were at least housed and fed and had music and a garden and someone who cared for them? That is all true. And yet I feel there's something paternalistic in his care and it doesn't really feel rooted in love of Christ. It's not bad, in fact for what it is, it's quite good; bit isn't it somehow falling short of the ideal of Christian charity? But maybe that's beyond the scope of Trollope's vision? Or is Trollope, very subtly, asking us to think about what Christian charity is really supposed to be, what the church is supposed to be?

I can't help but thinking of Laurus or A Canticle for Liebowitz, as counterexamples of novels where a character wrestles with moral questions within an institutional church structure-- how both Laurus and the abbot in Liebowitz wrestle with God and moral questions in a way that feels much more profound. Who in The Warden is really bringing this question to prayer, is asking Jesus what he thinks about the situation? Is that an unfair comparison? Why does Trollope seem to expect so much less of his clergymen than Vodolazkin or Miller? Why are none of them striving to be saints? It's not that the stakes aren't real, it's that the spiritual life seems so shallow. Why is Sir Abraham Haphazard the ultimate moral arbiter to whom Harding turns and not Christ himself?

Perhaps Bold's attempt at reform falls so short because he's only asking about a question of abstract justice; he's not calling the clergymen to rend their hearts and return to the Lord. He's not a prophetic figure, he's not aiming at the true heart of the problem. The question that still feels open to me is: what about the novel as a whole? Where is it trying to focus my attention? Is Harding a failed hero because the church itself has let him down, has failed to be what it is supposed to be? Because he is a small man and doesn't know how to be a heroic St Francis, a true reformer? Or is the novel's vision likewise too small and incapable of imagining what a church dedicated to reforming itself would look like?

Expand full comment

I also had no interest in Trollope. I even tore up my copy of Barchester towers to make a book box out of the cover. Sorry now because I really enjoyed the warden. I disagree that Harding was motivated at all by what people would think of him. He cares only about his on conscience being clear , and try as he did, no one could assure him that the living he was receiving was truly in line with Hiram’s wishes. They could only show him legal loopholes so that he could continue. So, he was left with only one way to be sure that he wasn’t in no the wrong and that was to sacrificially give it up. I think the story points out the far reaching consequences of pulling out one loose thread in the social fabric. What do you make of the Jesus links in the final scenes? Harding has agethsemene day all alone in London anguishing over the sacrifice he is about to make. serves wine in a last supper tothe eleven. With the twelfth taking the wine from his hand but holding on to his avarice before leaving them and shedding his old self. no longer warden , he becomes a worshipper, as a notable preceptor, instead of humble server at the hospital.

Expand full comment

Because we can see many sides to the characters in this book, I think it is a very human book, and I believe we must even hold the 12 old men accountable for their greed.

Expand full comment

Thanks for including this book. Before this I had no inclination to read Trollope. The Warden has been a really valuable reading experience that has been amplified by your conversations.

I read this book as a criticism of the Victorian moral code of duty/principles over people. Every major character is driven by principles (Harding - his self-perception as a good person; Bold - theoretical good for the poor; Grantly - protection of structure/the Church) leading to the negative consequences at the end of the book.

I think Trollope got it right that consequences for the main characters were not too bad. They are privileged and powerful and, consistent with my experience of the world, we the privileged and powerful seldom suffer the full consequence of these types of moral shortcomings. Instead, the poor (the bedesmen) and the land suffer (reminding me of Pope Francis' Laudato Si).

I read this book differently than Dickens especially Tale of Two Cities. In my opinion, Dickens is usually motivating toward conversion. He writes stories where the good and bad are more clearly separated and the "hero" chooses good. Dickens' books are highly motivating. The Warden is more of an examination of conscience. Instead of providing motivation to look forward, The Warden forces me to look at the error of my ways and how I should change my focus from principles to people. I recognize that I often fall very short in similar ways as John Bold. However, like Harding, I can also be prone to choose my own sense of worth over others' needs and my family reminds me of how often I will search for loopholes to argue a point instead of looking for the moral good (thus falling into Grantly's role).

I also ask myself, "Is it possible to make a perfectly moral choice?" as you discussed by bringing up "The Good Place." I concluded that Trollope does not think that happens very often based on how he describes the "grotesquely carved faces" in Harding's new church. There are "two devils and an angel on one side [and] two angels and a devil on the other." To me this is a representation that decisions have some moral good and some bad and very few are as distinct as we would like.

Expand full comment

Oh wow! What an episode! I laughed out loud when David finally got to the place I could agree with and then said that the defenders of the book would probably not be happy with his conclusions. Nothing could be further from the truth! I think your conclusions were spot on, and that’s why I enjoyed the book so much. I related to the dilemmas of (nearly) every character. Life is complicated. There are no perfect solutions — only trade offs. Everyone was pursuing what they sincerely thought was the right solution,, but in the end, it was the ruin of what poor Hiram envisioned for good. We could pose a “should question” for every character The story and the ambiguous ending ring so true! I love TOTC and Sydney Carton, for sure, but it doesn’t actually resonate with my life. Most of us will probably never be called to literally die for someone we love, but we will probably all face intractable and complicated dilemmas that don’t seem to have a clear solution, and we have to make the best decision we can and move forward. Does every story have to have a hero? Can we sympathize and empathize with Mr. Harding without agreeing with him? Isn’t that what Trollope is doing? Why would he describe in such detail the decline of the hospital otherwise? I really like the comment that suggested each of the main characters was pursuing self in some way and Heidi’s observation that no one gave a thought to the actual wellbeing of the bedesmen. Lord have mercy on us all when we face the complications of living in a fallen world! This has been one of my favorite discussions (along with Kristin, of course)! Thank you Close Reads!

Expand full comment

I’ve never read Trollope before, but I really loved this book, and the dear old Warden Harding. I recommend that people read the next book, Barchester Towers. I think it might satisfy those who were unhappy with the ending of The Warden.

Expand full comment

Looking at the warden, I don’t feel as if he is a hero - to me he honestly comes off as a love-able but somewhat unhealthy enneagram 9 - “peace at any and all costs.” I feel like he warped his wish for peace into a virtue to excuse himself from the situation, stranding all the old men.

I looked up the controversial salary of the Warden in todays money - around 126k. While this is certainly a high salary, I think it’s appropriate when you consider the actual duties of the warden, especially given the state of the hospital in his absence! He’s running a hospice while physically and spiritually taking care of 12 men beyond any standard of care that would be expected in todays terms. Having worked (and burnt out) as a therapist in a non profit that severely underpaid its workers I’m of the opinion that charity work should pay its workers much more highly than the standard. I cant imagine the emotional toll that working the wardens job would take on me… All that being said, I don’t even think 800 pounds was even worth all this controversy!

This is a good book because it brought out some emotion in me and made me think, but I certainly don’t think I enjoyed it.

Expand full comment