How to Read and Enjoy the Classics

Trollope’s “The Warden”: Empathy v. The Media

View of Medieval almshouses in yellow stone with roofed walk and row of arched supports.

St. John’s Almshouses in Sherborne could be a model for Hiram’s Hospital in “The Warden.”*

Do you like taking quizzes? Try this one:

  • What famous novelist attacked false news and the unbalanced power of a money-driven mainstream media, and in what novel?
  • What famous novelist, in this same novel, faulted popular storytellers for creating blind emotion and simplistic portrayals of “good” or “bad” people?
  • What famous novelist attacked a famous public intellectual for his bombastic cynicism about everything in the modern world?
  • What novelist thought the central character of a work should be neither a faultless victim nor a morally pristine super-person, but rather an ordinary man, weak but well-meaning, a “mixed” character with good and bad, noble and foolish characteristics all mixed together?

As contemporary as these ideas may sound, the answer to all these questions is not someone writing today, but a writer whose 200th birthday was celebrated in 2015, along with his novel that was published in Victorian England back in 1855: writer Anthony Trollope and his sweet little gem of a book, The Warden.

Among other things, The Warden criticizes irresponsible newspaper writers, sentimental novelists, and cultural critics who see only the bad things in people and in the institutions of modern life. For instance, The Warden parodies Dickens as “Mr. Sentiment,” who within Trollope’s story writes a novel that grossly exaggerates the malfeasance of all Trollope’s characters, as well as the bombastic social critic Thomas Carlyle, whom he names “Dr. Pessimist Anticant.”

Victorian B & W headshot of gentleman with long shite beard and mustache, bald on top, white-haired, with small wire-rimmed glasses, 3/4 pose facing right.

Anthony Trollope, gentle humorist*

The Tale

Far from the thundering tones of these cultural reformers, The Warden tells a gentle story of a tender-hearted, conventional clergyman, the Reverend Septimus Harding, who becomes innocently embroiled in a national controversy about unfair pay for some English clergymen.

Everyone agreed that Mr. Harding performed his two jobs most admirably. The gentle, tender-hearted man served as Precentor (music director) of the Barchester Cathedral, and as the Warden of Hiram’s Hospital, a charitable home for 12 aged and indigent men. However, some reformers, especially the young John Bold, start to argue that his salary of 800 pounds a year, or about 100,000 dollars in today’s equivalent, is more than anyone should be paid for the Warden’s job. They contend that more of the income arising from a centuries-old endowment should go to the poor old men themselves.

Etching of photograph of middle-aged man facing left with right hand to forhead, serious expression, slightly graying thick hair and mid-length beard, jacket with lapels.

Thomas Carlyle, thundering social critic*

Quickly, this debate reaches the highest levels of church authority, and before long, the whole nation through the editorial pages of the great London newspaper The Jupiter (Trollope’s satire of the Times). After that, everyone in the fictional cathedral city of Barchester weighs in on the controversy, and Mr. Harding must grapple with all of them, and with his awakened conscience as well.

Voluble Outrage v. Trollope’s Method of Critique

An enjoyable read through this 300-page tale also shows that politics, whether of the church or otherwise, as well as of love, family, and power, have not changed much since 1855. It also shows that our generation is not the first to object to a powerful media with little accountability to the public, or to see with sadness how people jump to take sides on every question based on politics, peer pressure, or tribal loyalty–anything but on understanding the people and issues involved.

But unlike most of today’s pundits, talking heads, and Tweeters, Trollope does not attack those he disagreed with by shaking a fist and writing sensational angry prose.

Instead, he tells a charming story—one with mixed but sympathetic characters, using a narrator who employs gentle irony to undercut “cant,” the Victorian word for fashionable self-righteousness, wherever he finds it.

And he finds a lot of self-righteousness. People take themselves and their opinions too seriously everywhere he looks. However, when Trollope does find gracelessness and outsize outrage, he doesn’t get angry in return. Instead, he makes us laugh. Thus in The Warden, as in most of Trollope’s other novels, readers find a lot of humor, gentle irony and soft satire, and a sweet cast of mixed but sympathetic characters.

Above all, we find the narrator’s patient understanding of the constant struggle in every human heart between kindness and egotism, generosity and selfishness.

Colored Victorian drawing of Anglican clergyman, wearing white gown over longer black robe and a black surplice/scarf.

Anglican clergyman. “The Warden’s” story focuses on the society of clergymen and their families in the fictional cathedral town of Barchester.

Trollope’s Cast: Described with Gentle Irony

The Warden‘s cast of characters includes, of course, Mr. Harding himself, as well as Archdeacon Grantly, his assertive authoritative son-in-law with a high church position; Eleanor Bold, Mr. Harding’s young unmarried daughter, a lady with a loving heart but a fine sense of justice; and John Bold, the young Barchester physician who hankers to reform all injustice wherever he finds it–as well as to marry Mr. Harding’s daughter.

Surprisingly, it is John Bold who ignites the controversy destined to have such a powerful impact on Mr. Harding, although that’s bound to cast his suit for Eleanor in a bad light. This plot point alone shows us a lot about how Trollope sized up his fellow humans. Unlike many cynics writing novels or screenplays today, Trollope shows people being capable of acting on ideals alone, even to their own detriment. Not that it’s always a good idea to do that, as the story will explore.

Like other Victorian realists, Trollope sought to portray people as complex “mixed” characters, with good, bad, and indifferent characteristics all mixed in. As a result, we never completely hate even the more dislikable characters in Trollope.

Trollope’s Genial Narrator in Action

A close look at Trollope’s first description of Mr. Harding will give a taste of the way Trollope’s genial narrator handles his characters. Clearly Mr. Harding has many good qualities, but is hardly depicted as a larger-than-life heroic character. For one thing, the narrator pokes gentle fun of the good Reverend’s excessive dedication to playing his violoncello:

Close-up photo of a cello showing bow and hands of the player.

Mr. Harding is a small man, now verging on sixty years, but bearing few of the signs of age; his hair is rather grizzled, though not gray; his eye is very mild, but clear and bright, though the double glasses which are held swinging from his hand, unless when fixed upon his nose, show that time has told upon his sight; his hands are delicately white, and both hands and feet are small; he always wears a black frock coat, black knee-breeches, and black gaiters, and somewhat scandalises some of his more hyperclerical brethren by a black neck-handkerchief.

Mr. Harding’s warmest admirers cannot say that he was ever an industrious man; the circumstances of his life have not called on him to be so; and yet he can hardly be called an idler. Since his appointment to his precentorship, he has published, with all possible additions of vellum, typography, and gilding, a collection of our ancient church music, with some correct dissertations on Purcell, Crotch, and Nares. He has greatly improved the choir of Barchester, which, under his dominion, now rivals that of any cathedral in England. He has taken something more than his fair share in the cathedral services, and has played the violoncello daily to such audiences as he could collect, or, faute de mieux, to no audience at all.

Archdeacon Grantly is powerful, domineering, and dogmatic in his opinions, but Trollope takes him down a peg even at the beginning of the novel by depicting his nightly transformation into someone more submissive: every night after he puts on his nightcap, he closes the bedroom door and condescends to ask for, even listen to, his wife’s advice. A little later, Trollope shows us a typical weekday morning when Dr. Grantly locks himself in his study, supposedly to write a sermon:

After breakfast, on the morning of which we are writing, the archdeacon, as usual, retired to his study, intimating that he was going to be very busy, but that he would see Mr. Chadwick if he called. On entering this sacred room he carefully opened the paper case on which he was wont to compose his favourite sermons, and spread on it a fair sheet of paper and one partly written on; he then placed his inkstand, looked at his pen, and folded his blotting paper; having done so, he got up again from his seat, stood with his back to the fire-place, and yawned comfortably, stretching out vastly his huge arms and opening his burly chest. He then walked across the room and locked the door; and having so prepared himself, he threw himself into his easy-chair, took from a secret drawer beneath his table a volume of Rabelais [a writer famous for his bawdy humor—not widely-acceptable reading for a cleric], and began to amuse himself with the witty mischief of Panurge; and so passed the archdeacon’s morning on that day.

John Bold, the brave young reformer, gets a treatment similar to these other characters. The narrator shows clearly that he has admirable qualities, but Mr. Bold is hardly a perfect individual:

Now I will not say that the archdeacon is strictly correct in stigmatising John Bold as a demagogue, for I hardly know how extreme must be a man’s opinions before he can be justly so called; but Bold is a strong reformer. His passion is the reform of all abuses; state abuses, church abuses, corporation abuses (he has got himself elected a town councillor of Barchester, and has so worried three consecutive mayors, that it became somewhat difficult to find a fourth), abuses in medical practice, and general abuses in the world at large. Bold is thoroughly sincere in his patriotic endeavours to mend mankind, and there is something to be admired in the energy with which he devotes himself to remedying evil and stopping injustice; but I fear that he is too much imbued with the idea that he has a special mission for reforming. It would be well if one so young had a little more diffidence himself, and more trust in the honest purposes of others — if he could be brought to believe that old customs need not necessarily be evil, and that changes may possibly be dangerous. . ..

Thus, by the time readers have waded a little way into the narrative, we become acquainted not only with the characters in the story, but with the narrator’s character as well. He is gentle, witty, even-handed, sympathetic, and benevolent. Whether one agrees with all his assessments or not, this is the kind of person I am happy to spend some time with, and I think you will be as well.

Color Photograph of symmetrical elevation of Blackburn Cathedral, yellow stone, tall bell tower in center, surrounded by trees.

Blackburn Cathedral in Lancashire. Trollope may have imagined a similar structure as Mr. Harding’s beloved Barchester Cathedral.*

“The Warden” Critiques Victorian Media: Power without Accountability

There is, however, one character and one English institution that The Warden’s narrator does not handle gently: Tom Towers, the anonymous editorial writer for the famous newspaper The Jupiter, Trollope’s alias for the widely-read actual newspaper The Times. Tom Towers is the man John Bold approaches to champion his ideas for reforming the stipend for Hiram’s Hospital’s warden.

Like many today who are alarmed by the amount of false news or unfair public shaming spread through irresponsible tweets or viral social media posts, Trollope was hugely critical of the power that irresponsible media had to pronounce judgment against every aspect of government, business, or church structure. Trollope likens Towers to the Pope, a man whose opinions are practically unassailable.

Since editorials were anonymous in those days, Towers as an individual would be largely unknown to the public. Trollope imagines Towers as sitting alone at his gentleman’s club, gloating about his nearly unbounded power to influence public opinion:

He loved to sit silent in a corner of his club and listen to the loud chattering of politicians, and to think how they all were in his power — how he could smite the loudest of them, were it worth his while to raise his pen for such a purpose. He loved to watch the great men of whom he daily wrote, and flatter himself that he was greater than any of them. Each of them was responsible to his country, each of them must answer if inquired into, each of them must endure abuse with good humour, and insolence without anger. But to whom was he, Tom Towers, responsible? No one could insult him; no one could inquire into him. He could speak out withering words, and no one could answer him: ministers courted him, though perhaps they knew not his name; bishops feared him; judges doubted their own verdicts unless he confirmed them; and generals, in their councils of war, did not consider more deeply what the enemy would do, than what The Jupiter would say.

It is probable that Tom Towers considered himself the most powerful man in Europe; and so he walked on from day to day, studiously striving to look a man, but knowing within his breast that he was a god.

Today’s readers of The Warden will no doubt find many of the social customs and beliefs portrayed in the novel unfamiliar, outmoded, or quaint, but they can’t fail to recognize the many varieties of recurring human personalities and conflicts, as well as the all-too-contemporary lament at the overweening power of a media largely not held to account for accuracy and fair-handedness. I think it’s a good time to revisit this nineteenth century story that has so much to say about what’s happening in the twenty-first.

Teach, Don’t Preach–and Stop Yelling Before You Know the Whole Story!

Trollope shared one belief with most other Victorians that many people today might now regard as quaint: he believed that the novel, or whatever the current form of popular story-telling might be, should be morally uplifting; it should teach the reader something about how to be a better human being. However, as we have observed through our discussion today, preachiness and outrage have little part in his teaching method. Instead, he relies on humor and even-handedness in service to his central message: sympathy, benevolence, and understanding toward fellow human beings. 

The Warden is a short work: try it! If you enjoy spending time with Trollope and his very human characters, you can go on to the The Warden’s sequel, Barchester Towers (one of the funniest of all Victorian novels, in my opinion), or to any other of his 45 (yes, 45!) other novels.1

In the end, reading Trollope is funny, and sweet, just a little salty, and (dare I say?) wholesome. When we’re done, we feel a little more tolerant toward our fellow humans. And couldn’t we all use a little more tolerance right now?

Engraving by Currier and Ives showing Victorian family in front hall of their house. Mother in center hands over baby to father at left. Bottom left, small boy with dog. On right, tiny girl at mother's skirt and bigger girl coming down staircase.

A Victorian Family depicted by Currier and Ives, who, like Trollope, help us feel a little more charitable toward our fellow humans.*


1Not all 45 are equally good, of course. My personal favorite Trollope novels are Barchester Towers, The Last Chronicle of Barset, Can You Forgive Her?, Phineas Finn, The Eustace Diamonds, and The Prime Minister.


*Photo Credits:

St. John’s Almshouses. By Neil Owen / CC BY-SA 2.0.

Anthony Trollope. Published by Gebbie, Philadelphia, 1900 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Thomas Carlyle. By Elliott & Fry [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Cello. Photo on

Blackburn Cathedral. By JohnArmagh [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.

The Four Seasons of Life–Middle Age. By Artists: Charles R. Parsons (d. 1910) and Lyman W. Atwater (d. 1891)On stone: James M. Ives [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Graham Smith

    A very sound assessment of a beautifully written book. Reading it for the fourth or fifth time, I enjoy the minor characters more and more: Burly Mr. Bunce “never went without the second glass [of port] but no entreaty ever made him take a third. He knew the world too well to risk the comfort of such halcyon moments by prolonging them till they were disagreeable”. Wise Mr. Bunce! I agree with your list of favourites, but would add The Way We Live Now.

    • MJ Booklover

      Yes, Trollope’s minor characters are splendid, aren’t they? He had a lot of fun playing with their names too–I’m thinking, for one, of the Reverend Quiverful in Barchester Towers with his 14 children, way too many for small vicar’s stipend. Regarding The Way We Live Now: Of Trollope’s novels, it seems to have the lion’s share of academic critical attention now. It is a fine work, but to me, seems more bitter and satirical than other of his works that I enjoy more. However, definitely one of his best-written.

      Wonderful to hear from another Trollope fan! Thanks for your comment.

      • CorrinaRose

        I have enjoyed the Warden but wonder about the omniscient narrator, are we to assume Trollope places himself as a first hand witness? Or just accept an unknown entity? Or did I miss something rather important in the cast of characters.

      • MJ Booklover

        Hi CorrinaRose. In The Warden, Trollope is using a story-telling convention common in the 19th century, and still in use today–as you mention, his narrator in the work is Third Person Omniscient. The narrative voice is not a character in the story, per se, but the voice is so personable, the narrator does become a character in its own right–not someone who is part of the story, but someone who seems to know everything that happens to all the characters in the narrative, and who forms a friendly relationship directly with readers to tell us all about it. So yes, we assume the narrator voice is a first-hand witness, not just of events but also of the thoughts of many of the characters.

        To learn more about this type of narrator, you can read this post in Lit 101 section: “All About Narrators: Who’s Telling This Story, Anyway?” This quote from that post applies to the narrator in The Warden:

        ‘“Dear Reader”: Non-Disappearing Third Person Narrators

        ‘Not all third person readers are so anonymous. Nineteenth century classic fiction is famous for narrators of the “Dear Reader” school—that is, narrators who have characteristics as prominent as any of the characters in the novel. These narrators use their third person privileges to speak directly to readers, offering their opinions not just on characters and events in the story, but also on what they think the readers will think of those characters, or indeed, on any topics that might seem related to the story at all.

        ‘These writers seem to be reaching out to readers in friendship, trying to make a direct connection from writer to reader. It’s important to keep in mind, though, that the “friendly” narrator is not the actual writer who speaks to readers in her own voice.’

        This convention of the all-knowing yet personality-filled narrative voice might seem a little old-fashioned today, but was very common in 19th century fiction, especially in George Eliot’s and Trollope’s novels. Readers just accept the rather unrealistic idea that any individual could know all the things Trollope’s narrator knows–but it is another part of our “willing suspension of disbelief.”

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