Saturday 29 June 2019

'Barchester as we knew it was dead'

About thirty years ago I worked in a library and was not a reader of Trollope. But, shelving, I grew familiar with titles. Our Trollopes seduced me with their covers, their titles, their quantity. Most were World's Classics editions, and years later I have assembled my own collection:

I read Trollope over many years. I read the Barsetshire series haphazardly, retaining an impression lacking in detail. Barchester Pilgrimage (1935) is the work of a man of much more detailed (though not always accurate) Trollopian knowledge, Ronald A Knox, a well-known man of letters in his time, a Catholic priest, and the subject of a biography by Evelyn Waugh.

It's essentially 'fan fiction'. Knox takes the characters from Trollope's novels and depicts their lives and those of their descendants in the later Victorian age and into the twentieth century.

The book comprises six longish short stories:
  1. 'The Loves of Johnny Bold', a hobbledehoy's progress, is a low-powered start, taking in atheism, a brief love affair with a suitable girl, and a trip to Cannes and a flirtation with a middle-aged temptress. Names from the Barsetshire series come thick and fast. Best to let your eyes glide over them.
  2. 'The Graces of Marmaduke Thorne' is about another young man, this time in the decadent 1890s. He considers Roman Catholicism and dallies with an American heiress.
  3. 'Is She Not Fast?' depicts an advanced woman in the new century, the craze for bicycling, and the first motorcars. There's a lot of talk about tariff reform and Imperial Preference, the Brexit of its day.
  4. 'Mr Theophylact Crawley-Grantley' starts with a minor slip. It's Josiah, not Joshua, Crawley. Theophylact, grandson of Mr Crawley and Archdeacon Grantley, is a controversial vicar whose radical career is thrown off course by the Great War, when 'Barchester as we knew it was dead'.
  5. 'There's No Holding Them', set in the 1920s, features some argy-bargy between Anglicans and Catholics over the millennium of St Ewold, and an engagement between two parties called Dumbello and Lufton. The names may be familiar, but nothing feels real and nothing quite charms.
  6. The Barset chronicles began with The Warden, and Knox attempts some circularity in his last instalment, 'Septimus Arabin's Wardenship'. A dull finish. Copious skipping advised.
Ronald Knox's pilgrimage is less a sentimental journey than a twee and rather sad one. His 'modern' Barsetshire is a fallen paradise. If the project has a virtue, it is to return the reader to the original.

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