Normally, I avoid reading books in a series out of sequence. However, I only became aware that The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope was the final book in his The Chronicles of Barsetshire series (including in total: The Warden, Barchester Towers, Doctor Thorne, Framley Parsonage, The Small House at Allington, and The Last Chronicle of Barset) after I’d started reading. It was too late at that point, though it ended up being fine. Even though I’d read none of the other books in the series, I wasn’t lost at all. This book wraps up a series, but it felt to me as if it stood just fine on its own.
(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 5th for Jonathan Raban.)
The Last Chronicle of Barset centers on the misfortune of the impoverished, though upstanding, Reverend Josiah Crawley caused by his passing of a stolen check. He is sure he didn’t steal it, but that doesn’t help him much since he can’t explain how he got the check. Without that explanation, he faces conviction as a thief and destruction of his livelihood and his family:
Up to this period Mr. Walker had not suspected Mr. Crawley of anything dishonest, nor did he suspect him as yet. The poor man had probably received the money from the dean, and had told the lie about it, not choosing to own that he had taken money from his rich friend, and thinking that there would be no further inquiry. He had been very foolish, and that would be the end of it. Mr. Soames was by no means so good-natured in his belief. “How should my pocket-book have got into Dean Arabin’s hands?” said Mr. Soames, almost triumphantly. “And then I felt sure at the time that I had left it at Crawley’s house!”
Mr. Walker wrote a letter to the dean, who at that moment was in Florence, on his way to Rome, from whence he was going on to the Holy Land. There came back a letter from Mr. Arabin, saying that on the 17th of March he had given to Mr. Crawley a sum of fifty pounds, and that the payment had been made with five Bank of England notes of ten pounds each, which had been handed by him to his friend in the library at the deanery. The letter was very short, and may, perhaps, be described as having been almost curt. Mr. Walker, in his anxiety to do the best he could for Mr. Crawley, had simply asked a question as to the nature of the transaction between the two gentlemen, saying that no doubt the dean’s answer would clear up a little mystery which existed at present respecting a cheque for twenty pounds. The dean in answer simply stated the fact as it has been given above; but he wrote to Mr. Crawley begging to know what was in truth this new difficulty, and offering any assistance in his power. He explained all the circumstances of the money, as he remembered them. The sum advanced had certainly consisted of fifty pounds, and there had certainly been five Bank of England notes. He had put the notes into an envelope, which he had not closed, but had addressed to Mr. Crawley, and had placed this envelope in his friend’s hands. He went on to say that Mrs. Arabin would have written, but that she was in Paris with her son. Mrs. Arabin was to remain in Paris during his absence in the Holy Land, and meet him in Italy on his return. As she was so much nearer at hand, the dean expressed a hope that Mrs. Crawley would apply to her if there was any trouble.
The letter to Mr. Walker was conclusive as to the dean’s money. Mr. Crawley had not received Lord Lufton’s cheque from the dean. Then whence had he received it? The poor wife was left by the lawyer to obtain further information from her husband. Ah, who can tell how terrible were the scenes between that poor pair of wretches, as the wife endeavoured to learn the truth from her miserable, half-maddened husband! That her husband had been honest throughout, she had not any shadow of doubt. She did not doubt that to her at least he endeavoured to tell the truth, as far as his poor racked imperfect memory would allow him to remember what was true and what was not true. The upshot of it all was that the husband declared that he still believed that the money had come to him from the dean. He had kept it by him, not wishing to use it if he could help it. He had forgotten it,–so he said at times,–having understood from Arabin that he was to have fifty pounds, and having received more. If it had not come to him from the dean, then it had been sent to him by the Prince of Evil for his utter undoing; and there were times in which he seemed to think that such had been the manner in which the fatal cheque had reached him. In all that he said he was terribly confused, contradictory, unintelligible,–speaking almost as a madman might speak,–ending always by declaring that the cruelty of the world had been too much for him, that the waters were meeting over his head, and praying for God’s mercy to remove him from the world. It need hardly be said that his poor wife in these days had a burden on her shoulders that was more than enough to crush any woman.
Beyond the stolen check and Crawley’s misfortune, the book relates in meticulous detail the society that surrounds Crawley, the obsession with his alleged crime, and what those in society do about it. There are a few love interests woven in there (along with some interesting wrinkles such as how a rich Major wishes to marry one of Crawley’s daughters, though such a marriage would pollute his family with the crime if Crawley is indeed convicted), but the majority of the book chronicles the rigid English society and how they handle the indictment of the clergyman.
Now, I certainly would have to take my hat off to Trollope for his ability to render the rigid social structure of his time period in The Last Chronicle of Barset, presuming I wore hats. It reminded me somewhat of a comedy of manners, with perhaps the comedy removed. The number of people and their various interactions are well described and seem to give a comprehensive picture of human life as a whole during the time period.
One thing I kept thinking of as I read was the works of Jane Austen. In comparing Austen to The Last Chronicle of Barset, I personally prefer Austen (at least the works of hers that I’ve read). I really find no fault with Trollope, but I think Austen is a much more energetic and entertaining writer while still capturing the rigid social hierarchy. It is even more to Austen’s credit that she was a generation prior to Trollope and he could look to her work for example.
But, all that is neither here nor there. The fact that I personally prefer Austen doesn’t mean that The Last Chronicle of Barset isn’t a good book. For one thing, perhaps Trollope’s prose style itself more exemplifies the rigid English structure. Regardless, though The Last Chronicle of Barset has much to recommend it, I do admit that it is a little bit of a chore to read.