Barchester Towers (1857) is a novel by Anthony Trollope. It is the second in the series of novels known as the Chronicles of Barsetshire, which include The Warden (1855), Barchester Towers (1857), Doctor Thorne (1858), Framley Parsonage (1861), The Small House at Allington (1864), and The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867). The chronicles describe events in the cathedral town of Barchester.
The novel begins with the death of Bishop Grantley. His son, the Archdeacon Grantley, is anxious to become the next Bishop, but the new government in London appoints Dr. Proudie as the new Bishop. Dr. Proudie is an ambitious man, who is dominated by his wife. Mrs. Proudie attempts to control the diocese of Barchester by promoting evangelical causes such as Sunday schools, and by eliminating high-church ritual such as chanting.
Mrs. Proudie and her ally, the Bishop’s new chaplain, Mr. Slope, antagonize the established ecclesiastical society of Barchester, particularly Archdeacon Grantley. Mr. Slope delivers a sermon in which he is critical of the practice of chanting. This is a direct attack at Rev. Harding, the former Warden of the Hospital. Mr. Slope attempts to manipulate Bishop Proudie, and thus to gain control over church patronage in Barchester.
Rev. Septimus Harding is an aging clergyman, who no longer feels capable of taking on strenuous duty, and who desires a peaceful retirement. Mr. Harding wants to avoid any quarrel or personal conflict. He had resigned from his position as Warden of Hiram’s Hospital, after he had been criticized by the newspaper, The Jupiter, for the salary he had received as Warden.
Mr. Harding is now Vicar of St. Cuthbert’s. He hopes to be reappointed to his post as Warden of the Hospital, though he would receive a smaller salary. When Mr. Slope, as the Bishop’s chaplain, offers the position of Warden to Rev. Harding, however, it is with the conditions that Mr. Harding be expected to conduct several services a week and also conduct Sunday schools, and Mr. Harding has to refuse such arduous conditions. Mr. Slope actually wants Mr. Quiverful to be appointed as Warden, so that he will have an ally in his quest for control of the diocese of Barchester.
Another change of policy is made when the Bishop announces, through Mr. Slope, that absentee clergymen should return to fulfil their duties. For years, Dr. Vesey Stanhope has left his duties to his curates, and has lived with his family in Italy. Now Dr. Stanhope has to return to England with his wife and three grown children, Charlottle, Madeline, and Ethelbert.
Charlotte Stanhope is the oldest daughter, and manages the household and the rest of the family. Ethelbert (also called Bertie) is an irresponsible and unambitious young man, who dabbles in art. Madeline is a beautiful young woman who has been deserted by her Italian husband. Madeline had been maimed and left lame by her husband, so that now she demands to be carried wherever she wants to go, while she reclines on a sofa. She calls herself La Signora Madeline Vesey Neroni. She pretends that she is related to Italian nobility, though her husband was only an adventurer, a captain in the Pope’s guard. Madeline attracts men easily, flirting with, and seducing them.
Bishop and Mrs. Proudie give a reception at the Bishop’s Palace. Madeline captures Mr. Slope’s attention, and makes an enemy of Mrs. Proudie. When the post of Parson of St. Ewold’s in Barchester becomes vacant, Archdeacon Grantley takes a trip to Oxford, and persuades Rev. Francis Arabin to accept the post. Mr. Grantley wants an ally in the struggle against Mr. Slope. Mr. Arabin is a scholarly clergyman, who is a bachelor. Mr. Arabin has no desire for wealth or power, unlike Mr. Slope.
Rev. Harding has two daughters. The older daughter, Susan, is married to Archdeacon Grantley. The younger daughter, Eleanor, is the wealthy widow of John Bold. Eleanor lives with her baby son and with her sister-in-law, Mary Bold. When the ambitious and scheming Mr. Slope hears of Eleanor’s wealth, he begins courting her. At the same time, he has already forced Mr. Harding to refuse the post of Warden at the Hospital, and has offered the post to Mr. Quiverful. Mr. and Mrs. Quiverful are struggling to support fourteen children, and Mr. Quiverful is eager to accept the post under any conditions.
Mr. Slope attempts to win Eleanor by telling her that he is concerned about her father, and by trying to persuade the Bishop to unconditionally offer the wardenship to Mr. Harding. Mrs. Proudie, however, is able to assert her domination over her husband by persuading him to offer the post to Mr. Quiverful. Mr. Slope becomes Mrs. Proudie’s enemy, and loses his position of influence with the Bishop.
Meanwhile, Charlotte Stanhope has realized that her younger brother Bertie will never be able to support himself, and she decides that Bertie should marry Eleanor. Charlotte tries to persuade Bertie to court Eleanor, and to marry her for her money. Mr. Thorne and his sister, Miss Thorne, are members of an aristocratic family of Barsetshire. The Thornes of Ullathorne give a party, which is attended by all the clergy.
Eleanor finds herself traveling to the party in the same carriage with Mr. Slope, whom she now greatly dislikes. Later that day, as she is walking with Mr. Slope, he suddenly puts his arm around her, and declares his love. She slaps him on the cheek, and rushes away. At the same party, Bertie later walks with Eleanor, and tells her that his sister Charlotte had urged him to marry her for her money. Eleanor is angered, and feels insulted by the Stanhope family.
That evening, when Dr. Stanhope learns what has happened, he insists that Bertie begin to earn a living. Bertie has to leave for Italy several days later. The Dean of Barchester dies, and Mr. Slope attempts to get himself appointed as Dean. However, he is dismissed as chaplain by Dr. and Mrs. Proudie. He returns to London. Eleanor has fallen in love with Mr. Arabin, and they plan to marry. The deanship of Barchester is offered to Mr. Harding, but he refuses to accept the post. Archdeacon Grantley maneuvers to have the deanship offered to Mr. Arabin, who becomes the new Dean of Barchester. Mr. Harding shows kindness and concern toward Mr. Quiverful by helping him to begin duties as Warden of the Hospital. The novel ends by showing that Mr. Harding’s sincerity and humility make him different from the other clergymen in Barchester.
An important theme of the novel is that of personal ambition. Archdeacon Grantley is ambitious to become Bishop after his father’s death. Dr. Proudie, on his appointment as Bishop, is eager to become Archbishop. Mr. Slope is ambitious to have control over the power and patronage of the diocese of Barchester. The novel shows the corrupting nature of ambition, and of the quest for power.
Trollope’s major technique in the novel is that of comic irony. The manipulation and intrigue practiced by the clergy of Barchester is revealed, and the honesty and integrity they are supposed to represent is contrasted with the scheming nature of their quest for influence and power. The novel shows the worldliness of the clergy, and exposes the hypocrisy of the Church and of Victorian society.
Another important theme is the nature of friendship. The novel shows the difference between true and false friendship. Mr. Slope tells Eleanor that he is her father’s friend, but he is really interested only in his own pursuit of wealth and power. Charlotte tells Eleanor that she is her friend, but what she really wants is to push Eleanor into a relationship with her irresponsible brother, Bertie. However, Mr. Harding shows the nature of true friendship. At the end of the novel, Mr. Harding is a true friend to Mr. Quiverful by introducing him to his new duties at the Hospital. The novel shows that true friendship is generous and unselfish, and that false friendship is selfish and calculating.