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Thursday, August 25, 2016

Trollope v Dickens, The Warden v Bleak House - 2 versions of the Victorian

The 3rd and 4th chapters of Trollope's The Warden introduce us to the 12 men living in what today we'd call a home for the aged, who have been told they are entitled to far more than the few pennies a year they receive from the century's old Hiram legacy - this group that had gotten along well together and had been extremely grateful to have a beautiful place to live at no cost, suddenly start to turn on one another - one faction completely loyal to the churchmen - Harding (the eponymous warden) and his officious son-in-law the church "deacon" (I think), Grantly; the other faction, rising to dominance, feeling angry and oppressed and signing on to an agreement to pursue a court case against the church. A very old story - how money corrupts - going back at least to Chaucer (the Pardoner's Tale) - yet Trollope makes it new. He's interested in the social forces and the moral ambiguities: yes, it's obvious that the Hiram legacy was meant to provide care and comfort for aged working-class men and not to provide them with a meager pension and to enrich the church officials; but on the other hand it wasn't meant to enrich 12 men w/ a pretty huge annual legacy, either. The money is far more than Hiram could ever have anticipated and obviously a better use would be to benefit the entire community and not just 12 men. It's a situation that Trollope's near-contemporary Dickens would have had a lot of fun with - making the 12 angry men into caricatures, really heightening the evil and selfishness of Grantly and the self-righteousness of the advocate for the 12 men, Bold. But Trollope leaves the ambiguities and ambivalence in place, he never (or seldom) resorts to irony and comic exaggeration: Harding (the Warden) himself is a timid, vapid character, afraid to make a decision or take a stance, and it will be interesting to see whether he grows in some way. The 12 men are somewhat faceless and flat, and I think Trollope wants it that way: they're a force, and not a set of personalities. He does have a little fun at the expense of lawyers; the church is advised to hire an attorney who sits in Parliament and has the Dickensian name of Haphazard - but in general the whole tone of the novel is more serious and analytic - compare with that other great novel about litigation and its effect on family and personality, Bleak House, which is far more boldly comic and nakedly sentimental, even melodramatic (the death of the child, Esther's illness, the long mental and physical decline of her cousin).

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