Barchester Towers Summary

Anthony Trollope

Barchester Towers

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Barchester Towers Summary

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Barchester Towers (1857) by English author Anthony Trollope satirizes the role of the church in English life in the mid-19th century. Considered a comedic classic, this novel is the second in a six-part series known as The Chronicles of Barsetshire.

Its themes include human conniving, the abuse of religion, the foibles of human nature, and the prevalence of moral nobility.

Set in western England in the Catholic city of Barchester (Barchester Towers refers to the major cathedral in the town), the novel opens to the well-respected Bishop of Barchester, Dr. Grantly, dying. There is much commotion and speculation over who, after the Bishop’s passing, will ascend to his very powerful role.

Dr. Proudie wants in on the Bishop’s wealth and power. He is a strict reformer from the “Low Church,” meaning he wants to make church services more informal and relaxed. Dr. Proudie is rather arrogant and fastidious. He is largely controlled by his cunning and energetic wife, Mrs. Proudie.

Meanwhile, the scheming and hypocritical chaplain, Obadiah Slope, wants to see Dr. Proudie ascend to the position; he will, by serving him, also ascend the church ranks. Mr. Slope also has his eyes peeled for a wealthy single lady he might marry.

Because his politics align with the current Prime Minister, Dr. Proudie is appointed to the bishop’s position after the bishop dies.

Not everyone in Barchester is pleased by Dr. Proudie’s ascension to power. The more conservative forces in town, such as Archdeacon Theophilus Grantly—the son of Dr. Grantly—are irate that Dr. Proudie, a newcomer to the town, received the promotion when there are other, more qualified people (such as himself) to assume the position.

While Archdeacon Grantly looses the battle of receiving the bishopric, he is determined not to lose the war. This means that he must place an ally of his own into the newly open position of Warden of Hiram’s Hospital.

As these larger actions transpire, Obadiah Slope gleefully obeys Mrs. Proudie’s requests. This includes that he presents a sermon supporting the abandonment of traditional church rituals, such as chanting the sermon.

That Sunday, Chaplain Slope executes Mrs. Proudie’s request, and lectures on the need to keep church practices simple so as to focus with more resolution on God and salvation. The churchgoers are outraged. Chanting the sermon is part of their tradition, going back centuries. The “higher ups” at the cathedral agree that Chaplain Slope should never again have the power to give a sermon on Sunday.

Dr. Proudie, now Bishop Proudie, is determined to shake things up in the cathedral town. He implements a rule that says high church officials must be present in the diocese to receive their salary. This means that certain powerful officials, such as Dr. Vesey Stanhope who has been residing in Italy for the last 12 years, must come back to England if he wants to remain employed by the church.

With immense reluctance, Dr. Stanhope returns from Italy. He brings along his disgruntled wife and three adult children. Chaplain Slope becomes infatuated with the crippled Signora Madeline Vesey Neroni. Signora Neroni is a volatile, passionate woman who hopes to divorce her husband. She encourages Chaplain Slope’s advancements, and he appears to hold a romantic interest for her, but he stops, suddenly, once Mrs. Proudie intercedes and commands him to keep away from the Signora.

As the game of political appointments continues, Archdeacon Grantly receives a victory when one of his loyal men, the Reverend Arabin, wins the appointment of warden of St. Ewold’s. Reverend Arabin is a bright scholar and well-respected within the church.

Meanwhile, the Reverend Septimus Harding learns that he is to be reappointed to the principle position at Hiram’s Hospital. But due to the Bishop’s new management style, his salary will decrease and he will have to take on more lectures. Mr. Slope delivers this new information, and in the process, comes across Eleanor Bold, a wealthy widow and Reverend Harding’s youngest daughter. Throughout the novel, Chaplain Slope will try to win over Mrs. Bold, though by the end he proves unsuccessful. Part of winning her over includes trying to connect her father with the “wardenship” of Hiram’s hospital.

Mrs. Proudie tells Mr. Slope that he cannot support Reverend Harding’s promotion to warden: he is, after all, supported by their nemesis, Archdeacon Grantly. Mr. Slope lies to her by agreeing.

But Chaplain Slope is in love and, in order to win over Eleanor Bold, campaigns for her father’s promotion. Mrs. Proudie discovers his actions and interprets these moves as a betrayal, and casts Mr. Slope out of her circle. She gains revenge on everyone by convincing her husband to give the wardenship not to Reverend Harding, but to a less qualified, timid, and complicit man: Mr. Quiverful, who will benefit from the increase of salary as he has 14 children to support.

The town is universally dismayed that Reverend Harding, who is a noble and respected man, should not receive the post. Bishop Proudie, and all of his actions provoked by his wife, become deeply unpopular in the region.

At a garden party, Chaplain Slope proposes to Eleanor Bold. She slaps him for the presumption that she would even think of marrying him.

Later, Mr. Arabin overhears the Signora rambling about Mr. Slope, and learns that he was never a real friend to the Harding family. Thus exposed, Mr. Slope is ostracized by both Mrs. Proudie, Reverend Harding, and Signora Neroni.

When Mr. Arabin, who has shown himself to be loyal to her family, proposes to Eleanor, she says yes.

Defeated in love and with no hope of professional advancement, Mr. Slope ends up returning to London.