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‘I don’t know that clergymen are so much better than other men,’ says the wife of Archdeacon Grantly in Barchester Towers. Anyone familiar with the stream of clergymen in Anthony Trollope’s forty-seven novels might well agree.

For Trollope certainly doesn’t treat clergymen any differently to his other characters, holding them up to the same well-polished mirror to expose their mixed motives and moral vacillation. But he rarely intrudes on what we might call their relationship with God. Instead he shows us their relationships with their families, fellow clergy and wider society.

Trollope’s clergymen are never depicted as simple goodies or baddies; they are thoroughly human, a fluctuating mix of strength and weakness. The most saintly is probably Septimus Harding, first introduced to us in The Warden, the meek, sweet-natured, peace-loving precentor of Barchester Cathedral and warden of Hiram’s Hospital. He isn’t perfect – he’s not especially hard-working or energetic – but he provides a quiet, underlying morality throughout the six Barchester novels. Even when upset by the sermon delivered by Obadiah Slope, he can still say with habitual gentleness that ‘Christian ministers are never called on by God’s word to insult the convictions, or even the prejudices of their brethren.’

Trollope himself was essentially tolerant in his approach to religion. It’s the clerics who push their version of Christianity down other people’s throats who come in for the most stick in his novels. The extremely tiresome Roman Catholic priest Father Barham in The Way We Live Now according to Trollope’s notes was based on the real life George Bampfield, who when staying with the Trollopes ‘made himself absolutely unbearable’ with his aggressive proselytising and criticism of the Anglican church. In the same novel Father Barham is contrasted to the affable Bishop Yeld, thoroughly relaxed as to dogma, yet clearly effective and well regarded in his diocese. But Trollope is always even-handed. In The Macdermots of Ballycloran we are given a picture of kindness and Christian compassion in the exemplary Roman Catholic priest Father John McGrath.

There are good and bad apples everywhere, in all Christian traditions, in high and low churchmanship. Most infamous of all is Obadiah Slope, the slimy evangelical chaplain to the hen-pecked bishop in Barchester Towers who cloaks himself in pious virtue while plotting to rule the diocese and suggesting that old-style clergymen like Mr Harding should be carried away on ‘the rubbish cart’ of history. Then there’s his taste for rich widows … In Miss Mackenzie Trollope caricatures what he saw as evangelical cant in the Revd Jeremiah Maguire, but there are low churchmen who are altogether excellent such as Mr Saul the curate in The Claverings. As for villains at the high church end we have the murderous chaplain Mr Greenwood in Marion Fay.

Clergymen as minor characters often provide some of the best comedy in Trollope’s novels and we are treated to a delightful variety, including Montagu Blake, irritatingly jolly and pleased with himself in An Old Man’s Love, Thomas Gibson, ‘a sort of tame-cat parson’ fought over by ladies in He Knew He Was Right, or Caleb Thumble, Mrs Proudie’s time-serving stoodge in The Last Chronicle of Barset.

Especially appealing to modern readers may be those clergymen heroes who challenge intransigent and intolerant attitudes within society and the church – attractive examples are Frank Fenwick, befriending a fallen woman in The Vicar of Bulhampton and Dr Wortle, pugnaciously resisting interference from parents and his bishop in Dr Wortle’s School.

It is in the portraits of clergymen developed over the course of several novels that we see Trollope’s penetrating insight into human frailty and yet capacity for change. The proud and wealthy Archdeacon Grantly, first introduced to us in The Warden, comes across as bullying and worldly when compared to his self-depreciating father-in-law Mr Harding: ‘looking like an ecclesiastical statue … a fitting impersonation of the church militant here on earth; one hand ensconced within his pocket, evinced the practical hold which our mother church keeps on her temporal possessions; and the other, loose for action, was ready to fight if need be for her defence’. By the final volume of the six Barchester novels we come to recognise and value the man underneath.

If Theophilus Grantly and Septimus Harding are the clergymen most beloved by readers, Trollope himself believed that he would be remembered for three characters, only one of them a cleric: Plantagenet Palliser, Lady Glencora, and Josiah Crawley, the perpetual curate of Hogglestock. ‘I claim to have portrayed the mind of the unfortunate man with great accuracy and great delicacy. The pride, the humility, the manliness, the weakness, the conscientious rectitude and bitter prejudices of Mr Crawley were, I feel, true to nature and well described.’ Josiah Crawley is an unattractive character, first appearing in Framley Parsonage where he reproves the pleasure-loving young vicar Mark Robarts, and in his pride and anger at his own poverty creates extra trouble and suffering for his poor wife and children. There is never any doubting his holiness – significantly among the rough and poor brickmakers of Hoggle End he is ‘held in high respect’ – but it is in The Last Chronicle of Barset that he becomes a tragic figure, the half-mad saint unjustly accused.

Trollope was writing at a time when the Church of England was facing much-needed change. Trollope was generally on the side of reform – many of the novels expose the cruelly unequal pay structure – but as always he can empathise with its victims and reveal the occasional less pleasant side of the reformers. ‘Till we can become divine we must be content to be human, lest in our hurry for a change we sink to something lower.’ (Barchester Towers). His natural sympathies were at the high church end, alongside Archdeacon Grantly and Mr Harding, but he believed that the church should accept difference: ‘We are too apt to look at schism in our church as an unmitigated evil. Moderate schism, if there may be such a thing…teaches men to think upon religion.’ (Barchester Towers). Interestingly, Cardinal Newman was a devoted reader of Trollope’s novels.

Trollope was a Victorian, and the Victorians saw the novel as an effective way to influence people; novels ought to instruct as well as entertain. ‘Gentle readers, the physic is always beneath the sugar, hidden or unhidden. In writing novels, we novelists preach to you from our pulpits.’ Neither in his life nor in his novels did Trollope make a parade of his own belief in God’s mercy and goodness, but it underlies everything he wrote until his death in 1882. ‘I trust… I shall not be thought to scoff at the pulpit, though some may imagine that I do not feel all the reverence that is due to the cloth. I may question the infallibility of the teachers, but I hope that I shall not therefore be accused of doubt as to the thing taught.’

Tomorrow is the 24th of April and Anthony Trollope’s birthday. Perhaps Mr Harding’s words to the bedesmen of Hiram’s Hospital in The Warden could also be Trollope’s wish for himself and all of us: ‘I hope you may live contented, and die trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ, and thankful to Almighty God for the good things he has given you.’