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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Thursday, January 15, 2004


Trollopians everywhere, take note: according to the Daily Telegraph, the Church of England might be selling off its most expensive bishop’s palaces:

“THE CHURCH of England is preparing to sell some of its ancient bishops' palaces and houses as part of a cost-cutting review.

The Church Commissioners said yesterday that they would introduce guidelines to maximise the income from properties and those proving too expensive to maintain may be put on the market.”

As we all know, the Bishop’s Palace in Barchester is the center of the world – at least, the world Trollope made. Of course, there are the political novels, the Irish novels, the novels and novels Trollope poured out, but the Barchester series is at the center of this universe. Our Tory impulse is to simply hang down our head when we read that the Church might actually be letting some vulgarian bidder, some Saatchi or other, get his hooks on jewels like these:

“Among the historic houses is Auckland Castle, a 90-room Gothic pile set in six acres, lived in by Bishops of Durham for nearly 900 years. The present bishop occupies a four-bedroom apartment there.

Hartlebury Castle has been home to Bishops of Worcester for even longer and Rose Castle, a fortified manor with listed wallpaper on the Cumbrian border with Scotland, has housed Bishops of Carlisle since the 13th century.

The Bishop of Bath and Wells has a 13th century moated palace whose swans learn to ring a bell when they want to be fed, but this is expected to escape the axe as it makes a profit from tourism and conferences. In a recent reassessment, however, the Bishop of Bristol's eight-bedroom Queen Anne house in Clifton has been sold, and the See House in Wakefield will be put up for sale.”

One remembers the agony of Crawley, the poor curate in the Last Chronicle of Barset, whose suffering increased with his knowledge, and the expense of whose knowledge came out of the happiness of his family. In Chapter IV, Mrs. Crawley has just been to see the lawyer about the matter of a bad check to the butcher. In Trollope’s usually adroit manner, a debt becomes the timer in this novel. The Crawley family is crawling with debts. Debts and cultural capital out the scrawny Crawley behind. The book is, in many ways, like one of those allegorical Victorian pictures – on one side, the Bishop’s Palace, and on the other side, the clergyman’s hovel. Mrs. Crawley comes home to a darkened house, and this is how Trollope lavishes its material weight upon us. When Mrs. Crawley tries to tell her husband what the attorney says, this is his reply:

'But none to crush me as this will crush me. Well; what am I to do? Am I to go to prison--tonight?' At this moment his daughter returned with a candle, and the mother could not make her answer at once. It was a wretched, poverty-stricken room. By degrees the carpet had disappeared, which had been laid down some nine or ten years since, when they had first come to Hogglestock, and which even then had not been new. Now nothing but a poor fragment of it remained in front of the fire-place. In the middle of the room there was a table which had once been large; but one flap of it was gone altogether, and the other flap sloped grievously towards the floor, the weakness of old age having fallen into its legs. There were two or three smaller tables about, but they stood propped against walls, thence obtaining a security which their own strength would not give them. At the further end of the room there was an ancient piece of furniture, which was always called 'papa's secretary', at which Mr Crawley customarily sat and wrote his sermons, and did all work that was done by him within the house. The man who had made it, some time in the last century, had intended it to be a locked guardian for domestic documents, and the receptacle for all that was most private in the house of some paterfamilias. But beneath the hands of Mr Crawley it always stood open; and with the exception of the small space at which he wrote, was covered with dog's-eared books, from nearly all of which the covers had disappeared.

There were there two odd volumes of Euripides, a Greek Testament, an Odyssey, a duodecimo Pindar, and a miniature Anacreon. There was half a Horace--the two first books of the Odes at the beginning and the De Arte Poetica at the end having disappeared. There was a little bit of a volume of Cicero, and there were Caesar's 'Commentaries' in two volumes, so stoutly bound that they had defied the combined ill-usage of time and the Crawley family. All these were piled upon the secretary, with many others--odd volumes of sermons and the like; but the Greek and Latin lay at the top, and showed signs of frequent use. There was one arm-chair in the room--a Windsor chair, as such used to be called, made soft by an old cushion in the back, in which Mr Crawley sat when both he and his wife were in the room, and Mrs Crawley when he was absent. And there was an old horsehair sofa--now almost denuded of its horsehair--but that, like the tables required the assistance of a friendly wall. Then there was a half a dozen of other chairs--all of different sorts --and they completed the furniture of the room. It was not such a room as one would wish to see inhabited by an beneficed clergyman of the Church of England; but they who know what money will do and what it will not, will understand how easily a man with a family, and with a hundred and thirty pounds a year, may be brought to the need of inhabiting such a chamber. When it is remembered that three pounds of meat a day, at ninepence a pound, will cost over forty pounds a year, there need be no difficulty in understanding that it may be so. Bread for such a family must cost at least twenty-five pounds. Clothes for five persons of whom one must at any rate wear the raiment of a gentleman, can hardly be found for less than ten pounds a year a head. Then there remains fifteen pounds for tea, sugar, beer, wages, education, amusements and the like. In such circumstances a gentleman can hardly pay much for the renewal of furniture!”

It is truly fascinating how the novel embedded in itself the tracking shot -- for this description of the Crawley chattels is one long tracking shot, from the couple to the child to the carpet to the table to the books to the desk. And like a tracking shot, what is shown is, by being shown, immediately symbolic. It is that instant when the the thing quickens into expression, when collection becomes scene.

The contrast with the gentlemanly circumstances of the Bishop, and his much lesser interest in pagan classics, runs through the book. And the Bishop's problem with his bossy wife. Bishop Proudie is a typical Church of England high official – very good for ceremonial purposes, but no damn backbone. Mrs. Proudie is one of Trollope’s great characters: narrow, proud, petulant, incapable of understanding religion beyond its ceremonial trappings, a conventional figure whom convention cannot satisfy, and (as we know from previous books) susceptible to Enthusiasm. In short, a Victorian Everywoman.

Well. And so that’s that. They fight WWI, they fight WWII, they conquer half the planet, and in the end, it comes down to this.

To think that the Bishop of Durham is practically camping like a student in his palace – practically lives there in LI-like squalor – is shaming.

What’s truly worse is that these palaces are going to rack and ruin merely because England is passing through a temporarily ferocious capitalist phase. Of course, the privatizations of today, and the Thatcherism, will eventually be swallowed up by the larger stream of English history. It would be a shame, however, for the damage those things have already done to engulf and drown the bishop’s palaces.

One knows exactly what the Bishop of Barchester would say: oh dear.

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