I participated in and contributed to church music for forty years, which is to say that I suffered and contributed to disheartening, shameful controversy for forty years. It isn’t pleasant to talk about; it isn’t pleasant to think about. I only mention it to explain that I have a special connection to Trollope’s Barchester series, an insight into his world of ecclesiastical debate, bickering, and intrigue. A cynical outsider might see Trollope’s depiction of infighting among clergymen as confirmation that the Church is only a worldly club. A sanguine church-goer might see the stories as unrealistic or as a pitiful example of things that unfortunately happen “sometimes.” This believer sees it as a brutally realistic picture of the flawed institution for which he and Trollope share a tender love.
In reading The Last Chronicle of Barset recently, I derived the greatest pleasure from meeting up with old friends from the mythical Barsetshire one last time. As I predicted several months ago, they provided just the homely comfort I needed to remove a good deal of the stress of the last few weeks of unpacking, learning a new job, paying utilities in two cities, and wondering which of the umpteen still-taped-up boxes the level is hiding in. I was disappointed at first at the appearance of the London chapters with their very unrural characters and scenes. But Trollope is so good at both the spiritual and the mundane, that they drew me in. For one thing, some of the young women in Barsetshire come dangerously close to being too virtuous at times. But in London, the author is able to come up with Mrs. Dobbs Broughton, who speaks love to painter Conway Dalrymple, warns him of her husband’s jealousy, and sets him up with Clara Van Siever in order to protect herself and her virtue – but all as a bit of play-acting, just because she needs some adventure and excitement in her life.
If I had time, I could go on and on about Mr. Crawley, who can’t remember where he got a check for twenty pounds clearly enough to defend himself from the accusation of theft; about the return of the wonderful Johnny Eames, who succeeds in business without really trying but can’t succeed with Lily Dale; or about the woman readers love to hate, the overbearing Mrs. Proudie, the end of whose story arc is both utterly perfect and maddeningly unsatisfactory. But with only a little time, I’ll be content to say that I wish (as I have wished while reading the earlier volumes) that I could be Septimus Harding. In this last chronicle of Barset, the title chracter from the first chronicle of Barset sits on his deathbed playing Cat’s Cradle with his granddaughter Posy and smiles as he thinks how happy his life has been. As he moves the criss-crossed string back and forth between his own age-withered hands and Posy’s fresh little fingers, he doesn’t seem to have any memory at all of the time the London papers unjustly vilified his name for several weeks.
I have stories I want to forget, too. And I have a granddaughter. Her name is Serenity, and I need to visit her and begin to teach her to play Cat’s Cradle. She is aptly named.