The Religious Conflicts of Barchester Towers

Updated: Nov 26, 2019

I’ve been reading a lot of classics as of late. It had been a couple years since I last picked up my copies of Wuthering Heights and Northanger Abbey, but I was yearning for some of that sheer eloquence that only a classic British novel can provide.

One of my favorite things about reading is picking out the patterns throughout a novel and bringing relevance to them. Literature gives us culture, history, and insight into the human mind in a way that few other things can. In my humble opinion, it is the most powerful form of art there is.

I stumbled upon my undergrad copy of Barchester Towers while I was at my parent’s house last week and I decided to bring it with me to read on my eight-hour plane ride to Germany. I’m ashamed to say that I had only read the Anthony Trollope piece once before. I can sense Dr. Colby’s disappointment all the way from Munich, but it turned out to be incredibly special reading it at this point in my life because its application, and my experience of it, were entirely different.

With Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers, it is important to be familiar with 19th Century religious conflicts because religion is what drives not only the plot and pace of the story, but also the characters themselves. The novel begins with Dr. Grantly Sr. on his deathbed. When he dies, his son Archdeacon Grantly wants to keep things the same. He wants to remain traditional and has no desire in changing the Anglo-Catholic Church. His plans, however, “were not fated to be realized” (9) because Dr. Proudie takes over, and with him comes Mrs. Proudie. Mrs. Proudie has every intention of instating new plans for the church, so she names Mr. Slope as domestic chaplain.

Growing up, I adored the movie The Birdcage. I thought it was a hilarious film, but recently I realized how much went over my head. At the age that I was when I first saw it, I wasn’t as socially aware yet. In order to really appreciate this movie, you have to be familiar with some of the differentiating politics that are lightheartedly touched upon throughout the movie. This would mean knowing a bit of history of not only the US, but also of the governing parties and varying views that have been major players in its evolution.

Back when I was in college, I had the privilege of interviewing David Crabtree for one of my journalism classes. He, himself, had minored in religion in college, and I’ll never forget him telling me how knowing religious history had allowed him to see the world in gray, not just in black and white, and that through his understanding of its implications, he was a better journalist and a better reporter.

While most religions are full of conflicts, it is important to know how and when these religious conflicts started. In Barchester Towers, Archdeacon Grantly is an Anglo-Catholic. The governance of this church is a hierarchy, also known as the episcopate, where the bishop is the highest authority. Anglo-Catholicism flourished in 1832 after the Reform Act in Ireland. Many people were unhappy about the fact that the Church of Ireland was becoming so liberal, so the Oxford Movement began.

Knowing this origin gives a better understanding of Archdeacon Grantly. His desire to keep the church’s traditions the way they are reflects how embedded he is in his religion. The Church of Ireland wasn’t making major changes, but in his eyes, the point was that they were altering tradition. Some of these traditions consisted of changing the number of bishops that could hold authority in the church. No matter how simple or small the change may be, devoted followers of the Church of England were set on their traditions and wanted to remain conservative, in that sense.

Mrs. Proudie comes into the picture as a henpecking, radical advisor to her husband, the new bishop. She wants to appoint a new warden of Hiram’s Hospital, and Archdeacon Grantly wants to reappoint Dr. Harding. Mrs. Proudie wants to change the way things have been, and Grantly wants to keep things the same. Mrs. Proudie ends up winning in this scenario. She wants to instill new practices and change traditional ones. One of the traditions she wishes to change is the Sabbath, but once again, Archdeacon Grantly is intent on maintaining all of the church’s traditions as they are.

During the Oxford Movement, the Anglo-Catholics did not completely break away from the Roman Catholic Church because they wanted to remain traditional. They believed that Catholicism was one big sect, and each type of Catholicism was a branch, much like the American judicial system. This was the heart of the 19th Century religious conflicts. The Oxford Movement’s purpose was to bring back the traditional ideals of the Church of England. Mrs. Proudie is technically an Evangelical Fundamentalist; which, simply put, is a conservative Protestant. One of the most important things on the Evangelists agenda was to help fund and run hospitals. This is why Mrs. Proudie was so set on appointing the warden of her choice at Hiram’s Hospital.

The most obvious thing about Archdeacon Grantly and Mrs. Proudie is that they both want power. Both characters are incredibly embedded in their religions, and both characters want their religious beliefs to be the dominating ethos. For Grantly to change the way he runs his church, or for Proudie to shy away from the evangelical agenda, is for them to accept that the way they have been living all these years is wrong. As readers, that gives us insight into the motives behind their decision making, as well as to why they are each yearning for control.

Barchester Towers is the second book in a series titled The Chronicles of Barsetshire, making it a particularly fun read if you read it in its proper order, following The Warden. Some of the characters from the first novel present themselves again in the second, giving the stories a sense of continuity that captivates readers. Additionally, there is an enjoyable build up that readers experience as the political climate heightens, and as you become more familiar with different character social cues and evolving situations. If you enjoy the first two novels, you’ll be thrilled to discover that there are four more that come after them. If you’re a fan of the Game of Thrones book series, or if you are suffering from severe "Downton Abbey" withdrawal and are looking for something to satisfy that palate, The Chronicles of Barsetshire may be just what you’re looking for.