I hate books I can’t understand,” said Bell. “I like a book to be clear as running water, so that the whole meaning may be seen at once.” —The Small House at Allington
Anthony Trollope’s fictional heroine, Bell, likes just the sort of book that Trollope himself wrote, clear as running water. After his death, Trollope’s reputation was that of a writer of light fiction lacking in plot and literary style. Now the literary tide has turned, and he is praised as a master of realism. Whereas his great contemporary, Dickens, gives us a three-ring circus of grotesque and absurd characters in every chapter, Trollope writes of ordinary people who are neither all good nor all bad. They talk and gossip as ordinary people do—about their gardens, politics, who is engaged to whom—and their characters and feelings are subtly revealed in these everyday conversations.
Which brings me to Timothy West. I love reading Trollope in print, but I can understand why some people fault his prose as boring or flat. Not until I listened to his novels performed on audiobook by Timothy West did I fully appreciate the glory of Trollopean prose. The man was born to read Trollope, and Trollope was born to write novels to be read by Timothy West.
If you have not read Trollope before, I recommend starting with Barchester Towers, the second of Trollope’s six Barsetshire Novels, even though it alludes to events in the first book, The Warden. It is Trollope’s best-loved novel, and for good reason. The great question that touches all others in the story is, who will rule the diocese of Barchester: the vain but cowardly new bishop, Dr. Proudie, his terrifying wife, Mrs. Proudie, or his sanctimonious chaplain, Obadiah Slope? Entertaining events ensue. All of the many characters are guilty of human weakness or bad judgment—yet their failings and moral dilemmas are treated with humor and (for the most part) forgiveness. West voices the characters perfectly. He is especially superb as the narrator, who is continually making witty asides to the reader.
Sadly, there is no real Barsetshire. Trollope is said to have taken his inspiration for the cathedral city of Barchester from the real Salisbury in Wiltshire, and his country locales from various places in England’s West Country. But though Barset exists only in the imagination, there is no more pleasant place in the world to spend a few quiet hours.
Check the WRL catalog for Barchester Towers on audiobook