Anthony Trollope, the great English 19th century novelist and chronicler of a certain slice of English life, was born 200 years ago today. His popularity today was, apparently, difficult to imagine fifty years ago.
In the most recent Church Times (most recent to arrive in NZ anyway), Richard Chartres, Bishop of London devotes a long article to celebrating Trollope’s work. Chartres comments on two of my favourites. The first, The Way We Live Now, is a tale of high finance, social climbing, and (in the words of Chartres) the “degradation that comes from the abandonment of traditional morality”. The second, The Warden, has a church setting, and tells of the tension between a zealous and well-intentioned modernity, and the compromised but gentle and faithful figure of the warden, Mr Harding. He enjoys a preferment that is generous (to say the least) but quite lawful – that disadvantages the poor in the abstract, and yet which works to the interests of the few specific poor men to whose interests Mr Harding attends. Challenged on it he becomes convicted that he needs to walk away from it, to the horror of family and the church elites who surround him. And yet he enlarges himself and his discipleship in doing so.
Trollope teaches us about the complexity of moral judgements, and the beauty and worth of a respect for the moral autonomy of others. Urbanity and courtesy are lovely virtues, but in the end, they cannot do without the scaffolding of simple moral teaching, largely dealing with the restraint of our appetite and our propensity to wickedness.
Trollope wrote the novel The New Zealanders, which has nothing to do with New Zealand. But he visited New Zealand in 1872. With Anthony Trollope in New Zealand 1872, edited by A H Reed, records the visit. I haven’t read it, but dipping into it this afternoon I found this extract (page 71 and 72) from his visit to Christchurch:
The special religious tenets of the founders of the colony may be gathered perhaps more clearly from the names of the streets than from any other characteristic which a stranger will observe. They are all named after some Church of England bishopric; – and in the choosing no special worship of the great ones of the Church. The Irish Church has been specially honoured, for there are Armagh Street, Tuam Street and Cashel Street. There are also Gloucester Street, Lichfield Street and Herefrod Street and St Asaph Street. But there is no York Street, or London Street, or Winchester Street. There is, however, an Antigua Street, a Barbadoes Street, and a Montreal Street, and the chief street of all is Colombo Street.
I have already spoken of the failure of the Canterbury pilgrims in reference to the building of a cathedral…..I could not but be melancholy as I learned that the honest high-toned idea of the honest high-toned founders of the colony would probably not be carried out; but perhaps on that spot in the middle of the city a set of public offices will be better than a cathedral. Public offices all the community will use. A cathedral will satisfy something less than one half of it; – and will greatly dissatisfy the other half. Such a church, by its site, by its magnificence, by the very zeal of those who are hot in its erection, proclaims ascendancy; – and if there be one feeling more repugnant than any other to the genuine British colonist it is that of Church ascendancy.
I wonder what Trollope would make of today’s debates about the Christchurch Cathedral – that far fewer than half will ever use, but that many – with no Anglican involvement at all – think themselves entitled to a say in what sort of cathedral the church should (re)build.