Saturday, July 27, 2013

"Look at his books, Grace... I doubt if he ever reads." - some contrasting books in The Last Chronicle of Barset

A hazard of being interested in books is that I pay too much attention to the books within books.  I admit that.  But there is a contrast of books in The Last Chronicle of Barset that is appealing.

Reverend Crawley is talking about his friend Dean Arabin.  We all remember Arabin from Barchester Towers, yes?  No?  He is not one of Trollope’s memorable characters.  Crawley and Arabin went to college together, and now Arabin is rich while Crawley is poor:

“Love me! psha!  Does he ever come here to tea, as he used to do?  No!  I remember buttering toast for him down on my knees before the fire, because he liked it – and keeping all the cream for him.  He should have had my heart's blood if he wanted it.  But now – look at his books, Grace.  It's the outside of them he cares about.  They are all gilt, but I doubt if he ever reads.”  (Ch. 41)

How severe.  Is Crawley unfair to Arabin?  We never learn.  Those gilt books return, though.  How they gnaw at Crawley.  What are his own books like?  We get a look at them in Chapter 4, early, so they are almost an introduction to the character.  His desk

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 Cæsar'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 most frequent use.

I wonder if I am supposed to take these books as simply representative of Crawley’s love of literature or if they are meant to be individually meaningful.  For example, is the lead position of the willfully perverse Euripides meant to be a comment on Crawley’s personality, or would Aeschylus or Sophocles do as well?

The fact that the Bible is second in the list, that is pretty easy to see as symbolic.  Crawley's only moments of happiness through most of the book, and there are hardly any, all involve either 1) defeating an enemy, or 2) reciting Greek poetry.  His ministry is his vocation; poetry is his love.

That Horace, where Crawley only has half – the middle half – that’s the way to read a great book.  How often do I read like that?  Almost never.


  1. When a book or books are mentioned with a narrative I take notice too. I just finished Charles Dickens's A Mutual Friend which has a fair number of references to books whose meaning I am pondering.

    I would guess that the list of books that you mention here would have some relevance.

  2. I've have been guilty of making reading lists based on the books mentioned in other books. I found some very good reading doing that.

    I also like the idea of using a library to help develop a character. I admit, if I came to visit you I would look over the books on your bookshelves and make conclusions about you based on what I found there. Gilt edged books that have never been opened. I mean, really!

    You also have me thinking that it's been ages since I read anything by Trollope. He used to be regular summer reading for me. Maybe I'll try a series in the new year...

  3. James - me too, me too. Sometimes they help with the book, sometimes they are just books for me.

    The book-related stuff in Our Mutual Friend Is wonderful. Those books on the history of famous misers - those are apparently real! How strange.

  4. I haven't read The Last Chronicle of Barset, so I cannot know for sure how relevant this is. But the first ode on Horace's third book of Carmina begins:

    I hate the vulgar crowd, and keep them away:
    Please do shut up: I'm a priest of the Muses,
    And sing songs never heard before
    for young women and young boys.

    Odi profanum vulgus et arceo.
    favete linguis: carmina non prius
    audita Musarum sacerdos
    virginibus puerisque canto.

    R L Stevenson borrowed the Virginibus Puerisque as a title for his essays.

  5. That is almost too good, in all kinds of ways. Crawley does, for example, hate one kind of vulgar crowd, yet embraces another, the working poor of his parish.

    Stevenson is an amazing essayist. After gorging on Stevenson a couple of years ago, I concluded that he was a better as an essayist than as a fiction writer, setting aside Jekyll & Hyde, although why would I want to do that?