13 October 2017
On Moral Conscience and Quiet Dignity
Anthony Trollope’s novel The Warden
Recently I revisited an old friend: the novelist Anthony Trollope, some of whose novels I read many years ago for the first time. Since coming to Australia, I have read a lot about Australian history and also about the voices of early European visitors to the new continent. Trollope was one of them, and some of his remarks about the indigenous people of Australia, blatant racism from a standpoint of ignorance and white supremacist thinking, have put me off him for a while. But when I read, for the second time, his enchanting little book The Warden, the first of his Chronicles of Barsetshire, I was immediately drawn back in.
The story is quickly told: the protagonist is a gentle and honest man, the Warden Mr Harding, who, in good faith, has held a church position for many years. When his future son-in-law, a rather zealous - yet well-intentioned - young man, finds out that his future father-in-law is actually paid from money that was bequeathed to a charity and that has been misappropriated by the church, he sets in motion a train of events that ultimately leads to the Warden’s resignation. Even though the church, aided by influential lawyers, tries everything within their power to disprove the claims, and even though the son-in-law tries, in vain, to stop the press coverage at the last minute (the horse, however, has bolted), the gentle old man puts his own conscience before any practical or material considerations and decides to do the honourable thing and resign his position.
Trollope’s style is quaint and original. His biting satire (against the materialistic Catholic Church, against the omnipotent press, against the cold rationalism of law) is tempered with a deep humanity that endears the gentle old Warden, a good soul unwavering in his sense of morale and dignity, forever to his readers. There are lessons in this Victorian novel that still have plenty of relevance for the modern reader, and his characterisations are pen portraits of literary brilliance in their brevity and elegance.
The power of the press is personified in the journalist Tom Towers who has no qualms about taking a story on hearsay, publishing it and destroying a good man’s reputation, with “some fifty lines of a narrow column” that have “banished him forever from the world.” No man knows who wrote the bitter words; the clubs talk confusedly of the matter, whispering to each other this and that name, while Tom Towers walks quietly along Pall Mall, with his coat buttoned close against the east wind, as though he were a mortal man, and not a god dispensing thunderbolts from Mount Olympus.
The abstract reasoning of law is personified in Sir Abraham, to whom the Warden tenders his resignation – a witty description of a career lawyer who, devoid of empathy, cannot understand the emotional reasoning of Mr Harding who follows his conscience and puts his ability to sleep well again above his material wellbeing.
His face was full of intellect, but devoid of natural expression. He was (…) a man whom you would ask to defend your property but to whom you would be sorry to confide your love. He was bright as a diamond and as cutting, and also as unimpressionable. He knew everyone whom to know was an honour, but he was without a friend; he wanted none, however, and knew not the meaning of the word in other than its parliamentary sense. (…) He was married indeed, and had children, but what time had he for the soft idleness of conjugal felicity? His working days or term-times were occupied from his time of rising to the late hour at which he went to rest, and even his vacations were more full of labour than the busiest days of other men. He never quarrelled with his wife, but he never talked to her – he never had time to talk, he was so taken up with speaking. What a brilliant phrase: being so taken up with speaking that you have no time to talk!
Sir Abraham’s success-oriented narcissism contrasts with the simple honesty of the Warden who, after weeks of inner turmoil and conflict, has finally reached a decision and with it a stage of emotional stability and unassailable dignity. Nobody can talk him out of his conviction that a noble resignation is the only way forward for him. Trollope manages to paint him, as well as the other characters in this novel who are guided by their inner strength and principles rather than their own advantage (the kindly old bishop, the Warden’s friend, or his younger daughter Eleanor) as infinitely happier people than those who pursue their own hidden agendas. They are whole, they are human, they have a moral core. They put friendship, honesty and integrity first. They forgive others, and they forgive themselves.
In a beautiful scene the Warden invites his future son-in-law, who in his zealous righteousness had started the avalanche of events that was to end the old man’s comfortable existence, for dinner. The young man feels he cannot accept the invitation and the outstretched hand that offers him peace: It was not so easy for him to behave well in the matter as it was for Mr Harding. It is much less difficult for the sufferer to be generous than for the oppressor. It is insights like these that make Trollope’s novels such timeless gems.
In Germany, we have the proverb: Ein gutes Gewissen ist ein sanftes Ruhekissen. A good conscience helps us sleep well (literally: is a soft pillow). In ancient Roman times, the orator Cicero disputes the claim that a judge can decide a trial in whatever way he sees fit and instead puts the judge’s personal conscience above all other considerations. If our conscience guides us through life, he says, we will be able to live without fear and with the utmost honesty – sine ullo metu et summa cum honestate vivemus. This conscience, so Cicero, has been given to us by the immortal gods and cannot be taken away from us. (Pro Cluentio 159). To Eleanor Roosevelt is attributed a quote that she has probably not said in those exact words but in similar terms: Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent. Another proverb tells us that we can only lose our dignity if we surrender it.
Trollope, of course, knew a lot about inner strength and resilience from a young age. Son of an intellectual yet poor father, he spent a few years as a day pupil at Harrow and as a boarder at Winchester College, two of the most elite British schools where his poverty amidst privilege made him an outsider and where he seems to have endured misery and bullying. In his day job as a post office clerk (he is credited with having introduced the iconic pillar post boxes to Britain) he was initially known to be unreliable and insubordinate, yet at the same time he lived in constant fear of dismissal, which he could not afford.
We are all human. We make mistakes, and sometimes our ambition, our desire to get a financial or career advantage or maybe just to have an easy life, may lead us to compromise on our moral values, to go along with those above us even where it conflicts with our own moral core or gut feeling, or to resist admitting our mistakes for fear of losing face or our professional standing. The moral tale of the Warden teaches us a good lesson in that respect. Being able to sleep well, resting safe in the knowledge that we are always trying to lead a life of integrity, being able to look in the mirror and knowing that we are doing our best, standing up for what we believe in, making amends for mistakes – there is no better recipe for leading a fulfilled and happy life. Forgiveness (granting it and accepting it when it is offered) is an integral part of it, as is believing that those whom we have trusted will ultimately prove themselves to be worthy of our trust.
Trollope’s novels are so deeply humane that I am hopeful: if he came back to Australia today, with the knowledge that we have now about the plight of the Aboriginal peoples, the injustice that has been done to them, and the rich and wonderful traditions of these original custodians of the land, he would revise his opinions and be deeply remorseful. In that respect, regrettably, he was a child of his time.