An attentive reader who followed my piece on the Mobile Press-Register from Thursday, which contains a few mocking asides that I imprudently failed to suppress, writes and asks: “You’re quoting Trollope’s Warden, right?”
Exposed again. Yes. I found when I started reading these pieces in the Press-Register and the Birmingham News that the parallels to Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire novels can’t be escaped.
One of the central characters there, a simple man who has a passionate attachment to sacred music (like me), is the Rev. Septimus Harding. He is a kind-hearted and wonderful cleric, I’m tempted to say the most purely “good” man that Trollope ever crafted. And his reputation is destroyed by the dishonest rantings of a newspaper. A key plotline in the series turns on Harding’s receipt of a “living,” as they call it, namely a well-compensated but largely honorific posting as the warden of a charitable institution, endowed centuries ago. The endowment was channeled largely to the payment of the warden’s salary.
Trouble enters the picture in the form of a scandal-mongering London newspaper, The Jupiter, which has a pretty overt political agenda—seeking to disestablish the Church of England, and to end the system of sinecures. As political agendas go, there was nothing wild or unreasonable about this. The problem was the way they went about pursuing it. Reporters and editors of the Jupiter make their appearances (as they do in some other novels outside of the Barsetshire series) and much of the paper’s prose is regurgitated. It’s generally vile and mean-spirited, but quite effective to destroy the reputation of the hapless Rev. Harding. Trollope, decidedly, did not think much of newspapers.
It’s easy for me to see in the Press-Register the very image of the Jupiter, except, of course, that with Trollope behind the scenes, the Jupiter is filled with vastly superior prose. So here’s a key passage from chapter 7 of the Warden, which is entitled “The Jupiter”:
As regarded the issue of his attempt at reformation in the hospital, Bold had no reason hitherto to be discontented with his success. . . . and the case was assuming most creditable dimensions. But above all, it had been mentioned in the daily Jupiter. That all powerful organ of the press in one of its leading thunderbolts launched at St. Cross, had thus remarked: “Another case, of smaller dimensions indeed, but of similar import, is now likely to come under public notice. We are informed that the warden or master of an old almshouse attached to Barchester Cathedral is in receipt of twenty-five times the annual income appointed for him by the will of the founder, while the sum yearly expended on the absolute purposes of the charity has always remained fixed. In other words, the legatees under the founder’s will have received no advantage from the increase in the value of the property during the last four centuries, such increase having been absorbed by the so-called warden. It is impossible to conceive a case of greater injustice. It is no answer to say that some six or nine or twelve old men receive as much of the goods of this world as such old men require. On what foundation, moral or divine, traditional or legal, is grounded the warden’s claim to the large income he receives for doing nothing? The contentment of these alms- men, if content they be, can give him no title to this wealth! Does he ever ask himself, when he stretches wide his clerical palm to receive the pay of some dozen of the working clergy, for what service he is so remunerated? Does his conscience ever entertain the question of his right to such subsidies? Or is it possible that the subject never so presents itself to his mind; that he has received for many years, and intends, should God spare him, to receive for years to come, these fruits of the industrious piety of past ages, indifferent as to any right on his own part, or of any injustice to others! We must express an opinion that nowhere but in the Church of England, and only there among its priests, could such a state of moral indifference be found.”
I must for the present leave my readers to imagine the state of Mr. Harding’s mind after reading the above article. They say that forty thousand copies of the Jupiter are daily sold, and that each copy is read by five persons at the least. Two hundred thousand readers then would hear this accusation against him; two hundred thousand hearts would swell with indignation at the griping injustice, the bare-faced robbery of the warden of Barchester Hospital! And how was he to answer this? How was he to open his inmost heart to this multitude, to these thousands, the educated, the polished, the picked men of his own country; how show them that he was no robber, no avaricious lazy priest scrambling for gold, but a retiring humble-spirited man who had innocently taken what had innocently been offered to him?
In the Siegelman case, what is the insidious evil that launches the stout-hearted assaults of the new Jupiter down on Mobile Bay? Siegelman proposed an effort to raise funds to build up Alabama’s lagging education system through the introduction of a lottery. A foundation which was established with Siegelman’s guarantee to push this proposition received money from HealthSouth’s Richard Scrushy (a Republican who had of course given vastly more money to Republican causes and had been appointed to positions by them, but those are facts to be rigorously suppressed since they don’t fit well into the fairy tale that was to be spun). No personal benefit of any sort flowed to Siegelman. It was part of an effort to propel a controversial, but benevolent initiative.
Yet in the hands of artful scandal-mongers joined by political hacks masquerading as officers of justice, this is turned into something insidious and evil, and peddled that way to an unsuspecting populace. The whole exercise ultimately produced a seriously misguided conviction. The Jupiter is not dead. The Jupiter lives on, dragging down the standards and reputations of newspapers everywhere.