We Are All Mr. Harding

Substitute, say, “education or technology” for “politics or religion,” and doesn’t this sound familiar?

“New men are carrying out new measures and are carting away the useless rubbish of past centuries!” What cruel words these had been; and how often are they now used with all the heartless cruelty of a Slope! A man is sufficiently condemned if it can only be shown that either in politics or religion he does not belong to some new school established within the last score of years. He may then regard himself as rubbish and expect to be carted away. A man is nothing now unless he has within him a full appreciation of the new era, an era in which it would seem that neither honesty nor truth is very desirable, but in which success is the only touchstone of merit. We must laugh at everything that is established. Let the joke be ever so bad, ever so untrue to the real principles of joking; nevertheless we must laugh — or else beware the cart. We must talk, think, and live up to the spirit of the times, and write up to it too, if that cacoethes be upon us, or else we are nought. New men and new measures, long credit and few scruples, great success or wonderful ruin, such are now the tastes of Englishmen who know how to live. Alas, alas! Under such circumstances Mr. Harding could not but feel that he was an Englishman who did not know how to live. This new doctrine of Mr. Slope and the rubbish cart, new at least at Barchester, sadly disturbed his equanimity.

That’s a little snippet from Chapter XIII of Barchester Towers. Poor Mr. Harding: he just wants to be left alone to enjoy his quiet life and be a generally good person. Is that too much to ask? And yet in true Trollopian fashion, the answer is not as easy as we’d like, as Mr. Harding himself is sadly aware:

Had he in truth so lived as to be now in his old age justly reckoned as rubbish fit only to be hidden away in some huge dust-hole? The school of men to whom he professes to belong, the Grantlys, the Gwynnes, and the old high set of Oxford divines, are afflicted with no such self-accusations as these which troubled Mr. Harding. They, as a rule, are as satisfied with the wisdom and propriety of their own conduct as can be any Mr. Slope, or any Dr. Proudie, with his own. But unfortunately for himself Mr. Harding had little of this self-reliance. When he heard himself designated as rubbish by the Slopes of the world, he had no other resource than to make inquiry within his own bosom as to the truth of the designation. Alas, alas! The evidence seemed generally to go against him.

Just because the old ways are comfortable does not mean they are right–and worse yet, just because Mr. Slope is the agent of change does not mean change is altogether wrong. If only! When Barchester Towers is not being extremely funny, it’s often being surprisingly wise. Sometimes it’s both at once.

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