In my first year at university I went on a double date with an old school friend to see Mary O’Malley’s comedy play Once a Catholic. My friend and I had attended an all-girl grammar school run by nuns; my boyfriend, too, was RC – we met when I was invited to sing with his church music group at a wedding. Almost as soon as the curtain went up on the play my friend, my boyfriend and I began laughing and kept on laughing, full-blown belly-laughing, the sort of laughter that leaves you feeling slightly sick and giddy.
When the lights came up at the interval (the three of us were still holding our sides to stop them splitting) my friend’s boyfriend, a Muslim, spoke first. I can still picture him looking quizzically at us and saying “I don’t get it.”
I discovered that evening that some comedy works only when it taps into shared experience. That lesson was reinforced almost four decades later (where does the time go?) when reading Anthony Trollope’s satirical novel Barchester Towers.
Why Barchester Towers? Well, I’d decided there was Trollope-sized gap in my lexicon of authors, and Barchester Towers is Trollope’s best loved and most famous novel, part of his best loved and most famous work, a series of six novels collectively known as the Chronicles of Barsetshire.
Set in the fictional cathedral city of Barchester, Barchester Towers is the story of the local clergy and their families following the death of the old bishop and the appointment of the more evangelical Bishop Proudie.
Perhaps I should have started plugging the gap with The Warden, the first novel in the Chronicles of Barsetshire. Barchester Towers, the second in the series, devotes its first few chapters to getting the reader up to speed on characters and plot points from The Warden – which makes BT work as a stand-alone novel, but it doesn’t make for an altogether engaging start.
But the bigger obstacle, for me at least, was my paucity of understanding of the conflict between “high church” and “low church” within the Church of England. This conflict is the main plot driver and the main source of satire. Without a shared experience to draw on much of both were lost on me.
Alongside the main “warring clergy” plot, there is a major subplot concerning three prospective suitors for a young, rich widow (Eleanor Bold, the youngest daughter of Mr Harding, the Warden of the first novel). I found this is charming and compelling – and comprehensible. But a lot of the rest of it seemed like a fuss about nothing and most of the time the words resonating in my head where not Trollope’s but Khalid’s: I don’t get it.
Rating: * Not for me (but worth a try)
[Sorry, Mr T]
PS If you were wondering, the Once a Catholic experience did not spoil a beautiful romance – for my friend, I mean. She and Khalid married and now have two beautiful daughters.