Having just finished reading The Warden and Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope, I wanted to write something about them as I loved them and Trollope is now on my ever growing list of authors I regret not reading earlier. I had a number of ideas for topics to such as to what extent the events of this novel (unintentionally) support priestly celibacy or a general commentary moral crusaders and their crusades chiefly drawing from The Warden. Instead, I found myself coming back to a topic I’ve written about before and that is Vox Day’s Socio-Sexual Hierarchy (SSH).
This comes forth particularly in the character of Mr. Obadiah Slope, the main antagonist of Barchester Towers. I will quote extensively from Trollope as he writes better than I could ever hope to and add commentary and give context where necessary.
As can easily be gathered from the title of this post — Mr. Slope is a gamma. He arrives with the newly appointed Bishop of Barchester as his chaplain. Mr. Proudie the Bishop, is a hen-pecked social-climber and Slope has achieved his position chiefly by toadying up to his wife who in all things practical, is the real bishop.
Slope is given a clear description in the fourth chapter:
Mr. Slope is tall, and not ill-made. His feet and hands are large, as has ever been the case with all his family, but he has a broad chest and wide shoulders to carry off these excrescences, and on the whole his figure is good. His countenance, however, is not specially prepossessing. His hair is lank and of a dull pale reddish hue. It is always formed into three straight, lumpy masses, each brushed with admirable precision and cemented with much grease; two of them adhere closely to the sides of his face, and the other lies at right angles above them. He wears no whiskers, and is always punctiliously shaven. His face is nearly of the same colour as his hair, though perhaps a little redder: it is not unlike beef—beef, however, one would say, of a bad quality. His forehead is capacious and high, but square and heavy and unpleasantly shining. His mouth is large, though his lips are thin and bloodless; and his big, prominent, pale-brown eyes inspire anything but confidence. His nose, however, is his redeeming feature: it is pronounced, straight and well-formed; though I myself should have liked it better did it not possess a somewhat spongy, porous appearance, as though it had been cleverly formed out of a red-coloured cork.
I never could endure to shake hands with Mr. Slope. A cold, clammy perspiration always exudes from him, the small drops are ever to be seen standing on his brow, and his friendly grasp is unpleasant.
Barchester Towers, The Bishop’s Chaplain
Another aspect about Slope that is said to be less important today but is still more important than people understand — is his social status. He not only isn’t very attractive, he also isn’t wealthy, nor does he have any significant social standing outside of his association with
the Bishop Mrs. Proudie. Despite this, he is determined to climb and (it must be added), not ill-equipped to do so.
Slope shares with his benefactor the importance of keeping the Sabbath and looks down on even the mildest rule-breakers. He always and irritatingly uses “Sabbath” instead of “Sunday and the reader is soon informed that it isn’t possible for him to utter anything else:
Most active clergymen have their hobby, and Sunday observances are his. Sunday, however, is a word which never pollutes his mouth—it is always “the Sabbath.” The “desecration of the Sabbath,” as he delights to call it, is to him meat and drink: he thrives upon that as policemen do on the general evil habits of the community. It is the loved subject of all his evening discourses, the source of all his eloquence, the secret of all his power over the female heart. To him the revelation of God appears only in that one law given for Jewish observance. To him the mercies of our Saviour speak in vain, to him in vain has been preached that sermon which fell from divine lips on the mountain—”Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”—”Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” To him the New Testament is comparatively of little moment, for from it can he draw no fresh authority for that dominion which he loves to exercise over at least a seventh part of man’s allotted time here below.
Barchester Towers, The Bishop’s Chaplain
Gammas tend to be subject matter experts and we here get a glimpse into the subject that matters most to Slope. At the time the novel was written, there were various movements within and outside of the Church of England. Slope comes from a more evangelical Low Church faction and Barchester’s clergy are almost all of the High Church. He quickly earns the enmity of his new colleagues when giving a sermon at the cathedral. He then proceeds to impose his agenda throughout the town in the name of the Bishop:
… he went about his work zealously, flattering such as would listen to his flattery, whispering religious twaddle into the ears of foolish women, ingratiating himself with the few clergy who would receive him, visiting the houses of the poor, inquiring into all people, prying into everything, and searching with his minutest eye into all palatial dilapidations.
Barchester Towers, The Dean and Chapter Take Counsel
A few chapters later, Trollope admits:
My readers will guess from what I have written that I myself do not like Mr. Slope, but I am constrained to admit that he is a man of parts. He knows how to say a soft word in the proper place; he knows how to adapt his flattery to the ears of his hearers; he knows the wiles of the serpent, and he uses them. Could Mr. Slope have adapted his manners to men as well as to women, could he ever have learnt the ways of a gentleman, he might have risen to great things.
Barchester Towers, The Ex-Warden Rejoices in His Probable Return to the Hospital
The men in the novel almost uniformly dislike Slope and his only allies are among the (mostly) married older women he flatters. A trait of the gamma is that despite generally being repulsive to women, they do make friends with them. Men who end up in what is often called the “friend zone” are gammas who have a one way attraction with a woman who uses them for validation or “emotional support”. Slope actually falls into this exact situation with another character, the beautiful (and also married) Signora Madeline Neroni. Despite the obvious impropriety of doing so, he keeps seeking her out throughout the novel though her intention is only to destroy him.
Much of the drama begins with Slope taking a fancy to Eleanor Bold, the wealthy widow of the late John Bold who dies between the two novels. She is also the daughter of Mr. Harding, the warden from the first. After learning she is both beautiful and wealthy we are given Slope’s thoughts aloud:
“Twelve hundred a year of her own!” said Slope, and very shortly afterwards took his leave, avoiding, as far as it was possible for him to do, any further allusion to the hospital. “Twelve hundred a year!” said he to himself as he rode slowly home. If it were the fact that Mrs. Bold had twelve hundred a year of her own, what a fool would he be to oppose her father’s return to his old place. The train of Mr. Slope’s ideas will probably be plain to all my readers. Why should he not make the twelve hundred a year his own? And if he did so, would it not be well for him to have a father-in-law comfortably provided with the good things of this world? Would it not, moreover, be much more easy for him to gain the daughter if he did all in his power to forward the father’s views?
Barchester Towers, The Widow’s Suitors
Some important context here is that Mr. Slope had just offered Mr. Harding back his wardenship of the hospital that the latter had felt morally compelled to resign in the previous novel. Only Slope offered it with conditions he rightly calculated would make it impossible for the aging priest to accept and so enabling him to place an ally there instead. When he sets after Eleanor, he then walks back these conditions to ingratiate himself with her. So despite his supposed piety and principles, he is fully prepared to abandon his plan and use his position to further his own ambitions for wealth and influence. This is why gamma’s put in leadership are so often disasters as they will put their own interests ahead of everything.
Note here also his assumption that the beautiful and wealthy Eleanor Bold would be interested in him without receiving the slightest hint from her. Mrs. Bold was married to a wealthy, handsome and respected doctor and is still relatively young and certainly still beautiful. She also has an impeccable public reputation in Barchester. Her father is a gentleman and almost the polar opposite of Slope. Her brother-in-law is the wealthy Arch-Deacon who detests Slope. None of these facts deter him as he is the secret king and deserves the queen.
A major comedy of the novel is Eleanor’s relations (including her father) believing her more restrained opinion of Slope means she actually is considering him as a marital prospect. On learning of this mistaken belief, the description of her reaction is both instructive and hilarious:
Not being favourites with the tragic muse, we do not dare to attempt any description of Eleanor’s face when she first heard the name of Mrs. Slope pronounced as that which would or should or might at some time appertain to herself. The look, such as it was, Dr. Grantly did not soon forget. For a moment or two she could find no words to express her deep anger and deep disgust; indeed, at this conjuncture, words did not come to her very freely.
Barchester Towers, A Serious Interview
A mistake many men can make but more particularly gammas is to suppose that a smile or general politeness from a beautiful woman implies attraction. It is better to learn (and learn quickly), that women have plenty of subtle and unsubtle ways of showing interest and being polite is not one of them. In this case, the very idea that Eleanor would consider a man like Slope is the great dramatic joke of the novel.
We will skip many chapters ahead to the climax of Slope’s delusional pursuit of Mrs. Bold as it is the most instructive chapter in the book. All the next passages are directly from ‘Ullathorne Sports—Act II’:
“That which has made them drunk has made me bold.” ‘Twas thus that Mr. Slope encouraged himself, as he left the dining-room in pursuit of Eleanor. He had not indeed seen in that room any person really intoxicated, but there had been a good deal of wine drunk, and Mr. Slope had not hesitated to take his share, in order to screw himself up to the undertaking which he had in hand. He is not the first man who has thought it expedient to call in the assistance of Bacchus on such an occasion.
The context here is that Eleanor has just left the table at a lunch party after being trapped in an awkward position with three suitors. She is in love with one of them: Mr. Arabin who is a friend of her brother-in-law and a foe of Slope. He had previously engaged in some written public jousts with him though this is the first time they’ve met in person. Eleanor and Mr. Arabin though both in love, are also kept apart by a mixture of misunderstanding and obstinance from both parties. Slope of course is oblivious to all of this and chooses possibly the worst time to share his unrequited love. Eleanor sees the danger and gives him the most polite rebuke it was then possible for a lady to give:
“Pray don’t let me take you from the room,” said she, speaking with all the stiffness which she knew how to use. “I have come out to look for a friend. I must beg of you, Mr. Slope, to go back.”
The gamma delusion bubble remains unpierced:
But Mr. Slope would not be thus entreated. He had observed all day that Mrs. Bold was not cordial to him, and this had to a certain extent oppressed him. But he did not deduce from this any assurance that his aspirations were in vain. He saw that she was angry with him. Might she not be so because he had so long tampered with her feelings—might it not arise from his having, as he knew was the case, caused her name to be bruited about in conjunction with his own without having given her the opportunity of confessing to the world that henceforth their names were to be one and the same? Poor lady. He had within him a certain Christian conscience-stricken feeling of remorse on this head. It might be that he had wronged her by his tardiness.
I have underlined two observations he has directly made of Eleanor’s manner towards him but rather than take these obvious hints he concludes that somehow she is just this way because he is toying with her feminine feelings. In other words, he is willfully oblivious to reality. Eleanor is forced to be more direct:
“You must permit me to attend you,” said he; “I could not think of allowing you to go alone.”
“Indeed you must, Mr. Slope,” said Eleanor still very stiffly, “for it is my special wish to be alone.”
Slope then begins and Eleanor is crestfallen:
“Do not ask me to leave you, Mrs. Bold,” said he with an impassioned look, impassioned and sanctified as well, with that sort of look which is not uncommon with gentlemen of Mr. Slope’s school and which may perhaps be called the tender-pious. “Do not ask me to leave you till I have spoken a few words with which my heart is full—which I have come hither purposely to say.”
Eleanor saw how it was now. She knew directly what it was she was about to go through, and very miserable the knowledge made her.
… “I don’t know what you can have to say to me, Mr. Slope, that you could not have said when we were sitting at table just now;” and she closed her lips, and steadied her eyeballs, and looked at him in a manner that ought to have frozen him.
Now at this point, the look on her face if nothing else should have given Slope all the information he needed and he should have abandoned his pursuit. If you indicate interest to a woman and the smile disappears from her face or is replaced with a frown, that should be enough. If you get down on one knee and she isn’t smiling or crying with happiness, then get up and prepare for heartbreak. Slope obviously doesn’t take the hint and it gets more awkward and embarrassing (even for the reader), so we will come quickly to the climax after Eleanor has already said “no” in an impressive variety of ways. Mr. Slope somehow believes putting his arm around her waist will have some positive effect. Eleanor in response to this:
sprang from him as she would have jumped from an adder, but she did not spring far—not, indeed, beyond arm’s length—and then, quick as thought, she raised her little hand and dealt him a box on the ear with such right goodwill that it sounded among the trees like a miniature thunderclap.
It might be hard to believe but Eleanor feels bad about striking him. Trollope is certainly on side with his heroine though it seems at the time some readers may not as he makes an apology for her in the following paragraph. Next we see the nastier nature of the gamma come out as Trollope describes:
There are such men: men who can endure no taint on their personal self-respect, even from a woman; men whose bodies are to themselves such sacred temples that a joke against them is desecration, and a rough touch downright sacrilege. Mr. Slope was such a man, and therefore the slap on the face that he got from Eleanor was, as far as he was concerned, the fittest rebuke which could have been administered to him.
Possibly the worst proposal I have ever read is now over but what is interesting is the thought process of Slope following this. One would hope he learns something from this but he doesn’t. He is at once thrown into a brooding anger:
He stood awhile, becoming redder and redder with rage. He stood motionless, undecided, glaring with his eyes, thinking of the pains and penalties of Hades, and meditating how he might best devote his enemy to the infernal gods with all the passion of his accustomed eloquence. He longed in his heart to be preaching at her. ‘Twas thus that he was ordinarily avenged of sinning mortal men and women. Could he at once have ascended his Sunday rostrum and fulminated at her such denunciations as his spirit delighted in, his bosom would have been greatly eased.
He aware of wrongdoing on his part but his ability to lie to himself quickly triumphs:
He had an inkling—a true inkling—that he was a wicked, sinful man, but it led him in no right direction; he could admit no charity in his heart. He felt debasement coming on him, and he longed to shake it off, to rise up in his stirrup, to mount to high places and great power, that he might get up into a mighty pulpit and preach to the world a loud sermon against Mrs. Bold.
By this point in the novel Slope has already lost the few allies he had after taking a big gamble crossing Mrs. Proudie and doesn’t yet realise his days at Barchester are numbered. He in fact believes he is a real contender to the recently vacated deanery. Nonetheless he puts on what he would describe as a “brave face” and returns to the party as if nothing has passed. This is the end of this chapter but Slope’s story is not yet over. His bitterness remains:
His rejection by the widow, or rather the method of his rejection, galled him terribly. For days to come he positively felt the sting upon his cheek whenever he thought of what had been done to him. He could not refrain from calling her by harsh names, speaking to himself as he walked through the streets of Barchester. When he said his prayers, he could not bring himself to forgive her. When he strove to do so, his mind recoiled from the attempt, and in lieu of forgiving ran off in a double spirit of vindictiveness, dwelling on the extent of the injury he had received. And so his prayers dropped senseless from his lips.
Barchester Towers, Mr. and Mrs. Quiverful Are Made Happy. Mr. Slope is Encouraged by the Press
Trollope is too sophisticated a writer to have Slope suffer a very public (and deserved) downfall. The Signora mentioned earlier eventually embarrasses him by knowingly referencing his disastrous proposal to Mrs. Bold to a large audience. This ends his unwanted visits to her and puts Signora Neroni in the same group with Eleanor Bold as firm enemies of the secret king. He instead quietly leaves the story to bother the protagonists no more. As in life though, he doesn’t give up and we’re told he has soon latched himself successfully to another prospect:
It is well known that the family of the Slopes never starve: they always fall on their feet, like cats; and let them fall where they will, they live on the fat of the land. Our Mr. Slope did so. On his return to town he found that the sugar-refiner had died and that his widow was inconsolable—in other words, in want of consolation. Mr. Slope consoled her, and soon found himself settled with much comfort in the house in Baker Street. He possessed himself, also, before long, of a church in the vicinity of the Red Road, and became known to fame as one of the most eloquent preachers and pious clergymen in that part of the metropolis. There let us leave him.
Barchester Towers, Mr. Slope Bids Farewell to the Palace and Its Inhabitants
Yes, let us leave him. One doubts that he ever once reflected on his own wrongdoing despite being a minister of religion where such acknowledgements are the very essence of his faith. The gamma’s ability to lie to himself is a strong defensive measure and explains why they are seldom made to fall on their swords as the more honest among us often do.
There is one more character that comes into the story that is worth briefly mentioning before finishing. That is Bertie Stanhope, the brother of Signora Neroni who is actually only Italian by her failed marriage. Bertie is a clear alpha but also a wastrel with very limited prospects. He is perpetually in debt and only protected from ruin by his father’s income. Eleanor really likes Bertie though she is intelligent and perceptive enough to see that he is not marriage material. Bertie is encouraged by his older sister Charlotte to court Eleanor and secure a stable income for himself through the marriage. Unlike Slope, he is not sneaky or underhanded and goes about his proposal by openly sharing the scheme with Eleanor. Even after this, Eleanor doesn’t feel the same anger to Bertie as she does Slope. Her good sense of character and social class protects her where it might have failed other women. But even a wastrel like Bertie is a far more attractive than a man like Slope to Eleanor.