Like The Warden, Barchester Towers is centrally concerned with church politics, although, being a longer book, it's not so focused on one conflict. A new bishop arrives with an ambitious evangelical chaplain and a domineering wife, and conflict emerges not only between them and the high church archdeacon, but within the bishop's palace as the various players struggle for power. Lots of scheming and maneuvering, politics, politics, politics, and some especially sappy Victorian gender nonsense. And I loved it!
How? How did Trollope do this thing?
For one thing, the characters are all very distinct and lively. Whenever Trollope introduces a new character, he gives a sketch of the person's character and situation, and so you can see quite clearly that while this person and that person agree, they do so for different reasons and so this one isn't as committed as the other. Or they have opposite goals but with similar temperaments and strategies. Each character has particular goals and priorities, particular ways of going about things, particular things or people they consider sacred and others they're ready to throw aside. It's plenty entertaining watching all of this play out, and the politics of preferment and patronage are just a good stage.
Trollope can be awfully smarmy about women -- there's a fair amount of Victorian sugar about "tiny hands" and how unbecoming it is for women to get angry or try to give orders to men. In general, though, this doesn't get in the way of the characterization. The women characters all feel "right" enough to me; they all have well-rounded personalities with interests and priorities and preferred tactics, and they act accordingly. If you can sort of screen out the more egregious parts of the narrator's judgments, it's not that bad; and there isn't that much of it to begin with.
Another reason the church politics doesn't prevent this book from being entertaining is that it's not entirely the only thing going on in Barchester Towers. There's also some good old fashioned maneuvering about marriages. And the Stanhopes. The Stanhopes are a family who return to Barchester and are described as being essentially selfish people. The children are all fairly parasitic and see nothing wrong with using other people for their own ends, and the parents, who never bothered to correct this when the children were younger, are now sort of detached and resigned to the situation. They're a bizarre group, and yet, for me at least, I thought Trollope brought it off. They're so far removed from the rest of the Barchester world that they manage to stir things up and throw wrenches in everyone's plans just by being there.
And then I just plain enjoy Trollope's writing! This sort of thing just works for me:
A new sofa had been introduced, a horrid chintz affair, most unprelatical and almost irreligious; such a sofa as never yet stood in the study of any decent high church clergyman of the Church of England.Unprelatical! And of course there's my favorite archdeacon, who is so pleased by the end of the book that he's showering everyone with lavish presents.
'Twas thus that he sang his song of triumph over Mr. Slope. This was his paen, his hymn of thanksgiving, his loud oration. He had girded himself with his sword, and gone forth to the war; now he was returning from the field laden with the spoils of the foe. The cob and the cameos, the violoncello and the pianoforte, were all as it were trophies reft from the tent of his now conquered enemy.I'm not sure what's wrong with me that I find passages like that so amusing, but I do.
There's also a very romantic proposal scene toward the end which I thought was very well done, although you might find it sappy. If you did, though, you'd be wrong, because the characters involved are adorable and the proposal is adorable.
In short, I was plenty entertained by Barchester Towers, and I expect to get back to this series soon.