martes, 28 de agosto de 2012

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

Though written in the mid-nineteenth century, The Warden by Anthony Trollope addresses themes that are highly relevant to contemporary issues. Prime amongst them is a consideration of the freedom and integrity of the press. In the novel, the eponymous warden, one Mr Harding, finds himself subjected to something of a public witch-hunt over payments of money that apparently cannot be justified.

Mr Harding is paid by the church, the Anglican Church, of course. At least that’s how things seem on the surface. He is the warden of a sheltered house that is home for a handful of aged and infirm workers, whose welfare is provided for by a long-standing trust fund. The legacy also provides for the allowance paid to their warden. The allowance is, shall we say, generous, especially compared to the funds that contribute directly to the inmates’ welfare.

Mr Harding has a daughter of marriageable age. She is courted by a Mr Bold whose character demands that he is duty bound to seek out justice where other may prefer continued indifference or ignorance. Mr Bold begins to take an interest in Mr Harding and the legacy. Stories - accusatory stories - begin to appear in the press. The newspaper, one in particular, is just not going to let the story rest. The unsuspecting Mr Harding is embarrassed in the extreme.

What the contemporary reader will find difficult in this scenario is appreciating the role and status of the church in the story. Mr Harding is employed by the Anglican Church. He is answerable to a Bishop, who lives in something known as a palace. A century and a half ago, the church was the very epitome of the establishment and respectability, whilst its employees and associates were professionalism and integrity personified. To some extent, they were above criticism and, crucially, they themselves believed this. And when the eight hundred pounds a year income that Mr Harding currently receives turns out to be misappropriated from funds that the bequest intended for the home’s inmates, all hell breaks loose.

The press continues its campaign. Both sides employ expensive, posing lawyers and both sides visit potentially influential friends in high places. And, in the midst of it all, we have Miss Harding on the opposite side of the argument from Mr Bold, her sweetheart.

But it is the involvement of the press that captures contemporary interest. Scandalised by the alleged mis-appropriation of charitable monies, stinking rich newspaper proprietors beat drums on behalf of the poor to make a hollow, if penetrating sound. The pursuit of celebrity, the nose for scandal, the propensity to claim a status above everyone else’s morals, all of these aspects of public posturing by the press remain familiar today. Apparently it was always in the public interest to sell as many copies as possible and by whatever means. And it always was the case that a public scandal over hundreds of pounds produced profits for the press barons measured in thousands.

The issues are all resolved, but not in a way that might have been predicted at the outset. A modern reader may well find the detail of the ending unlikely, but also it might be refreshingly unlikely. But it all goes to prove that in the last one hundred and fifty years some things have actually changed.

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