In former times great objects were attained by great work. When evils were to be reformed, reformers set about their heavy task with grave decorum and laborious argument. An age was occupied in proving a grievance, and philosophical researches were printed in folio pages, which it took a life to write, and an eternity to read. We get on now with a lighter step, and quicker: ridicule is found to be more convincing than argument, imaginary agonies touch more than true sorrows, and monthly novels convince, when learned quartos fail to do so. If the world is to be set right, the work will be done by shilling numbers.
Of all such reformers Mr Sentiment is the most powerful. It is incredible the number of evil practices he has put down: it is to be feared he will soon lack subjects, and that when he has made the working classes comfortable, and got bitter beer put into proper-sized pint bottles, there will be nothing further for him left to do. Mr Sentiment is certainly a very powerful man, and perhaps not the less so that his good poor people are so very good; his hard rich people so very hard; and the genuinely honest so very honest. Namby-pamby in these days is not thrown away if it be introduced in the proper quarters. Divine peeresses are no longer interesting, though possessed of every virtue; but a pattern peasant or an immaculate manufacturing hero may talk as much twaddle as one of Mrs Ratcliffe’s heroines, and still be listened to. Perhaps, however, Mr Sentiment’s great attraction is in his second-rate characters. If his heroes and heroines walk upon stilts, as heroes and heroines, I fear, ever must, their attendant satellites are as natural as though one met them in the street: they walk and talk like men and women, and live among our friends a rattling, lively life; yes, live, and will live till the names of their calling shall be forgotten in their own, and Buckett and Mrs Gamp will be the only words left to us to signify a detective police officer or a monthly nurse.
This swipe at Dickens in chapter 15 of The Warden was my first serious hint that Mr. Trollope and I were not going to see eye to eye. All seemed well at first: it was discovered that a charitable foundation (a home for retired wool-carders) had increased its value and income dramatically, but the increase had gone to the warden of the establishment, rather than to its occupants, so that he (a clergyman) was living in ease and luxury while they ate soup. An earnest young man took up the cause, and the church establishment naturally opposed him. So far so good. The church obviously had no leg to stand on, so I expected the situation to be rectified, one way or another. I could not have been more wrong. Not only was the situation not rectified, the elderly wool-carders were punished for having the temerity to demand a fair distribution of the income intended for them. Their ingratitude was their downfall, and they ended up with less than they had before and no warden to be their friend.
“Some gentleman will probably take my place here very soon, and I strongly advise you to be prepared to receive him in a kindly spirit and to raise no further question among yourselves as to the amount of his income. Were you to succeed in lessening what he has to receive, you would not increase your own allowance. The surplus would not go to you; your wants are adequately provided for, and your position could hardly be improved.”
“God bless your reverence, we knows it,” said Spriggs.
“It’s all true, your reverence,” said Skulpit. “We sees it all now.”
“Yes, Mr Harding,” said Bunce, opening his mouth for the first time; “I believe they do understand it now, now that they’ve driven from under the same roof with them such a master as not one of them will ever know again,—now that they’re like to be in sore want of a friend.”
Poor old men! how could they be cordial with their sore consciences and shamed faces? how could they bid God bless him with hearty voices and a true benison, knowing, as they did, that their vile cabal had driven him from his happy home, and sent him in his old age to seek shelter under a strange roof-tree?
As you can see the wool-carders are suitably repentant, not least for losing the extra twopence a day they received from the “open-handed” warden (who got £800 a year). Trollope follows this up with a pathetic diptych in which cupidity pollutes a pensioner’s deathbed and the only loyal inmate attempts to forgive his brethren for their sins:
The poor old bed-ridden creature still kept Mr Harding’s hand in his own, and the warden thought that he had met with something like warmth of feeling in the one of all his subjects from whom it was the least likely to be expected; for poor old Bell had nearly outlived all human feelings. “And your reverence,” said he, and then he paused, while his old palsied head shook horribly, and his shrivelled cheeks sank lower within his jaws, and his glazy eye gleamed with a momentary light; “and your reverence, shall we get the hundred a year, then?”
How gently did Mr Harding try to extinguish the false hope of money which had been so wretchedly raised to disturb the quiet of the dying man! One other week and his mortal coil would be shuffled off; in one short week would God resume his soul, and set it apart for its irrevocable doom; seven more tedious days and nights of senseless inactivity, and all would be over for poor Bell in this world; and yet, with his last audible words, he was demanding his moneyed rights, and asserting himself to be the proper heir of John Hiram’s bounty! Not on him, poor sinner as he was, be the load of such sin!
Mr Harding returned to his parlour, meditating with a sick heart on what he had seen, and Bunce with him. We will not describe the parting of these two good men, for good men they were. It was in vain that the late warden endeavoured to comfort the heart of the old bedesman; poor old Bunce felt that his days of comfort were gone. The hospital had to him been a happy home, but it could be so no longer. He had had honour there, and friendship; he had recognised his master, and been recognised; all his wants, both of soul and body, had been supplied, and he had been a happy man. He wept grievously as he parted from his friend, and the tears of an old man are bitter. “It is all over for me in this world,” said he, as he gave the last squeeze to Mr Harding’s hand; “I have now to forgive those who have injured me;—and to die.”
In the end, the warden leaves without being replaced, and the sinful wool-carders drop off one by one, “with no kind friend to solace their last moments, with no wealthy neighbour to administer comforts and ease the stings of death.” Even their places are not filled by other retired workers, so the rents just accumulate in the bank, benefiting no one. This, we are led to believe, is the natural consequence of trying to upset the natural order of things, that is, the system whereby the poor must be eternally grateful for the crumbs that fall from the tables of the wealthy. To raise workers out of poverty would be anathema, laughable, but to receive great wealth unearned is an honour and a right. Suffice it to say that Trollope was a champion of the status quo, and I am more than glad that it is his kind who were made to reform and repent.