Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Though the heavens fall

A couple of weeks ago, in response to my welcome message, a new Raveler engaged me in a discussion of literature.  (My username on the site is that of a literary character; those who know the book often ask about it, striking up any number of pleasant conversations.)

When I mentioned my recently-discovered love of Dickens, she mentioned that I ought to check out Anthony Trollope.  Her description made Trollope sound right up my alley, and after a look at his Wikipedia entry, I downloaded the first of his Barsetshire novels, The Warden, from Project Gutenberg.

I'm enjoying it immensely.  It's the story of a minor churchman whose position includes the guardianship of a group of poor elderly men, with stipends provided by the income from some land.  Over the centuries the income has grown, but the small pensions played to the men has not; instead, the amount going to the warden's position has become quite lucrative.  A would-be reformer takes up the cause of the men through the courts and the press, and the warden's son-in-law defends the arrangement in the name of crushing all those who criticize the prerogative of the church.

What the warden wants is what's truly right.  But like so many of us, what we thought must be right was whatever arrangements were in place when we came on the scene.  The reformer believes it wouldn't be right to abandon the suit just because he hopes to marry the warden's younger daughter -- he quotes the maxim "Let justice be done though the heavens fall" -- but Trollope doesn't agree.  For him, justice is not just objective fairness, but also attention to individual circumstances and needs.  The old men aren't being deprived, and the warden isn't greedy; the men are susceptible to being turned against their loving caretaker, and the warden is hurt by the thought of being made into a symbol of clerical arrogance in the press.  On the other hand, the archdeacon who is so zealous in making sure the suit goes nowhere doesn't care about any of those things -- he's thrilled when he gets a legal opinion that the suit was filed against the wrong parties and need not ever be resolved at all.

It's really a book about politics and people, and how poorly the two intersect at times.  A good book to be reading in the middle of the wrangling in the halls of Congress, which so seldom seems to take any account of the good of people, caring only about the purity of abstract principle or the defense of power.

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