In the Footsteps of the Warden: Reflections on The Rev’d Septimus Harding

A few days ago I finished The Chronicles of Barsetshire, a six-book series by Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope, for the second time in as many years. An immediate personal favorite, I was introduced to the series by Anne Kennedy’s blog and podcast, Preventing Grace. For those unfamiliar with the series, all six books take place in or around the fictional English Cathedral town of Barchester, and deal with various intrigues, conflicts, scandals, and romances among the gentry. The novels are often considered classics of British literature; the first three have even been adapted into two separate BBC miniseries.

Four of the six novels specifically deal with such issues among the clergy and their families. As the books take place in the decades following the reforms of the 1830’s, some of the plot lines include the conflicts between the Old High Churchmen with their Whiggish tendencies and the reforming Low Churchmen with their Tory tendencies. As an Anglican clergyman, it’s easy to see reflections of current church parties or “streams” in today’s Anglican world. That is, of course, part of the series’ appeal for me. This is especially so, as I love reading about the now-nigh-extinct Old High Church party. 

That said, the biggest personal appeal of the series is a single clerical character, the Reverend Septimus Harding, the titular Warden of the first book. For starters, I readily identify with Mr. Harding. He is the cantor of the Cathedral, and I’m known in some circles for chanting the psalms and service music. Mr. Harding has two daughters, and I have two daughters. Mr. Harding’s main pastime is playing his cello, and mine is playing my violin. But more importantly, Mr. Harding is the kind of priest and kind of man I aspire to be. Though he is by no means the most influential or important of the many clergymen in the sphere of Barsetshire, his humility, kindness, and simplicity can be an example to us all.  What follows is a reflection on the character of Mr. Harding, and necessarily contains spoilers for the novels. As they are public domain, I highly encourage readers of TNAA to download the books or check them out from your local library. 

As noted above, we are introduced to Mr. Harding in the first novel, The Warden. Mr. Harding is the precentor of the cathedral, a minor canon in the diocese, and the warden of Hiram’s Hospital, a centuries-old almshouse. The central conflict of The Warden is whether the financial benefits long enjoyed by Mr. Harding and many previous generations of wardens are within the spirit of Hiram’s original will, or whether they are taking advantage of the poor men for whom the charity was originally established. Mr. Harding’s humility is his central characteristic in this novel, as he would rather live in relative poverty than cause scandal to his reputation and that of the Church.

In the next novel, Barchester Towers, a new bishop comes to Barchester. Bishop Proudie and his domineering wife are vehemently opposed to the High Church ways of the cathedral, to the point where the Bishop’s chaplain preaches against the very chanted cathedral services that are led by Mr. Harding. Nevertheless, Mr. Harding is always submissive to his bishop and does not partake in the complaining other partisan speech of his fellows. Indeed, Mr. Harding is always the picture of humility, giving others the benefit of the doubt. He would rather question his own motives and actions than impugn those of his fellow clergymen or superiors. 

Ultimately, Mr. Harding considered himself to be a servant of God and a servant of the Church, and acted accordingly, even when he would have to suffer for it.

Mr. Harding is also a model of kindness. In The Warden, Mr. Harding never views John Bold as an enemy, despite the fact that Mr. Bold’s reforming crusades initially raise the question as to whether Mr. Harding deserves his income. Indeed, he welcomes Mr. Bold as his younger daughter’s suitor and eventual husband. 

In Barchester Towers, his daughter is now a widow, and is being pursued by Mr. Slope, Bishop Proudie’s ambitious and slimy chaplain (expertly portrayed by a young Alan Rickman in the 1982 BBC miniseries adaptation). Mr. Harding again resolves to accept Mr. Slope as his son-in-law, should his daughter choose him, despite the fact that Mr. Slope is extremely unlikable and actively working against Mr. Harding’s interests. When the other Cathedral clergy are complaining and plotting against Mr. Slope, Mr. Harding refuses to participate, even though he dislikes the man.

In the final novel, The Last Chronicle of Barset, Mr. Harding is the only clergyman to give Mr. Crawley the benefit of the doubt when Mr. Crawley is accused of theft. Indeed, Mr. Harding is the only clergyman to encourage his colleagues to refrain from prejudging Mr. Crawley, and he does so because he cares for his brother priest’s soul and the soul of the church.

Finally, Mr. Harding is characteristically simple in his lifestyle. He would rather live in relative poverty than be a scandal to the church or a bother to his relations. He delights in his children and grandchildren, even when some of them dismiss him as a silly old man. He is content to have the relatively insignificant position of cathedral precentor rather than set his sights on higher ecclesiastical office. 

By contrast, we see numerous other main characters who are clerics, but do not show this exemplary character, even though they are pious churchmen in their own ways. Archdeacon Grantley is an unashamed partisan who might not pick a fight, but will stop at nothing to win if a fight comes to him. He is a wealthy man whose riches have made him somewhat worldly. Mr. Slope is ambitious and scheming, confusing his position within the Church with genuine righteousness. Bishop Proudie is a weak leader who is ruled by others and has no convictions of his own. His wife, Mrs. Proudie, is a manipulative, self-righteous partisan who cannot distinguish between her preferences and true piety and godliness. Mr. Robarts is a career cleric who is more interested in the comforts of life as a gentleman than the cure of souls. Mr. Crawley appears to be humble, but his humility is a false one that cloaks his pride. He relishes in the injustices that he believes have been done to him. He is brilliant and pious, but exemplifies the tendency of clergy to become weird eccentrics. Even Dean Arabin, another favorite of mine, shows tendencies toward belligerence in his partisanship (in writing if not in person), and is drawn to the siren-song of extreme asceticism and faux-martyrdom via conversion from Tractarianism to Romanism.

When Mr. Harding is dying, Archdeacon Grantley, the husband of Harding’s eldest daughter, eulogizes his father-in-law thusly:

I have known him ever since I left college; and I have known him as one man seldom knows another. There is nothing he has done,—as I believe, nothing that he has thought,—with which I have not been cognizant. I feel sure that he never had an impure fancy in his mind, or a faulty wish in his heart. His tenderness has surpassed the tenderness of women; and yet, when an occasion came for showing it, he had all the spirit of a hero… He lacked guile, and he feared God,—and a man who does both will never go far astray. I don’t think he ever coveted aught in his life,—except a new case for his violoncello and somebody to listen to him when he played it.

Trollope, Anthony. The Last Chronicle of Barset, chapter 81.

As simple as this legacy is, I cannot think of one more beautiful or worthy of a clergyman. Indeed, it is with Mr. Harding’s funeral that the main ecclesiastical conflicts in Barchester come to an end as the parties reflect on on the example of the sainted precentor.

This is the kind of cleric I hope to be. This is the kind of man I hope to be. Confessedly, my tendencies often run more in the direction of an Arabin, Crawley, or Grantley. But perhaps, by reflecting on the better example of Mr. Harding and by the grace of our Lord, I might attain to some of the former warden’s humility, kindness, simplicity, and (dare I say it) saintliness.



Fr. Isaac J. Rehberg

Fr. Isaac is the Canon for liturgy in the Anglican Diocese of the West (Church of Nigeria), and the Rector of All Saints Anglican Church in San Antonio, Texas, where he lives with his wife, Heather, and daughters, Leah and Victoria. A bi-vocational priest, he works as a residential real estate appraiser and dabbles in various forms of music. Fr. Isaac earned his BA from the University of Texas at San Antonio and his Master of Christian Ministry from Wayland Baptist University.


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