Sunday, December 31, 2006

2006 Retrospective


Like so many others in the biblioblogosphere, I have reviewed what I've read in 2006 in the hopes of coming up with a "Best of" list. (See recent postings from Garden in the Pocket, Ex Libris and Mary's Library) Unfortunately, little about the 40+ titles I've read this year has proven memorable, beyond that which has been previously noted in this blog. But as I studied my list, I realized that there was one specific memory of what I'd read that was worthy of note. I could recall one character particularly well even though it had been in the early months of 2006 when I first encountered him. So instead of providing you with a "best of" list from my reading during 2006, I'll give you instead the novelty of an entry on "My Most Memorable Character of 2006".

Josiah Crawley

Crawley is a clergyman who appears in Anthony Trollope's The Last Chronicle of Barset. He is somewhere in his early '50's but professionally he's only attained the low-level professional status of curate in the Church of England. He's as poor as the proverbial church mouse which is particularly hard on his wife and children, given that financial status in Victorian England was everything with regard to long-term security and prospects. His daughter's chance at a happy marriage with the man she loves may be ruined by Crawley's debts and subsequent legal trouble. Crawley is a high-minded clergyman, struggling to do his best in his low-level role in a parish of working-class families. Crawley's innate intelligence and talents are wasted in large part in this role; a better use of his talents might have been as a scholar or college professor, but he lacked the social connections necessary to be considered for those positions. The crux of Crawley's trouble in Last Chronicle is that he's accused of having stolen and cashed a check that properly belonged to the Dean of the Cathedral in his diocese. No one finds it particularly credible that he has committed theft but the evidence of his cashing the check is undeniable. Crawley is deemed to be half-mad by all who know him, but few recognize that the madness is brought on by a mixture of frustration, desperation and pride. Crawley even says to his wife at one point that he either belongs in Bedlam (the famous asylum of the mad) or in jail, given the evidence against him. Socially, professionally, personally, there must be consequences. The Last Chronicle of Barset plays out the consequences of the accusation against Crawley (although, in the end, "the good end happily and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.")

Crawley is in many respects a tragic figure. He is indeed innocent of the charge levied against him. At the same time, even given his virtue and his intelligence, he seems unable to advance in the Church or work out any kind of comfortable existence. His wife goes to great lengths to protect him from the consequences of his own extreme behavior. Yet when Victorian society and every institution of importance to him seems to condemn him, he lives up to the standard of honor demanded by that society. He does not give an inch when it would inappropriate to yield to power seeking to encroach upon his rights and yet gives all when it seems to him in his own mind that such is required. He is a most uncomfortable person to live with and yet he is also that upright soul who lives according to the most honorable of principles.

I have met one or two people on this earth who are kindred spirits with Crawley. Their lives are in many respects a living hell for them; certainly a little more flexibility in their principles of behavior would allow them an easier time of it. And yet, the dogged nature of their personality (stubborness?) keeps them from bending and moving more comfortably with less rigid principles. You can love them (as Crawley's wife clearly and deeply loves her husband) but they'll truly drive you mad because they can't seem to relinquish abstract moral principle in favor of daily practicality.

Trollope survives as a writer on the basis of his ability to delineate character and Josiah Crawley deserves to be noted as one of his best.

(Image displayed above is borrowed from the Trollope Society web site.)