‘Trollope meets King Lear’: The Cathedral by Hugh Walpole (1922)

Review by Margaret B:

The initially humorous tone of Hugh Walpole’s The Cathedral for a while masks what is eventually a very tragic story with parallels to King Lear.

We are introduced to the handsome, rather pompous, arrogant but successful Archdeacon of Polchester, Adam Brandon, his adored son and rather neglected wife and daughter, his colleagues in the Cathedral Chapter and various other citizens of the town. The year is 1897 although the narrator is looking back from thirty years after and the book was published in 1922.

The book is the story of his downfall, as his family abandons him, apart from his neglected daughter, Joan and of his descent into madness. Given the setting it is also inevitable to assume that he was also influenced by Trollope and initially it feels as though we are in the next town to Barcester.

An example of the comic tone is this description of Brandon at the beginning of the book- including somewhat ironic use of capitalisation:

“He was not elated because he was exceptional, he did not flatter himself because it was so: God had seen fit (in a moment of boredom perhaps, at the number of insignificant and mis- shaped human beings He was forced to create) to fling into the world, for once a truly Fine Specimen, Fine in Body, Fine in Soul, Fine in Intellect.”

To begin with, the characters are almost stereotypes – a little two dimensional.

Looming over all these characters is the rather intimidating Cathedral which seems to have a brooding will of its own which does not always appear benevolent. Its physical presence is often referred to and sometimes it seems to move even nearer to Barndon’s house beside it in the Cathedral Close. It is not always a place of sanctuary but a vast, unknown, threatening space, often inhabit by a local drunk. Brandon feels he has dedicated his life to serving the Cathedral – at least in his eyes but it seems to turn on him and eventually become the setting of his final humiliation and indeed his death.

Almost immediately the book starts, things start to go wrong for the Archdeacon but to begin with they are not hugely serious and Brandon appears to cope well with them. Admittedly his precious son is sent down from Oxford but of almost more humiliation for Brandon is a circus elephant parading through the town who steals his hat. Although this is undoubtedly a very comic episode, Brandon’s over-reaction hints that he may be more emotionally unstable than it first appears.

Gradually as the town’s people get more and more excited about the upcoming Queen’s Jubilee, Brandon’s world begins to fall apart. The book becomes more serious and the characters more rounded as Brandon has a nervous breakdown as first his son runs off with the daughter of a notorious inn keeper and then his wife abandons him for another clergyman.

The focus of Brandon’s despair becomes his rivalry with the recently arrived Canon Ronder. Brandon is determined that his candidate for a vacant living must win at all costs and it is this fight with Ronder that creates the final climax of the book and brings about Brandon’s complete breakdown. Ronder wants to appoint a radical priest whom Brandon sees as an atheist and someone who would undermine all Brandon has done for the Cathedral.

This cry for help at the end of the book shows how far the story has darkened and the writing has changed from the light comic description above:

“Love- love! I never wanted love before, but now I want it, desperately, desperately, someone to love me, someone for me to love, someone to be kind to. Falk, my boy. It’s so lonely. It’s so dark. I can’t see things as I did. It’s getting darker. Falk come back and help me…” (page 503)

As with Lear, Brandon realises too late that his lust for power and prestige has been at the cost of love. And too late he notices the devotion of his daughter Joan – the Cordelia figure who abandons the man she loves to look after her father.

Personally I find the change in tone from a comic novel of Cathedral politics to the tragic story of the breakdown of a selfish and cruel man too big a leap in one book – did Walpole change his mind as to what sort of book he was writing as he got deeper into the plot? However in spite of this flaw, it is a compelling story and becomes harder and harder to put down as Brandon falls apart. It is a powerful and convincing evocation of a man falling apart.

Walpole further creates a vivid picture of small town life: of a town celebrating the Jubilee at the end of the nineteenth century. Characters come to life as we learn of their petty failings, their prejudices and often their kindnesses. And although the religious arguments of that time may be less relevant to us now, the story underneath with its many parallels to Lear is a timeless one with a strong moral message.

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One thought on “‘Trollope meets King Lear’: The Cathedral by Hugh Walpole (1922)

  1. Pingback: The Man with Red Hair by High Walpole (1925) | Reading 1900-1950

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