Cathedral Close, Exeter
Exeter Cathedral and Close

Anthony Trollope








In The Warden (1855), Anthony Trollope initiates his Barsetshire Chronicles by siting them explicitly in “a quiet town in the West of England, more remarkable for the beauty of its cathedral and the antiquity of its monuments, than for its commercial prosperity.”   Just as explicitly, he forbids any literal connection with a specific city:  “let us call it Barchester.  Were we to name Wells or Salisbury, Exeter, Hereford, or Gloucester, it might be presumed something personal was intended.”  Nonetheless, it is hard to visit the cloistered cathedral precincts of any of these cities without thinking of Trollope.


Trollope's later novel, He Knew He Was Right (1869), does name Exeter and the fictional Nuncombe Putney, a “small and very remote village” (134) on the edge of Dartmoor some nine miles from Princetown and near the Teign River, as the setting for an extended subplot.  The novel begins as a light domestic satire focusing on a comically jealous husband and his comically indignant wife.  As its central plot spirals into pathos with the estrangement of the Trevelyans and Mr. Trevelyan’s eventual madness, the subplot returns frequently to the Cathedral Close in Exeter, where the brilliantly characterized Miss Jemima Stansbury holds imperious court over nieces, nephews, vergers, Deans and the “various chosen ones of the City of Exeter” (58).


Miss Stansbury “was a stalwart lady who would play her rubber of whist five nights a week, and could hold her own in conversation against the best woman in Exeter--not to speak of her acknowledged superiority over every man in that city” (38).  An inventory of her real estate holdings offers a tour of the city center:  she lives “in a large brick house, standing in the Close, almost behind the Cathedral” (59), owning that house and “many other houses in the neighborhood,” as well as  “the ‘Cock and Bottle,’ a very decent second class inn on the other side of the Close. . .the whole of one side of a dark passage leading out of the Close toward the High Street. . . two large houses in the High Street, and a great warehouse at St. Thomas’s, and had been bought out of land by the Railway at St. David’s. . . at a very high price” (60) The Cathedral itself, and its surrounding Green, she treats as the private pleasure ground of her demesne:  “‘Come, it’s a fine evening, and we’ll go out and look at the towers.  You’ve never even seen them yet, I suppose?’” (77).


According to Trollope’s biographer, Victoria Glendinning, Miss Stansbury is most likely drawn after Trollope’s own cousin, Fanny Brent, “a strong-minded unmarried woman with reactionary political opinions, forcibly expressed. . . in a Devonshire accent” (9), whose Exeter home Trollope and his siblings visited often as children. Another of Trollope’s novels, Rachel Ray (1863), which he described to George Eliot as chronicling “the commonest details of commonplace life among the most ordinary people” (qtd in Glendinning 334), is set in another rural Devon village.


Glendinning, VictoriaTrollope. London:  Hutchinson, 1992.

Trollope, Anthony.  He Knew He Was Right.  London Oxford University Press,  1948.


© Copyright Kim McMullen 2007