Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Trollope adrift on Salisbury Plain

A front-page picture in Sunday’s Sunday Times prompts me to mention a talk I gave in Oxford last week. The photograph, headed ‘The Bride of Longleat’, was a wedding portrait of Viscount Weymouth and his new wife. The pretext for its appearing on the front page alongside the latest sleaze story (‘Top Tory in new Lobbygate row’) seems to have been that the bride is now Britain’s first black viscountess.

My talk was to members of the Trollope Society, meeting on Thursday afternoon in the Old Library of St. Edmund Hall. It was a very enjoyable, very civilized (very Oxford) occasion, though I was rather nervous when I entered the Old Library, a narrow galleried room whose floor space is almost entirely taken up by a long table. At the far end of the table sat the Trollope Society, already enjoying the excellent tea provided by the College. I had a moment’s vision of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party: the Trollopians guarding their cakes and shooing me away with cries of  “No room!” and I replying indignantly, “There’s PLENTY of room!”  But all was well, and everyone treated me very kindly.

I was talking about Trollope’s novel The Vicar of Bullhampton, which he began writing in 1868 either in Washington, the day after finishing He Knew he Was Right (according to Trollope himself, in his Autobiography) or in New York, three days later, according to Victoria Glendinning, in her 1994 biography of the writer. It’s a book of well over 200,000 words, but he completed it within six months, and only a year after the last and greatest of the Barchester novels, The Last Chronicle of Barset, had been published. Indeed, the topic of my paper can be summed up in one trite sentence: ‘Bullhampton is not Barchester’. I wanted to reflect on ways in which this novel distances itself from the Barchester novels that preceded it, and one of the most striking ways was, quite simply, a matter of location.

You’ll remember that in the first paragraph of The Warden, Trollope introduces Barchester by explicitly stating where it is not: ‘Were we,’ he says, ‘to name Wells or Salisbury, Exeter, Hereford or Gloucester, it might be presumed that something personal was intended; and as this tale will refer mainly to the cathedral dignitaries of the town in question, we are anxious that no personality may be suspected. ‘Let us presume,’ he goes on, ‘that Barchester is a quiet town in the west of England, more remarkable for the beauty of its cathedral and the antiquity of its monuments, than for any commercial prosperity’.

By contrast Trollope begins The Vicar of Bullhampton with a flurry of topographical evidence: Bullhampton, he says at once, is in Wiltshire. He gives its co-ordinates: ‘seventeen miles from Salisbury, eleven from Marlborough, nine from Westbury, seven from Heytesbury, and five from the nearest railroad station, which is called Bullhampton Road, and lies on the line from Salisbury to Yeovil’. The trouble, of course, is that these co-ordinates are incompatible: it’s impossible to be only five miles from the Salisbury –Yeovil railway line (which still exists, running WSW towards Somerset) and only eleven miles from Marlborough at the same time. Indeed, during the course of the novel, Bullhampton seems to float around Salisbury Plain. Trollope compares the fine tower of Bullhampton Church with the spire of what he calls ‘its neighbour the cathedral at Salisbury’. However, when Carry Brattle (the unhappy ‘castaway’ of the story) runs away from Salisbury she walks north on the Devizes road for fifteen miles and stops near a turning which she knows will lead her to Bullhampton, six miles distant. Next morning, she decides to keep on towards Devizes, only changing her mind and her direction when she reaches a signpost pointing west to ‘Bullhampton and Imber’.

Trollope has already told us that Bullhampton is ‘not quite on Salisbury Plain’ but Imber is right in the middle: it is today a deserted village, located within the prohibited military training area. There is no other village anywhere near it, and no river either. However, Trollope is explicit that the river Avon runs past the Vicarage garden. When he describes how it later divides itself into ‘many streamlets, and there is a district called the Water Meads, in which bridges are more frequent than trustworthy,’ he is actually describing the area immediately to the west of Salisbury, specifically the area containing the village of Quidhampton, which contained a corn mill.

Clearly Bullhampton cannot be in all these different places at once. But we should not have been surprised. By a masterly piece of indirection, Trollope warns us, in the novel’s opening sentence, that he is

… disposed to believe that no novel reader in England has seen the little town of Bullhampton, in Wiltshire, except such novel readers as live there, and those others, very few in number, who visit it perhaps four times a year for the purposes of trade, and are known as commercial gentlemen.

In fact the bulk of the evidence points to the village’s being some distance north west of Salisbury. For me, the most conclusive proof is also the most entertaining. We are told that Turnover Park, the aptly-named seat of that overbearing landowner the Marquis* of Trowbridge, is not less than ten miles away from Bullhampton; later on, it is described as ‘near Westbury’. Now there is a real Marquis whose seat is still today near Westbury: the Marquis of Bath, at Longleat, the new father-in-law of Britain’s first black viscountess.

I am confident Trollope had Longleat in mind as the location for Turnover Park. Why? Because the family name of the Marquis of Trowbridge is, appropriately for someone who enjoys living off the fat of the land, Stowte (his unmarried daughters are always referred to as the Misses Stowte). And, as everyone now knows from reading the Sunday Times, the ancestral name of the Marquis of Bath is, well, Thynne.

Adrian Barlow


*Modern English usage appears to favour ‘Marquess’; Trollope, however, keeps to ‘Marquis’ and I have followed him in this.

I have written about Trollope before, in World and time: Archbishop Ramsay’s Treasure, and about ‘Trollope and Religious Controversy’ in my latest book, Extramural (Lutterworth Press 2012)

1 comment:

  1. Adrian, it is curious the way in which fictitious or unnamed places can occupy a ‘place in the mind’ that somehow has a floating existence. When I read The Portrait of a Lady, I was sometimes forty miles west of London, at Gardencourt, but mostly – and almost overwhelmingly — I was at Henry James’ House in Rye: “Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” Precisely, on the westward sloping lawn at Lamb House!