Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Anthony Trollope’s own goals

I first read Trollope’s Barchester Towers nearly fifty years ago, on the island of Ithaca, while travelling with a friend during a long vac. We had rented a little room overlooking the sunny harbour at Vathi, the port to which Odysseus at last returned. The room had an en-suite of a sort: you walked out onto a flat rooftop to find a privy and a shower consisting of a head-height tap from which dangled a tin can with holes punched in its bottom. The water was cold but, in the Ionian heat, welcome.

Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) may have been the first novelist to write about a shower. When Alice Vavasour, heroine of Can You Forgive Her? (1864), arrives to stay with her aunt in Cheltenham, she is hardly through the front door before Lady Macleod starts berating her for having broken off her recent engagement. Her aunt certainly does not intend to forgive her, and Alice struggles to defend herself, after which Trollope’s narrator comments:

Perhaps it was better for them both that the attack and defence should thus be made suddenly, at their first meeting. It is better to pull the string at once when you are in the shower bath, and not to stand shivering, thinking of the inevitable which you can only postpone for a few minutes.

I came across this interesting analogy while preparing a talk on ‘Past and Present in the world of Trollope’ to give to the Woodstock Literature Society last weekend.  It is always a pleasure to come back to Trollope; but when I mentioned this lecture to an old friend, he replied , ‘Why has Trollope never quite made the A-list of required reading?’ It’s a question to ponder. I raised it with my audience on Saturday, suggesting that Barchester Towers was possibly the finest comic novel of the 19th century, and that two at least of Trollope’s books, The Last Chronicle of Barset and The Way We Live Now, deserve a place in anyone’s Top Ten list of Victorian fiction.

Trollope himself is often held responsible for his failure to keep a secure foothold in the Premier League. In his posthumously published Autobiography (1883) he had spelt out – much too bluntly for some – the economics of being a novelist, publishing the exact sums he had earned in royalties and fees for every one of his forty seven novels. Then, in describing his working methods, he had startled readers by dismissing that idea that great writing requires great inspiration (preferably to be found by a starving author shivering in a garret); Trollope was unapologetic about sticking to a strict regime:

I have allotted myself so many pages a week. The average number has been about 40. It has been placed as low as 20, and has risen to 112. And as a page is an ambiguous term, my page has been made to contain 250 words; and as words, if not watched, will have a tendency to straggle, I have had every word counted as I went.

Confessing he had been warned ‘such appliances are beneath the notice of a man of genius’, he cheerfully admitted he’d never thought of himself as a genius, but was sure that, even if he were, he would have subjected himself to what he called ‘these trammels’ because  ‘A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules. It is the tortoise which always catches the hare.’ (Echoes of Samuel Smiles?)

Trollope is sometimes too hard on himself, and no doubt some critics (such as F.R. Leavis) and some of his fellow authors (Henry James, for instance) have been too ready to take him at his own estimation; but his analysis of what makes for a successful novelist is worth our attention. Describing how he came to write The Warden, the first of the Barchester novels and the first book of his to receive much recognition, Trollope explains how he wanted to expose – or at least to describe – two contrasting evils. The first of these was ‘the possession by the Church of certain funds and endowments which had been intended for charitable purposes, but which had been allowed to become incomes for idle church dignitaries.’ In the novel a young radical, John Bold, exposes the scandal of a clergyman, Mr Harding, who lives comfortably as the Warden of Hiram’s Hospital, an almshouse for twelve old men: shouldn’t these bedesmen have been receiving the accumulated benefits of the original endowment, instead of the Warden?

The second evil against which Trollope inveighs is by contrast the ‘undeserved severity of the newspapers towards the recipients of such incomes, who could hardly be considered to be the chief sinners in the matter.’ In the novel the Times, disguised as The Thunderer, launches a campaign so scathing against Mr Harding – one of life’s innocents, a man devoted to God and his daughter, to music and to the old men of Hiram’s Hospital – that he resigns, to the despair of his daughter (who is, inconveniently, in love with John Bold) and of the Cathedral clergy, who regard him as a weak-willed traitor to the Church of England for allowing its privileges thus to be undermined.

Trollope wanted to see, and sympathize, with both sides of the argument. However, he concedes:

I was altogether wrong in supposing that the two things could be combined. Any writer in advocating a cause must do so after the fashion of an advocate, – or his writing will be ineffective. He should take up one side and cling to that, and then he may be powerful. There should be no scruples of conscience. Such scruples make a man impotent for such work.

But here I think Trollope is wrong. The genius of The Warden, and what makes it compulsively and provocatively readable, is that it does have ‘scruples of conscience’ about both sides; this is what sets Trollope apart, for example, from the Dickens of Hard Times or Nicholas Nickleby – Dickens, the novelist whom he lampoons in The Warden as Mr. Popular Sentiment. Trollope was almost incapable of seeing only one side: when he stood for Parliament in 1868 he described himself as a Conservative Liberal, and was roundly jeered by both parties.

In speaking last week at Woodstock, I referred to Trollope’s own account of The Vicar of Bullhampton, a novel in which he does place all his sympathy behind a single character: Carry Brattle, the miller’s daughter, whom he politely calls a ‘castaway’ but others do not scruple to call a prostitute. This novel, Trollope declares, ‘was written chiefly with the object of exciting not only pity but also sympathy for a fallen woman, and of raising a feeling of forgiveness for such in the minds of other women.’ He felt so strongly about this that he reprinted the novel’s Preface in his Autobiography; but his own final verdict on The Vicar of Bullhampton was as absurd as it was unsparing, and, alas, did all that was needed to keep this fine novel, and Trollope himself, off the A-list:

As regards all the Brattles, the story is, I think, well told. The characters are true, and the scenes at the mill are in keeping with human nature. For the rest of the book I have little to say. It is not very bad, and it certainly is not very good. As I have myself forgotten what the heroine does and says – except that she tumbles into a ditch – I cannot expect anyone else should remember her. But I have forgotten nothing that was done or said by any of the Brattles.

Adrian Barlow


  1. Thank you - as always, your writing comes as a pleasure I turn to from more unsympathetic tasks. It's also characteristically thoughtful. The Warden is on my short list of ever-re-readable short novels. I pick it up again every couple of years and get through it in a few hours. The chapters set in London have a solid sense of time and place that I still relish.

    Please keep these coming, Adrian!

  2. Thank you, Tom, and you are quite right about the London chapters of the Warden. Trollope's account of Mr Harding's first experience of eating in a Chop House, and then of finding himself rather enjoying the decadence of a cigar divan, are beautifully written.

  3. A very welcome return to blogging, Adrian, and more importantly to insightful and erudite analysis. It has been much missed!
    So Trollope was, perhaps, his most vocal critic? I enjoyed "The Way We Live Now", the themes of which echo down the years. I found out that this was one of his more favoured novels, in as much as he said: "Upon the whole I by no means look upon the book as one of my failures."
    Incidentally, my daughter has been presented with the description of English Literature at A Level as covering "Victorians, Mad Women and Faeries".....