Sunday, August 8, 2010

Background of Trollope's Writings and Barchester Towers

Thirty years or so before Trollope lifted his pen to begin The Warden, the cathedrals of this country had begun to decline into a general mild disfavour, if not actual disrespect. Two more or less public scandals had put them under a cloud. One concerned the cathedral school at Rochester. Another centred on St Cross Hospital. Both scandals gave rise to hostile articles in the gutter press, to hostile questions in Parliament, and a general tide in favour of radical changes. Remember we are talking of the years leading to the first great Reform Act. Conservatives were at bay. The bishops were chief among them. Many of them voted against reform, and became partly discredited for having done so.

When Trollope began to write about Hiram’s Hospital it was probably taken by most readers to be modelled on St Cross, another genuine and only too truthful case. Just as Dean Stanhope was, St Cross was a hospital of an allegedly charitable nature. It housed thirteen old men, much like Hiram’s Hospital. It was also used as a parish church; and one of its congregation was a clergyman called Henry Holloway, who became obsessed with the idea that the charitable foundation’s income was being misapplied. He finally got the case before the Master of the Rolls, after a lot of agitation in 1853. Trollope had started writing the novel a year before. But he certainly had St Cross in mind.
And he certainly had the Bishop of Winchester in mind too. He was one Brownlow North, half brother of Lord North? that Prime Minister who is doomed to be famous mainly for having lost the United States. Because of the influence of The Prime Minister’s office, no doubt, Brownlow North became a bishop when he was only 30. He appointed his son to the comparatively well paid sinecure of being Master of St Cross Hospital, and his grandson by another son to be registrar of the Winchester diocese when he was only seven. As you can see, Trollope had no shortage of models.
We shouldn’t forget, though, that Trollope did something quite original in making a successful best-seller out of a thinly disguised rehearsal of a case currently much in the public eye. By 1852, Dickens had several novels behind him: half a dozen or more. But the novels which were based however loosely and generally on public abuses or scandals were still to be written and published (Bleak House, about Chancery, Hard Times, about the losers in the Industrial Revolution, Little Dorrit, about the debtoris prisons, and so on). Trollope, on picking up the St Cross case, and turning it into a simple moral tale, was taking the novel into uncharted regions. It was far from being his only contribution to expanding the canvas on which novelists could base their stories.
Now, let us look quickly at the religious side of Trollope’s novels. Someone once said the Church of England is the perfect church for those who don’t like religion. Someone else, later, said that Trollope was the perfect writer for people who don’t like reading books. Both epigrams really mean that people prefer their religion or their novels, it doesn’t matter which, to be made rather easy for them. They do not want to put a lot of hard work into things. They want them to slip down. It’s certainly true that it is hard to find a great deal of real interest in religion in Trollope’s novels. Perhaps we should all be relieved there isn’t. What Trollope was interested in was people, and characters: the people who practised religion. Nor was he interested in politics, much: only in the people who were immersed in politics.
One of the great movements in those times was the Evangelical movement. This is where Mr Slope comes in, as you will shortly see. Obadiah Slope was a pushy young intellectual, not long out of Cambridge. He was totally against the modern ritual innovations of the Anglo Catholics. He worked hard to ensure Sunday should be a real day of rest and to encourage Sunday Schools. He believed very sincerely that the devil made work for idle hands. Trollope makes fun of him consistently. Later in his life he was commissioned to write a novel by an evangelical magazine owner. He quickly wrote Rachel Ray! quite a good book, but not for its Evangelical pastor, who is even slimier, if that is possible, that Mr Slope. Not unnaturally, the editor of Good Works turned it down.
Trollope must have done this with a wholly mischievous intent. It has been said Trollop wasn’t greatly interested in Christianity. But he did give us here something which is very rare: a portrait in literature of a really good man, which isn’t boring. The Warden, The Reverend Septimus Harding, may not be a very good clergyman; but he is rather a good saint, a true Christian, and absolutely convincing. He loves the cathedral, and the music in the cathedral. He loves his daughters and his little flock in the Hospital, the bedesmen of the almshouse. He has an absolutely instinctive understanding that God is love, and perhaps that is almost all the religion he knows.
Anthony Trollope was a younger son in an unsuccessful upper middle class family. A brother and a sister died of consumption: his father of debt and failure, pursued by creditors. His mother, in desperation, tried a crazy expedition to middle America, where she spent most of the last money the family had. She returned to England, and wrote a book about her experiences called Domestic Manners of the Americans which made her famous and became a best-seller. She spent the rest of her life as a professional writer, turning out well over fifty books. Through influence she got her not apparently very bright younger son, who was sinking into debt and lethargy in London, into the Post Office as a junior clerk. Still a failure, he opted to go to Ireland, where he quickly became transformed character and a success as Surveyor of the Irish posts. He married the mysterious daughter of a bank manager form Yorkshire (who after his death turned out to be a crook) and on his first holiday in England after marriage took the manuscript of his first novel with him to show his mother. She refused to read it, but sent it on to her publisher. From that point onwards, he wrote upwards of a novel every year, while for twenty years continuing to work for The Post Office, in ever more senior positions.
Well, I think that is pretty accurate, and has the advantage of being nice and short. Now comes the commercial. I think Anthony Trollope’s achievement is one of the greatest of all English novelists. Of the forty seven novels he wrote over forty are of a high standard, and someone can always be found to speak well even of the ones which aren’t. For me there are only about six duds, and, if anyone cares to leave their name and address, I am happy to say which I think they are.
As other reputations have waned, Thackeray, Hardy, even Dickens in a small way? Trollope’s has waxed. A few years ago his memorial was given the last place on the floor in Poets Corner at Westminster Abbey, well over a hundred years after he canvassed to get entry for his friend Thackeray.
He should be admired for many things. For me, first and foremost because nearly all who read and love his books think of the characters as real people. (Trollope’s appeal, incidentally, stretches well across the Atlantic, and he has a strong following in America).
One of Trollope’s most admired novels is The Small House at Allington. Its heroine is called Lily Dale, A few years ago John Major, then, as now, a Vice President of The Trollop Society, admitted on Desert Island Discs that his favourite book was The Small House, and that Lily Dale was his favourite character in all fiction.
Of course, this revelation was manna to those of rather different political views, and particularly to hostile journalists. The Evening Standard promptly resurrected Trollope’s own opinions, from his posthumous Autobiography, which was that he felt Lily Dale was somewhat a female prig.
Victoria Glendinning is one of four recent biographers of Anthony Trollope. Before starting on her version of his life, she reviewed Richard Mullen’s book in The Spectator. In the review, she referred to him as this would-be playwright who loved
his characters, irrespective of their age or gender, this son of a failed barrister who is both counsel for the defence and counsel for the prosecution but rarely a judge; and then finished thus, as I will.
He is like the Bible or Shakespeare in that his fiction can be hijacked to prove whatever you want to have proved about life or Society.
His greatest character, in my view, was Lady Glencora Palliser, whose life and whose marriage we follow through several books, and through whose vivid emotions Anthony Trollope showed how the intimate realities of the relations between men and women were a proper, indeed the most proper, subject for a novel, about our lives in the modern world. That, too, was a pioneering move in the history of the novel, for which we shall all, I imagine, be grateful.

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