The Three Clerks, by Anthony Trollope


There is the proper mood and the just environment for the reading as well as for the writing of works of fiction, and there can be no better place for the enjoying of a novel by Anthony Trollope than under a tree in Kensington Gardens of a summer day. Under a tree in the avenue that reaches down from the Round Pond to the Long Water. There, perhaps more than anywhere else, lingers the early Victorian atmosphere. As we sit beneath our tree, we see in the distance the dun, red-brick walls of Kensington Palace, where one night Princess Victoria was awakened to hear that she was Queen; there in quaint, hideously ugly Victorian rooms are to be seen Victorian dolls and other playthings; the whole environment is early Victorian. Here to the mind’s eye how easy it is to conjure up ghosts of men in baggy trousers and long flowing whiskers, of prim women in crinolines, in hats with long trailing feathers and with ridiculous little parasols, or with Grecian-bends and chignons — church-parading to and fro beneath the trees or by the water’s edge — perchance, even the fascinating Lady Crinoline and the elegant Mr. Macassar Jones, whose history has been written by Clerk Charley in the pages we are introducing to the ‘gentle reader’. As a poetaster of an earlier date has written:—

Where Kensington high o’er the neighbouring lands
‘Midst green and sweets, a royal fabric, stands,
And sees each spring, luxuriant in her bowers,
A snow of blossoms, and a wild of flowers,
The dames of Britain oft in crowds repair
To gravel walks, and unpolluted air.
Here, while the town in damps and darkness lies,
They breathe in sunshine, and see azure skies;
Each walk, with robes of various dyes bespread,
Seems from afar a moving tulip bed,
Where rich brocades and glossy damasks glow,
And chintz, the rival of the showery bow.

Indeed, the historian of social manners, when dealing with the Victorian period, will perforce have recourse to the early volumes of Punch and to the novels of Thackeray, Dickens, and Trollope.

There are certain authors of whom personally we know little, but of whose works we cannot ever know enough, such a one for example as Shakespeare; others of whose lives we know much, but for whose works we can have but scant affection: such is Doctor Johnson; others who are intimate friends in all their aspects, as Goldsmith and Charles Lamb; yet others, who do not quite come home to our bosoms, whose writings we cannot entirely approve, but for whom and for whose works we find a soft place somewhere in our hearts, and such a one is Anthony Trollope. His novels are not for every-day reading, any more than are those of Marryat and Borrow — to take two curious examples. There are times and moods and places in which it would be quite impossible to read The Three Clerks; others in which this story is almost wholly delightful. With those who are fond of bed-reading Trollope should ever be a favourite, and it is no small compliment to say this, for small is the noble army of authors who have given us books which can enchant in the witching hour between waking and slumber. It is probable that all lovers of letters have their favourite bed-books. Thackeray has charmingly told us of his. Of the few novels that can really be enjoyed when the reader is settling down for slumber almost all have been set forth by writers who — consciously or unconsciously — have placed character before plot; Thackeray himself, Miss Austen, Borrow, Marryat, Sterne, Dickens, Goldsmith and — Trollope.

Books are very human in their way, as what else should they be, children of men and women as they are? Just as with human friends so with book friends, first impressions are often misleading; good literary coin sometimes seems to ring untrue, but the untruth is in the ear of the reader, not of the writer. For instance, Trollope has many odd and irritating tricks which are apt to scare off those who lack perseverance and who fail to understand that there must be something admirable in that which was once much admired by the judicious. He shares with Thackeray the sinful habit of pulling up his readers with a wrench by reminding them that what is set before them is after all mere fiction and that the characters in whose fates they are becoming interested are only marionettes. With Dickens and others he shares the custom, so irritating to us of today, of ticketing his personages with clumsy, descriptive labels, such as, in The Three Clerks, Mr. Chaffanbrass, Sir Gregory Hardlines, Sir Warwick West End, Mr. Neverbend, Mr. Whip Vigil, Mr. Nogo and Mr. Gitemthruet. He must plead guilty, also, to some bad ways peculiarly his own, or which he made so by the thoroughness with which he indulged in them. He moralizes in his own person in deplorable manner: is not this terrible:—‘Poor Katie! — dear, darling, bonnie Katie! — sweet, sweetest, dearest child! why, oh, why, has that mother of thine, that tender-hearted loving mother, put thee unguarded in the way of such perils as this? Has she not sworn to herself that over thee at least she would watch as a hen over her young, so that no unfortunate love should quench thy young spirit, or blanch thy cheek’s bloom?’ Is this not sufficient to make the gentlest reader swear to himself?

Fortunately this and some other appalling passages occur after the story is in full swing and after the three Clerks and those with whom they come into contact have proved themselves thoroughly interesting companions. Despite all his old-fashioned tricks Trollope does undoubtedly succeed in giving blood and life to most of his characters; they are not as a rule people of any great eccentricity or of profound emotions; but ordinary, every-day folk, such as all of us have met, and loved or endured. Trollope fills very adequately a space between Thackeray and Dickens, of whom the former deals for the most part with the upper ‘ten’, the latter with the lower ‘ten’; Trollope with the suburban and country-town ‘ten’; the three together giving us a very complete and detailed picture of the lives led by our grandmothers and grandfathers, whose hearts were in the same place as our own, but whose manners of speech, of behaviour and of dress have now entered into the vague region known as the ‘days of yore’.

The Three Clerks is an excellent example of Trollope’s handiwork. The development of the plot is sufficiently skilful to maintain the reader’s interest, and the major part of the characters is lifelike, always well observed and sometimes depicted with singular skill and insight. Trollope himself liked the work well:—

‘The plot is not so good as that of The Macdermots; nor are any characters in the book equal to those of Mrs. Proudie and the Warden; but the work has a more continued interest, and contains the first well-described love-scene that I ever wrote. The passage in which Kate Woodward, thinking she will die, tries to take leave of the lad she loves, still brings tears to my eyes when I read it. I had not the heart to kill her. I never could do that. And I do not doubt that they are living happily together to this day.

‘The lawyer Chaffanbrass made his first appearance in this novel, and I do not think that I have cause to be ashamed of him. But this novel now is chiefly noticeable to me from the fact that in it I introduced a character under the name of Sir Gregory Hardlines, by which I intended to lean very heavily on that much loathed scheme of competitive examination, of which at that time Sir Charles Trevelyan was the great apostle. Sir Gregory Hardlines was intended for Sir Charles Trevelyan — as any one at the time would know who had taken an interest in the Civil Service. ‘We always call him Sir Gregory,’ Lady Trevelyan said to me afterwards when I came to know her husband. I never learned to love competitive examination; but I became, and am, very fond of Sir Charles Trevelyan. Sir Stafford Northcote, who is now Chancellor of the Exchequer, was then leagued with his friend Sir Charles, and he too appears in The Three Clerks under the feebly facetious name of Sir Warwick West End. But for all that The Three Clerks was a good novel.’

Which excerpt from Trollope’s Autobiography serves to throw light not only upon the novel in question, but also upon the character of its author.

Trollope served honestly and efficiently for many a long year in the Post Office, achieving his entrance through a farce of an examination:—

‘The story of that examination’, he says, ‘is given accurately in the opening chapters of a novel written by me, called The Three Clerks. If any reader of this memoir would refer to that chapter and see how Charley Tudor was supposed to have been admitted into the Internal Navigation Office, that reader will learn how Anthony Trollope was actually admitted into the Secretary’s office of the General Post Office in 1834.’

Poe’s description of the manner in which he wrote The Raven is incredible, being probably one of his solemn and sombre jokes; equally incredible is Trollope’s confession of his humdrum, mechanical methods of work. Doubtless he believed he was telling the whole truth, but only here and there in his Autobiography does he permit to peep out touches of light, which complete the portrait of himself. It is impossible that for the reader any character in fiction should live which has not been alive to its creator; so is it with Trollope, who, speaking of his characters, says,

‘I have wandered alone among the rooks and woods, crying at their grief, laughing at their absurdities, and thoroughly enjoying their joy. I have been impregnated with my own creations till it has been my only excitement to sit with the pen in my hand, and drive my team before me at as quick a pace as I could make them travel.’

There is a plain matter-of-factness about Trollope’s narratives which is convincing, making it difficult for the reader to call himself back to fact and to remember that he has been wandering in a world of fiction. In The Three Clerks, the young men who give the tale its title are all well drawn. To accomplish this in the cases of Alaric and Charley Tudor was easy enough for a skilled writer, but to breathe life into Harry Norman was difficult. At first he appears to be a lay-figure, a priggish dummy of an immaculate hero, a failure in portraiture; but toward the end of the book it is borne in on us that our dislike had been aroused by the lifelike nature of the painting, dislike toward a real man, priggish indeed in many ways, but with a very human strain of obstinacy and obdurateness, which few writers would have permitted to have entered into the make-up of any of their heroes. Of the other men, Undy Scott may be named as among the very best pieces of portraiture in Victorian fiction; touch after touch of detail is added to the picture with really admirable skill, and Undy lives in the reader’s memory as vividly as he must have existed in the imagination of his creator. There are some strong and curious passages in Chapter XLIV, in which the novelist contrasts the lives and fates of Varney, Bill Sykes and Undy Scott; they stir the blood, proving uncontestibly that Undy Scott was as real to Trollope as he is to us: ‘The figure of Undy swinging from a gibbet at the broad end of Lombard Street would have an effect. Ah, my fingers itch to be at the rope.’

Trollope possessed the rare and beautiful gift of painting the hearts and souls of young girls, and of this power he has given an admirable example in Katie Woodward. It would be foolish and cruel to attempt to epitomize, or rather to draw in miniature, this portrait that Trollope has drawn at full length; were it not for any other end, those that are fond of all that is graceful and charming in young womanhood should read The Three Clerks, so becoming the friend, nay, the lover of Katie. Her sisters are not so attractive, simply because nature did not make them so; a very fine, faithful woman, Gertrude; a dear thing, Linda. All three worthy of their mother, she who, as we are told in a delicious phrase, ‘though adverse to a fool’ ‘could sympathize with folly ‘.

These eight portraits are grouped in the foreground of this ‘conversation’ piece, the background being filled with slighter but always live figures.

Particularly striking, as being somewhat unusual with Trollope, is the depiction of the public-house, ‘The Pig and Whistle’, in Norfolk Street, the landlady, Mrs. Davis, and the barmaid, Norah Geraghty. We can almost smell the gin, the effluvia of stale beer, the bad tobacco, hear the simpers and see the sidlings of Norah, feel sick with and at Charley:— he ‘got up and took her hand; and as he did so, he saw that her nails were dirty. He put his arms round her waist and kissed her; and as he caressed her, his olfactory nerves perceived that the pomatum in her hair was none of the best . . . and then he felt very sick’. But, oh, why ‘olfactory nerves’? Was it vulgar in early Victorian days to call a nose a nose?

How far different would have been Dickens’s treatment of such characters and such a scene; out of Mrs. Davis and Norah he would have extracted fun, and it would never have entered into his mind to have brought such a man as Charley into contact with them in a manner that must hurt that young hero’s susceptibilities. Thackeray would have followed a third way, judging by his treatment of the Fotheringay and Captain Costigan, partly humorous, partly satirical, partly serious.

Trollope was not endowed with any spark of wit, his satire tends towards the obvious, and his humour is mild, almost unconscious, as if he could depict for us what of the humorous came under his observation without himself seeing the fun in it. Where he sets forth with intent to be humorous he sometimes attains almost to the tragic; there are few things so sad as a joke that misses fire or a jester without sense of humour.

Of the genius of a writer of fiction there is scarce any other test so sure as this of the reality of his characters. Few are the authors that have created for us figures of fiction that are more alive to us than the historic shadows of the past, whose dead bones historians do not seem to be able to clothe with flesh and blood. Trollope hovers on the border line between genius and great talent, or rather it would be more fair to say that with regard to him opinions may justly differ. For our own part we hold that his was not talent streaked with genius, but rather a jog-trot genius alloyed with mediocrity. He lacked the supreme unconsciousness of supreme genius, for of genius as of talent there are degrees. There are characters in The Three Clerks that live; those who have read the tale must now and again when passing Norfolk Street, Strand, regret that it would be waste of time to turn down that rebuilt thoroughfare in search of ‘The Pig and Whistle’, which was ‘one of these small tranquil shrines of Bacchus in which the god is worshipped with as constant a devotion, though with less noisy demonstration of zeal than in his larger and more public temples’. Alas; lovers of Victorian London must lament that such shrines grow fewer day by day; the great thoroughfares know them no more; they hide nervously in old-world corners, and in them you will meet old-world characters, who not seldom seem to have lost themselves on their way to the pages of Charles Dickens.

Despite the advent of electric tramways, Hampton would still be recognized by the three clerks, ‘the little village of Hampton, with its old-fashioned country inn, and its bright, quiet, grassy river.’ Hampton is now as it then was, the ‘well-loved resort of cockneydom’.

So let us alight from the tramcar at Hampton, and look about on the outskirts of the village for ‘a small old-fashioned brick house, abutting on the road, but looking from its front windows on to a lawn and garden, which stretched down to the river’. Surbiton Cottage it is called. Let us peep in at that merry, happy family party; and laugh at Captain Cuttwater, waking from his placid sleep, rubbing his eyes in wonderment, and asking, ‘What the devil is all the row about?’ But it is only with our mind’s eye that we can see Surbiton Cottage — a cottage in the air it is, but more substantial to some of us than many a real jerry-built villa of red brick and stucco.

Old-fashioned seem to us the folk who once dwelt there, old-fashioned in all save that their hearts were true and their outlook on life sane and clean; they live still, though their clothes be of a quaint fashion and their talk be of yesterday.

Who knows but that they will live long after we who love them shall be dead and turned to dust?


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01