Anthony Trollope's "The Spotted Dog"

?Written after 1867 (October) when he became editor of St Paul's
Serialized 1870 (March - April), St Paul's
Published in a book 1870 (June), An Editor's Tales, Strahan

To Trollope-l

From Robert Wright:

The Spotted Dog is another gem. I leave Ellen to expound on it much better than I can, but the pathos of the situation is touching. The characters of the publican and his wife, true East Enders and how many of them with hearts of gold do we have in London to this day? We all know hundreds, and how wonderful they are. Trouble is, with the demise of the docklands, their houses were supplanted by the gleaming tower of Canary Wharf, and all their good humour and homeliness banished in favour of red braces and multi million pound bonuses from Big Swinging Dicks whose thoughts are only of themselves.

Oh well...

Robert Wright

March 28, 1998

Re: Short Story: "The Spotted Dog"

It was Trollope's opinion that this was the greatest of his short stories. It certainly is a powerful one. The first time I ever read it I was rivetted by two comments in Julius Mackenzie's opening letter:

"do not send for me unless you mean to employ me, as I am ashamed of myself..."

"I do not expect an answer."

I have taught this story twice now and normally modern college tudents are embarrassed when a writer tries to build compassion for a character. They think this cannot be, and we are supposed to despise the weak or openly vulnerable. They don't know what to make of writers who rely on sympathy. Anyone who is so puzzled will not really be able to respond to this story which is one of a man living his life in a wild kind of inward pain which gnaws at his heart. At any rate, in the case of the classes I've had, when it comes to this story, they love it.

Trollope has a group of themes he repeats frequently and even obsessively. One of these is a fear of degradation and an intense preoccupation with the gradations of class and status as an indice of self-respect which can destroy people whose inner life is not matched by anything they have achieved in the outer world. In "The Spotted Dog" we have a story which is at times painful and dreadful to read; at its least intense moments it is comical with an intense discomfort. Wherein does this discomfort and the pain come from? It's the result of the man's having to come out into the drawing room to show himself. I think many people are unable to realize how deeply others and they too are don't sufficiently take into account how deeply people are scarred by public encounter. We again and again assume the "reality" of life occurs in a private place, when in a way there is none such. Even in bed some people are on display and on guard. Further people are themselves through relationships. Their self-respect derives from how others see them. It's curious how the scholarly doctor is as retiring as Julius Mackenzie.

The moment when Mackenzie first shows himself says it all. The description of his attempt to maintain his pride and the narrator's awareness of his sharp thinness and pitiful disguising of his lack of clothes is very good. We should not that in fact we never travel with Mackenzie and his wife on their drunken sprees; we don't go to bed with them; but it is plumbed deeply as much through what the narrator surmizes as he watches, speaks, listens to Mackenzie; of course, here we also have burningly effective soliloquizing by Mackenzie, as in the scene where he argues he ought to take his, his wife's and his children's lives:

What further harm could any such doing [killing himself and family] on his part bring upon him? Did we think that were he brought out to stand at the gallows' foot with the knowledge that ten minutes would usher him into what folks called eternity, his sense of suffering would be as great as it had been when he conducted that woman out of court and along the streets to his home, amidst the jeering congratulations of his neighbours?

It's in the public scene that the private self is most agonized.

Sutherland sees the autobiography of this story on a different plane from that which Trollope saw as an editor or young man about London. He writes:

"["The Spotted Dog"] dramatizes the fear that remained with Anthony from those traumatic scenes of his childhood when his feckless parents were dunned, their chattels seized by bailiffs, and the family driven to ignominious exile in Belgium. [It] is a cogitation on the horrors of 'falling in the world'--sinking, that is, from middle-class respectability into the hideous abyss inhabited by the 'lower orders.' The central character, Julius Mackenzie, is a scholar, well-born and Cambridge-educated, who has--by a fatal mixture of emotional quixotism, free-thinking, obstinacy, and a weakness for drink--sunk as low as it is possible for a gentleman to sink...

There follows a long quotation describing the room in which Mackenzie lives, his naked children, the wretchedness and horrifying atmosphere surrounding the burned MS, and after saying that the common reader does not usually associate such passages with Trollope, Sutherland continues:

"we apprehend, this was the nightmare that lay at the root of Trollope's pathological need to work. It was Trollope that Trollope saw lying there in the filth--a lazier, unluckier Trollope who had never gone to Ireland in 1841 and mended his ways."

I would add to this that this private nightmare haunting Trollope erupts again and again in his stories, from the opening of the ruined world of The Macdermots to Harrow Weald in Orley Farm to the old man Underdown in Ralph the Heir. Again and again Trollope returns to this material, endlessly varying it. One might also instance Trollope's heroic hours writing each and every day so many words before 10 o'clock, and his equally hectic writing on trains, boats, and generally exhausting work schedule--as his way of staving off the terrifying nightmare of poverty, degradation and madness as he saw it in his father. Thus his determination to wrest from the world security and respect, his 47 novels come out of his desire to keep his distance from the Julius Mackenzie in himself--and in us all.

The story is softened in several ways: there is the portrait of Mr and Mrs Grimes who are kindly. Mr Grime is impatient but it is he who keeps repeating how hard Mackenzie's life is. Mrs Grimes mothers the man; she becomes something of an expert in the Greek material. The use of their bedchamber and her bed to my mind brings out Trollope's theme about how the private self is a public one.

A lesser theme is the one that connects the story to that of Fred Pickering: the fact that learned works don't sell is attached to the index which Mackenzie enjoys doing. He is not prostituting his brain. I would compare The Penny Dreadfuls to some TV writing--and many cheap novels and magazines today.

We have also a striking use of letters. I quote from my lecture (not yet given to the Trollope society), "Partly Told in Letters: Trollope's Story-telling art:

Trollope's finest moments as a story-teller occur when he enters into the mind of someone tortured by failure or a lack of respect from other people. I am tempted, therefore, to quote one of the Rev. Joshua Crawley's magnificient epistles in which he analyses accurately the motives of the letter he is answering, wherein it swerved from candour, and describes his own powerless impoverished situation and brave choices. In his careful avoidance of the least self-flattery his words are noble and self-lacerating (Last Chronicle 13, 62, 83). However, since the Rev. Josuah Crawley is so familiar to us all, I shall instead content myself with quoting an equally powerful letter by a less well-known character. Trollope begins 'The Spotted Dog', an editor's tale written in 1870, with Julius Mackenzie's letter of application to the editor of a respectable journal for an interview:

DEAR SIR, I write to you for literary employment, and I implore you to provide me with it if it be within your power to do so. My capacity for such work is not small, and my acquirements are considerable. My need is very great, and my views in regard to remuneration are modest. I was educated at ---, and was afterwards a scholar of --- College, Cambridge. I left the university without a degree, in consequence of a quarrel with the college tutor. I was rusticated, and not allowed to return. After that I became for awhile a student for the Chancery Bar. I then lived for some years in Paris, and I understand and speak French as though it were my own language. For all purposes of literature I am equally conversant with German. I read Italian. I am, of course, familiar with Latin. In regard to Greek I will only say that I am less ignorant of it than nineteenth-twentieths of our national scholars. I am well read in modern and ancient history. I have especially studied political economy.

I pass by the rest of Mr Mackenzie's many estimable acquirements, to where he turns to 'his character' which, he says, 'will not bear investigation':

in saying which, I mean you to understand, not that I steal or cheat, but that I live in a dirty lodging, spend many of my hours in a public-house, and cannot pay tradesmen's bills where tradesmen have been found to trust me. I have a wife and four children, -- which burden forbids me to free myself from all care by a bare bodkin. I am just past forty, and since I quarrelled with my family because I could not understand the Trinity, I have never been the owner of a ten-pound note. My wife was not a lady ...

Before going on to say that he is at the moment employed 'on the staff of two or three of the "Penny Dreadfuls"', he comments, as an aside, 'My life, of course, has been a mistake. Indeed, to live at all, -- is it not a folly?'. Right now he is 'paid forty-five shillings a week':

For thirty shillings a week I will do any work you may impose upon me for the term of six months. I write this letter as a last effort to rescue myself from the filth of my present position, but I entertain no hope of any success. If you ask it I will come and see you; but do not send for me unless you mean to employ me, as I am ashamed of myself. I live at No 3, Cucumber Court, Gray's Inn Lane; -- but if you write, address to the care of Mr Grimes, the Spotted Dog, Liquorpond Street. Now I have told you my whole life, and you may help me if you will. I do not expect an answer.

Yours truly,


There was an aspect of the story which bothered me for the first time: the condemnation of Mrs Mackenzie as a fiend, a horror, the one who is to blame. There is a strong antifeminist slant in all this. It reminds me of how Richardson portrays women who have had sex outside marriage and how in Jane Eyre Bertha Mason is depicted. Woman as loose, a sex fiend has a variation in the idea that woman as drunkard is necessarily more disgusting, more awful, more to blame than the man. Why does Trollope neglect her misery and anguish in marrying such a man who is above her like Mackenzie and who probably in his heart long ago learnt to regret ever having had anything to do with her? I would have been willing to think Mrs Mackenzie was a human being too and grant her story equal weight and tragedy. In fact Mackenzie himself sorrows for her. But our narrator does not.

Keeping what for me is a flaw in mind, I would still say it's a gem. It is a story which successfully defies the contemporary notion we labor under that we must have graphic outpourings of anguish before we grasp an inward truth; the outer self is just another face of the inner one.

Ellen Moody

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