By John Letts
The following is is a talk given by John Letts in April 2000. He introduced it as follows:
Those on the list not resident near Chichester in the UK may like to hear of an extremely successful production of Barchester Towers at The Chichester Festival Theatre. Unhappily it is only running for one more week. The Theatre holds 1,200, and every night has been a virtual sell-out. The cast are all local and amateurs. The play was written by Judith Cook. The whole thing was rather brilliantly directed by Roger Redfern. I am not really a fan of amateur theatricals as such. But this calls itself (rightly) community theatre: and somehow the deployment of the large (and unpaid) cast was exciting and convincing.
I was asked to do a pre-production talk to the audience last Tuesday, which I duly did, and the text follows, which may be of mild interest even though it does not directly concern The Small House. I think most of the merit in it has been borrowed from a lecture which Professor Sir Owen Chadwick gave to The Trollope Society some years ago, which I freely and publicly acknowledge.
The Cloisters of Barchester
As you drive to Chichester from the north, as you know, you have to cross the Downs. (If the Downs were mountains rather than rolling hills, the passage through would be known as a pass.) As you emerge from the pass, one of the first things you see is the spire of Chichester Cathedral, a minute needle on the horizon, which you see long before you see the town itself. I saw it, exactly so, fifty minutes ago.
This, of course, is the view which Turner saw, and it would also have been the view which Trollope would have seen at the time he was thinking of The Warden. I'm not saying that Trollope had Chichester in mind, of course, or indeed ever went there: his actual model was some amalgam of St Cross Hospital, Winchester Cathedral and Salisbury Close. But since it looks the same today as it did then, it's worth pointing out first the ways in which it now differs. I should try to tell you what part the cathedrals played in city life in the mid 1840s, in religious life, and in the popular press of the day.
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, as I mentioned before. 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 (and please don't think the gutter press was invented by Rupert Murdoch ? it was flourishing in the first quarter of the 19th century). 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.
Let me quote William Cobbett, writing in 1830:
Yesterday morning I went into the cathedral at Salisbury about seven o'clock. When I got in to the nave of the church and was looking up and admiring the columns and the roof, I heard a sort of humming in some place which appeared to be the transept of the building. . . I at last turned into a doorway to my left, where I found a priest and his congregation assembled. It was a parson of some sort, with a white covering on him, and five women and four men. When I arrived, there were five couple of us. I joined this congregation until they came to the Litany: and then, being monstrously hungry, I did not think myself bound to stay any longer.
Well, that is typical of the radical tone of voice, if not entirely of the radical received opinion of the day. In the play you are about to see, one of the most famous of the Barchester canons is the absentee dean, Canon Stanhope. Brother of a peer, rector of no less than three parishes in the diocese, prebendary of the Cathedral, and a noted bon viveur, the Canon prefers to spend most of his time abroad in Italy. I hope you won't think it far-fetched. Remember the famous Earl Bishop of Bristol, after whom so many hotels in Europe are named, not least because, although for thirty five years he was Bishop of one of the richest sees, he lived many of them in Italy, it was said, for his health. Actually he died in 1803, twelve years before Trollope was born, but I imagine that in the 1840s and 50s his excesses were still reasonably well known to many people.
So when Trollope began to write about Hirams 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 Hirams 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 foundationís 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 Minsterís 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 (I am thinking of Bleak House, about Chancery, Hard Times, about the losers in the Industrial Revolution, Little Dorrit, about the debtorís 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, a point I mean to come to later on.
Here are more models for this writer who had at his back thus far only two rather good Irish novels, based on his own experiences in Ireland, both of which had failed, and a historical pot-boiler, La VendÈe, which has little to commend it, and probably only made money for those lucky enough to find a first edition. Take his journalists for instance.
The Times, in a third leader, thundered away in December 1853:
No sane and honest man could imagine that the revenues of The Hospital of St Cross and the Almshouses of noble poverty were intended to aggrandise and to enrich the son of a bishop, the canon of a cathedral, the incumbent of two rich livings, and a peer of the realm. . . What will the Attorney General do next?
This is the language of Tom Towers and John Bold to the life.
Now, let us look quickly at the religious side of Trollopeís novels. Someone once said the Church of England is the perfect church for those who donít 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 itís hard to find a great deal of real interest in religion in Trollopeís 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, which I recommend, 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.
I have 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 I am tempted to say that that is almost all the religion he knows.
Finally, I must say a little about this extraordinary man Trollope. It would be fun to try to write a very short encyclopaedia entry about him. Here goes. 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 Trollopeís 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 arenít. 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 ? Trollopeís 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). I'm not sure how many Internet sites are devoted to his novels. I think more than half a dozen; and an American academic has written a book called Trollope on the Internet.
One of Trollopeís most admired novels is The Small House at Allington. Its heroine is called Lily Dale, as I imagine some of you will know. I myself have always thought she was rather wet, and not only in the Thatcherite sense. 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. One of their writers, Maureen Cleave, went further. She said:
To me that was the most shocking thing he has said so far in his premiership. I hate Lily Dale. Lily Dale is a self-righteous prig, and I always want to smack her. What does this choice of heroine say about John Major? I think it tells us why there are no women in his cabinet.
More significant was that when Joanna Trollope mentioned the startling theory at a Trollope Society Dinner that Lily Dale was not a virgin, The Evening Standard sent along to discuss it not a feature writer, or a gossip columnist, but a reporter from the news desk. They, too, thought she was real. Remember the anecdote from Lady Park!
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 judgeí; 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.