Anthony Trollope's "The Adventures of Fred Pickering"

?Written 1864 (9 March), when AT joined Royal Literary Fund Published 1866 (September), The Argosy
Published in a book 1867 (August), Lotta Schmidt and Other Stories, Strahan

To Trollope-l

March 2, 1998

Re: Short Story: "The Adventures of Fred Pickering"

This is not the first of the "official" Editor's Tales since it was not included in the volume published under this title, but it is the first of a number of stories in which Trollope meditates the profession of writing. I find it a very interesting story. In the usual way while Trollope is teaching the young man a needed lesson about his insignificance to everyone else (and how a hard a lesson that is, one many people never seem to grasp no matter how old they get), and showing the reader and reliving himself the painful realities of trying to make money or produce a profit for others (which comes down to the same thing) for others by writing, he also enters into the young's man psychology and produces a tale for us about the attempt of a young couple not carve out a space for themselves in society which answers their needs first or in lieu of the needs of others, especially when those needs seem to preclude the young person having any personal fulfillment whatsoever, unless of course he (or she) is willing or able to live heroically--as Trollope himself did. How many of us could get up at 5 in the morning every day and push ourselves to write 5 hours before our public workday begins, to write on trains, ships, and hotels in the interstices of dealing with stubborn, ignorant, and sometimes corrupt postal officers or negotiating hard-won treaties. Not many I'll bet.

There is first of all the story of Mary Pickering. She seems to be dismissed, but I don't think Trollope wishes on her the non-life of a governess, even if he says "Fred should have known better" than to have married her. She may stand for a woman whose only choice of employment would destroy her. She makes me think of Jane Fairfax's desperation when she thinks of Mrs Bragg and how Jane almost has a nervous breakdown, and really becomes very ill before she nearly goes into what she calls "slavery." On Victoria there has been a thread about governesses and mental breakdown. What Trollope does seem perhaps to think is Fred should have waited a bit, or having married Mary, have stayed in that attorney's office.

It is Fred's story. He is the center of it, and each time I have read this story I think of Coleridge's comment that a poet should never try to make a business of his poetry. He should have some other means of earning money. I don't have the quotation, but I know he said it. Mr Wickham Webb offers Fred an equally stern variation upon this: "all who make literature a profession should begin with independent means" (1995 Oxford ed, Sutherland, p 47). The trouble with this is that it is rare that genius or real gifts coincide with independent means.

I read the scene between Fred and Mr Webb much as I read similar scenes in Austen: we are to see Mr Webb's advice as calculated to the moment, a piece of situational ethics. He means something like this, but is putting it as harshly as he can because he thinks Fred needs to hear this. I see it as a partial truth which is "mended" or mean to be combined with the kindly intentions of Mr Burnaby who tells Fred that although not all "authors serve apprenticeships" and "it may be that you will rise to wealth and fame without apprenticeship... if so, you must do it without help." Fred turns this into: "You mean... that a man must be either a genius or a journeyman." Mr Burnaby demurs slightly on that too decided opposition of choices which denies other options (for reality it complicated), but says "Yes, Mr Pickering that, or something like it, is what I mean" (p 53).

Fred is one who has refused to see these are the choices which confront someone who hasn't got independent means--or some other source of income which will not eat up his or her time--as Cynthia Ozick has in her "one man foundation" (her husband) which she has more than once in print said what has supported her for many years before she began to sell her things (which catches my eye each time she writes about it, as I have also relied on the same kind of precarious if loving foundation). Fred has been very proud; he has hoped he had the genius (as Dickens did) and discovered that it is not so. He has not had connections.

Fred did try the journeyman route at times--or insofar as he was capable of it. He was asked to write a column about a social strata of which he knew nothing. That was not his fault. The index was of course another thing. That was--but Trollope forgives him in the person of Mr Burnaby. There is also the terrible comedy of writing an essay on a classic only to be told the public is not interested in "old books." Alas. How true. My students think anything before WWII is very old; anything before the 19th century is "medieval" or "olden times."

In this story Trollope depicts the world of the business of literature. It is also a tale of a rebellious young man who does not like the role society in the person of his father --or chance--offers him. It was interesting to read this story with my students a couple of years ago because the faultline of sympathy or non-sympathy for them seemed to depend on how much each of them had been willing him or herself to give up and how much they had held out or rebelled. Those who had held out, who were majoring in subjects the parents didn't care for, who were struggling for independence on their own, seemed to feel for Fred; those who had caved in early, who were themselves young versions of Fred's father picked up on each instance of arrogance, pride, resistance to looking ahead that they could find in the story and said it was a story of a totally justified comeuppance. They were very stern.

Trollope is not himself a philistine because he did rebel, he did have ideals, he wished the world were otherwise. But I see him also as knowing that he had submitted to the yoke for many years, that he had compromised too, and that Fred must do so.

There are all sorts of small touches which show the world of literature, scholarly, and business-like has not changed so very much. For example, in order to get into many libraries one has to have some sort of document, in today's world a letter of introduction, or affiliation, and thus we find in Fred's case that even before he can embark on his study of Milton:

"When he first resolved upon doing this there had come a difficulty as to the entrance [into the library]. It was necessary that he should have permission to use the library, and for a while he had not known how to obtain it. Then he had written a letter to a certain gentleman well-known in the literary world, an absolute stranger to him, but of whom he had heard a word or two among his newspaper acquaintances, and had asked this gentleman to give him, or to get for him, the permission needed. The gentleman having made certain inquiry, having sent for Pickering and seen him, had done as he was asked, and Fred was free of the library" (p 45).

This is an older use of the word "freedom:" it translates a liberty into a privilege accorded to some. In C18-L every once in a while a small voice will say how he or she cannot get use of a good library; it is always with a small voice, for people are ashamed of their lack of affiliation. They are always contradicted by those who teach at universities and told, well, they should demand this service from a local community library. HA. I don't say anything, but remember how when I called the Folger Shakespeare to find out if I could use the library I was told I needed 3 letters of introduction or must pay $300 a year; the tone was such that I didn't call again. Then I met someone who had been a professor of mine at CUNY, and he said, "that's ridiculous." Maybe. But maybe not. At any rate by that time I was teaching at AU and someone told me at AU there was a third option to getting inside the Folger. One needed an employment card at a unversity. I had it. I took heart and showed up. I was looked over, and let in.

Equally strikingly apt or true are Trollope's depictions of Fred's attempts to network himself into the business of writing. For example, there is Mary's suggestion that Fred write Mr Webb because Fred said Mr Webb had been civil; to this Fred demurs, "He is a rich man, and that would be begging," so Mary puts a different spin on it, "'I would not ask him for money... but perhaps he can tell you how you can get employment'" (p 46). Then there's Fred's worry over the state of his shoes; and he's at the point he knows he ought not to buy a new pair.

Then there are the various depictions of Fred's struggles to produce what's wanted. For example, as a reporter (and Trollope expects us to remember Dickens's start):

"He worked very hard in his efforts to take down the words of the eloquent leading tidewaiter; whereas he could see that two other reporters near him didn not work at all. And yet he failed. He struggled at this work for a month, and failed at last. 'My hand is not made for it,' he said to his wife, almost in an agony of despair. 'It seems though nothing would come within my reach.'" (p 43).

I am tempted to say too bad Mary could not get a job and support her husband to get a start; but I don't because maybe that would have prolonged the agony, maybe Fred would have forever avoided the facing what the profession of literature comprises, and produced a worse result than the good one at the end of Fred returning to a job he can do and resolving while supporting himself "first to learn my trade as a journeyman of literature."

The other is, I hope we do sometime or other get to Gissing's New Grub Street, for in a far darker but equally pitiless way this story is the basic stuff of the story of Edwin Reardon's life and death.

Ellen Moody

P.S. I wrote to Victoria (see below) asking what was the "union mode of hair-cutting"? No one on Victoria has answered, showing me this is just the sort of thing so hard to find out.

From: "Robert Wright"
To: "TrollopeReadingList"
Subject: Short Stories - The Adventures of Fred Pickering"
Date: Tue, 3 Mar 1998 16:14:37 -0000

I personally found "Fred Pickering" unexceptional. It was too like New Grub Street which was unremittingly depressing. It was not so much the fact that poor old Fred was trying to break into a closed profession with little talent or application. Why was he living in Museum Street and making notes in the British Museum Reading Room about Milton? How could he think that magazine buyers might like to read critiques of classical literature? Was he just dumb, or did he inhabit another planet?

The arrival of the baby was rather predictable. His wife's submission was worse than New Grub Street, where at least the poor aspirants had decided in the main to starve alone, or at least got dumped by their more sensible Partners before they did so.

What if we don't make money dear? How will I feed the baby? Oh, we'll just starve, get put on the streets or the police will take us to the work'us.

By the way, the work'us haircut was presumably the same "No 1" cut which prisoners got. The hair was shaved off, male and female, to deter lice. At least, that was the way I read it.

And how believable was the part when the man who wanted his work indexed turned up and tried to press money into poor old Fred's hands?

Robert Wright

To Trollope-l

March 4, 1998

Re: Short Stories: "Fred Pickering"

Well, like Bart, I liked this story, and, like Jill, I could identify though partly because I feel I have experienced something of this writing life as a business. I also think it more than simply a cautionary tale; it's too deeply anxious and comic for that. It is a little _New Grub Street_ Trollope style.

Ellen Moody

At the same time I posted onto Victoria a similar reading of the story but with a different slant and a debate erupted. My goal was partly to ask what was "the union mode of hair-cutting". On Victoria we had just had many postings on the practical cutting of a woman's long hair during the time she had a fever or was sick for any length of time, and the kinds of bizarre and apparently common sensical "rationales" that were invented to make a virtue out of a necessity. Women or girls with very long hair who had been sick or ill for a long time would find themselves with a hideous bird's nest on top of their head.

To Trollope-L

February 28, 1998

RE: Short Stories:" "Fred Pickering:" The Union Mode of Hair-Cutting I am wondering about the meaning of the phrase in Anthony Trollope's "The Adventures of Fred Pickering:" "But how can a man bear with magnanimity a poor-house jacket, and the union-mode of hair-cutting?' Here is the story: poor Frederick Pickering has tried to carve out a career for himself as a "great writer" without first either spending years as a "journeyman" writer writing according to the directions of others--as for example, Anthony Powell and his surrogate, Nick Jenkins does in A Dance first as an editor of art books and then as a writer of scenarios on demand and according to the requirements of film studies; and equally refusing to attempt to support himself with some ordinary hum-drum and probably day-long, tiring, and often spirit-destroying occupation in some other field,, such as Trollope's own work as a clerk and then surveyor at the post-office. The result is, not being a Dickens (a lucky genius), and not having friends and connections (like say, Thackeray), after a year or so, he finds himself, despite some genuine efforts to fit in and write what is wanted in various journals, near starvation. We are near the close of the story when he, his wife, and baby are threatened with a choice of starvation or (apparently) "the police [coming] to him, and tak[ing] his wife and baby away into the workhouse" or himself going there with her (see John Sutherland, AT: Later Short Stories, 1991 ed, p 53).

This is fascinating detail. Among other things, how human it is to feel more anguished over a humiliating haircut or uniform one must wear than the actual state of having to take hand-outs in what will be a bare (and of course ugly) place.

I had no idea that the experts and social workers had already taken to themselves the power of taking one's children or wife away if one wasn't managing to keep up with the middle class demand that one adhere publicly to a variety of values, one of which is a job which pays for work done. I admit I could not resist recommending Mrs Clinton's It Takes A Village where she outlines other things well short of child abuse for which children may be removed from the erring "welfare [read: bad] mother." But I digress.

We are all well aware of the weapons of intimidation and humiliation used by many institutions in our society to keep the recalictrant and generally often powerless in line. There was in TLS a few months ago a review of a book which analyzed the uses of intimidation in society particularly in those cases where those in positions in various establishments have money to give out to those who are willing to come forward to try to get some, mostly because they are in desperate need. The reviewer talked of the ubiquity of such intimidation, both when it is subtle and writ large.

There is another more flagrant kind of policy which seems to come so natural to human nature it is only discussed by those confronted by it. Humiliation. I remember my mother-in-law, a British woman, boasting to me a few years ago how when her daughter (my sister-in-law) needed glasses, she managed to find the money to buy them privately. Apparently the "national health" glasses were not only all the same (that makes economic sense) but were very ugly, and seen to be ugly. That was the point. In my life here in the US I have experienced or seen many variations on this kind of deliberate but usually unspoken policy. So too I suppose we must understand the wearing of a "poor-house jacket." When one understands how important hierarchy and the stigmata of lower class and the "regimentals" of upper class costume are to the average person, how intensely people care about such things (see Virginia Woolf's brilliant analyses of the causes of war in her Three Guineas on just this issue), this makes sense.

So too the delibate cutting of a woman's hair. Of course the official reason would be it's too long to care for. I needn't go over all the reasons offered up for cutting one's hair when sick here. One assumes access to water and brushes were limited in the workhouse. But I was wondering just how Mary Pickering's hair would be cut so as to offer up that necessary dollop of humiliation before food was set before Mary and her baby. It couldn't be too gross, for those who run such establishments are too clever for that.

I am wondering if a photograph I have come across of Nerval early in life (jaunty, cavalier, a saturnine bohemian filled with the courage of his _joie de vivre_) and Nerval later in life (run down, his clothes now carefully mended, nervous in the eyes, hands tobacco stained, strained in gesture and body language, on the edge) can tell me anything. (For an excellent meditation on the photograph and Nerval see the last chapter of Richard Holmes's brilliant, Footsteps: The Confesssions of a Romantic Biographer.) [On Victoria people talked of the new art of photography in this period, how it spread, and how a picture is worth a thousand words. They had just finished talking of how people will put pictures of a dead beloved person on a grave or a celebrity in a window because other people are prepared to buy it.] Are there any pictures of people in workhouses who are shorn in the appropriate manner? If they offer any sources, or better yet, describe some picture, I will report back to this list.

Ellen Moody

At 12:25 PM 3/1/98 UT, Lesley Hall wrote (missing or deliberately dismissing one of the points I was concerned to make):

"Ugliness' is rather in the eye of the beholder, the kind of almost round, plastic-covered metal frames that were my first pair became v fashionable (usually with the plastic covering stripped off) in the late 60s, as worn by John Lennon. Some of the lighter all plastic frames (possibly these came in later) were not at all bad.

I look back at photos of myself in the extremely heavy frames fashionable in >the early 70s and wonder why we thought those attractive..."

To which I replied:

I agree that ugliness is in the eye of the beholder but the National Health glasses were exactly the opposite of what was considered fashionable at the time. Fashion=money. I know it will be said, and probably was at the time given as the excuse, well we don't want to be fashionable for these frames must last for years as our frames. But at the time all one had to do was look at the plain heavy glasses, colorless, and all alike, and one knew one had a stigma to put on one's face.

Does anyone know what was "the union mode of hair-cutting." One of the interesting things about the passage from Trollope's story, only one part of which I quoted, was how he suggests that what counts as degradation for Fred Pickering and his wife is not so much going somewhere to have to get free food or lodging, but all the humiliating paraphernalia one has to agree to put on before the food is given out. Trollope's understanding of human nature is perfect on here--and therefore so too his appreciation of the "thinking" behind the running and behavior and dress demanded in "work" or poorhouses.

Ellen Moody

I never got a reply except indignation at my comments about the shame deliberately engendered in people over "National Health" glasses. There was however an interesting posting on women and long hair and shame foisted on older women who want long hair. To which I replied:

To Victoria

March 1, 1998

Re: Long Hair on Old Women, High Heels, Pride and Shame

Among other comments, Gay Sibley asked,

"does anyone know when and where it became inappropriate for older women to have long hair? Was it always thus? Does the requirement of short hair for older women appear significantly in Victorian literature anywhere that anyone knows of? I thought at first it might be an issue of Gender: a patriarchal construct discouraging women from confusing them at a distance and from a rear view. But Class is also a possibility, in that advantaged women may have so crimped and fried their hair that they lost the plumage earlier than women who couldn't afford such damage, the former thereby discouraging the latter from showing off their retained glory. Has anyone else heard a dictum that goes, "Long hair on an older woman makes her face look older than it is"? (which seems to me rather like "High heels make a woman's legs look better.")

While I have no idea when it "became inappropriate for older women to have long hair," I have heard the dictum, "Long hair on an older woman makes her face look older than it is," I know my mother (who is now in her 70's) and a couple of my aunts (around the same age) would say of women who kept their hair long past the age of 40 it was "in bad taste." The sense was she was trying to look younger than she was, and when someone looked at her, they would see the difference. I remember an aunt (or maybe it was my mother) say such a woman can only put it in a bun, and what's the good of having long hair if you can't show it off. Like the business of cutting one's hair during a fever, a rational was offered up. It was claimed an older woman's hair always got thinner, and therefore cutting it made it look thicker and healthier. One of my aunts would say "long hair" makes an older woman's face look worse because the hair would have to be put up, and pulled back and of course then "wrinkles" would show. One "solution" was "accessorize."

I believe this attitude is still not uncommon and is also connected to class because somehow (I'm not sure) my female relatives believed it was more typical of working class or non-working women not to cut their hair at the appropriately decorous age.

It is of course also clearly sexual. It seems in bad taste for an older woman to look sexy or sexually available.

I used to hear the saying "high heels make a woman's legs look better" when I was growing up too. But nowadays with gym shoes, tennis shoes, sneakers, and socks all the rage, I suppose that's fallen out. In fact they do make a woman look more attractive because you can see her ankles and the pose of the legs is associated with a "come hither" posture towards men. Socks and sneakers are overtly asexual because both sexes wear them. No male wears high heels except when he's in drag.

Ellen Moody

PS I too don't want to argue personally, but what some have claimed made "all" people proud (because they were supporting the "National Health"?) made others very ashamed. From personal experience of other variations on this kind of thing, I can't help wonder if the pride wasn't a strained kind of pride.

At any rate, the psychology underlying this shame and the reasons for provoking it are part of the point of the line in Trollope's story. Fred Pickering does not look forward to wearing his jacket, nor to seeing his wife's hair cut in the union mode, and I'm still wondering what that union mode was. Did the cutter just hack away?

Ellen Moody

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