Anthony Trollope; English best kept literary secret

You have probably seen it around town but you cannot vividly recall where. It stands at approximately one and half meters long and is cylindrical in shape. It is cast in iron. It is red in colour and if you look close enough, you will see the words POST OFFICE embossed on it. It seems to smile for it has a slash in its upper body through which it swallows letter whole.  Dear reader, it is called the pillar box.

pillar box

A few years back, before the advent of internet and subsequently the entrenchment of email, the pillar box was a pivotal piece in communication. We dropped letters inside it and hoped the mail-man would pick them up in due time. A week or so was given for the letter to reach its recipient, then another week for the reply to be received. Yes, it was essential to communication. Now, it serves as a relic of an era gone by and to the nostalgic, of a time when we really communicated. Nonetheless, today I am not so concerned with the pillar box but rather its inventor, a little known gentleman called Anthony Trollope.

Anthony Trollope

Anthony Trollope worked at the General Post Office in London where he invented the pillar box in order to make the collection of letters in bulk from far flung stations easier and consequently reduce the time it takes to send and receive a letter. Although he led a distinguished career at the GPO, Anthony Trollope was also a writer. I recently came across what many literature critics consider to be his masterpiece- The Barchester Towers.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of his novel, perhaps it is prudent to introduce its author properly.

Anthony Trollope was born in 1815, the third son of a barrister who ruined his family prospects by giving up law for farming. His mother, Frances Milton Trollope, supported the family through writing. She had fifty novels under her name. In 1834, Anthony joined the GPO workforce where he worked seven years for a pittance. In 1841, he was transferred to Ireland as a surveyor’s clerk, where he began to make good money which enabled him to marry in 1844 and settle in Clonmel. He tried his hand at writing but his first two novels which were devoted to Irish life were failures. In 1867, Anthony resigned from the GPO and spent his time travelling, fox-hunting, playing whist, socialising and of course, writing. He woke up at five thirty am everyday and wrote for two and half hours at the rate of one thousand words an hour. His average annual income from writing was £ 4,500. As elucidated in a foreword by Professor David Skilton, a professor of English at Lampeter University, his writing style was unique.

Anthony’s contemporaries such as Charles Dickens and George Elliot wrote of the world as they knew it a few decades earlier, and hence were able to draw on the enormous and fertile reserves of childhood and adolescent memories in themselves and their mature readers. Anthony Trollope, however, wrote about the world as it was around him at the time, trying to explain the functioning of the English upper-and middle class society in the very years he was writing. Furthermore, there was a proliferation of religious fiction during the time of his writing Barchester Towers. He could have maintained the status quo and gone on to deliver an excessively exaggeration of religion as other fiction writers were wont to do, However, Barchester Towers had its own comic ordinariness, which was found to be a breath of fresh air as was noted by the Saturday Review:

[Anthony Trollope] has the merit of avoiding excessive exaggeration. He possess an especial talent for drawing what may be called the second-class of good people-characters not noble, superior or perfect but still good and honest with a fundamental basis of sincerity, kindliness, and religious principle yet with considerable proneness to temptation, and a strong consciousness that they live, and like to live, in struggling, party-giving, comfort-seeking world. Such people are so common, and form so large a proportion of the betterish and more respectable classes, that it requires a keen perception of the ludicrous, and some power of satire to give distinctness to the types taken from their ranks by the novelist. Mr Trollope manages to do this admirably…

Now that we have a glimpse of who the creator was, let us delve into his creation.

The novel is centred on the question, who is to be the new Bishop of Barchester?’ Right from the first sentence to the last in the novel, this question looms large over the reader and the intriguing characters jostling each other for the position.

The Bishopric seat is left vacant following the death of old Dr Grantly who ‘died as he had lived, peaceably, slowly and without excitement’. His death marks the entry of other characters onto the stage: Harding, a man known for his stubbornness but good heart, Dr Proudie, an ambitious man of the cloth set to succeed the late DR Grantly, Mrs Proudie a no-nonsense woman who knew how to tug at her husband’s heart-strings to her favour, Mr Slope, Dr Proudie’s Chaplain and an intelligent slippery character whom all men of Barchester who considered themselves religious loved to hate, the hopeless Stanhopes, the intelligent but clueless about a woman’s love Mr Arabin…and of course Mr  Quiverful to whom the concept of family planning was dreadfully foreign.

Throughout the novel, the reader is treated to interesting twists and turns and is taken right into the heart of church politics. Of course, the characters stick to the script and do not resort to unholy means (read murder, sex, etc.) to acquire power such as their counterparts in Parliament may do. However, tensions rise and quite often, anger is expressed in the strongest of terms. Nonetheless, it does seem that there is an Unseen Hand that keeps matters from tipping over. Once in a while, the intrigues get to the press, and under the table arrangements are made to gain favour with the who’s who in Church leadership. These were all interesting but that really hooked me to the novel and reeled me in was the insight of Anthony Trollope on human nature. Sprinkled over the pages of the novel were gems of wisdom that were often delivered in a humorous, scathingly  tender tone that made me ponder awhile before resuming reading. Here are just but a few:

On lengthy Sermons bordering on falsehood

‘There is perhaps no greater hardship at present inflicted on mankind in civilized and free countries than the necessity of listening to sermons. No one but a preaching clergyman has, in these realms, the power of compelling an audience to sit silent, and be tormented. No one but a preaching clergyman can revel in platitudes, truisms, and untruisms, and yet receive, as his undisputed privilege, the same respectful demeanour as though words of impassionate eloquence, or persuasive logic, fell from his lips. Let a professor of law of physic find his place in the lecture room, and there pour forth jejune words and useless empty phrases and he will pour them forth to empty benches. Let a barrister attempt to talk without talking well and he will talk but seldom…a member of parliament can be coughed down or counted out. Town councillors can be tabooed. But no one can rid himself of the preaching clergy man. He is the bore of the age, the nightmare that disturbs our Sunday rest, the incubus that overloads our religion and makes God’s service distasteful. We are not forced into church! No: but we desire more than that. We desire not to be forced to stay away. We desire, nay, we are resolute, to enjoy the comfort of public worship; but we desire also that we may do so without an amount of tedium which ordinary human nature cannot endure with patience; that we may be able to leave the house of God, without that anxious longing for escape, which is the common consequence of common sermons.’

On persistence in creativity

‘There is no royal road to learning; no short cut to the acquirement of any valuable art. Let photographers and daguerreotypers do what they will, and improve as they may with further skill on that which skill has already done, they will never achieve a portrait of the human face divine. Let biographers, novelists, and the rest of us groan as we may under the burdens which we so often feel too heavy for our shoulders; we must either bear them up like men, or own ourselves too weak for the work which we have undertaken. There in no way of writing well and also of writing easily. Labor omnia vincit improbus- Persistent work overcomes all things. Such should be the chosen motto of every labourer.’

On maternal love and it’s permitted excesses

‘As a general rule, it is highly desirable that ladies should keep their temper; a woman who storms always makes herself ugly and usually ridiculous also…but if there be a time when a woman may let her hair to the winds, when she may loose her arms, and scream out trumpet-tongued to the ears of men, it is when nature calls out within her not for her own wants, but for the wants of those whom her womb has borne, whom her breasts have suckled, for those who look to her for their daily bread as naturally as man looks to his Creator’

On love and appetite

“Don’t let love interfere with your appetite. It never does with mine.” 

On holier-than-thou personas

‘There are such men; men who can endure no taint on their personal self-respect even from a woman; men whose bodies are to themselves sacred temples, that a joke against them is desecration and a rough touch downright sacrilege ’

I obtained Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers from a street book vendor, one of the ubiquitous common sights in Nairobi. However, the literary style and wisdom exuded during my reading of it have been anything but common. It has been a pleasure reading Trollope and I highly recommend him to any reader of English literature. It is worth the while.



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