Writing The Frontier

9780198729600

Anthony Trollope was a failure by the time he reached the age of 26. He was the less favoured surviving son of a failed barrister and his entrepreneurial wife who somehow kept the family from the bailiffs, most of the time at least, through her prodigious energy – not least through her writing. Anthony, to an extent at his mother’s instigation, had been found a position in the Post Office in London and had failed to shine there. So it was that he took up an unappealing posting to Ireland and, by virtue of emulating his mother’s work ethic, turned his life around to become not only one of the Post Office’s most trusted senior officials but, improbably, also an author whose star rose higher than his mother’s had ever done to stand comparison with the very finest Victorian novelists.

John McCourt provides a long overdue, thoroughly Irish perspective on the transformation and Trollope’s subsequent career. He is able to consider Trollope not just in the context of his fellow English authors of the same period, but also within the canon of Irish literature to which, McCourt argues, Trollope’s work also belongs.

McCourt opens his argument with the assertion that while previous studies have considered Trollope as an English author and characterised him as somewhat conventional and conservative, to do so they have overlooked the frequent, almost subversive, contrary currents that pervade much of his fiction devoted to Ireland, Irish locations and Irish characters. These features, McCourt suggests, can be attributed to the Irish influences that did not simply coincide with his personal transformation but were, in fact, a key part of it.

McCourt notes that Trollope’s life in Ireland was markedly different from his experience of London. In Ireland he had position and status which he improved upon by his diligence in his work and enthusiastic participation in new pursuits such as hunting. No longer a hobbledehoy, he rubbed shoulders with the great and the good and his self-confidence grew.

Trollope’s years in Ireland enabled him to write with conviction and accuracy, based on direct experience when dealing with Irish themes – albeit that in his later years, after prolonged absence from the country, his views became increasingly out of touch and fell in more with mainstream English opinion. Nevertheless, he never subscribed to the classic Victorian view of the Irish as scarcely better than colonial savages. He preferred to view Ireland as an integral part of the United Kingdom which could and should benefit from closer union. His local knowledge meant he avoided the stereotyping of the Catholic/Protestant sectarian divide and could write from first-hand experience about the appalling mismanagement of their Irish estates by the absentee landlords in England.

McCourt also outlines how Trollope would have been influenced not just by immersion in the world of Irish politics, notably through his friendship with Charles Bianconi, Mayor of Clonmel, whose daughter married into the family of the leading figure in the growing agitation for Irish independence, Daniel O’Connell, but also by ready access to Irish literature while he was there, such as that of Maria Edgeworth, Lever and others.

As he began to write himself, Trollope started out addressing Irish themes with The Macdermots of Ballycloran and The Kellys and the O’Kellys. Perhaps he was obeying the maxim “write about what you know” but in doing so he was swimming against the tide of popular opinion which preferred less challenging subjects and less challenging (i.e. English rather than Irish) perspectives to predominate. So Trollope, ever the pragmatist, shifted his focus but, McCourt suggests, retained an Irish undercurrent that countered the English hegemony.

Having set the scene in a long introductory chapter, McCourt focuses on detailed analysis of Trollope’s novels starting with the first two set in Ireland. These he considers particularly with reference to questions of justice and injustice in 19th century Ireland.  The tragic Macdermots of Ballycloran reveals the fatal flaws in the administration of justice in Ireland at the time, highlighting inherent, systematic bias against the Irish Catholic lower classes when administered through the landowning, mainly Protestant, English. McCourt shows how Trollope does not shy away from the political issues of the Ribbonmen and their sometimes violent actions and the invidious reliance on informers to bring “criminals” to “justice” with the resulting risk of personal grudges and enmities being worked out through false accusations.  McCourt suggests that The Kellys and the O’Kellys shows a more hopeful resolution with “possible” justice being achieved.  However this is reached largely through the connivance of the powers that be with scant regard for due legal process so it is at best a qualified successful legal outcome.

McCourt praises these early novels for their unflinching depiction of the depredations of extreme poverty in Ireland, particularly The Macdermots of Ballycloran. On a personal note, I would mention that my abiding memory of this work, the first Trollope I ever read, is of the tremendous power of these descriptions of the life of the Irish poor. With forty-six novels to go I did wonder what I had let myself in for. McCourt does not, however, consider the extent to which both novels might draw on Trollope’s own family history of want and financial difficulties – with the resulting dilemma of maintaining appearances commensurate with the position in society without the means to do so – which experience is mirrored by the families at the centre of each of these tales. He rightly points out, though, that the second novel is clearly seat the time the Irish Famine’s effects were being felt but Trollope does not make specific reference to these events. I wonder to what extent it is easier for 21st century scholars to identify causes and solutions to the Great Famine of 1845 to 1852, which might have been less apparent to a contemporary writer living through the events themselves and publishing these novels in 1847 and 1848.

McCourt considers Trollope’s further novel set in Ireland during the famine, Castle Richmond, to be problematic. While the first two novels were written during the Famine, Castle Richmond  was written a decade later with the potential benefit of perspective this can bring. McCourt notes that Trollope’s support for the actions of the Whig (Liberal) government of the time endorses a view that regards the Famine and its terrible consequences for the lives of the vast majority of poor Irish people as being in the long-term best interests of the country with Ireland emerging a leaner, fitter and more economically dynamic society. Trollope cites the removal of a layer of middlemen who lined their pockets at the expense of the poor tenant farmers and the reining in the excesses of the absentee landlords as positive benefits of the Famine. While not denying the essential truths of these outcomes, McCourt is clearly angered that Trollope can feel that the dreadful price paid by the Irish poor – perhaps 1 million dead and a further 1 million forced to emigrate, maybe 40% of the total population – was acceptable to achieve these improvements.

In fairness to Trollope, McCourt notes that his view was in line with prevailing opinion in the English governing classes.  Indeed, the belief that this was in fact Divine Intervention for which the country ought to be thankful was consonant with the religious beliefs of the time.  It is hard for us in a secular age to understand how charitable acts, which alleviated, even a little, the suffering of those affected, might be condemned at the time as going against God’s intention in bringing down this calamity on the Irish people. Yet such was the case. The more rational doctrine of requiring the poor to earn the assistance they received so that they should not be/become idle dependants on the charity of the Mother Country has at least some (a little) logic, albeit that the enforced labour might have been far better directed towards the immediate want of adequate food production and less towards ill-defined long-term infrastructure developments – breaking rocks with a possible view to building roads and railways.

However, I think that in this McCourt again might usefully have considered Trollope’s own psychology. This was a man who had known need and who had raised himself by his own bootstraps through the virtue of hard work to achieve not just an alleviation of his poverty but an extraordinary degree of success and wealth.  It would be hard for such a man, in the climate of Victorian opinion regarding the virtues of self-help, to hold views so different from those which Trollope did and to which he gave expression in Castle Richmond.

Indeed Trollope did not shy away from depicting scenes of the most desperate consequences of the Famine – acknowledging that he was potentially trying the patience of his largely English audience.  In this respect Castle Richmond faces head on what The Kellys and the O’Kellys avoided. That Trollope continued to support views he held at the time of the crisis and the actions taken by a government to which he owed party allegiance might be seen with the benefit of our own even greater hindsight to be defending the indefensible but it is, to my mind, understandable.  I do though share McCourt’s disappointment (anger?), evident from his powerful and closely argued analysis, that a man whose empathy was so great and so regularly seen in his writing, should have held such views, even in retrospect, on so vital a part of Ireland’s troubled  history. It is Trollope’s cool, Gradgrind Utilitarian detachment that is hard for the modern reader to stomach.

McCourt next considers Trollope’s most important Irish character, the eponymous Phineas Finn, in detail. That an English author of the Victorian era should choose to make an Irish Catholic hero of a novel is remarkable in itself. It flies in the face of the English middle class readers’ expectations and Trollope himself, as McCourt observes, later claimed it was a tactical error. But to make him the hero of two novels suggests a deliberate strategy.  McCourt argues that Finn is Trollope’s embodiment of the ideal Irishman of the middle class Irish Catholic stratum which Trollope hoped would step up to become the key political and governing class in Ireland, maintaining the Union through a policy of enlightened self-interest.

Over the course of the trials and tribulations of the two novels to which he gives his name, Phineas Finn and Phineas Redux, Trollope has hero mature from a relatively hot-headed young man – flitting from one love to the next as fancy and opportunity takes him while retaining an independence of thought (and vote) which he is financially ill-equipped to keep up – to a political pragmatist who sees the advantage of the long-game.

This process is taken even further, to its logical conclusion, in the later novels in which he, like so many of Trollope’s characters, reappears in a supporting role, The Prime Minister and The Duke’s Children. Finn is here finally assimilated into the English governing class and becomes practically indistinguishable from them.  McCourt regrets this character trajectory, expressing the view that Finn was moving contrary to the direction taken by the majority of Irish M.P.s at the time, who came to favour Home Rule over the Union and, therefore, McCourt questions the realism and authenticity of this depiction of the fictional character.

McCourt suggests that Finn serves as the spokesman for Trollope’s own views on the Irish Question and that as he ages this reflects Trollope’s own hardening of attitudes and his becoming increasingly out of touch with the situation in Ireland.  I might venture that there was more than a hint of nostalgia colouring Trollope’s perspective for a time when he was first finding his feet, both professionally and as a writer, and enjoying social success and respect which had hitherto eluded him, all of which he associated with Ireland as it was at that time rather than as it had become in the intervening years. However, I would agree with McCourt’s view that with Finn making his appearance on the fictional political stage in 1869, shortly after Trollope’s own humiliating moment on that stage for real, with his unsuccessful campaign to become M.P. for Beverley in 1868, the fictional Irishman was a means of wish fulfillment  for Trollope – forging a career in politics that Trollope failed to achieve himself.

McCourt examines next Trollope’s portrayal of clergymen in Ireland – both Roman Catholic and Protestant. He notes that Trollope, from the earliest novel, The Macdermots of Ballycloran, to the last, incomplete novel, The Landleaguers, maintains a consistent view of the clergy, notwithstanding his hardening attitudes in other areas.  Perhaps this is based on his personal experience in Ireland when, McCourt explains, quoting from his letters, he held the local Catholic priest in high esteem and perhaps used him as a model for the priest in the comic short story Father Giles of Ballymoy.  This priest was of the old school, educated on the continent, and thereby exposed, Trollope thought, to wider, moderating influences denied the younger generation of priests educated in Ireland at the Maynooth College. Thus, in Trollope’s fiction, older priests tend to be shown in a positive light, frequently espousing Trollope’s own view that the political siren song of the Home Rule advocates were better avoided.  Younger, Irish trained curates tended to be portrayed as more politically active and pro-Home Rule and, as such, were shown in an increasingly negative light as years went by.

However, as McCourt points out, Trollope reserved his greatest scorn, evident across several novels, for the Protestant clergymen, who sought to entice good Catholics from their religion to the Protestant alternative by exploiting their hunger during the famine – requiring them to convert to the Protestant Church of Ireland as the price to obtain soup to ease their hunger. Indeed, Trollope’s Liberal convictions were such that, McCourt records, he was in favour of the continued State support for the Maynooth College, in spite of its turning out agitators for Home Rule, and for the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland on the grounds that the tithe on the Catholic majority for the Church’s upkeep was patently unfair.

In this, as in his writings generally, where he might also have been influenced by the positive examples of Irish Catholic clergy in earlier works by such as Moore, Banim and Griffin, Trollope took a significantly more positive, pro-Irish stance than many contemporaries and McCourt gives him credit for his independence of thought in so doing.

Turning to Trollope’s short stories, McCourt robustly sets out his arguments to rebut the suggestions by critics that his prolix style, which, while eminently suited to the three volume novel, was unsuited to the short story form. McCourt contends that Trollope was in fact ahead of his critics and, notably in his short stories, wrote in a modern style which would not be out of place in the oeuvre of a 20th century writer. He expresses the view that Trollope used the short story form to experiment with subject matter and style which could not be explored in his mainstream novels. He cites the example of the story, Mrs General Talboys, written in 1861, which Thackeray declined to publish in the Cornhill magazine on account of its subject matter – an unconsummated flirtation that stops just short of adultery on the part of both the man and woman involved. The man in this case is Irish, as is also the case in the possibly homo-erotic story A Turkish Bath, published in 1869. McCourt notes that their Irish-ness is of no consequence in the context of either story but may facilitate the exploration of the risque themes by the very fact that they are “outsiders” and so at the margins of the polite middle-class society which consumed the stories in the magazines in which they appeared.

McCourt contrasts these boundary-challenging later stories with the more conventional (derivative?), humourous short stories, for example The O’Conors of Castle Conor, with an Irish setting – and a hapless English first person narrator/central protagonist – written earlier in Trollope’s career.  He implies that Trollope moved on from these as he sought more challenging subjects to address.

An aspect of Trollope’s writing that McCourt singles out for special praise is his ability to convey accurately Irish-English as it was spoken at the time. Unlike Thackeray and others who lacked Trollope’s experience of years immersed in the everyday speech of the Irish and who, therefore, reproduced the Anglicised pronunciation of Irish immigrants – resulting in a comic stage-Irish tongue, Trollope had an acute ear for the vernacular. He not only captured the pronunciation better than others, including some Irish writers, but also the peculiarities and turns of phrase which owe their origins to the old Gaelic tongue – for example the use of verbs to start sentences and the reflexive form, as in “It’s yourself is a good woman.” in The Macdermots of Ballycloran.

McCourt does note that Trollope’s lapses from and inconsistency in the use of Irish-English – slipping back into standard English – might be attributable to him not wishing to over-burden his English readership with a surfeit of Irish pronunciation to the detriment of the story’s flow. I wonder if McCourt is being generous here. In other areas (the name of Trumpeton Wood, which changes periodically as it recurs through the series of Palliser novels, springs to mind as a recent example I have come across) Trollope could be notably slapdash and careless – no doubt due to the speed at which he wrote. I imagine him skimming over such inconsistencies as he impatiently ploughed through the chore of re-reading proofs. If ever there was a writer in need of a good second pair of eyes over his work it was Trollope.

McCourt devotes a chapter to Trollope’s two late period Irish novels. The first of these, An Eye For An Eye, has a similarly tragic story to Trollope’s first novel The Macdermots of Ballycloran. Both of these tragedies use the wildness of the remote countryside of the west of Ireland – far from the metropolis of Dublin – to create atmosphere appropriate to the sombre material of their subjects. McCourt shows how the storyline in each – the Irish maid who is taken advantage of then abandoned by the English gentleman – can be seen as Trollope’s metaphor for the failure of the English Ascendancy and their representatives to fulfil their obligations to Ireland and the Irish. That Trollope manages to inject powerful drama into this conventional trope without spilling over into melodrama, as was fashionable amongst contemporary writers – is testament to his skills as a writer.  It is a powerful critique which McCourt considers avoids the pitfalls into which he suggests Trollope became embroiled when writing The Landleaguers, his last, unfinished novel. This, McCourt argues, presents a one-sided perspective – unlike Trollope’s previous Irish novels in which, even though his own Unionist views were clear, the alternate, Irish perspective was given space.  McCourt sees Trollope’s entrenched views, expressed without being confronted by the opposing view, as reactionary and to the detriment of the novel.

McCourt concludes his analysis of Trollope’s Irish writings by bringing it round in a full circle to consider the position of letters and the postal system, with which he found his first success in life on moving to Ireland. He notes that, as in Trollope’s wider body of fiction, letters often play a crucial, indeed at times pivotal, role. And the ability, or inability, to write a good letter is an unfailing guide to the inner-man or woman. Thus Thady in The Macdermots of Ballycloran fails to forestall his sister Feemy’s decision to elope with Captain Ussher because he cannot find the words to express himself in a letter to her, precipitating the tragedy which concludes with his own execution (itself a result of conclusions drawn as a result of another letter, sent anonymously this time by the Ribbonmen to Ussher’s successor).

McCourt ends by recognising that if Trollope lets him down through his adherence to views about Ireland with which, with the benefit of hindsight not available to Trollope, proved wrong-headed, “Trollope’s voice…emerges as an unusually dogged, courageous, and constant one, offering a series of fascinating (if often flawed) attempts to render the complex Irish realities as he came to understand them.” He says that, “Not only did Trollope succeed in his mediating role of helping his English readers to understand Ireland and question their own assumptions about the country, but his works also lead today’s readers to better comprehend the complexities of Victorian Ireland and to a richer grasp of English attitudes towards the country and its people.”

For me, McCourt also succeeds in his thorough and deeply, carefully thought through analysis. He challenges some of my preconceptions about Trollope and enlarges my understanding of him through his closely argued text. That, surely, is the hallmark of an important work of scholarship: to overturn some of the orthodoxies, out of which Trollope emerges with, if anything, greater stature as a man and a writer through this new and, importantly for this purpose, Irish perspective.

 

 

 

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