Trollope: The Belgian Connection

Frederik van Dam gave the annual lecture to The Trollope Society yesterday evening in the David Lloyd George room at the National Liberal Club just off Whitehall in London. Frederik, who is carrying out post-doctoral research on Trollope at the Katholik University of Leuven in Belgium, spoke on Trollope’s connections with Belgium.
In a closely argued exposition, Frederik outlined his thesis that Trollope’s youthful experiences in Belgium, whence his family fled to escape creditors following the bankruptcy of his father, informed his late period novels. While in Belgium the young Trollope witnessed the deaths of both his father and sister due to tuberculosis. These deaths were vividly recreated for his reading public by Trollope in the fate of the eponymous heroine of his late period novel Marion Fay. 

Earlier works, such as Phineas Finn had seen Belgium feature only as an exotic location where its more liberal laws had made possible, for example, the duel between Finn and his good friend Lord Chiltern.

Frederick went on to cite the influence of two Belgian scholars on the study of Trollope. George Poulet had suggested that Trollope had through his authorial interventions and the interactions of his characters “expressed the collective consciousness of the community”. Effectively the readers, and the characters within the novels, all understood and accepted certain conventions which governed their lives. For example, a nice girl would always reject initial advances from even the most eligible suitor, one whom they might have secretly adored, because to say ‘yes’ at the first time of asking was unladylike. All knew that he should persist and she would then ‘give in’.

Frederick, following the lead given by  J Hillis Miller, demonstrated that this analysis breaks down in Trollope’s late period novels. Marion Fay  does not have the conventional happy romantic ending. Marion and Lord Hampstead play the same romantic game but Trollope allows a more knowing, sexual connotation to arise between them as they flirt – the scene where he has her grasp a poker and stoke a fire in his home is loaded with comic double entendre which Marion only fully grasps on subsequent reflection on the event. Unlike earlier novel’s heroines she has not fully understood the rules of the game as it was being played.

Frederick went on to cite the thinking of another Belgian, Paul de Man, who argued that literary theory and the critical thinking it demands made it possible to expose the basis that ideology is a lie. He proposed that literature of Trollope’s late period works such as The Way We Live, undermine the ideological basis of “late capitalism” (the Victorianequivalent of what we might now characterise as “global capitalism” where big business overrides the authority of elected government.

Frederick concluded that Trollope, particularly as he grew older and more aware of his own mortality drew on his traumatic  experiences as a young man in Belgium to bring greater depth to his writing and that it was wholly appropriate that this should have been recognised primarily through the researches of Belgian literary scholars which he labelled Trollope’s Belgian Connection.

This brief summary of Frederik’s academic paper necessarily cuts corners in a carefully argued presentation. I take full responsibility for any shortcomings and inaccuracies in this rendering of Frederik’s ideas. A more complete article prepared by Frederik will feature in the next edition of the Trollope Society’s magazine Trollopiana.


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