Illustrating Trollope: The Three Clerks

We turn now to Trollope’s early semi-autobiographical novel The Three Clerks. The Trollope Society edition is based on the 1878 edition published by Richard Bentley and contains only a single illustration, the frontispiece which is uncredited but, from the signature on the wood engraving, can be identified as by Josiah Wood Whymper.

The scene featured is from late in the novel when Alaric Tudor, who has been led astray by excessive ambition to over-extend himself and is about to find himself facing criminal charges. He confronts Undecimus Scott, whose unscrupulous behaviour has brought him low, seizing him by the collar. The same scene is also depicted by Patrick Benson in the Folio Society edition.

The energy of Whymper’s illustration is marked compared with Benson’s. There is a vigour and strength about Alaric, evident in his expression and in the toppled hat of the other man which reflects his passion as he realises that this man has ruined him. The latter is evidently fearful of receiving a thrashing, grabbing his assailant’s arm. The two are captured in purposeful motion. In contrast, Benson’s Alaric simply looks cross and Undy Scott appears merely taken aback. Both stand flat-footed and stationary, facing each other. The image altogether lacks the sense of violence in the Victorian illustration.

Whymper was by this stage in his career a well-known engraver and illustrator for a number of leading London publishers. He was well used to illustrating books of natural history, ornithology and exploration – he provided the illustrations for Dr Livingstone’s Narrative of an Expedition to the Zambesi in 1865. He was also noted for his watercolours such as this River Scene with Windmill, painted in 1875.

Patrick Benson’s sixteen illustrations for The Three Clerks include three key scenes from the novel which Trollope, in his Autobiography revealed were drawn from his own life. The character of the hapless Charley Tudor is based loosely on Trollope himself and Benson depicts the humiliating failure of his/Charley’s calligraphy examination which he underwent as a prelude to joining the civil service – Charley in the decidedly inferior Commissioners of Internal Navigation – the “Infernal Navvies” and Trollope in the Post Office. We see Charley, under the supervision of his cousin Alaric and his friend Henry Norman, make a second attempt at home which will be disregarded the following day when he is taken on in any event – just as was Trollope himself.

Next we find Benson illustrating the incident when Charley, in debt, is advised by the money lender to “be punctual” with his payments – presumably of interest only, rather than repayment of the principal sum owing. Again Trollope relates in his Autobiography that this incident is taken from his own life as a young hobbledehoy. His experience with the moneylenders, the Victorian equivalent of the Credit Card, but without even the scant protection offered by modern legal constraints requiring publication of the representative Annual Percentage Rate (“APR”) we now know, featured not only in this novel but was also reworked in Phineas Finn, where the eponymous hero borrows money and, once in debt, is also told by the lender to “be punctual” – indeed this moment features in one of the Millais illustrations for that novel which appear in the Trollope Society edition.

And to complete Charley’s humiliation, he is accosted by Mrs Davis in his office where she demands, “What are you a-going to do about that poor girl there?” His suffering mirrors that of Trollope who was similarly harangued in the presence of his colleagues by the mother of a young woman to whom he might, or might not, have proposed marriage.

Certainly Benson manages to capture the naivety and bemused incompetence of Charley/Trollope in these illustrations. The reader is both amused by and appalled at the situations into which he has fallen and this is emphasised by the illustrator’s light, comic touch.

Benson was himself at this time a popular illustrator of children’s books. He adopted a very similar style to that employed in The Three Clerks for his work in the 1994 edition of Kenneth Grahame’s classic The Wind in the Willows re-published by Harper Collins.

He also preferred to use pastel tones for his work in Roald Dahl’s final work The Minpins, published in 1991, in spite of the somewhat dark and sinister nature of the material which Dahl in this, as in many of his books for children, employed.


Benson also provided the illustrations, again in a style very similar to that he employed in both The Three Clerks and The Wind in the Willows, for the 1991 Harper Collins publication Fly Fishing which is purported to be written by the fictional character J. R. Hartley, created for the Yellow Pages television advert some years previously, though it is actually written by Michael Russell. It is perhaps Trollopian to note that both Russell and Benson are in truth keen fly fishermen and called upon their own experiences to write and illustrate the book. I am sure Trollope would have appreciated the joke.


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One response to “Illustrating Trollope: The Three Clerks

  1. ellenandjim

    Very interesting. Thank you, Mark. I see you have been writing about illustrating Trollope. One of the chapters of my book is on the early or original illustrations to the novels. I am interested in this area and will come back later to read and look at these other 3 blogs the software linked in.

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