Monthly Archives: April 2018

Trollope Birthday Walk on Sunday

To celebrate Anthony Trollope’s birthday this week, the Trollope Society has organised a  Birthday Walk on Sunday 29th April around Trollope-related areas of London led by City of London Guide Paul Baker .

The walk will explore the beautiful, historical central London area of Chancery Lane, High Holborn, Lincoln’s Inn, the Royal Opera House and Covent Garden. It will pass many sites of biographical relevance to Trollope and his family, especially his father, and a whole host of his novels.

The tour should last just under two hours, and finishes near Covent Garden Piazza.

The starting point is outside Chancery Lane tube station at 1.50pm for a 2pm start.

The walk costs £10 with the option of joining fellow Trollope enthusiasts for tea afterwards (not included).


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A week in Hardy’s Wessex

I spent the last week or so wandering around some of the remoter parts of Dorset, immortalised by Thomas Hardy as his Wessex, the setting for novels including The Mayor of Casterbridge, Jude the Obscure and Tess of the d’Urbervilles. 

I have always rather struggled to equate the sunny, pleasant southern English landscapes I had seen on previous visits with the dour, stern-visaged countryside Hardy depicted. Fortunately, for my understanding of Hardy, I was blessed on this occasion with that staple of the English summer weather, mist and persistent drizzle. The fresh wholesome Dorset countryside was transformed miraculously into Hardy’s oppressive and melancholy Wessex.

I took a path behind the cottage in Higher Bockhampton where he was born and found myself walking across a blasted heath that could have been lifted from any one of his novels. I experienced the bleakness in the landscape which I had hitherto reserved for my impressions of the moors of my native Yorkshire in the heightened world of the Bronte sisters.

Within a couple of hours, allowing for a rambling detour when I lost my way, I reached the nearby village of Stinsford with its tiny parish church. In the churchyard I found the family graves of generations of Hardys buried there. 

Hardy’s heart is interred there, in accordance with his wishes, though his ashes were placed at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey (close to the stone commemorating Trollope, that was placed there somewhat later in belated recognition of the latter’s significance).

A few yards from the Hardy graves is the grave of the Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis who also wrote at times somewhat disturbing detective fiction in the Golden Age vein under the pseudonym Nicholas Blake.

My rambles were not solely bound up in literary connections. I tramped around the country between Dorchester and Abbotsbury discovering a monument to Dorset’s other Thomas Hardy: the Vice-Admiral of the Royal Navy who was ship’s commander of HMS Victory during the Battle of Trafalger and was the person to whom the dying Lord Nelson supposedly requested “Kiss me, Hardy” after he was shot at the height of that battle.

I also passed along my way a couple of pre-historic stone circles at Hampton and Kingstone Russell, neither of which achieve the massive grandeur of Stonehenge and the Cerne Abbas Giant, which does impress for other reasons, even when partly veiled in primeval mists, which only add to its power.

I stayed overnight at a pub, The Poachers Inn, in the nearby village of Piddletrenthide, lulled to sleep by the gurgling stream that passed through the pub’s beer garden, the wonderfully named River Piddle – a name for Hardy to conjure with.

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New adaptation of The Woman in White

The BBC will broadcast a new adaptation of Wilkie Collins most famous novel The Woman in White (personally I prefer The Moonstone but then I am more into detective fiction than thrillers). The series will go out on BBC1 in five episodes starting on 22 April at 9pm.

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Political novels: Zola v Trollope

I have just finished reading Emile Zola’s novel of life in the heart of the French government during the Second Empire of the 1850s Son Excellence Eugene Rougon. Inevitably this invites comparisons with Trollope’s political series and the standalone novel The Way We Live Now, which inhabits the same fictional English landscape, set in the same period of the third quarter of the 19th century.

A clear similarity between the works of the two novelists is that they focus primarily on the characters of their principals and the fictional account of their day to day life behind the scenes in political life. This is a world, in both cases, of salons and private gatherings. Eugene Rougon, the political heavyweight, entertains cronies and hangers on from his country roots as he conducts the business of a minister of the government of Emperor Napoleon III. These gatherings find parallels in the salons of Laura Kennedy in Phineas Finn and the discrete backroom meetings of the likes of Plantagenet Palliser, Mr Gresham and the Duke of St Bungay in The Prime Minister where government policy and political strategy is worked out away from the glare of public scrutiny in parliament itself.

It is also possible to see how both novelists modelled their characters on real life political figures. Trollope notoriously based his somewhat unflattering portrayal of the leader of the rival Conservative party leader Daubeny on the famous British Prime Minister (and part-time novelist – though I hesitate to attribute any motive of professional jealousy on the part of Trollope – the more successful writer – for this portrait) Benjamin Disreali; and Mr Gresham is alleged to be based, at least in part, on the Liberal leader William Gladstone. It is also possible to see Eugene Rougon as a fictionalised version of the French minister, Rouher, in his ruthless support of the absolute power of the Emperor.

However, beyond these similarities in the identification of fictional characters with real life equivalents, Trollope tended, in his series, to steer clear of the actual business of politics, whereas Zola’s novel follows closely the actual events of political life and makes references to them. Thus Rougon is called upon to make the first “Address” to the Emperor in 1861 in response to the Emperor’s speech setting out the proposed laws to be enacted over the next session of the Corps Legislatifs – a new innovation in French political life that was introduced as described in the novel. The novel also mentions the five opposition members who remained in that body at the time, accurately reflecting the state of affairs in the real world. Even the attempted assassination of the Emperor by the Italian plotters led by Orsini is included within the novel’s structure with Rougon making political capital out of the event.

One aspect which Zola’s novel shares with Trollope’s The Way We Live Now is the depth of corruption and the way that it permeates all aspects of public life. As Rougon feathers the nests of his favourites, and finds himself beset by their ever increasing demands for more favours, so too does Trollope expose the moral bankruptcy of business, society and politics as his central character, the swindler Melmotte, rises to public acclaim in business and achieves what Trollope regarded as the pinnacle of any Englishman’s ambitions, gaining a seat in parliament before his inevitable downfall.

Zola’s naturalism – his belief that hereditary factors would influence the character as much or perhaps more than the circumstances of his characters’ upbringing (nature trumping nurture, so to speak) – led him to create in Rougon, with his origins in rural parentage, a ruthless individual with what Nietzsche aptly described as the “will to power”. This provides a direct contrast to Trollope’s creation, Plantagenet Palliser, the aristocratic Liberal, with his self-effacing manner, whose raison d’etre is to serve his country as best he can in whatever capacity he is called upon to fill. It is possible, perhaps, to identify in Trollope’s Phineas Finn, the ambitious Irish outsider who seeks public office as much for its own sake as for what good he might do in the earlier part of his career, some parallels with Rougon’s ambition but these are dispelled by the end of Trollope’s series when Finn has emerged from his trial by ordeal an older and wiser man.

It will be interesting to see, as I read later novels in Zola’s great Rougon Macquart series whether these parallels between the portrayals of French and British political life and social structures in the two novelists work continue to mirror each other and to what extent they diverge in the pictures they create of their contemporary worlds.

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