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Not all Beef and Ale

John McCourt

Let us pretend, for a moment, that Anthony Trollope did not write nine million words of fiction but only (only!) eight hundred thousand – the approximate sum total, that is, of his five Irish novels ‑ The Macdermots of Ballycloran (1847), The Kellys and the O’Kellys (1848), Castle Richmond (1860), An Eye for an Eye (1879), The Landleaguers (unfinished and published posthumously in 1883). To that we might add the half a million or so words that make up Phineas Finn (1869) and Phineas Redux (1874) the two British parliamentary novels which form such an integral part of the extraordinary roman fleuve that is the Palliser series and that have as their protagonist the eponymous Clare-born Irish parliamentarian. The story of Phineas is that of a young Irish lawyer who, like so many Irishmen before and after him, goes to England and builds a successful career, even if it is also punctuated by false starts and more than a fair share of tragedy (the premature death of his young Irish wife, Mary Flood, which takes place in the fictional time that passes between the two novels, and trauma (his imprisonment, trial and eventual acquittal for murder, in Phineas Redux). He also appears in the final two novels in the series, The Prime Minister (1876) and The Duke’s Children (1880). Even if he has, in these latter two works, slipped out of central focus and had his Irishness partially erased, it is hard to ignore Finn’s assured social prominence and his enduring political success at the heart of British government as Trollope’s exemplary Irish character in Britain.

Leaving aside the final two novels of the Palliser series, in which Irish issues are at best of secondary importance, the five Irish novels along with the two Phineas volumes make up  approximately 1.3 million words and it is clear that we are dealing with a very substantial Irish novelist and a more than respectable literary career. Even if Trollope’s over forty mostly English novels dwarf his Irish output, his Irish writings remain a centrally important part of his overall oeuvre (which also includes some ten short stories set in Ireland or with Irish protagonists) and one that is deserving of study and that can even be classified, despite the lengthy time gaps that separate the individual works, as a distinct group of novels, in the way that we look at the Palliser or Barchester novels. Throughout his long and rich literary career,  Trollope attempted – almost uniquely ‑ to understand and interpret Ireland in the difficult and often calamitous four-decade period that stretched from his arrival in 1843 in a country about to suffer the devastating effects of a long Famine to his final visits as an old man in 1881, at the height of the Land War. He is unique among English novelists in this sustained, life-long engagement with Ireland, but he is almost equally a rarity within the Irish nineteenth century canon ‑ just one of a handful of writers who kept faith with Irish issues over four decades. At a time when, as William Carleton complained in his “General Introduction” to Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry, “our literary men followed the example of our great landlords; they became absentees, and drained the country of its intellectual wealth precisely as the others exhausted it of its rents”, Trollope stood out for choosing to move in the opposite direction and join those few Irish writers who, again in Carleton’s words, “laboured at home under all the dark privations of a literary famine”. He did so, knowing well that it would, to borrow a phrase from Flann O’Brien, be neither profitable nor popular to do so. Indeed, after the unsuccessful publication of his second novel, The Kellys and the O’Kellys, his publisher, Colburn, wrote telling him that it was “evident that readers do not like novels on Irish subjects as well as others”. It was a message to which he would pay little attention, returning stubbornly, many times over, to Irish themes, characters and settings. He did, however, sometimes feel the need to justify his Irish interest, as for example, in his preface to his Famine novel Castle Richmond (1860), where he wrote: “I fear that Irish character is in these days considered as unattractive as historical incident but nevertheless  I will make the attempt.”

Most of Trollope’s early English critics would be as lukewarm as Colburn towards his Irish works. Particularly so Michael Sadleir (elsewhere known as the author of Fanny by Lamplight) who played a decisive role in the Twenties and Thirties in resuscitating Trollope’s reputation ‑ which had suffered a calamitous decline following the publication of his Autobiography, in which he all too honestly admitted the extent to which his career was driven by the need for commercial success. Sadleir saw Trollope’s Irish fiction as an aberration from which he was fortunate to escape when he belatedly fell under “the slow, wise, soothing spell of rural England”. In Sadleir’s influential view, expressed in his 1927 Trollope: A Commentary:

Ireland produced the man; but it was left to England to inspire the novelist. Indeed one may go further. Ireland, having by friendliness, sport and open air saved Trollope from himself, all but choked the very genius that she had vitalised by her insane absorption in her own wrongs and thwarted hopes.

Sadleir went on to assert that the complex Castle Richmond was “not in the classic sense Trollope at all” but was noteworthy only “for its ‘Irishisms’ […]. It is a document, not a work of art; its appeal is to nationalist enthusiasm, not to the literary appreciation that knows no nationality.” In reality, Castle Richmond, Trollope’s ninth novel, written between August 1859 and March 1860, and published in three volumes on May 10th, 1860, is a troubled and troubling novel. It functions as a conventional love story – and ticks all the usual Trollopian boxes in this genre ‑ but what remains with the reader is the insistence with which the harsh realities of Famine Ireland seethe beneath the surface of the narrative and erupt more than occasionally to overshadow the main romantic plot. Through a series of Famine vignettes, and while firmly apportioning blame to the landlord class and to those agents and middlemen they left in charge in their absence, Trollope gives voice to the misery, starvation, and death that rent the country:

There was a form of face which came upon the sufferers when their state of misery was far advanced  [...]. The mouth would fall and seem to hang, the lips at the two ends of the mouth would be dragged down, and the lower parts of the cheeks would fall as though they had been dragged and pulled. There were no signs of acute agony when this phasis of countenance was to be seen, none of the horrid symptoms of gnawing hunger by which one generally supposes that famine is accompanied. The look is one of apathy, desolation, and death.

Despite the sympathy for individual victims of famine, the novel articulates a stubborn defence of British policy which is very much along the lines that Trollope had already articulated in a series of letters to the Examiner written in 1849 to counter Sidney Godolphin Osborne’s criticism in the Times of the British administration of Ireland during the Famine. In Castle Richmond, he attempts to follow a pitiless economic rationale while taking aim at the philanthropists and arguing that little more could have been done to help:

Much abuse at the time was thrown upon the government; and they who took upon themselves the management of the relief of the poor in the south-west were taken most severely to task. I was in the country, travelling always through it, during the whole period, and [...] in my opinion the measures of the government were prompt, wise, and beneficent; and I have to say also that the efforts of those who managed the poor were, as a rule, unremitting, honest, impartial, and successful.

In the narrator’s view, “It is in such emergencies as these that the watching and the wisdom of a government are necessary; and I shall always think – as I did think then – that the wisdom of its action and the wisdom of its abstinence from action were very good.”

As a result of its insistence on this defensive line, this sometimes courageous work reveals itself to be a flawed and sometimes wrong-headed attempt by an increasingly conservative author to contain the uncontainable, to convey the horrors of the catastrophic Famine within the inadequate form of a romantic comedy while at the same time trying to play down the scale of the devastation and the extent of the failure to provide an adequate public or private response to it. All of which is justified by the author’s repetitious invocations of Providence as the guiding hand behind it all, leading a recalcitrant Ireland that did not know how to help itself into a more economically viable situation: “the destruction of the potato was the work of God”, the Famine itself an “exhibition of his mercy”: “And lo! the famine passes by, and a land that had been brought to the dust by man’s folly is once more prosperous and happy.”

Based on this brief reading of Castle Richmond, it would be easy to dismiss Trollope’s Irish writings for their lack of sensitivity and understanding, for their veering into a propaganda at odds with and not worthy of the actually Famine description in the work, which cannot but have a powerful emotional impact on the reader. But such a dismissal would be to do the writer an injustice. While of course Sadleir’s attack on the “nationalist” novel is very wide of the mark, Trollope was moved by a genuinely deep affection for Ireland, by a real desire to understand and explain the country, to act as a cultural mediator between the two islands. He remained a resolute believer in the Union through his long life and used all of his writings to convey cultural difference while arguing for political unity, much in the manner of two novelist predecessors whom he greatly admired, Maria Edgeworth and Sir Walter Scott. This belief was based on his own personal experience of the Union: his own progress against the flow of human traffic when moving from England to Ireland brought about such an upturn in his fortunes that he interpreted it as evidence of the mutual possibilities offered by Union to the inhabitants of both countries. Time and time again, he returns to this theme in his writings, attempting to explain to his imagined English readers the necessity to look more sympathetically on the Irish and the need to take Irish political demands seriously and to offer a stronger administration of the country. Repeatedly he serves up the mixed marriage trope albeit to castigate the English future spouse for not being true to or worthy of his Irish partner. For this reason, Trollope did find defenders of his Irish writings. One among many was Abbey playwright Lennox Robinson, who in 1945 took exception to Sadleir’s reading with a letter published in The Irish Times:

Ireland made him write. His first two novels, ‘The Macdermotts’ [sic] and ‘The Kellys and the O’Kellys’ are entirely Irish in their setting, and it seems almost incredible that an Englishman after a couple of years in Ireland could write of a foreign country with such understanding and without sentiment. I can only compare these books with ‘The Real Charlotte,’ and I think them better. They are tragic. The description of the kitchen and the upstairs room in the Dunmore Inn (‘The Kellys’) can be put beside Balzac. [...] But he never got nearer tragedy than in those two early Irish novels.

This “Irish” Trollope is at odds with standard views of the writer which pick up from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s judgment that his novels were written on the “strength of beef and through the inspiration of ale … these books are just as English as a beef-steak” and which Trollope himself seems to have quoted contentedly in his often misleading Autobiography. Too often still Trollope is seen as embodying all the conservativism of Victorian England, and as being, as George Levine put it in a 1974 study of his realism, “a conventional artist [...] a writer who unquestioningly accepted the conventions he inherited”. Similarly, Catherine Hall, in her 2002 Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination, 1830-1867, described him, rather patronisingly, as “safe and English [...] riveted by the daily round of politics without being political, producing happy endings for his novels, believing in church, family and nation in ways which confirmed complacency rather than producing unsettled states of mind”. In less academic circles, Trollope is too often seen as little more than suitable bedtime reading for conservative prime ministers, from Harold MacMillan to John Major. In such readings, he is thus deprived of the undoubted questioning and critical edge that pervades his writings despite the mostly conservative surface sheen.

His Irish novels have been tarred with an even more negative brush. Terry Eagleton, for example, never one to let a lack of close reading get in the way of a combative sweeping statement, describes him as “a racist bigot” and, in his Figures of Dissent: Critical Essays on Fish, Spivak, Žižek and Others, as an upper-middle class English imperialist keen to “lick the feckless micks into shape”. Luckily, there are critics who have lingered longer and looked deeper. Bill Overton, for example, in his The Unofficial Trollope, pointed to the “dichotomy between the ‘official’ face of Trollope, the civil servant and Establishment-man, and the private, careful, intensive artist who shaped his fiction from ‘unofficial standpoints’”. Victoria Glendinning, in her important 1992 biography, concurs, and challenges the  “conventional supposition that Anthony Trollope was always in tune with his times, or that he deliberately tailored his work to the acceptable standard. His off-key, or off-color, sense of humor reflects how little opportunity he had had to become conditioned by the assumptions of the polite English world – which in artistic terms, was to his advantage and ours.” More recently, the established views of Trollope as a champion of the status quo, a comforter to the conservative, and an unconflicted imperialist have been successfully complicated and challenged and his capacity to take on gender issues and to write probingly of the situation of women within the marriage mores of the nineteenth century has been particularly lauded. Often his neglected short stories are the sites of his most sustained questioning of accepted mores and, as a corollary, reveal some of his most innovative formal experiment.

In his Irish novels, a similarly unconventional Trollope emerges, a conflicted and sometimes almost subversive figure caught between his “official” and “unofficial” opinions as he vacillated between endorsing commonplace English views about Ireland and offering his own alternative, sometimes awkward, counter-readings. In the earlier Irish novels the liberal rather than the later, increasingly conservative, Trollope dominates and we see the writer in favour of “slow but definite change”. Ireland was one of the areas in which he worked for change.  In his Irish works, Trollope strives (and sometimes manages) to see the world from an Irish point of view – even while not agreeing with or approving of such a review. Thus, with critical acumen, Owen Dudley Edwards in his influential article on Trollope as an Irish writer, published in 1983, wrote of how the author

went to the frontier, for in a linguistic, religious, political, social and economic sense Ireland was one. […] learned his literary trade on the frontier. He discovered that frontier-made goods were not good selling material […]. He began to build his literary achievement in forms acceptable to England and apparently English. But the tools and perceptions were Irish in the initial instance, and much of the workmanship after his return to England was still based on the rough designs he had initially executed on Irish soil, with Irish themes, about Irish characters, and with Irish insights.

Even if, to our eyes and with the considerable benefit of hindsight, he misread some or perhaps even most of the important Irish political figures (O’Connell, Isaac Butt, Parnell) and inevitably was on the wrong side of many important political, social, and historical questions (agrarian agitation, Ribbonism, the Famine, the campaigns for land reform and Home Rule), he also showed unusually sensitivity in his treatment of Irish Catholicism, of the much-abused Irish tenantry, whom he rarely dismissed in stereotypical terms, and he made good use of a rare gift to transmit “Irish English” speech patterns. These are among the elements that make Trollope’s Irish novels, by their own lights, a valuable rendering of their time and a largely successful body of fictional work. By accident rather than design, following his initiation as a successful public servant and writer in Ireland, and because of his genuine entanglement in the country, Trollope would always be betwixt and between, caught by sometimes conflicting loyalties to both cultures. This would, initially at least, prove to be a creatively liberating situation even if he would gradually rein in his sympathy for the Irish point of view and retreat to a more defensive and exclusively mainstream, “English” position and see Ireland as a “province” in need of more efficient discipline and policing. But this was really only in the final two Irish novels and not before he had successfully opened his readers’ eyes, mind, and heart to a broad panorama of complex Irish realities.

1/4/2015

John McCourt’s Writing the Frontier: Anthony Trollope between Britain and Ireland is published this month by Oxford University Press. He is an associate professor of English at Università Roma Tre. The co-founder of the Trieste Joyce School (1997), he is best known for The Years of Bloom: Joyce in Trieste 1904-1920, (University of Wisconsin Press/Lilliput Press).

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