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Anthony Trollope: Power, Land, and Society 1847 - 1980

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Thursday, 31 May 2018

Trollope, Ireland and Victorian Certainty






Trollope’s undoubted affection for the Irish had a very English hue and might perhaps explain why the Irish were less enamoured of the English. In The Land leaguers, he refers to the new American teaching that Irishmen should be masters of their own destiny:
‘Never were a people less fitted to exercise such dominion without control. Generous, kindly, impulsive, and docile, they have been willing to follow any recognised leader.’
Writing of the great famine, the backdrop to Castle Richmond, he expressed another equally patronising view:
‘One would think that starving men would become violent, taking food by open theft—feeling, and perhaps not without some truth, that the agony of their want robbed such robberies of its sin.’
But, apart from one incident, the ransacking of a bakery, this didn’t happen. Why?
‘The fault of the people was apathy. It was the feeling of the multitude that the world and all that was good in it was passing away from them; that exertion was useless, and hope hopeless.’
Accurate or otherwise, the impression given is that Ireland and its people would be bereft without the leadership and beneficence of its Anglicised landed class and reflects the limits of Trollope’s vision.

Richmond Castle is fairly standard Trollope but within the context of the Irish famine. It’s an interesting but uncomfortable juxtaposition and again hints at uncomfortable realities beyond Trollope’s vision. Certainly, the Fitzgerald family thought of the poor, setting up corn mills and establishing soup kitchens, but the response to their charity was mixed:
‘The hardest burden which had to be borne by those who exerted themselves at this period was the ingratitude of the poor for whom they worked;—or rather I should say thanklessness.’
In fairness, Trollope both sympathises with and understands the response of the ‘ungrateful’:
‘To call them ungrateful would imply too deep a reproach, for their convictions were that they were being ill used by the upper classes. When they received bad meal which they could not cook, and even in their extreme hunger could hardly eat half-cooked; when they were desired to leave their cabins and gardens, and flock into the wretched barracks which were prepared for them; when they saw their children wasting away under a suddenly altered system of diet, it would have been unreasonable to expect that they should have been grateful. Grateful for what?’
But then his sympathies switch back to those doling out soup:
‘But not the less was it a hard task for delicate women to work hard, and to feel that all their work was unappreciated by those whom they so thoroughly commiserated, whose sufferings they were so anxious to relieve.’

 More chilling is Trollope’s response to the famine in general which he sees as providential, indeed a blessing in disguise. For Trollope ‘a merciful God’ sent the famine to rid Ireland of much evil, and that this in time will be acknowledged:
‘ . . . acknowledged as it is acknowledged that new cities rise up in splendour from the ashes into which old cities have been consumed by fire. If this beneficent agency did not from time to time disencumber our crowded places, we should ever be living in narrow alleys 
‘But very frightful are the flames as they rush through the chambers of the poor, and very frightful was the course of that violent remedy which brought Ireland out of its misfortunes. Those who saw its course, and watched its victims, will not readily forget what they saw.’
And so, a decade or two later God’s wisdom and that of Her Majesty’s Government are made manifest. The wisdom of government action and its abstinence from action has borne fruit for:
‘ . . . now again the fields in Ireland are green, and the markets are busy, and money is chucked to and fro like a weathercock.’   

The view exemplifies Victorian certainty: England the inspired instrument of God, knowing what’s best and settling its peace on those born to serve. Paternalism allied with destiny had a dark side both in Ireland and beyond.

Tasmania had suffered systematic genocide, the last indigenous Tasmanian, William Lanner, dying in 1869 at the age of 34.  Like Dickens, Trollope argued both in favour of European colonisation and its logical consequence, the removal of the indigenous people:
Of the Australian black man we may certainly say that he has to go. That he should perish without unnecessary suffering should be the aim of all who are concerned in the matter.’ Australia and New Zealand 1873.

This is paternalism with an iron first and seemingly far removed from the idealised world he depicts in his books; but Trollope was a man of his time and shared the Victorian concept of racial hierarchy, the replacement of barbarism with European civilisation as essentially good. It was a view held by most Victorians, conservative and liberal, and probably shared by those inhabiting Trollope’s fictional world.




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