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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.

Friday, 25 May 2018

Monmouth in May

Another fine day in Monmouth and the perfect excuse for a walk. At the very top of that wooded hill is a temple to Admiral Nelson and the victorious admirals that thrashed the Spanish and French in such battles as 'The Nile' and 'Trafalgar. Monmouth had a 'man-crush' on Nelson but then again we benefited immensely from the Napoleonic Wars. War in Europe meant the end of the 'Grand Tour' and so many looked to the Wye Valley instead. Why bother with Tuscany with this on your doorstep.

We were almost seduced by the Wye. Just sitting there doing nothing seemed like a pretty good idea.

But then we saw the Temple and White House on top of the Kymin.

And this is looking down on Monmouth from the top of the Kymin. Once upon a time, London was as green as this. Perhaps in the near future all this will be concreted over.

The picture below is not one of mine. (Wrong season.) For some unaccountable reason I failed to take a picture of what we had come to see. Mental decrepitude, I guess. Still, it's a good reminder of Winter.

At the top of the Kymin are Beaulieu Woods, a favourite C18th beauty spot. The light was brilliant
and it was hard to stop taking pictures. Two hundred or so years ago, artists painted them instead.

I love the way stone and wood appear fused in the picture below.

And who says there are no gnomes in Monmouthshire. A whole family lives in the small 
           cavern below.

Time for a picnic. 

In the far distance is Gloucestershire  

And the ancient forest of Dean

But we'd had enough. It was time to go home.

The following day it rained.

Friday, 18 May 2018

Pimping Trollope


PimpingTrollope sounds like a term of abuse, but there you go. It took me ages to work out what would best serve as the opening chapter to the new book. The problem was how to make ‘academic’ interesting – in particular the opening pages that Amazon allows the idly curious to check before buying. Still don’t know if I’ve made the right call. . .

Booming laughter filled the room. A moment later it stopped, and Anthony Trollope collapsed on the floor suffering from a paralytic stroke. A month later he died. The book that made him laugh so violently was F. Anstey's Vice Versa, a work of comedy and speculative fiction about a small boy who swapped bodies with his father.
Trollope’s book, The Fixed Period, was published the same year as Vice Versa, although, as far as we know, no one has yet died laughing while reading it—nor did his publisher who sold less than 900 copies.
It was Trollope’s one foray into speculative fiction, and although a shrewd and profound analysis of euthanasia, was limited by Trollope’s inability to imagine a future (1980) not dominated by steam and landed power.  It does though explain the title of this book, Trollope: Power, Politics and Society 1847–1980
Early speculative fiction is filled with astounding things. Jules Verne would predict air conditioning, automobiles, the internet and television, helicopters, submarines, and jukeboxes; H. G. Wells, inner city decline and suburban flight, sexual permissiveness and the E. U. In contrast, Trollope struggled. The future he envisioned remains dominated by the British Empire and landed power. His forays into technology are woeful, provoking the occasional wry smile or a shake of the head.
The Fixed Period contains references to steam tricycles with electric lamps, steel climbing arms for mountaineers, and cricket dominated by catapults and steam-bowlers. The latter is carefully described: "Then the steam-bowler was ridden into place by the attendant engineer and Jack began his work as . . . he carefully placed the ball and peeped down to get its bearing." Such a steam-bowler was an exhibit in the Great Exhibition of 1851. It hadn't been taken up by 1882, so it is hard to see why Trollope thought this machine would dominate cricket in 1980. It must have made some impression on him, if he remembered it thirty years later. Even so, Trollope did anticipate cricketers needing more adequate protection against faster balls: " . . . so completely enveloped was he in his India-rubber guards, and so wonderful was the machine upon his head by which his brain and features were to be protected."
These are far from the only examples of futuristic technology that appear in The Fixed Period. In Trollope's 1980, men wear weather-watches and communicate via "hair telephones" that have a broadcasting range of ten miles. Speeches are recorded by a "reporting-telephone apparatus." These transfer words from mouth to paper and conveys them to the world's printing presses within the hour. In 1980 the violin is "nearly obsolete" and society has forsaken the "old fashioned' piano" in favour of Mausometons or "the more perfect Melpomenon."
Trollope was no prophet in terms of geopolitics, either. The Prime Minister in 1980 is Sir William Gladstone, great-grandson of the original. Victorian technology rules the waves in the form of "250 ton steam-swivellers"—gunboats on a massive scale and used in ways familiar to Lord Palmerston. Likewise, Trollope's vision of a future British army would have been recognised by Jane Austen: “ . . . a company of a celebrated English regiment with its attendant officers, who by their red coats and long swords will no doubt add to the cheerfulness of your social gatherings."
In foreign affairs Trollope is more adventurous with mixed results. By 1980, Arizona, Idaho, and other American states to the west have formed a new Union; Britain and France fight for control of the seas against the united fleets of Russia and America; and in the 1940s great battles "ravished" India's north-western frontier. Africa remains both "dark" and colonised, and there are references to "the cannibals of New Zealand."
What makes The Fixed Period a significant and underrated piece of speculative literature is not its vision of the future, but a central theme that resonates more and more strongly in our own ageing societies. "The Fixed Period" refers to the age at which euthanasia becomes legally enforceable.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

In praise of book covers

Don’t judge a book by its cover is a nonsensical statement, for a writer that is. ( And nonsense in other spheres too, if the evolutionary significance of 'gut reaction' has any validity.)  More books are sold on the basis of a good cover than any amount of blog tours or the incessant Facebook ads that readers scroll down without looking—unless the cover is utterly compelling. And now the sermon comes to an end, because I’m not just ‘selling’ my latest book ‘Anthony Trollope: Power, land and Society 1847 – 1980 but advertising one of the best cover designers in the business, Maria Zannini. I’ll let the covers speak for themselves, and please feel free to share – for her sake as much as mine.