Tuesday, August 25, 2020

The Three Clerks by Anthony Trollope


Source of book: I own this.


Regular readers of my blog know that my favorite Victorian author is Anthony Trollope. I try to read one of his books every year. Past reads since I started writing about them are:


Barsetshire Chronicles:


The Barchester Chronicles (BBC miniseries based on the first two books, The Warden and Barchester Towers)

Dr. Thorne

Framley Parsonage

The Small House at Allington

The Last Chronicle of Barset


Palliser Novels:


Can You Forgive Her?


Other books:


He Knew He Was Right

Cousin Henry

The Claverings

Orley Farm


These are not, of course, the only Trollope novels I have read. These are the ones I have read since I started blogging in 2010. I should mention Castle Richmond and The Bertrams as particularly excellent books.




The Three Clerks is one of Trollope’s earlier novels, written after the first two Barchester books. As such, it reads like a prequel or first draft of one of the later books in certain ways. Not because it is rough or preliminary, but because it tackles some of the themes and situations that later books would also address. One character, the lawyer Mr. Chaffanbrass, returns in Orley Farm, in fact, and in a similar situation, and Charley Tudor in this book becomes Johnny Eames in the later Barchester books. 


One thing that I found unusual about this book is that it actually has a true villain. More often, Trollope writes all of his characters as ordinary humans with good and bad traits, and even the nominal villains are easy to sympathize with. Not so much in this case, where bad is definitely bad. Other than the one true villain, however, the rest of the main male characters do tend to be nuanced and complicated. One disappointment in this book was that the women aren’t as vibrant as in Trollope’s best novels; they tend to be Victorian stock characters in this one, although not as wooden as Dickens females.  


The book does indeed center around three clerks, who work in government agencies, one real, and one imaginary. Harry Norman and Alaric Tudor work at the very real Weights and Measures department, while Alaric’s cousin Charlie Tudor works at the fictional (and far less prestigious) Internal Navigation department. The three present contrasts in temperament, and this in turn determines their fates. 


All three are connected to the Woodward family, a widow, three daughters, and an ex-navy uncle. Harry is a distant relative, and rooms with Alaric and Charlie. They therefore all go visit most weekends. Eventually, this leads to significant drama. The eldest daughter, Gertrude, is assumed to be heading toward marriage to Harry, who is a hard working, responsible sort, with a bit of a private income in addition to his salary. However, Gertrude turns him down, as she is not in love with him, but with Alaric. Alaric, on the other hand, has been courting the second daughter, Linda, and throws her over when Gertrude becomes available. Linda is a steady sort, and swallows her disappointment. The youngest daughter, Katie, is too young for love when the book opens, but sees the three clerks as older brothers. Eventually, she grows up and falls in love with Charley, but he is deemed unsuitable. 


Harry is the steady protagonist, nearly too perfect it initially seems. While he is generous and decent and all, his flaw is his jealousy and grudge-holding. He never forgives Alaric for marrying Gertrude, and his generous act at the end of the book isn’t done with the purest of motives - he wants Alaric to feel indebted. Alaric is brilliant and ambitious, always trying to rise as far as he can. Unfortunately, this gets him into trouble later. Charley is a rake, hanging out at gin joints, getting unofficially engaged to a barmaid, and living beyond his means. Like Johnny Eames, Charley is essentially a young Anthony Trollope, working as a clerk, having unwise relationships below his class, and generally living irresponsibly. Both narratives contain many of the same plot points, although Charley gets arrested for debt, which is more than either Johnny or Trollope himself experienced. 



I found a nice boxed Folio Society edition of this book at a used bookstore. This is one the Patrick Benson illustrations from that edition. (Charley getting dressed down by the pub owner...)


The romantic liaisons are only part of the book, however. The Three Clerks is autobiographical in its depiction of life as a clerk. Trollope started out in the Post Office, and seemed to be going nowhere, until he was transferred to Ireland. This seems to have sparked something in him. He married a local woman, and rose in his profession, eventually becoming famous for introduction of the collection pillars in Britain. Oh, and he also (like Charlie) started writing. 


Trollope satirizes the civil service quite a bit in this book, including the new-fangled exams that were replacing the patronage system. While in principle, Trollope was a reformer, he also was keenly aware of the drawbacks of reform and efficiency, and brings this out in many of his books. I found the satire to be a mixed bag. On the plus side, the opening chapter is fantastic. On the other, there are places where he seems to get uncharacteristically mean-spirited. 


So, Alaric marries Gertrude, and manages to rise to the level of civil service commissioner. Unfortunately, along the way, he has come into contact with the villain, Undecimus “Undy” Scott, an unscrupulous stock trader and member of Parliament for Scotland. Undy convinces him to purchase stock in a mine that Alaric will be writing a report about - this is the first of a series of moral compromises that Alaric makes to increase his income. Eventually, Undy will pressure and blackmail Alaric into taking on trusteeship for Undy’s niece, and then borrow some of the money to cover yet another stock investment. When that goes bad, Alaric ends up on trial for embezzlement.


Trollope’s father was a failed barrister, which gave him an introduction to the law. While the courtroom procedures are questionable in the books, and Trollope glosses parts of the law a bit, he at least has a basic grasp of the issues, making the courtroom scenes better than average. Unfortunately, Trollope also hated lawyers, particularly criminal defense lawyers, and paints them in a bad light. That said, it is delicious when Chaffanbrass eviscerates Undy Scott on the witness stand. 


While Trollope isn’t particularly known as a quotable wordsmith, he does occasionally get some zingers in. And in general his writing is delightfully understated and nuanced and rich. I want to mention a few of them. For example, in describing the contrast between Harry and Alaric, Trollope alludes to religious beliefs in a line that I love. 


At twenty-one religious convictions are seldom the effect of judgment. They have either been produced by habit and education, or by fancy.


That is a rather astute observation, and one that very much has been on my mind in seeing the meltdown of many of the bright young stars of the Patriarchy movement as they have grown older. Josh Harris in particular comes to mind. Having damaged a generation with his book I Kissed Dating Goodbye, he has repudiated it and stepped away from his faith as it was. But that is the problem with writing a book like that at such a young age. Particularly not having lived what he wrote. His faith was more related to the habit and education crammed down him by his Dominionist father, as well as the fact that he always lived in the limelight as a Christian celebrity. As usual, because Trollope writes about universal humanity so well, this comment rings as true today as it did then.


Speaking of relevant observations, the passage on the examinations for the civil service is excellent. Trollope notes that exams are fine for young men just entering the service out of college, but terrifying for longstanding employees who came up through a different system. A married man with a family, who had counted on an increasing salary with experience and seniority now found that he had to test and retest every time he wished to advance, and the exams were not necessarily all job related. Here, again, Trollope hits on a truth:


The spirit of the age raises, from year to year, to a higher level the standard of education. The prodigy of 1857, who is now destroying all the hopes of the man who was well enough in 1855, will be a dunce to the tyro of 1860.


I have seen this in my own kids. What they had to learn for high school biology is way beyond what I did - simply because our understanding of DNA and molecular biology is so far advanced from 30 years ago. It is that way in many areas, and I would be hard pressed to pass tests in many high school subjects now that knowledge has passed me by. 


I found the chapter that introduces Undy Scott to be fun for a number of reasons, including this riff on the old “quiverfull” thing. 


It is a terrible task, that of having to provide for eleven sons. With two or three a man may hope, with some reasonable chance of seeing his hope fulfilled, that things will go well with him, and that he may descend to his grave without that worst of wretchedness, that gnawing grief which comes from bad children. But who can hope that eleven sons will all walk in the narrow path? In such a flock, there cannot but be a black sheep; and it is well if the colour of one or two do not taint the whole. Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them!


We never meet all of the Scotts, but it is clear that at least two of them are very bad news indeed. 


There is an interesting scene about midway through the book, involving an heiress that Undy and Alaric want Charley to marry, and a visit to the rose garden followed by an epic dance party. Katie, now 16, has talked her way into going, but gets paired off with this older frenchman. Katie is a bit naive, and doesn’t realize that he can’t keep up with her. So, she just keeps dancing and he cannot politely quit...until he nearly collapses. 


Katie was hardly out of breath as she received the congratulations of her friends; but at the moment, she could not understand why they were quizzing her. In after times, however, she was often reproached with having danced a Frenchman to death in the evening, in revenge for his having bored her in the morning. 


I do have to quote a few lines about the trial. Trollope may hate lawyers, but he is amusing in how he hates them. He takes particular issue with the way attorneys cross examine witnesses, seeking to poke holes in their testimony. 


A rival lawyer could find a protection on the bench when his powers of endurance were tried too far; but a witness in a court of law has no protection. He comes there unfed, without hope of guerdon, to give such assistance to the state in repressing crime and assisting justice as his knowledge in this particular case may enable him to afford; and justice, in order to ascertain whether his testimony be true, finds it necessary to subject him to torture. 


Still, Mr. Chaffanbrass may be mean to witnesses, but it is often necessary. Such as in the case of Undy Scott, who tries to weasel out of answering questions about his stock trading. Chaffanbrass is prepared, however, as all good lawyers should be in cases like this. 


Where Mr. Chaffanbrass had got his exact information, we cannot say; but very exact information he had acquired respecting Undy’s little transactions. 


Thus is Chaffanbrass able to go in detail into Undy’s stock swindles. That’s good lawyering right there. Later, Chaffanbrass produces a handwritten note with damning admissions, and asks Undy to confirm or deny that it is his handwriting. Undy replies with a weasel response that is worse for him than either a yes or no. 


“It is something like my own,” said he.

“Something like your own, is it?” said Mr. Chaffanbrass, as though he were very much surprised. “Like your own! Well, will you have the goodness to read it?”


Again, great work by Chaffanbrass, and terrible lack of preparation by Undy, who is used to flying by the seat of his pants. 


Trollope devotes a chapter to the aftermath of the trial. Undy has carefully avoided committing any crimes himself, but has his reputation shattered when his nefarious though legal deeds come to light on the witness stand. Trollope takes time to compare Undy to Bill Sykes (from Oliver Twist), and concludes that although Sykes is thought to be the greater scoundrel while the Undys of the world enjoy social approval, he himself considered Sykes to be a victim of his circumstances, without a real chance to live a good life. Undy, in contrast, was born into at least moderate privilege, yet chose to despoil others. There is a lot of truth in this. Petty thieves become grist for our mass incarceration industry, while employers who cheat their employees of wages suffer no consequences. Robber barons go scot free. Rich white men can rape and assault with seeming impunity, while minor infractions (or no infraction at all) can lead to death for young black men. Trollope’s sense of social justice is every bit as strong as Dickens’, although more nuanced and less tied to the most extreme instances. One could say that Trollope has a commitment to a gradual “leveling,” where the gap between rich and poor, high class and low class, shrinks with time, making a more equitable society. This is yet another reason why his books still speak to us. 


The Three Clerks is often listed as one of Trollope’s best books. While I think it is good, I wouldn’t rate it quite that high, simply because it lacks the superb female characters of his best novels. The satire too is a bit more heavy-handed than in his best. That said, the courtroom scene is his best, and his portrayal of each of the three clerks is outstanding. It’s a good book, no doubt, and a decent place to start if you are new to Trollope. 

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