Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Three clerks & three sisters

The Three Clerks, Anthony Trollope

As thrilled as I am with my recent trove of Trollope novels, I do want to read them, not just collect them. I picked The Three Clerks for my next read, after I saw a reference to it as a young man's novel, which piqued my interest. The sixth of Trollope's novels, it was published in 1857, the same year as Barchester Towers, when he was 42. It is a fast-moving story, set in London, where the three clerks of the title work in Civil Service offices. Harry Norman and Alaric Tudor are in the prestigious but staid Weights and Measures, while Alaric's scapegrace cousin Charley is in the rackety Internal Navigation (he fits right in with the rambunctious young men who have earned the nickname of "Infernal Navigation"). Trollope draws on his own career in the Post Office to show both inter- and intra-office rivalries, and the effects of the newly-instituted reforms, like examinations for candidates that were replacing a patronage system (he owed his own place to family connections).

The work of the Civil Service is tied to parliamentary politics, and it is fascinating to see here themes that Trollope would develop on a much grander scale in the later Palliser novels, and to compare them with the church politics of Barchester Towers. While there is not a single clergyman in this novel, which may make it unique in the Trollope canon, he actually wrote more about faith and practice in this book than in some of the "church" books of the Barchester series. The Civil Service and parliamentary settings also allow Trollope to bring in elements of finance and industry, such as when one of the clerks is sent to Devon to investigate a tin mine whose production might fall to the Crown. While there, he is maneuvered into secretly buying stock in the mine, the first step on a path of insider trading, which will lead to ever-greater fraud and eventually to his downfall.

But the three clerks and their work are only half of the story. There are also three sisters, Gertrude, Linda and Katie Woodward, who live with their widowed mother in a river-side cottage at Hampton. (I had never thought of "Linda" as a Victorian name.) Soon after the story opens, their mother's uncle, Captain Bartholomew Cuttwater, retires from the Royal Navy to live with them. This Uncle Bat introduces a naval element that I don't remember in any of Trollope's other books. His grumblings over the sins of the Admiralty reminded me of Patrick O'Brian.

The Woodwards are related to Harry Norman, who introduces them first to Alaric and then to Charley Tudor. "To a habitual novel reader," as Trollope says at one point, it will hardly come as a surprise to find that the three young men match up with the three young women, but it is still fun watching how it happens. The youngest daughter, Katie is only thirteen when the story opens, still a child who likes messing about with boats, with drawers longer than her skirts (I didn't know respectable Victorian novelists were allowed to talk about young ladies' drawers). She grows up into a delightful young woman, who dances her slippers to pieces one night, and I suspect that Trollope had a bit of tendre for her, as he did for Glencora Palliser.

I can see in this book some unevenness, some rough edges that I think show Trollope still perfecting his skills as a writer. His narrative voice becomes quite sentimental at times, addressing his reader as "thee" and "thou" (and at least once as "dear lady"), and admonishing, even scolding his characters. The illness of one character skirts the edges of bathos, complete with a death-bed farewell, though he has already told us that the illness isn't that serious. And the last chapter of the book, which brings some serious family news, ends in broad, almost farcial comedy, with most of the characters chasing around a garden. Then there are the names, some of the worst puns I've found in any of his books: Mr Gitemthruet, a defense lawyer; Jabesh M'Ruen, a predatory moneylender; and Victoire Jaquêtanàpe, a French fortune-hunter. I can't forget Thomas Snape, the chief clerk of Charley's office and his perpetual victim.

This book was originally published in the traditional three-volume format. When it was reprinted two years later, the publisher insisted on major cuts to bring it down to a single volume. The edition I read, an Oxford World's Classics, included the most substantial cuts in an appendix, keyed to their original place in the remaining text. Reading the excised material in some cases changed my understanding of a scene or a character. I learned from the introduction that Trollope fought to keep one of my favorite chapters, where one of the young clerks, who hopes to make some extra money from journalism, brings a story he has written to the Woodwards. Mrs. Woodward reads it aloud to the group, who interrupt her constantly with a hilarious running commentary. The story, whose heroine is named "Crinoline," is ridiculously funny, though its young author is very proud of it.

I really enjoyed this book. As always, Trollope made me care about his characters, and their stories, clearly grounded in his own world, and even drawing from his own life.


  1. I'm definitely going to read this one, after I've finished with the Pallisers - which I'm loving. Thanks, I had never even heard of this one.

  2. I so need to read more Trollope! I love the name puns - they really made me chuckle.

  3. Katrina, I think you'll really enjoy this, having read the Pallisers. It's so nice finding other Trollopians reading and writing!

    Anbolyn, if you love punny names, then Trollope is the author for you. A doctor called Fillgrave, for heaven's sake? But I guess it was a Victorian thing, Thackeray had some bad ones, and as I remember, so did Dickens.

  4. I'll always love how Trollope skewered Dickens in The Warden -- there's a writer mentioned called Mr. Popular Sentiment. And in The Way We Live Now they have Lord & Lady Damask. I love Trollope, I've been ignoring him lately!

    I do have The Three Clerks on my TBR shelves as well. . . and I just recently revised my Classics Club list, I realized I had about 15 Trollopes and I might never finish them all. I cut it to about 10 but I really need to get back on track!

  5. Karen, I remember how delighted I was, reading The Warden for the first time, to recognize the satire of "Mr Popular Sentiment" ! Which is why I was surprised by the frequent references to Dickens' characters in this novel, including quite a detailed comparison of the villain here to Bill Sykes.

    I don't want to just be admiring all the Trollopes lined up on my shelves :)


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!