Writing the Frontier: Anthony Trollope between Britain and Ireland
By John McCourt
Nathaniel Hawthorne famously commented that Anthony Trollope’s quintessentially English novels were written on the “strength of beef and through the inspiration of ale … these books are just as English as a beef-steak.” In like mode, Irish critic Stephen Gwynn said Trollope was “as English as John Bull.” But unlike the other great Victorian English writers, Trollope became Trollope by leaving his homeland and making his life across the water in Ireland, and achieving there his first successes there in both his post office and his literary careers. Feeling, at 26, that he was in a dead-end as a post office clerk in London and having as yet failed to actually finish a work of fiction, Trollope believed he had little to lose in accepting a posting that nobody else wanted in the remote County Offaly town of Banagher. Over the following 15 years he would get to know the whole of the island, living in working in Clonmel, Mallow, Cork, Belfast, and Dublin. Once in Ireland, however, he was a man transformed and hardly off the boat, he began to apply himself to his twin trades with great industry. His own words about one of his political heroes, Lord Palmerston, perfectly fit Trollope himself from this time on: “Hard work was to him the first necessity of his existence.”
It was in Ireland that his mighty literary talent finally began to emerge. Even if most of his greatest novels are undeniably English in setting and theme, and are dominated by English characters, his early works were Irish and he would return to Irish subject matter sporadically, if with mixed success, throughout his long career. His Irish writings constitute both a vital and distinct group of works, add significantly to our overall vision of the writer, and represent a rich and underestimated contribution to the canon of the nineteenth century Irish novel tout court, complicating the sometimes arbitrary divisions that are drawn between the English and the Irish traditions. Trollope felt that he was in a unique position as a cultural mediator between Ireland and England, with both the advantages of living for so long in Ireland and the moral obligations that this sojourn imposed upon him. And so he attempted, times over, to give narrative shape to the complexities of a country whose voice – feeble in Famine-dominated mid-century – was none too willingly heard in Britain.
While it is true that in Ireland, as the early twentieth century scholar John Sadleir put it, Trollope became “an ambassador of England, living in disputatious amity with one of the most race-conscious nations in the world,” he equally became an envoy of his second country, Ireland. Side by side with our appreciation of Trollope as an acclaimed English novelist, we need to take stock of Trollope as an honorary Irish writer of considerable achievement, one who never shied away from the great and sometimes terrible issues, such as land agitation, Home Rule, starvation and Famine that affected the country at all social levels during and after his long sojourn there. It is chiefly in his Irish novels that a lesser-known, more unconventional Trollope emerges, a conflicted and sometimes almost subversive figure caught between his ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ opinions as he vacillated between endorsing standard English views about Ireland and offering his own alternative, sometimes awkward, counter readings. By accident rather than design he became a border crosser, one who would have to accept that, following his initiation as a successful public servant and writer in Ireland, he would always be betwixt and between, caught by sometimes conflicting loyalties to both cultures. This would prove to be a creatively productive situation for Trollope even if he would gradually rein in his sympathy for the Irish point of view and retreat to a more defensive ‘English’ position.
But his Irish literary ‘journey’, one that his publishers advised him against, is one that readers would do well to follow him on today, beginning with the tragic The Macdermots of Ballycoran (1847), which offers a penetrating discussion of the causes of Irish rural agitation, and the far more optimistic and comic The Kellys and the O’Kellys (1848), a valuable prototype for some of Trollope’s later (and greater) marriage plot novels. Worthy of attention, even if its politics is at best questionable, is Trollope’s often deeply moving Famine novel, Castle Richmond (1860) along with the second and fourth Palliser novels, Phineas Finn; The Irish Member (1869) and Phineas Redux (1874), which have as their hero the Irishman, Phineas Finn, struggling to make his way in the English political world and caught between the contrasting pulls of possible marriage in Ireland and England.
The entire series challenges Irish stereotypes and meditates on two of the most common images of Irishness, that of the Stage Irishman and that of Ireland as a feminized victim. His final two Irish novels, the admonitory An Eye for an Eye (1879) and his posthumous and problematic The Landleaguers, deserve to take its place among the series of courageous if flawed attempts to contain the matter of Ireland in novelistic form and serve, in the darkening last decades of the nineteenth century, as a warning to his English readers that to fail to take Irish problems seriously will inevitably result in instability, insurrection, and violence which might well spill across the Irish Sea.
John McCourt was born and educated in Dublin. He has lived and worked in Italy for over twenty years. He has published widely in the field of Irish Studies, focussing on both nineteenth and twentieth century literature. John is currently an associate Professor of English at Università Roma Tre. He holds a Ph.D. from the National University of Ireland (University College Dublin) and is a specialist in Joyce Studies and in nineteenth and twentieth century Irish literature. The co-founder of the Trieste Joyce School (1997), he is widely published and best known for The Years of Bloom: Joyce in Trieste 1904-1920, (University of Wisconsin Press/Lilliput Press). He is the author of Writing the Frontier: Anthony Trollope between Britain and Ireland (OUP, 2015).