Salisbury Cathedral Close Preservation Society
Trollope and The Close
Annual Lecture – October 2006,
by Pamela Neville-Sington
I shall begin my talk with one of the best known passages in Anthony Trollope’s autobiography, and it is about Salisbury. Concerning his visit to the city in 1852 – he was thirty seven years old – he says, “whilst wandering there one mid-summer evening round the purlieus of the cathedral I conceived the story of The Warden – from whence came that series of novels of which Barchester, with its bishops, deans, and archdeacon, was the central site.” That series included, as well as The Warden, Barchester Towers, Doctor Thorne, Framley Parsonage, The Small House at Allington, and The Last Chronicle of Barset.
How did Anthony Trollope come to be in Salisbury that mid-summer evening and why was that moment so important to him, as indeed I think it was? To answer these questions let us explore Anthony’s background.
Anthony Trollope, the fourth of six children, was born in London – where the University of London Library now stands – on 24 April 1815, three months before the Battle of Waterloo. His father, Thomas Anthony Trollope, a barrister by profession, had great expectations. He was in line to inherit the beautiful Hertfordshire estate of his elderly uncle, Adolphus Meetkerke. Thomas Anthony also had pretensions to be a gentleman farmer. The Trollopes leased some land in Harrow along with a rambling, rather charming farmhouse. (This was to be Anthony Trollope’s model for Orley Farm).
In 1817, Thomas Anthony decided — rather perversely — to build a large house nearby on land which was not his own, still thinking to inherit his uncle’s estate. All their hopes were soon dashed when the old man suddenly married and produced a son and heir. The Trollopes’ finances – and their luck – went from bad to worse during the agricultural depression of the 1820s. In 1824 their twelve-year-old son, Anthony’s older brother Arthur, died of tuberculosis.
Anthony’s mother, Fanny, was extraordinarily resilient. His father, however, brooded over his misfortunes – he was a real misery to live with. He suffered from migraine for which he took increasingly large doses of calomel, a mercury based drug which people took in those days just as we take aspirin today. Thomas Anthony began to display all the symptoms of mercury poisoning. He became more and more argumentative and erratic. His legal clients fell away one by one.
At least his sons, Tom, Henry and Anthony, were able to attend Harrow School as day boys with no fees to pay. But Thomas Anthony’s great ambition was that they should follow in his footsteps and attend Winchester College, which they all eventually did. Fun-loving and idle Henry, however, left school before completing his studies. His father was furious. He simply could not afford to support an indolent son.
Henry tried accountancy, then law, but he could not seem to stick with anything. Thinking to find a career for her son, also to live more cheaply (England was very expensive) and to escape her husband’s black moods, the resourceful Fanny sailed to America with Henry and her two young daughters. The idea was that they would join the reformer Frances Wright’s utopian community – dedicated to the education of slaves – in Tennessee.
However, Wright’s utopia turned out to be a malaria ridden swamp, and the Trollopes decamped to Cincinnati, then a booming frontier town on the Ohio River. What followed was a tragicomedy of illness, scandal and failed business ventures, including the world’s first shopping mall and a sort of Madame Tussaud’s waxwork show.
Here I must, as her biographer, make the first of several interjections on Fanny’s behalf. Most people – certainly his biographers – think Fanny a bad mother for abandoning Anthony. However, by this time Anthony had joined his older brother Tom at Winchester, and it would have been madness to take him out of school. Education, then as now, was everything. Nevertheless, there is no doubting that Anthony was miserable. He did not know what to do with himself in the school holidays. His father neglected to pay his school bills and the tradesmen for his clothes. “How well I remember all the agonies of my young heart,” Anthony wrote; “how I considered whether I should always be alone; whether I could not find my way up to the top of that college tower [at Winchester,] and from thence put an end to everything.” Even so, the irresponsible thing would have been to take Tom and Anthony, with their futures still ahead of them, out of school to the wilds of America.
After two miserable years in Cincinnati, Fanny scraped together enough money to return to England with her children. Quick-witted, Fanny turned her experiences to good effect in her travel book, Domestic Manners of the Americans. She was very rude about her subject. Published in 1832, it was a huge success; even the Americans loved it – loved to hate it, that is. Domestic Manners launched Fanny’s literary career at the age of fifty three. She went on to become the best-selling author of forty more books, mainly novels.
Thomas Anthony Trollope had ceased to practice law and the Harrow farm was a disaster. Fanny was now the sole breadwinner. However, despite the success of the Domestic Manners, the Trollopes could not climb out of their financial black hole. In 1834 they were forced to flee the bailiffs and debtors’ prison and escape to Bruges, then the cheapest place to live in Europe. Within a year both Fanny’s beloved twenty-three-year-old son Henry and her husband were dead: the former from tuberculosis, the latter from premature old age brought on by mercury poisoning and a broken heart.
With Thomas Anthony gone, the threat of debtors’ prison no longer hung over the Trollopes. They could return to England. By this time Anthony had left Winchester but failed to gain a scholarship at either Oxford or Cambridge. He felt himself to be, as he recalled, “an idle, desolate hanger-on, that most hopeless of human beings, a hobbledehoy of nineteen, without any idea of a career, or a profession, or a trade.” In desperation, Anthony had even considered joining the Austrian cavalry.
Finally in late 1834, when he was nineteen, a friend of his mother secured Anthony a job as a clerk in the Post Office for £90 a year – poor pay even back then. Anthony found it impossible to make ends meet, and he paints a very bleak picture of his years in London. He lost money at cards, became entangled with a money lender, and was even accosted by the mother of a young woman who had it in her head to marry Anthony. (Anthony would impose similar situations on several of his young heroes, in particular, Johnny Eames in The Small House at Allington.) He wrote of this period of his life: “I hated the office. I hated my work. More than all I hated my idleness . . . I thought it possible that I might write a novel. I had resolved very early that in that shape must the attempt be made. But the months and years ran on, and no attempt was made. And yet no day was passed without thoughts of attempting, and a mental acknowledgement of the disgrace of postponing it. What reader will not understand the agony of remorse produced by such a condition of mind?”
Anthony needed a change of scene – and to escape the money lender. In 1841 the Post Office sent him, aged twenty-six, to Ireland. He became a new man. He loved his work, most of which was spent outdoors on horseback interviewing every sort of person, from lowly townsfolk to grand landowners, to improve postal deliveries. He joined the local hunt and the local Freemasons’ lodge. Most importantly, in 1844 he married one Miss Rose Heseltine of Yorkshire.
It was now that Anthony finally made the attempt and sat down to write. His first novel was a tale with an Irish setting, The Macdermots of Ballycloran. The publisher, Thomas Newby, advertised the book as just “by Trollope” – thereby suggesting that it was yet another work from Mrs Trollope’s pen. The indefatigable Fanny had continued to support herself and her family through her writing. She wrote for the circulating library, often setting her novels in London drawing rooms and country houses. She conveyed with great subtlety and wit the foibles and follies of human nature and of English manners. Life had not gotten any easier for Fanny. She had to watch two more children, her daughters, die the slow death of consumption – the family curse.
In regards to The Macdermots of Ballycloran, the public were not fooled. The Athenaeum suggested that Mr A. Trollope find another name, for “he comes before the public with the disadvantage of not being the popular writer for whom careless readers might have mistaken him.” Anthony’s second novel, The Kellys and the O’Kellys, also set in Ireland, did not fare any better. The publisher told Anthony that Irish novels did not do well. Moreover, he added, “it is impossible for me to give any encouragement to you to proceed in novel writing.”
Nevertheless, Trollope persisted. He turned next to the past for inspiration, producing La Vendée, a novel set during the French Revolution, and a play, also with an eighteenth-century setting, The Noble Jilt. It was almost as if Anthony dared not venture into that sphere of English manners which was his mother’s because he feared further comparisons with her. But historical settings were about as popular as Irish ones.
In 1851 the Post Office asked Anthony to establish a proper postal network in the west of England. He spent, “two of the happiest years of my life at the task.” He went everywhere on horseback, forty miles a day, to find routes for postmen to go along on foot – no more than sixteen miles a day. To accomplish this, Trollope sought out shortcuts not only down dusty lanes but also across fields. As in Ireland, he visited every household – every lord and lady, priest and bishop, postmistress and publican – to ask when and how their letters were delivered. It gave him the opportunity to study English rural life in minute detail.
The penny post – that is people paying to send rather than receive letters – had been established in 1840. Rates were based on weight, not distance. Previously they had been calculated by number of sheets of paper, which is why people had crossed their letters – that is, writing over the same page crosswise – so incredibly hard to read now. (What would Anthony think of the present postal re-calculations, I wonder?) Trollope discovered that some postmen and postmistresses in the West of England were overcharging for their services. In The Small House at Allington, one of the Barchester series, the heroine Lily Dale has to endure the complaints of the local postmistress who has just had a visit from an inspector. Trollope, no doubt speaking from first-hand experience, comments: “I may here add, in order that Mrs Crump’s history may be carried on to the farthest possible point, that she was not ‘discharged sarvice,’ and that she still receive her twopence farthing a day from the Crown. ‘That’s a bitter old lady,’ said the inspector to the man who was driving him. ‘Yes, sir; they all says the same about she. There ain’t none of ‘em get much changed out of Mrs Crump.’”
It was while carrying out this work that Anthony visited Salisbury one mid-summer’s eve and, as he says, “stood for an hour on the little bridge in Salisbury, and had made out to my own satisfaction the spot on which Hiram’s hospital should stand.” The bridge was Harnham Bridge, and the hospital he was looking back at was St Nicholas.
The reason the hospital was of such interest to Trollope was that, just at this time, in the 1850s, similar hospitals – or almshouses – were under public attack in the newspapers. Originally these medieval charities or trusts were set up to provide a home for the deserving poor and to give them, in addition to food and lodging, so much a day or week. The rest of the income from the trust (mainly derived from land and property) went towards the upkeep of the buildings and the warden’s stipend. Over hundreds of years the income of the recipients (or bedesmen) did not change very much – what really rose was the warden’s stipend as the value of the trust rose.
Anthony made this the central issue in The Warden. The kindly Warden of Hiram’s Hospital, Septimus Harding, was receiving £800 a year stipend from the trust while the bedesmen were receiving a mere pittance – a few pence – a day. A local reformer, a doctor called John Bold, decides this is wrong, gets The Jupiter (that is, The Times) on his side, and a battle ensues between the clergy and the reformers. Poor innocent Mr Harding, caught in the middle, begins to think it might not be right that he should receive such a large income. Henry James summed up the plot of The Warden as follows: “It is simply the history of an old man’s conscience.”
Typically, Trollope saw both sides of the question. He himself supported reform but disliked reformers. At one point in the novel he surmises that even the great reformers would relent were they “to allow themselves to stroll by moonlight round the towers of some of our ancient churches. Who would not feel charity for a prebendary, when walking the quiet length of that long aisle at Winchester, looking at those decent houses, that trim grassplat, and feeling, as one must, the solemn, orderly comfort of the spot! Who could be hard upon a dean while wandering round the sweet close of Hereford, and owning that in that precinct, tone and colour, design and form, solemn tower and storied window, are all in unison, perfect! Who could like basking in the cloisters of Salisbury, and gaze on Jewel’s library, and that unequalled spire, without feeling that bishops should sometimes be rich!
But there are two claims that Trollope makes concerning The Warden and the Barchester novels which I would dispute. One has to do with the Church, the other with Salisbury in particular.
In his autobiography Trollope writes: “I may as well declare at once that no-one at their commencement could have had less reason than myself to presume himself to be able to write about clergymen. I have been often asked in what period of my early life I had lived so long in a cathedral city as to have become intimate with the ways of a Close. I never lived in any cathedral city, – except London, never knew anything of any Close, and at that time had enjoyed no peculiar intimacy with any clergyman.
This is simply not true. As a child he would have known two cathedral towns, both with beautiful closes: Exeter, where they spent family holidays visiting his mother’s cousin, and Winchester, where he was at school. As for clergymen, both his grandfathers were clergymen, and while at Harrow his family – especially his mother Fanny – had an open feud with the evangelical Revd John Cunningham. In 1837 Fanny published a novel – The Vicar of Wrexhill, one of her most popular – about the Revd William Cartwright, an unctuous evangelical clergyman, greedy for power, based on their Harrow neighbour. Both the real Cunningham and fictional Cartwright were clearly models for the infamous Obadiah Slope in Anthony’s Barchester Towers.
Fanny based another of her novels, Petticoat Government, in a cathedral town, which, she writes, “we will distinguish by the name of Westhampton – chiefly because we know of no town so called.” Compare this to the opening of The Warden: “The Rev. Septimus Harding was, a few year since, a benificed clergyman residing in the cathedral town of – : let us call it Barchester. Were we to name Wells or Salisbury, Exeter, Hereford, or Gloucester, it might be presumed that something personal was intended.” This Trollopian world of the cathedral close – and the country house and London drawing room – was his mother’s domain before him. As one critic noted, the English clergy, from the poor country curate to “haughty dictatorial, heartless Bishops, and preferment-seeking Rectors” had long been considered Fanny Trollope’s province.
Anthony had been avoiding writing about what he knew so well because it would have begged comparison with his mother’s novels. And she was still churning out bestsellers in the early 1850s. This is why, I think, Anthony’s first novels were set in Ireland and in eighteenth-century France – anywhere but in the world of English manners because that territory belonged to his mother. He did not want to invite comparison. But in Salisbury that mid-summer’s evening in 1852 he finally accepted his inheritance, as it were, and The Warden was the beginning of his success as a writer.
Trollope’s second claim which I would dispute was made at the very end of his life. He visited an irritable historian, A. E. Freeman, who lived near Wells. Freeman insisted that Barchester was Wells. Trollope – perhaps just to shut him up – said that the city of Barchester was not Wells but Winchester, where he was at school. The great church historian, Owen Chadwick, in his introduction to the Trollope Society’s edition of The Warden, says there can be no doubt of this. Well, I do doubt it.
The details of the dispute over the hospital were certainly based on the Hospital of St Cross in Winchester. In the early 1850s a reformer – a clergyman rather than a doctor – became obsessed with the alleged abuse of the hospital’s funds in Winchester and took it to the press, the Attorney-General and Parliament. The case was being dragged through the courts and reported in The Times just as Trollope was writing The Warden, where mention is made of it. (The Charity Commissioners had investigated the Hospital of St Nicholas much earlier, in 1834, in the wake of the First Reform Act of 1832.)
However, the actual physical setting of Hiram’s Hospital must be Salisbury. Let us look at the evidence in The Warden. Trollope says that “Barchester is a quiet town in the west of England, more remarkable for the beauty of its cathedral and the antiquity of its monuments, than for any commercial prosperity”. Admittedly, this could be either Winchester or Salisbury.
He then describes Hiram’s Hospital: “a picturesque building enough, . . . It stands on the banks of the little river, which flows nearly round the cathedral close, being on the side furthest from the town. The London road crossed the river by a pretty one-arched bridge, and, looking from this bridge, the stranger will see the windows of the old men’s rooms, each pair of windows separated by a small buttress. A broad gravel walk runs between the building and the river, which is always trim and cared for; and at the end of the walk, under the parapet of the approach to the bridge, is a large and well-worn seat, on which, in mild weather, three or four of Hiram’s bedesmen are sure to be seen seated.” Also to be seen “are the pretty oriel windows of Mr Harding’s house, and his well-mown lawn.”
St Cross in Winchester, like St Nicholas in Salisbury, has a river setting. However, the Hospital of St Cross would be better described as magnificent, even opulent; St Nicholas is less imposing but certainly “picturesque enough”. More importantly, St Cross is a mile from the town centre, with its own parish church, while St Nicholas is only a few minutes walk from Salisbury Cathedral. It is vital to Trollope’s story that people can easily drop in for tea at the Warden’s house, whether to debate the hospital’s fate or to court the Warden’s daughter, Eleanor.
take one example. The wonderfully irascible Archdeacon Grantly has just been to see one of the cathedral officials, and they decide they will fight the reformers and engage the Queen’s Counsel, Sir Abraham Haphazard. The archdeacon then strides over to the hospital to tell the peace-loving Warden of his determination. “As the indomitable cock preparing for the combat sharpens his spurs,” says Trollope, “shakes his feathers, and erects his comb, so did the archdeacon arrange his weapons for the coming war. . . . As he walked across the hallowed close, and looked up at the ravens who cawed with a peculiar reverence as he wended his way, he thought with increased acerbity of those whose impiety would venture to disturb the goodly grace of cathedral institutions.” The archdeacon then bursts into the Warden’s drawing room to commence his diatribe against the reformer John Bold.
One can just picture it, the archdeacon striding past the cathedral here, down the Broad Walk, through Harnham Gate, along De Vaux Place and a little ways along St Nicholas Road. If the archdeacon had had to walk a mile from the cathedral to the hospital, through soggy meadows, I do not think he would have arrived with much fight left in him.
I am very pleased that William Golding, who knew Salisbury so well, agrees that Barchester is Salisbury. But he had a complaint to make against Trollope on the subject: “I have often wondered how it was that Anthony Trollope should write so much about our city, or Barchester as he called it, without even considering that object for which the city is celebrated beyond all its other things. Trollope, of course, was interested in how things are. He could pass a very pleasant life without worrying how things were, what they had been and what they would become. He was not much interested in meaning, or so it seems to me. It was not so long ago that I stopped on his bridge, the grey stone bridge, Harnham Old Bridge, where he recounts how he once paused, with the Cathedral Close near him and allowed to bud in his mind then to flower, the concept of the Barchester Novels. Below me the river performed its endless necessities of overfall and adjustment, bore the customary lilies and stemming trout. The sun looped and shattered and swam in it. We could say, in a way, we leaned over the bridge together – for what after all is a hundred years in Barchester – and I saw that he had left me a corner of his job to fill in. For no one can live in Barchester without one eye cocked upward. It is a sort of spiritual squint. You may fall into a habit which consciously ignores our astonishing symbol but the unconscious which carries you about knows better.”
There are two reasons, I think, why Trollope does not give Barchester Salisbury’s “unequaled” spire but, instead, a humble tower. The first is simply not to invite too close comparison between his fictional city and a real one. That would be asking for trouble.
William Golding himself hints at the second reason why Trollope does not give Barchester Cathedral Salisbury’s spire: Trollope simply does not possess that “spiritual squint” Golding talks about. The nineteenth-century American author, Nathaniel Hawthorne, describes Trollope’s approach to his writing perfectly. His novels, Hawthorne remarks, are “just as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going about their daily business and not suspecting that they were made a show of.”
When he wrote his Barchester novels, Trollope did not look up at the sky but down at the earth. He did not write about men’s spirituality but about their consciences. He did not explore the clergy’s theological doctrines but their very human institutions. This is why Trollope was so popular in his own day and why he remains so today. His characters and their dilemmas are universal and still seem very real to us.
I would like to end with Anthony Trollope’s farewell to Barchester in The Last Chronicle of Barset which goes some way to addressing William Golding’s criticism: “Before I take my leave of the diocese of Barchester forever, which I purpose to do in the succeeding paragraph, I desire to be allowed to say one word of apology for myself, in answer to those who have accused me – always without bitterness, and generally with tenderness – of having forgotten, in writing of clergymen, the first and most prominent characteristic of the ordinary English clergyman’s life. I have described many clergymen, they say, but have spoken of them all as though their professional duties, their high calling, their daily workings for the good of those around them, were matters of no moment, either to me, or in my opinion, to themselves. I would plead, in answer to this, that my object has been to paint the social and not the professional lives of clergymen; and that I have been led to do so firstly, by a feeling that as no men affect more strongly, by their own character, the society of those around than do country clergymen, so, therefore, their social habits have been worth the labour necessary for painting them; and secondly, by a feeling that though I, as a novelist, may feel myself entitled to write of clergymen out of their pulpits, as I may also write of lawyers and doctors, I have no such liberty to write of them in their pulpits.”
Lecture by Pamela Neville-Sington to Salisbury Cathedral Close Preservation Society at Salisbury Museum on 16 October 2006
Pamela Neville-Sington & Sir Robin Ibbs (chairman SCCPS)
Ceiling detail of Salisbury Museum