Book review: Writing from the Frontier

DESRIBED by himself as ‘poor, friendless and joyless’ Anthony Trollope arrived in Ireland in 1841 to work as clerk to an Irish surveyor at a salary of £100 a year.

Writing from the Frontier

Anthony Trollope Between Britain and Ireland

John McCourt

He was 26 years old and it was in Ireland, as John McCourt says, that ‘Trollope became a self-made man, gained a modicum of wealth and considerable respectability, and thus, for very personal reasons, he felt he owed a debt to his adopted country which would be repaid in his fiction.’

Through Trollope’s dedicated work, redesigning and expanding the Irish postal service, he gained immense local knowledge. That knowledge, the people he met and worked with and the esteem with which he was regarded, his passion for hunting, the friends he made, not least Bianconi, whose coachguards helped him select cost-effective postal routes, were all to feed and nourish his fiction and produce not only his ‘Irish’novels but many of the personalities recurring through his vast output. His posting to Ireland, he wrote later, ‘was the first good fortune of my life’.

Sent first to Banagher, he also lived in Mallow, Clonmel, Dublin, Cork and Belfast, the city where he finished The Warden, the first of those famous novels of Barchester. It was in Ireland that he wrote his first novel, met his wife Rose Heseltine, and found the faithful personal groom Barney MacIntyre.

The frontier of John McCourt’s impressive book is not the border but the barrier preventing two nations from understanding one another, a frontier which, while he lived in Ireland and for many years afterwards, Trollope tried to penetrate.

Writing from the Frontier examines Irish-related fiction in Trollope’s work and in doing so draws extensively on a wealth of research and commentary. His use of other texts is revelatory and highly enjoyable, despite the dangers of an over-abundance of material. While McCourt explores the genesis of, for example, the purely ‘Irish’ novels such as The Kellys and the O’Kellys or The Macdermots of Ballycloran he traces in compelling detail the origins and significance of Irish references or personalities in Trollope’s other fiction.

Phineas Finn ‘represents the pro-English, Catholic middle class that Trollope hoped to see emerging in Ireland’, but he is also contrasted with his fellow Irishman, Laurence FitzGibbon, ‘who corresponds to an Irish type in English 19th century fiction as an irresponsible and indepted idler…’

Context is everything, from the clerical animosities of Barchester to closely-observed political rivalries of the Palliser series. These include the politics promulgated in England and designed for Ireland, but at a distance. Covering that distance McCourt explores with great authority the issues of religion and nationhood, parliamentary representation and local agitation according to how such vicious controversies were experienced and interpreted by the novelist.

While having broken free of Victorian literary convention with such books as The Kellys and the O’Kellys, described by William Trevor as the place in which Ireland and England meet in the 1840s, Trollope’s approach to the great disaster of the Famine is critically excavated here.

The writer’s excoriation of absentee landlords and their exploitative agents is not enough to redeem ‘Castle Richmond’ and its development of Trollope’s adamantine theory that charity itself must be earned and that his fallible hero’s duty was to ‘insist on his rules, as far as his heart would allow him to do so.’

Inevitably Trollope misread important historical figures and events, but his ‘unusually dogged, courageous and constant’ voice attempted to interpret the ‘complex Irish realities as he came to understand them.’



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