I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2016.
The Three Clerks – Anthony Trollope
This is lesser-known Trollope, compared to stand-alone novels such as The Way We Live Now and the Barchester and Palliser novels. The Three Clerks may even be considered “obscure” since some profs have dismissed it as “apprentice work” and recreational readers like us don’t review it often for reading challenges.
I don’t know why The Three Clerks hasn’t survived like The Warden or Barchester Towers. It has many strong points. It’s extremely easy to read. The plot starts off briskly (unlike Dr. Thorne). With only two exceptions, the characters and relationships are lifelike. The lawyer Chaffanbrass is particularly fun, but so are Sir Gregory Hardlines, Norah the barmaid and her mentor Mrs. Davis. Wonderful dialogues make strong scenes memorable. The plot maintained my interest.
The background setting of the Civil Service seems authentic to those of us who, like Trollope did for the Post Office, work in large bureaucracies. Trollope, in fact, takes Dickens to task for his criticism of all government clerks being layabouts and time-servers in Little Dorrit. Like most conservatives, Trollope pretends that real abuses don’t exist; if they did, they are few and far between and of course committed by a few bad apples. Heaven forfend that the whole barrel is rotten! But like I implied, his defense of honest toilers in government is a good word for us that gotta make the lists and move the paper. Unlike Dickens, who sweated in the workaday world only a short time, Trollope takes the nuanced view that nobody dislikes red tape as much as us bureaucrats.
Trollope is a realist -- he’s smarter than Dickens about all issues pertaining to money, too. But he’s a moralist too. He examines common ways professional men find doors to hell. Young and green Charlie Tudor moves to London from the country. This big change causes him to lose what little equilibrium he has. He falls in with the bad actors at work and disrespects his supervisor. He drinks and smokes, and gets into debt. He falls in with barmaid below his station. Trollope takes pains to show us Charlie is basically a decent young man. But he can’t say no.
The character Alaric Tudor has an inflated sense of his own self. He sees himself as bound for great things. His ambition and narcissism makes him vulnerable to a Machiavellian manipulator, Undy Scott. A cynical persuader, Scott believes that the ends justify any lying, cheating, stealing, conniving means. Fantastic are the scenes in which Alaric and Undy are hotly discussing their money problems. Trollope is uncharacteristically hyperbolic when he condemns Undy” 'The figure of Undy swinging from a gibbet at the broad end of Lombard Street would have an effect. Ah, my fingers itch to be at the rope.'
Trollope detests Undy, but Undy will stay in my memory for one jaunty scene. After a confrontation with Alaric, Undy decides to go eat at his club.
It was part of his philosophy that nothing should disturb the even tenor of his way, or interfere with his animal comforts. He was at the present moment over head and ears in debt; he was playing a game which, in all human probability, would end in his ruin; the ground was sinking beneath his feet on every side; and yet he thoroughly enjoyed his dinner. Alaric could not make such use of his philosophy. Undy Scott might be the worse man of the two, but he was the better philosopher.
Trollope may be thinking of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, whose famous quotation is “I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived - and dying I will tend to later.” Hey, there are worse ways to live than taking one day at a time.
This review is getting a little long. Suffice to say, that veteran readers will feel dismayed or comfortable with Trollope’s quirks. He will tease the reader and Dickens with a consciously prolonged treatment of a young girl dying of one of those vague mysterious Victorian wasting illnesses. Tony will use epic language facetiously: “Oh! Alaric, Alaric, that thou, thou who knewest all this, that thou shouldest have done this thing!” And of course there are the funny names, such as the lawyer named Mr. Getimthruit.
My suggestion is to read it, especially if you liked the Barchester novels, like I did this past summer. I still can’t believe I read all six in one season, but it is effortless for me to read Trollope. I’m happy reading them and having read them. I look forward to reading many more.