From a Past Contemporary: Three Victorian Novelists

By Edwards, Amelia | Contemporary Review, August 1994 | Go to article overview

From a Past Contemporary: Three Victorian Novelists


Edwards, Amelia, Contemporary Review


Editor's Note: In the 128 years of its history, the Contemporary Review has carried a wealth Of important articles on virtually every subject. We plan to include a short selection from past articles from time to time over the next few years. We begin with an article published exactly a century ago in August 1894. It was called `The Art of the Novelist'. Amelia Edwards (1831-92) was a popular novelist who began her career as a writer by publishing a poem at age seven. She became one of the first women journalists by working for the Saturday Review and the Morning Post. She also wrote eight novels. One, Debenham's Vow (1870), was much admired by Anthony Trollope. In her last decade she became pre-occupied with Egypt and helped to found the first chair of Egyptology in a British university. A few years before her death she wrote an article about Victorian fiction in which she recalled three great novelists of her early years: Charles Dickens, W. M. Thackeray, and Anthony Trollope. She is particularly interesting about Trollope as she knew him the best. In the research for my recent biography (Anthony Trollope: A Victorian in His World, 1990) I found this one of the best contemporary criticisms. Framley Parsonage and Barchester Towers were two of Trollope's popular Barsetshire novels. Mr. Crawley is the eccentric clergyman who is falsely accused of stealing a 20[pounds] cheque in The Last Chronicle of Barset. Lily Dale is the heroine of The Small House at Allington -- recently picked by John Major as his favourite book. She is jilted by Adolphus Crosbie, who was anxious to marry into the nobility. -- Richard Mullen.

DICKENS, Thackeray and Trollope are essentially representative writers of what I should like to call the historical novel of contemporary English life. They wrote at the same time. They bad an absolutely parallel experience. The same clubs, the same drawing-rooms, the same parks, streets and places of public amusement were familiar to all three. And yet with what different eyes they viewed the social structure of their time!

Dickens was essentially a caricaturist. Trollope was an admirable portrait-painter. Thackeray was a clairvoyant. Or, to put it differently, Dickens depicted his fellow-men as they are not: Trollope presents them as they appear to the world; Thackeray reads them through and through. . . .

In this triumvirate -- Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray -- I would assign a very prominent place to the author of Framley Parsonage. He was himself a typical Englishman, bluff, hearty, straightforward; passionately fond of field sports, yet at the same time a thorough man of business and a thorough Londoner. He was intimately conversant with the life and haunts of the upper and upper-middle classes; and he had a very considerable knowledge of parliamentary life, and of parliamentary men. Also he made an exhaustive and affectionate study of the British parson; and the British parson, till Anthony Trollope took him in hand, was an unexplored field of research. Now, the British parson plays a very important part in English national life, especially in country parishes and provincial towns, and until the publication of Barchester Towers, he had been treated by our novelists as a mere lay figure. But in Anthony Trollope's hands he became one of the most lifelike characters in fiction. The meek domestic chaplain, the starving curate, the hunting rector, the courtly archdeacon, the henpecked bishop, and a hundred others throng `thick and fast' upon our memory. It is a portrait-gallery in which no one canvas is exaggerated, and in which caricature has no place. And herein lies the secret of Trollope's strength. He never exaggerates.

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