Trollope and the Pious Slippers of Cheltenham

By Mullen, Richard | Contemporary Review, February 2001 | Go to article overview
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Trollope and the Pious Slippers of Cheltenham

Mullen, Richard, Contemporary Review

CHELTENHAM, that cultivated spa town with its blend of elegant town houses inhabited by retired Anglo-Indian officers and officials, provided a good setting and target for Victorian novelists. To Thackeray it was a place where 'trumps and frumps were found together, wherever scandal was cackled'. That may seem bad enough but there was a novelist who was far more acerbic about Cheltenham. Strangely it was one who is normally regarded as the genial exponent of English life. Anthony Trollope had a curious contempt for the pleasant Gloucestershire town and subjected it to fierce attacks in several novels.

Before proceeding I should mention that at Contemporary Review we look on Anthony Trollope as one of our founders. He was the chairman and driving force in a group of Victorian writers and intellectuals who founded The Fortnightly Review in 1865. It eventually was incorporated into the Contemporary Review which had been founded a year later.

Trollope is not often seen as a writer who was strongly influenced by the 'spirit of place'. Yet it was a visit to Salisbury which inspired his most famous fiction, the six novels which make up the Barsetshire series. In his Autobiography he describes this 1852 visit to Salisbury and a walk round the great cathedral with it magnificent soaring spire: 'whilst wandering there on a midsummer evening round the purlieus of a 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'. The influence of place on Trollope's fiction is better seen in his neglected short stories or in some of the short continental novels he wrote.

For instance a visit in the mid-1860s to Vienna where he heard the great Johann Strauss conducting his waltzes in the Volksgarten gave Trollope the idea for a story called 'Lotta Schmidt' (incidentally written for the founder of Contemporary Review) where a middle-aged bald conductor of the orchestra in the Volksgarten is in love with a Viennese girl. A visit to the old synagogue in Prague about the same time inspired his short anonymous novel, Nina Balatka. Yet both these examples, as well as numerous other ones, show how Trollope was inspired by cities that combined beauty and history to write a piece of fiction. Yet there is only one town that Trollope consistently unleashed fictional assaults on and that is Cheltenham.

In The Bertrams (1859) the main character visits 'Littlebath' -- the name Trollope often used when attacking Cheltenham -- and discovers its 'fast set', men who wear padded coats, to improve their figure, and idly 'talk about women much as a crafty knowing salmon might be presumed to talk about anglers'. The ladies in the 'fast set' are 'addicted to whist and false hair, but pursue their pleasures with a discreet economy'. Yet it was not the fast set that made Trollope dislike Cheltenham. The dislike sprang from his contempt for 'the predominant power' in the town, 'the pious set'. 'Of the pious set' says Trollope 'much needs not be said, as their light has never been hid under a bushel'. 'They live on the fat of the land. They are a strong, unctuous, moral, uncharitable people. The men never cease making money for themselves, nor the women making slippers for their clergymen'. The slippers provide the vital clue.

In the autumn of 1852 Trollope, an official of the General Post Office, and his wife Rose rented lodgings in the town for several months while he was arranging postal deliveries. Cheltenham was ruled by its Rector, the formidable Rev Francis Close, whom The Times called 'the Pope of Cheltenham'. His power was enormous and helped to make the town the centre for Evangelicals, whose activities resembled the modem American 'religious right'. Among the many crusades undertaken by Close was one against Sunday delivery of the post.

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