Modern Issues: Anthony Trollope and Australia

By Durey, Jill Felicity | Antipodes, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Modern Issues: Anthony Trollope and Australia


Durey, Jill Felicity, Antipodes


IT IS TEMPTING TO THINK THAT IT IS THE PRESENT GENERATION of Australians that has discovered social concerns. Yet a careful study of Australia and New Zealand (1987 [1873]), Sir Harry Heathcote of Gangoil (1992 [1874]) and John Caldigate (1993 [1879]) reveals that Trollope's ideas about Australia were surprisingly modern and predictive, and that he identified those very issues facing the country today. Furthermore, his views are refreshingly progressive, despite their occasional expression in language now considered politically incorrect. Yet Australian reactions to these works have mostly been negative, displaying a hurt air to his bluntness. Much of the substance of Trollope's perceptions has consequently been overlooked. This article attempts to redress the balance.

Trollope's travel book, Australia and New Zealand, may not have made him as unpopular as Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832)1 made his mother, Fanny Trollope, but it did draw unfavorable comment from Australians. Contemporary reviews were furious, as Australia Through Time records (2005: 36). Trollope expressed his dislike for "the Australian habit of "blowing" their own trumpets". This "knee-jerk" reaction to his advice, "[d]on't blow" (1987 I: 30), has doubtless been responsible for a lack of measured Australian criticism of this work. Beyond Antipodean shores, the criticism was more mixed but scant. The Anthenaeum and Saturday Review thought it too long, too diffuse, and wanting in method, but The Times asserted that it was "the most agreeable, just and acute work ever written on the subject" (in Reed 1969: 148). More recently, J.H. Davidson (1969: 311) acknowledges that Trollope's travel books generally gave the impression that ordinary people "would benefit from emigration, not only materially, but also intellectually". Nicholas Birns (1996: 10, 15) perceptively discerns Trollope's advocacy "of social change", not only in his Antipodean works but throughout his oeuvre, and his "surprising prescience" with regard to changing political hegemonies on colonial soil. Helen Lucy Blythe offers a rich, though at times somewhat contradictory interpretation of Australia and New Zealand, for more than once she refers to Trollope's ambivalence in this work on the very points on which she bases some of her argument (2003: 166-168). Concentrating on the commentary on New Zealand, she believes Trollope endorses "the prescriptive myth of necessary extirpation" of indigenous peoples to facilitate England's bringing of "'civilization' to barbarous savages" (2003:171,175), and that in his much later novel, The Fixed Period (1882), he deals "ironically with the very definitions of civilization and history that he advocated in Australia and New Zealand", because he was "increasingly haunted by colonial guilt" (2003: 175, 176).2 This may well have been his state of mind given his acknowledged darkening pessimism, but quite why Trollope would only be ironic in his fiction and not in his non-fiction is puzzling. Trollope's fiction has always contained irony and so, too, I believe, has his non-fiction. As far back as 1855, Trollope wrote a nonfiction book, The New Zealander, which forewarned with heavy irony and satire that, if England did not improve its institutions and attitudes, "the days of the Zealander's visit [would be] nigh to us" (1995 [1971]: 22). The Empire, in other words, would return to teach England a lesson. The book was considered too inflammatory to publish, hence its late publication in 1971. Trollope learned his lesson early. It was easier to be ironic in fiction than in non-fiction. In nonfiction he had to be circumspect, which is why, in his travel books, he often presented what seems to be an "inconsistent and ambivalent" (Blythe 2003: 168) narratorial position, for the ironic voice was occasionally too subtle for detection. He believed in the colonial project because it enhanced the lives of compatriots less fortunate than he, but he often did not approve of the modus operandi. …

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