Crusoe was a gentleman

John Sutherland

  • The Gentleman in Trollope: Individuality and Moral Conduct by Shirley Letwin
    Macmillan, 303 pp, £15.00, May 1982, ISBN 0 333 31209 0
  • The Idea of the Gentleman in the Victorian Novel by Robin Gilmour
    Allen and Unwin, 208 pp, £10.00, October 1981, ISBN 0 04 800005 1

This year brings the centenary of Trollope’s death. On the whole, the anniversary has been taken calmly by his countrymen: with far less celebration than, for instance, George Eliot received in 1980. There is to be no British Library exhibition (although they hold significant manuscripts); no plaque in the Abbey (although Trollope was more devout than the other novelist); no portrait stamp, no commemorative pillar-box at Waltham Cross. Perhaps the Surtees Society will do something for ‘the novelist who hunted the fox’.

It would be a mistake to surmise from this that Trollope’s actual fiction has gone the oblivious way of Surtees’s, or Mrs Oliphant’s or Charles Lever’s. The Penguin English Library, the Dover reprint series and the new paperback World’s Classics have returned an impressive number of the 47 novels to print. A new and complete edition of the letters (edited by N. John Hall) is about to take over from Bradford Booth’s handy but imperfect single volume. A new and definitive biography (by Hall again) is in hand. And there has been an astonishing number of monographs and hardbacked collections of essays on Trollope in the last five years. I guess that he is currently the most commented on of all the major mid-Victorian novelists. As surprising as the quantity of this commentary is the diversity of critical approach. Trollope would seem, in Frank Kermode’s phrase, a ‘patient’ author, capable of absorbing all new lines of analysis. As well as orthodox readings of a literary-critical or literary-historical kind which the subject could himself have read without perplexity (for example, those by P. D. Edwards, Arthur Pollard, John Halperin, R. C. Terry, Geoffrey Harvey), there are structuralist analyses (for example, Walter Kendrick’s and, in a less doctrinaire manner, James Kincaid’s) and commentary with a feminist slant (by Juliet McMaster, for instance).

Shirley Letwin’s book arrives in this busy field of study indicatively titled The Gentleman in Trollope: Individuality and Moral Conduct. Given Trollope’s world view, it’s a solid theme and, up to 1982, one which had not been dealt with at full length. The vacancy was evidently noticed elsewhere, for in the same season there has appeared another book on the subject: Robin Gilmour’s The Idea of the Gentleman in the Victorian Novel. Gilmour’s thesis can usefully be outlined for the contrast it makes with Letwin. In a wide-ranging and lively survey he considers the idea of gentlemanliness in two illuminatingly large contexts. First is a literary tradition, of which the main span extends from Thackeray to ‘the lesser Thackeray’ – Trollope. He refines an argument originally put forward by Gordon Ray: that Thackeray’s great project in fiction was to ‘redefine’ the gentlemanly ideal for a middle-class Victorian ethos. Historically, Gilmour sees the Victorian preoccupation with gentlemanliness (and its derivative, ‘manliness’) as signalling the transference of ruling power from the landowning and aristocratic élite to the Trollope-reading classes. The transfer culminated in the public school, an ideological apparatus which Gilmour conceives as a factory system for the reproduction of little Victorian gents. So efficient was the schools’ ‘common, shaping ritual of education’ that they fatally cheapened the product.

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