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1859 Books: Anthony Trollope’s “The Bertrams”

March 29, 2009
New York, N.Y.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of setting out to read several books published in the year 1859 is encountering a few that I wouldn't otherwise have read. That's how I'd classify Anthony Trollope's The Bertrams, published 150 years ago this month. (I haven't been able to determine the exact day.)

I've read about 20 of Trollope's 40-odd novels, but mostly the more famous ones. When Trollope wrote The Bertrams (his 8th novel and hence fairly early in his career), he was halfway through the series of six novels that came to be known as the Barsetshire Chronicles. The totally wonderful Doctor Thorne was published in 1858, followed by the almost equally delightful Framley Parsonage in 1860.

But The Bertrams is not part of the Barsetshire Chronicles, and in fact takes place quite a distance from the cathedral town of Barchester — in space, in time, and in tone. The sieve of critical evaluation and popular favor that keeps some books in print while others fall into oblivion has not been kind to The Bertrams, and I won't try to claim the book has been unjustly treated.

Even Trollope himself didn't have fond feeling for the novel. In his Autobiography he tells us "I do not know that I have ever heard of it well spoken of by my friends, and I cannot remember that there is any character in it that has dwelt in the minds of novel-readers." The plot also didn't hold up: "That of The Bertrams was more than ordinarily based; and as the book was relieved by no special character, it failed. Its failure never surprised me..." (ch. 7) Oddly, Trollope felt much the same of Doctor Thorne, a much more successful a beloved book.

On Google Book Search, you can find the original Volume 1, Volume 2, and Volume 3 that comprise the first edition of The Bertrams, as well as a one-volume American edition and a second copy of that edition.

But if you're looking for a modern edition with an introduction and a few notes to help with Trollope's more obscure cultural, literary, and political references, you will not be rewarded by a trip to the local bookstore. I know of only one such edition: an out-of-print Oxford World's Classics paperback from 1991, with an introduction and very helpful notes by Geoffrey Harvey. (The back-cover copy begins "Published in the same year as Darwin's Origin of Species, The Bertrams examines the doctrine of competition and the survival of the fittest in Victorian society...") There's also a nicely printed and illustrated 1993 slipcased hardcover Folio Society edition with a fine introduction by David Skilton but no notes. Avoid the Penguin Classics edition also published in 1993; it has no introduction and no notes.

Trollope began writing The Bertrams on April 1, 1858, the day after he finished Doctor Thorne. He was in Egypt at the time. Trollope's day job was the Post Office, and in 1858 he was sent to Egypt to negotiate a new treaty for mail deliveries to India. (Later in 1858 governance of India would pass from the British East India Company to the British crown.)

Trollope's impressions of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Cairo all found their way into The Bertrams. Two trips to the "the East" — one towards the beginning of Volume I and the other in Volume III — form a symmetrical bridge through the novel. These long-ago glimpses of exotic places are perhaps the novel's greatest appeal to modern readers, but they must be read with an awareness and understanding of the xenophobia and attitudes of racial superiority characteristic of Victorians. Trollope's description of the entrance into Jerusalem (at the time under the rule of the Ottoman Empire) is perhaps typical:

The sensibilities of we modern readers cause us to cringe at the word "dirty," of course, but I have to believe that Trollope is being entirely candid when he admits — brags almost — that the typical Englishman immediately thinks "how delightfully easy it would be to take Jerusalem." Of such attitudes are empires built.

The second overseas trip in The Bertrams is to Cairo and environs, including Suez:

The famous canal opened 10 years after The Bertrams was published in 1859, but the novel itself takes place in the mid-1840s. Several events of that time are mentioned — the Irish potato famine that began in 1845, the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, and the resignation of Sir Robert Peel as Prime Minister later that year — and Trollope frequently contrasts the differences between the "present day" and the previous decade. "There were no telegraphs or telegrams in those days" he writes in Chapter 1 and reminds us how quickly technological progress sped through the 19th century.

When The Bertrams begins, it seems to want to position itself as a critique of competition and success, but it soon turns into a novel of thwarted love. It is mostly about George Bertram, who has just graduated Oxford with a "double first" and seems to be headed towards greatness. In pursuing business propects, however, he is less ambitious than his school days might have indicated. George is indifferent to wealth and vaguely idealistic. He takes the first of his two trips to the East to meet up with his father (a professional soldier) who he hasn't seen since he was a child. On a trip to the Mount of Olives George Bertram has something of a religious experience, and despite some tendencies toward skepticism, decides to go into the church.

But on this trip to the Holy Land, George Bertram also meets Caroline Waddington, a very beautiful and intelligent Trollope heroine, but with something of a materialistic hardness:

George and Caroline fall in love, of course, but Caroline has a low opinion of George's new-found spiritual calling:

Back in London, George decides to go into law instead, but until he's called to the bar (which will be a couple years), Caroline refuses to marry him, believing that they'd be miserable living off a tiny income. As the engagement extends over two years, George's sexual frustration mounts — not that Trollope would ever come close to using a term such as "sexual frustration" or even implying that such a thing existed, of course — and it begins to manifest itself in strange ways.

George writes a book ("or bookling, for it consisted but of one small demy-octavo volume") entitled The Romance of Scripture in which "he went on to say, that all Scripture statements could not now be taken as true to the letter; particularly not as true to the letter as now adopted by Englishman" and goes on to analyze various books of the New Testament with doubts as to their veracity.

George then writes a sequel entitled The Fallacies of Early History.

Although Trollope has some fun with the reactions of his characters to these books — "The very fact of George having written such a book nearly scared Miss Baker out of her wits. She, according to her own lights, would have placed freethinkers in the same category with murderers, regicides, and horrid mysterious sinners who commit crimes too dreadful for women to think of" (ch. 18) — it is clear that Trollope also disapproves of people promoting religious doubt in public. The two books give George a rather notorious reputation, even in Paris: "His name was already sufficiently known to secure his admittance amongst those learned men who, if they had hitherto established little, had at any rate achieved the doubting of much." (ch. 25)

George Bertram never quite repents although Trollope eventually notes that he "had written things of which he was already ashamed" (ch. 33) and seems to chalk up George's whole book-writing period to youthful impetuosity and the confusion of love. But George doesn't rediscover his faith as much as gain a maturity that causes him to be more discrete. It's OK for George to have religious doubts, Trollope seems to be suggesting — just as long as he keeps them to himself and doesn't frighten the horses.

If you accept the premise I've suggested in previous blog entries — that 1859 marks a cultural shift in England from a religious perspective of the world to a secular one — then The Bertrams fits right into this trend, for it illustrates that clash as no other Trollope novel, even if it is supposed to take place some 12 to 15 years earlier.

Trollope biographer Richard Mullen says that Trollope "skilfully introduced that developing Victorian obsession, the loss of faith" into The Bertrams and quotes John Henry Newman as noting that the novel contains "a touch of skepticism which I have never seen in him before." (Anthony Trollope: A Victorian in His World, 1990, p. 325) Regardless, it's still a stretch to place The Bertrams in the "crisis of faith" genre that encompassed James Anthony Froude's The Nemesis of Faith (1849) and Mrs. Humphrey Ward's Robert Elsmere (1888). In Robert Lee Wolff's essential study Gains and Losses: Novels of Faith and Doubt in Victorian England (Garland, 1977), The Bertrams earns only a brief dismissive sentence.

But it's interesting that Trollope sets this story in the past. It was not in 1859 that books such as George's would have caused a commotion, but as Trollope obviously knows, some years earlier.

George Bertram wasn't the only Englishman going through an evaluation of the basis of faith in earlier decades of the 19th century. A recent biography of George Eliot tells the story of the author's friends, the Hennells and the Brays: In 1836, Caroline Hennell married Charles Bray, who then began to disclose to her his rather unconventional religious beliefs. He believed in a "moral and physical universe ... governed by unchanging laws authored by God" but "that there was no firm evidence for the divine authority of the scriptures." Cara asked her brother Charles Hennell his opinions on the matter, who took the job to heart and wrote a 379-page book, An Inquiry Concerning the Origin of Christianity (1838), which concluded there was "insufficient evidence to support the view that Christ was divinely born, worked miracles, was resurrected from the dead or ascended into heaven" (Kathryn Hughes, George Eliot: The Last Victorian, Farrar Straus Girous, 1998, p. 47) Google Book Search has the first edition and expanded 1841 second edition of Charles Hennell's book.

The famous and anonymous Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation was first published in 1844 (and only much later disclosed to have been written by Scottish publisher Robert Chambers). Although clearly a work of pseudo-science, Vestiges painted a vivid picture of the evolution of the universe and living things. Initially controversial, the book continued to be a best-seller during the remainder of the 19th century.

The intellectual turbulence of the 1840s in England partially resulted from two different but related trends that emerged during the 1830s and grew more powerful in subsequent decades.

First, there was increasing evidence that the Earth was much more ancient that the approximately 6,000 year period suggested by a literal reading of Genesis. As early as 1750, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon had suggested an old age of the Earth, and later tried to establish the age based on treating the Earth as a cooling ball. It is likely after learning of Buffon's theories in English magazines that the English poet William Cowper was provoked to sardonically write,

Was 1785 too early a year for an English evangelical poet to start getting nervous about geology? Perhaps. It wasn't until a few years later that James Hutton famously concluded after extensive studies of the geology of Scotland that of the Earth "we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end" (1788). But what really weaned the Victorians off Biblical narratives of the Earth's creation was Charles Lyell's enormously popular and influential Principles of Geology (1830-33).

Some progressive clergymen warned their flocks not to attack the geologists too blindly. Said the Archbishop of Dublin in the 1830s,

Of course, the shift in belief from a young Earth to an old Earth took place over a period of time, and at different times for different groups of people. Identifying an exact date of this shift is impossible, of course, but in his two-volume history The Victorian Church, Owen Chadwick attempts to do just that:

The second volume of Chadwick's history begins roughly around the year 1860 — another indication of the significance of the period I'm focusing on — and Chadwick analyzes the effect of increasing doubt in the truth of Genesis:

The second trend that began in the 1830s was the so-called Higher Criticism of the Bible — treating the Bible as an ancient literary document and attempting to analyze its origins. One major work, David Friedrich Strauss's Das Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet, was published in Germany in 1835-36, and translated into English by George Eliot (before she was George Eliot) as The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined in 1846.

The mid-1840s, then, saw the publication of both Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation and The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined. As David Skilton notes in his introduction to the Folio Society edition of The Bertrams, it was "a time when the twin blows of geology and German scriptural studies were being felt in Christian faith." (p. x) Trollope knew that it was the perfect period in which to plop George Bertram and let him write his own two heretical books. In the 1840s, George's two books would cause a minor scandal. By 1859, they would hardly have raised an eyebrow. By 1859, the literate public largely knew that the Earth was much older than 6,000 years.

If you need to be convinced how pervasive the geological evidence for an old Earth had become by the late 1850s, it is only necessary to read Philip Henry Gosse's Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot, published in 1857. Gosse didn't try to argue against the geology. He knew that was impossible. Instead he asserted that the divine sudden creation of the Earth necessarily resulted in objects that appeared to be older than they actually were. Consider, he wrote, the trees in the Garden of Eden. If you cut down one of those trees, it would have rings indicating its age despite having just been created. Similarly, the strata of the Earth would contain remnants of living things that had never actually been alive. (You can access the original edition of Omphalos on Google Book Search.)

As Gosse’s son wrote of his father's book a half-century later, "The theory, coarsely enough, and to my Father’s great indignation, was defined by a hasty press as being this — that God hid the fossils in the rocks in order to tempt geologists into infidelity." (Edmond Gosse, Father and Son: A Study of Two Temperaments, 1907) But not only a “hasty press” condemned the theory. Cleric, author, and Victorian icon Charles Kingsley tried to be sympathetic but simply could not. To agree with Gosse would require Kingsley giving up "the painful and slow conclusion of five and twenty years study of geology, and believe that God had written on the rocks one enormous and superfluous lie." (quoted in Susan Chitty, The Beast and the Monk: A Life of Charles Kingsley, 1975, p.167)

Omphalos was the last gasp of Mosaic chronology: By the late 1850s the accumulated geological evidence for an ancient world was so strong that it simply could not be ignored. Philip Henry Gosse had described the only possible reconciliation of Genesis and geology: The world appeared to be millions of years old simply because God made it that way.

Anthony Trollope's The Bertrams looked back from 1859 to a not-so-ancient time in the previous decade when books questioning the orthodox interpretation of the Old Testament could still cause a minor scandal. But The Bertrams was prophetic as well: It was in late 1859 that Origin of Species was published and proved that books could still be powerfully disruptive of conventional beliefs.

But that wasn't the end of it: A few months later, in March 1860, another book of quite a different sort arrived — one that gave the Victorians a wallop even more painful than evolution by means of natural selection.

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