Last month the Erewash Press published Clergymen of the Church of England, Anthony Trollope’s collection of “clerical sketches”. In it Trollope depicts the recognisable “types” to be met in the Anglican church of his time, and in doing so depicts a church in the throes of dramatic change. I find it an absolutely fascinating book, which both paints the Victorian church in vivid colours, and offers odd echoes to our own situation. I wrote an introduction to our edition, and a set of annotations which will hopefully make it easier to read. I’ve reproduced the introduction below, as it might be of interest to you lot – if it whets your appetite for Trollope’s book, our electronic edition is only £1.99 (or $1.99).
In late 1865 and early 1866 Anthony Trollope wrote a series of articles for the Pall Mall Gazette which appeared under the title of ‘Clerical Sketches’, without his name attached. Within a few months they were published as Clergymen of the Church of England, by Anthony Trollope, and proved to be some of the most controversial pieces he ever produced. Trollope himself was taken aback at the ire which the book prompted: clearly statements of personal opinion published as non-fiction were far more inflammatory than the mildly satirical fictions which had made him famous.
Certainly the essays present a strong and outspoken argument in favour of the reforms which the Church of England was (gradually) undergoing. They call for fairer distribution of money amongst the clergy, pointing to the comfort and civilized surroundings enjoyed by some clergy, and the hardship and toil endured by others. Part of their reforming, not to say radical, edge is the assumption they make that fairness involved aligning the amount of work done with the amount of money allotted. Though this might sound a basic starting point, it was not universally accepted in principle, let alone in practice. Indeed many people in the modern Church of England, including some of the clergy Trollope would surely have classed as hardest-working, reject the notion that they receive money in exchange for the work they do. Instead they see themselves as paid a stipend precisely in order to free them from the need to exchange work for money, and allow them to minister to those who need them. The application of ideas of exchange and payment, or at least of professionalism, to the Established Church was a contentious one.
The pieces collected in Clergymen of the Church of England reveal the novelist’s instinct to make stories up as a way of explaining things. They may be more explicit and more precisely argued than the novels, but they exhibit the same approach, depending on narrative detail and readerly sympathy to make their case. The clerical characters sketched sometimes have their own backstory, and this is particularly noticeable in the pictures of the less successful one. The Anglican vicar in Ireland, preaching to a few policemen, or the urban minister struggling with his sense of failure, are particularly deft little narratives. They show the development of feelings in response to outside pressures which Trollope is so concerned with in his longer fiction: in these sketches, as in the novels, people’s selves are shaped by money, surroundings and company as much as by their own personality.
The comparisons to the novels are useful, but it would be a mistake to read these as Trollope’s ‘real views’. Tempting as it might be to apply Clergymen of the Church of England as a key to unlock the ‘message’ of Barchester Towers, or to apportion blame in the correct quantities in The Warden, this would flatten the ambiguities of both the essays and the novels. Part of the value of these sketches is their failure to render up a definitive plan of action for the Church of England, or to indicate an exact political position within the spectrum of reforming and conservative opinion. They express a deep and instinctive sense of the glory of the past and a delight in continuity with it, whilst also presenting an ethical (and perhaps equally instinctive) critique of the situation. In presenting these points of view, Trollope gives a strong sense of the conflicting impulses and divided loyalties of parties, and even individual people, within the Church. It is striking that some of the most vivid sketches are the kind of clergy who do not tend to feature as the point-of-view characters in Trollope’s novels: the essays seem to demand an imaginative sympathy with those who aren’t immediately attractive or persuasive. For a modern reader this aspect of them might bring to mind Catherine Fox’s recent Lindchester novels about the Church of England, with their equally strong commitment to understanding the emotional backgrounds of people whose religious views seem confusing or off-putting.
The annotations in this edition have concentrated on two areas, which I think are likely to be of interest to modern readers. Firstly, I have tried to elucidate historical points which might hinder an understanding of the essay’s context, and prevent readers from getting the point (or getting the joke) which Trollope assumes is obvious. Secondly, I have related the essays to Trollope’s most famous novels, noting where they provide a striking sidelight on a character or reveal the conditions of a plot. One of the sketches, for example, describes the development of church lands and the effect of rising rents in a way which suddenly shows that the plot of The Warden was not invented from thin air to display the character of Septimus Harding, but was part of the historical situation of the Church of England.
These sketches have a fascination for readers of Trollope in some ways which I have indicated above. They set the novels even more firmly in their context, and make clearer where Trollope’s familiar characters are examples of a social ‘type’, or where a satirical edge is concealed by the specifics of an episode. The essays collected here also reflect the Church of England facing a particular set of historical crises. The popularisation of Biblical scholarship, the clash of liberal and conservative visions of religion and life, financial inequalities and the colonial past of the Anglican church all contribute to the situation wittily and imaginatively sketched by Trollope. It seems fitting that the last essay, about ‘The Clergyman Who Subscribes For Colenso’, is most explicit in facing controversy within the Church of England over some of the most basic questions of Christianity. The collection ends with a group of people uncertainty facing the possible futures of Christianity in the Anglican church, and trying to deal with those possible futures with integrity. We inhabit the future that essay looks towards, and it is possible that Trollope’s depiction of a Church in crisis has some things to say about our own situation.