This weekend the Erewash Press published Anthony Trollope’s novel The Three Clerks. It’s a great read, partly because of the way the book draws on Trollope’s own life as a clerk in the Victorian era, showing where some of the tropes of his more famous works originated. I thought some of the introduction I wrote for our edition would be of interest to Quite Irregular readers – in it I trace the changing implications of the word “clerks”, and what readers in different eras might have understood by it. If you’d like a copy, our ebook is only £1.99 (or $1.99) and can be found here.
The title itself has an intriguing ring, which may be hiding shades of meaning that aren’t obvious at first sight. The word ‘clerk’ has a long history in the English language, and the twists and turns it had made may tell us something about its implications when it appears at the head of Trollope’s novel. ‘Clerk’ first seems to have entered the language to mean a churchman: the modern English terms ’cleric’ and ‘clergy’ are clearly related to this meaning. From the turn of the millennium we find the word ‘clerk’ meaning a person in holy orders, as when the Anglo-Saxon chronicle refers to ‘Gregorius: he waes clerc’ or the fourteenth-century poet Langland wishes for a day when the ‘covetise’ [desire] of ‘clerken’ is to ‘clothe the pore and to fede [them]’(examples from OED). In the sixteenth century we find an edict that ‘Clerkes sholde were no berdes nor longe heere’, in a declaration clearly concerned about the personal hairiness of churchmen.
Along with this meaning came other implications. Since those in holy orders were the most commonly educated in English society, and those whose duties (ideally) required them to write and to engage with books, ‘clerk’ became associated with literacy and learning. The first two verses of ‘Adam Lay Ybounden’, the fifteenth-century English carol which is still sung today, refer to the years of captivity (or ‘bonds’) caused by human sin, and its origins in the fruit eaten in the Garden of Eden:
Adam lay i-bowndyn,
bowndyn in a bond,
Fowre thowsand wynter
thowt he not to long
And al was for an appil,
an appil that he tok.
As clerkes fyndyn wretyn
in here book.
The last two lines of those stanzas refer to the fact that ‘clerkes’ will find this story written in their book (i.e. the Book of Genesis, or perhaps the whole Bible), making the link between religious teaching and the ability to read and write. ‘Clerkes’ here are both people concerned with original sin and its redemption by Christ, and those who can read the Scriptures which tell about these subjects.
From this spread of examples, we can see that ‘clerks’ are implicitly distinguished from two groups: lay people (those not in holy orders) and the illiterate. The meaning of calling someone a ‘clerk’ in medieval English might contain various shades of implication based on these social distinctions. The monk Jocelin de Brakelond records a joke that was made during the arguments over who should be the next Abbot of Bury St Edumunds, by the other monks:
‘In the same way, another man said of someone else, ‘That brother is educated and eloquent, as well as careful and strict in observing the Rule. He has shown great devotion to the convent and has suffered a good deal for the sake of the church’s possessions. He deserves to become abbot.’ To which somebody replied, ‘From good clerks, O Lord, deliver us: that it may please Thee to deliver us from all Norfolk tricksters, we ask Thee to hear us.’’
In this late twelfth-century example, ‘clerk’ is clearly a term of slight suspicion, even when uttered by a fellow monk. The person objecting to the unnamed candidate for the Abbot’s position improvises a parody of a verse from the Psalms, and calls upon God to deliver the brothers from ‘good clerks’ who are equivalent to ‘Norfolk tricksters’. Too much learning, too much cleverness with books, can make the ‘good clerk’ suspect even in a religious house devoted to piety and scholarship. Geoffrey Chaucer mentions a ‘clerk of Oxenforde’ amongst his Canterbury pilgrims, whose clothes were worn out, but who prized his books above anything. When it comes to the ribald Miller’s Tale, another ‘clerk’ appears, called Nicholas. He is a student attending the university, who uses his Biblical knowledge and his ready wit to carry on an affair with his landlord’s young wife. Both Jocelin and Chaucer present ‘clerks’ whose learning potentially make them a threat to those around them, and who might be suspect of being too clever by half.
In later writing, ‘clerk’ becomes generally detached from the idea of religious life, and comes to imply the work of literacy: writing letters, note-taking, dealing with paperwork, etc. The implications of unusual knowledge and power gradually drain away from it, presumably as literacy became more general, and paperwork came to look more like a menial task. In The Merchant of Venice, when Portia and Nerissa dress up as men to attend (and argue at) the legal proceedings, Gratiano refers to Nerissa as ‘the boy, his clerk/ That took some pains in writing’. The implication of ‘clerk’ here is obviously a form of secretary or junior, whose job is to record things and deal with the papers whilst his senior argues about fine points of law and wins the case. By Trollope’s time, a ‘clerk’ was someone employed largely for paperwork: a skilled trade in an era when business had to be done by handwritten letters and documents, but with none of the earlier mystique of the ‘good clerk’.
The most famous clerk in Victorian literature shows the category at an even lower ebb. Bob Cratchit, the long-suffering clerk in A Christmas Carol, works long hours in cold conditions for a pittance doled out by his miserly employer Ebenezer Scrooge. His name, ‘Cratchit’, echoes with the twin miseries of his life: the laborious ‘scratching’ of the dip-pen with which he can barely scrape his living, and the ‘crutches’ which represent his son Tiny Tim’s illness and Bob’s fears that the child will not survive. It is worth noticing that the last two examples I have cited show clerks as minor or pitiable figures, unlike the assumed superiority of the reader, the writer, and the heroes of the literature in question. Despite the enormous number of people who made their living as ‘clerks’ in the nineteenth century, Trollope is relatively unusual in putting them at the centre of his fiction.
Perhaps this had something to do with his own experiences, which made it more natural for him to write from the point of view of the paper-worker of the Victorian era, and to regard them as more than incidental characters to other people’s lives. A similar attitude can be found in the writing of some slightly later authors: both Rudyard Kipling and Jerome K. Jerome worked as clerks before finding literary and financial success, and their work shows evidence of it. The leisured ‘silly-ass’ antics of the Three Men in a Boat can sometimes trick readers into thinking that they are the kind of moneyed aristocrats to be found in P.G. Wodehouse, but early on in the voyage one of the party has to be picked up at a lock, because the bank insists he works Saturday mornings as well as weekdays.
In T.S. Eliot, however, there is an authentic touch of Modernist hauteur towards the people who have to earn their living by pushing papers around (papers, at least, which don’t contain great thoughts about Western Civilization), in his mocking description of a young man arriving to meet his typist girlfriend:
He, the young man carbuncular, arrives,
A small house agent’s clerk, with one bold stare,
One of the low on whom assurance sits
As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire.
So the three clerks of Trollope’s title are the heirs to a long and complicated tradition. As well as the examples I’ve discussed, it takes in the pompous and sentimental Mr. Pooter, head clerk at Perkup’s in the City, whose Diary of a Nobody is an early twentieth-century classic, arguably goes on to include the hero of Stan Barstow’s A Kind of Loving, whose technical drawing expertise gives him a good job and the chance to get into trouble with women, and even the ingenious and under-employed Clerks of Kevin Smith’s slacker movie, condemned to find some meaning in their life whilst they wait for customers whom they despise. The shifting implications of the word across history encode a whole host of attitudes towards people who can read and write, and people who make their living from that skill, towards social class and paperwork, towards power and mystery. The autobiographical aspects of the book bring Trollope himself into that history, and highlight for us all those elements as they appear in this novel, and his work more generally. The Three Clerks provide a useful counterbalance to the earls, bishops and chancellors of the other novels, even if they are less famous.