The Past, Present, and Future of The Trollope Society

RandolphWilliams300x391by Randolph Williams, President: The Trollope Society (USA)

Presented at the 25th Annual Dinner of The Trollope Society (USA), at the Knickerbocker Club, Fifth Avenue, New York, on 8th May, 2014.

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen and welcome to the 25th Annual Dinner of the Trollope Society. It is always a pleasure to see you all here, and renew and deepen friendships and I thank you all for being here tonight.

We are having a very good year, following on a great 2013. Membership enrollment is continuing to attract new Trollopians. Our website is getting a lot of traffic and attention. To review some of the past year’s successful events:

  1. Many of you were here for last Spring’s dinner with a brilliant talk by Prof. Deborah Morse titled, ‘Lily, Glencora, Ayala and Isabel: Female Desire and Women’s Rights’.
  2. Last summer’s seminars were stimulating and well-liked, one on ‘The Fixed Period’ and the other on ‘The Way We Live Now and The Moral Trollope’.
  3. The Fall lecture by Prof. Nicholas Birns on ‘Phineas Finn and the Bildungsroman’ was fascinating and provocative with a very good turnout.
  4. This year’s Winter Reception featured a great talk by Prof. Elsie Michie entitled, Matrimonial Cruelty in Anthony Trollope’s ‘He Knew He Was Right’ and Frances Trollope’s ‘One Fault.

Our website is fully functional, drawing new members, and is a delight to use and peruse. All this is the result of a great deal of work and diligence by one member, who has been available over and over to extend, enhance, modify and correct issues, for the past nine months. This is one aspect of his profession, but I must tell you that he has performed all this service gratis for love of the Society. As he has become invaluable to the Society, the Board, at this afternoon’s meeting, has elected Douglas Gerlach to the Board.

And now, as mentioned on the invitations for tonight, I will briefly reminisce about the American Trollope Society’s origins and progress since then. I leave to our honoured guest speaker, Michael Williamson, the lion’s share of our joint task, in doing likewise with the British Trollope Society. I know that you will be as eager as I am to hear their present and future plans and projects, so I will be brief.


One day in 1987, I dropped into my favourite bookshop, on Curzon Street in London, to see my friend John Saumarez-Smith. Dispensing with his usual pleasantries, John walked up to me, stuck an application form into my hand and said, ‘Randy, you must join this!’ This was out of character for him, but he was a very sage man and a good friend, so I said, ‘Well, John, if you say I must, then I must’. It turned out to be a membership enrolment form for the new-born Trollope Society, of which he was a Board member, along with a number of luminaries from among the ‘Great and Good’ of London. He had never steered me wrong, so I joined on the spot.

‘John, what’s this all about?’ I asked. He went on to extol the virtues of Trollope and the Society, and its purpose: to publish the first ever uniform edition of the Complete Novels, and, in the process, promote public awareness, appreciation, and reading of Trollope. As I soon found out, there was a virtual renaissance of Trollope reading, and everybody who was anybody was searching out as many titles as could be found, reading, and discussing, and passing them on to friends. The BBC was producing video versions of Barchester and The Pallisers and recorded readings were de rigeur motoring companions. In fact, you couldn’t eat dinner in London without hearing, or overhearing, who was reading which novel, and what he would take to that often-imagined desert isle, which I suspect he hoped would soon figure in his life.

Obviously I needed to join the happy throng.

Now, at that time, I had only read one Trollope novel, in a Victorian Literature course at Harvard. Happily, it featured the most charming man that I had ever met in fiction – Phineas Finn – and I sat right down and devoured it, in 2 sittings. But in the press of exam week, then the next semester immersion, and all the reading an English major has before him, I postponed my pursuit of the pleasures of Trollope, and might have done so indefinitely, except for John’s abrupt intervention, 20 years later.

Being now a paid-up member, soon enough I began to receive member mailings from the Society, describing the forthcoming titles to expect. This whetted my appetite for the books, and, as I re-commenced reading Trollope novels, another appetite, for the opportunity to chat with others about them. In London – easily done, in fact nearly unavoidable. In America – even in New York – not so easily done, or so widely, even in academic circles. But I persevered in reading and plaguing bookshops looking for more and more uncommon titles.

Then came Jack Hall’s superb biography, then Victoria Glendenning’s and now Trollope was a New York posthumous celebrity. And I began to meet Trollopians, even to refer to myself as one, and to broadcast the word of the British Trollope Society.

In the fall of 1989 I got a call from London, John Saumarez-Smith saying he had a friend who was coming to visit New York, and he wondered if I could be of any assistance to him. John said that I might get a phone call from this gentleman. It did come, and we struck up a transatlantic acquaintance which was to blossom into a deep friendship.

John Letts was his name, and he arrived in New York in due course, lodging at the Yale Club – now become a traditional lodging of British Society Chairmen, I believe – and came to my house for dinner. He told me his goal was to find Americans who already were, or were likely to become, Trollopians.

After three or four hours of constant though wide-ranging conversation, I felt he had pressed me like a sponge and had wrung out all I had for ideas and a few contacts. So by way of sending him off to his rooms, I said, ‘Well John, you’ve got all I can think of to tell you, but (fateful words), if there’s anything else I can do, be sure to let me know’. John was a consummate salesman, and knew when to ‘go for the close’ saying ‘Well, I was thinking of asking you to run it’. I think you might call that a velvet trap? But after a sizable, perhaps audible, gulp, I said I would be honoured.

The following May we had a cocktail party reception at the Grolier Club to launch our American Trollope Society. We distributed membership forms and enrolment packets and began to sign up members on the spot. I was getting to know some of America’s Trollopians and the Trollope Society Edition was to start producing volumes in Spring of 1990, at the rate of four a year.

We had our first Annual Dinner in 1990 in this Club, with Louis Auchincloss as our speaker, talking on The American Senator, for which he had written the introduction. I met a whole flock of American Trollopians that evening, all of them a delight, especially our founding Chairman, Albert Gordon, who also became a friend as well as a valued and sage advisor. Al never led me; that was not his style. Instead he gently steered with a quiet, steady hand.

Since that first Annual Dinner, we have had bankers, lawyers, professors, judges, authors, journalists, publishers, editors – all of them eloquently devoted to Trollope, and as you might expect, with incisive and trenchant comments, particularly on his relevance to our time. Witness, The Way We Live Now. The list of these distinguished presenters has continued to go on for 25 wonderful years.

This has been my greatest and unanticipated reward: I have spent this time in the companionship of highly accomplished, enthusiastic and welcoming new friends – as they say, there are no strangers here, just friends you haven’t met. Many of those friends are here tonight and at every Dinner, Lecture, Reception and Seminar, and of course a multitude of them sprang from the pages of these novels. These are Trollope’s great gifts – his generosity of spirit, such that he truly loved those characters, or I should say, people, and his fundamental decency. He could find in all of them some, and often much, worth and show it to us. As has been said so often and by so many, Trollope depicted, and himself embodied, the essence of a gentleman.

They have all populated my world, to my great pleasure and benefit, and yours, I’m sure. I would have you ask yourselves – as members: what brings you to the Trollope Society beyond an excellent dinner? As diverse as the speakers and members are, all are united by the love of Trollope and the genuine pleasure of reading him and sitting in a roomful of Trollopians. I can think of no finer company.

And now it is my distinct pleasure to introduce our honoured guest and speaker this evening, Michael G Williamson, Chairman of the British Society for the past four years and a part of the Society for many years prior. We have known each other over the years, meeting at great past Trollopian events in London, and he is a valued friend and colleague. At long last he is able to come visit us and share the story of the Trollope Society’s rise to its current stature now and in the future.