The Trollope Society in the 21st Century

Michael Williamson

Michael Williamson, Chairman of The Trollope Society (UK).

by Michael G Williamson JP DL, Chairman: The Trollope Society

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

A brief look at our past achievements and our aspirations for the future as we approach the bicentenary of the birth of Anthony Trollope.


I take as my inspiration the quotation:

Excitement is a great step towards happiness, particularly to those who are over sixty.

Anthony wrote this in Blackwood’s Magazine May 1877: 136 years ago.

It is a truth, almost universally, acknowledged, that most people don’t come to an appreciation of the works of Anthony Trollope until they are approaching old age. This is a philosophy which has haunted our Society from the beginning. We are always striving to attract the young and this becomes more challenging as methods of accessing literature are changing rapidly all the time. We need to utilise Twitter, Facebook, Kindle and the like and within the School curricula we need to influence the choice of teachers who seem to prefer to stick to tried and familiar works of literature. Our Society is working in all of these areas but I stand before you as an exception to the rule and perhaps the truth is a little more complicated.

I discovered Anthony Trollope seriously in my early twenties. My original career was within Archives and Librarianship, where I was intending to quickly become a famous writer or poet, and, at my first job interview; my new Boss commented that he was currently working through the novels of Trollope and to let him know if I came across any. My own experience at that time was more or less confined to Barchester Towers but I vaguely remembered this comment because I was, of course, anxious to impress the Chief Librarian. A year or so later I was confined to a book lined staff room for many lunch times and there was a small World Classic copy of Phineas Redux that I began to read. It had never been read by anybody else! Like so many of Trollope’s works the characterisation was superb and, perhaps more unusually, there was quite a dramatic plot. I quickly realised that something had preceded this story and that I was in the middle of a sequence but this was Trollope at his height and I totally loved it. I then shamelessly used the seniority of my position at that time to remove the complete Oxford Illustrated Edition of the Palliser Series from Leicester Reference Library. I had to promise faithfully to return any of them immediately should any user request them. Of course nobody ever did and, by the end of the sequence I was totally hooked.

What I think really appealed to me was that, although these purported to be tales of Victorian England and elsewhere, this was actually a new world as fantastical and imaginary as Narnia or Gormanghast with its own inhabitants that believably inhabited every sphere of Society. They were born, grew older and died and, if you read the books in sequence you were likely to meet many established favourites at different times of their lives, perhaps as principal characters or perhaps as brief walk on parts. These quickly became very real people who would never generally act out of character and could be fully recognised as believable characters today. A very comforting concept for some. A safe haven from workaday life.

From that moment I was determined to own and read the entire works and wherever I went I visited antiquarian bookshops and purchased anything with vaguely Trollopian connections ranging from first editions (very cheaply obtained then) to original illustrations and biographies etc. To begin with it was difficult to find anything but I got to know the best places and my collection grew. I particularly remember the great joy of stumbling across a first edition of Castle Richmond in a tent at the East of England Showground which I was able to purchase for the princely sum of £5. In a way this was a very secret part of my life that I didn’t generally talk about to anybody and I tended to feel that this was a minor weakness that was unique to me and that I ought perhaps to be ashamed of.

And then something rather wonderful happened. One day, in the columns of The Jupiter, I discovered an advertisement that a certain John Letts was hoping to establish a Trollope Society with the aim of publishing the first definitive edition of, at least, the novels and was hoping to attract ‘founder members’. I was amazed. It was like coming out of a Victorian closet! Apparently I was not as odd and unique as I had thought. There were other odd people in the World too and I might be able to meet one! I quickly became a founder member, purchased every book with enthusiasm while continuing to collect antiquarian editions, and have never looked back.

The early years of the Society were very exciting. The publication programme, which was John’s main objective, flourished and quickly meant that we became one of the largest literary societies in the World. Finances were always more than healthy, we had paid office staff and we could afford to subsidise regular events of significance such as the memorial stone in Westminster Abbey and interestingly sited dinners and lectures in places of interest. We invited famous people to our events and dinners and they came and professed admiration for us. Politicians, famous authors. Leading Churchmen and lawyers and even members of the Royal Family. Such was the enthusiasm of some of our members that, when all the novels had been published in a uniform edition, it was agreed that we would continue with the majority of the non-fiction works. However, these publications were less popular and it was becoming increasingly clear that John was intending to wind the Society up at the end of this period. He did not seem interested in overseeing the change from successful publishing house to pure literary society and we accepted this. His legacy had already been considerable.

When Priscilla Hungerford took over the Chair, I was already an active member of the Committee and we faced many real challenges. Membership numbers dropped as those who had only joined to obtain the publications tended to fall away. Therefore our regular income dropped and regretfully we had to gradually lose our paid staff and consider different ways of doing things.

I am pleased to say that sufficient enthusiastic and active members remained and it was by the help of hard working volunteers and careful and prudent management of our resources that the Society has once more begun to thrive and prosper again. It has not been easy but when I look back over those years it is clear that much has now been achieved.

To begin with, we now have active seminar groups all over the UK who meet regularly to study and discuss Anthony’s works. We continue to hold special events and visits of significance ranging from dinners and the Annual Lecture to Evensong in the Abbey on the anniversary of Anthony’s death. UK and overseas trips with Trollope links, work with museums, colleges and schools and active promotion of Trollope through the media and any way possible. We now have active relationships with our members throughout the World and are particularly grateful for the commitment and support of Anthony’s direct descendants in Australia. Hugh Trollope is now, of course, one of our honoured Vice-Presidents. Also the links with Ireland and the Trollope Trail at Drumsna have become very strong.

All of this is very exciting as we approach Anthony’s bicentenary in 2015. We have many events and initiatives planned to celebrate this year and, if fact, some of these are already taking place.

A couple of weeks ago I chaired a special luncheon at Harrow School in the Senior Dining Room. This is the Shepherd Churchill Room usually reserved for the Headmaster and the Senior Staff. It is approached by the Obadiah Slope and probably has the most magnificent view of London that exists. In future years visitors might perhaps visit this slope and will probably say to themselves, that that is where Anthony must have got the idea for his famous character. Sadly it was the winning entry in a local competition but it shows the extent to which Harrow has changed its opinion of the ex-pupil that they once held in rather low esteem. The weekend was beautifully sunny, the blossom was in full bloom and we were able to have our reception out on the terraces at the top of the famous Hill. One of our tours comprised all the Trollope connections in the School from the graffiti in the 16th century Fourth Form Room, to Anthony’s famous fight on the Milling Ground and the original manuscript of Framley Parsonage was brought out for our inspection. In the afternoon we were able to walk to Julians and the site of Julian Hill from which Anthony, as an unhappy day student, so often walked each day. Although many of his memories from that time were apparently miserable ones it is clear that, in later life, he still had some fond memories of his time there. Many of his best loved male characters begin their education at Harrow.

Later this summer we will be gathering for a special garden party at Casewick Hall (spelt Casewick) in Lincolnshire, which is the ancient seat of the Trollope baronetcy. Anthony was the great-grandson of the 4th baronet by his 6th child. It is interesting to note that the title has now devolved to Anthony’s descendants in Australia and is now held by Hugh’s elder brother Tony. Hugh and his son are next in line. The Hall has now been broken up into several parts and Hugh and his family have now acquired a part of it as a summer residence and will be hosting the garden party. This will also be the occasion for the launch of The First Celebrity: Anthony Trollope’s Australasian Odyssey by Professor Nigel Starck of the University of Southern Australia. This book will be available at a special price to Society Members in the near future.

And then, in October, we will, of course, be welcoming your own Professor Steven Amarnick who will be delivering this year’s Annual Lecture at the end of our AGM and who will talk about the new exciting project of the extended The Duke’s Children which should be launched early next year and again will be available for purchase by all Society Members. This will virtually be a ‘new’ Trollope and we await it with great excitement. Joanna Trollope and myself are extremely lucky in having a rough proof copy of the text itself which I would have brought with me if it had not been so heavy! I cannot speak highly enough of the quality of this publication and I think that Steven and Bob and Susan deserve great credit for finally bringing it about. What I particularly like is the way in which it strengthens the subsidiary characters and references and the increased clarity of Trollope’s original intentions. It will be produced initially in ‘fine edition’ format with accompanying volume of supporting notes. A trade edition will follow in the not too distant future but I know that everybody here will want the fine edition and of course we hope that it will eventually become the definitive text. The eventual launch by the Folio Society will be an exciting introduction to the year of celebration.

A further publication of interest will be the first example of a Trollope novel in graphic form. This will be a graphic version of John Caldigate which has been prepared by Simon Grennan and Professor David Skilton and is being sponsored by the Leuven Academic Conference to coincide with 2015. I am not sure how popular graphic works are now in America but they are very popular in France where the first launch will take place, to be followed by publication in the UK and the US.

In addition to these publications we are aware that many museums, the Post Office and libraries are preparing related exhibitions and we are hopeful that there will be a special issue of stamps, the probability of a rose dedicated to Rose Trollope and possible Royal involvement. The Society has commissioned a play and various other plays and broadcasts are in preparation. In the UK Radio 4 has already produced a documentary and is running a new adaptation of The Barchester Chronicles which has now reached the Dr Thorne and will continue to the middle of 2015. I am currently missing a daily re-showing of the 26 episodes of the original production of The Pallisers on BBC2. Other initiatives of this kind are also in hand. Our commissioned play, by Craig Baxter, is a dramatic version of Lady Anna, and some of you may have seen the short excerpt presented at our event at the Royal Opera House in 2012.

As some of you may also be aware Anthony wrote Lady Anna (together with other works!) while he was travelling out to Australia on the SS Great Britain. It is hoped that one of the presentations will take place on board, or very near to, this ship which is now, of course, located at Bristol. Other presentations are planned and we are currently looking for a good natured sponsor to back a short full dress run in London.

There will also be a ‘Great Read’ throughout the UK involving all of our seminar groups who will also be arranging their own special local events. Ireland will be holding its bi-annual International School once again and the Academic Conference will take place once again in Leuven. We are also contemplating some kind of international launch of the year perhaps linked with the New Year Celebrations. The concept would be to have a simple rolling launch event beginning in New Zealand, Australia or perhaps Japan, and travelling with a new day through every country visited by Anthony involving significant Trollopians in each country. Our hope is that the US and perhaps particularly New York, would want to be involved in this event and, perhaps, conclude it?

At the end of May 2015 the Society will be hosting the AGM weekend of the Alliance of Literary Societies which next year will be taking place in York so perhaps that might have some international appeal. Then, of course, we will have our usual regular events such as our Annual Lecture in the autumn.

But perhaps the two most significant events planned for the year will be, first of all a formal Dinner to be held at the Athenaeum in Pall Mall on 24th April to mark the birth date and then a Memorial Service and Wreath Laying to be held in Westminster Abbey on 4th December, as close as we could get to the death date. On that occasion there will also be a reception or meal at the House of Lords opposite. Because we think that these two events will probably have the greatest appeal for overseas visitors we are trying to ensure that one or two additional events such as a performance of the play, a guided Trollope Walk and/or the meeting of a local seminar group will take place in close date proximity to try to make possible trips more worthwhile.

We hope that we will be able to welcome many of you to the UK during this memorable year and full details of the programme will shortly be available. Obviously we will be happy to welcome any of you at any time.

By the time the year finishes we hope that the profile of Anthony Trollope will have been significantly heightened. We also hope that our increased IT skills will have stirred the interest of many new and possibly youthful members who will, I think, always find a surprisingly modern relevance within his works.

Being Chairman of the UK Society over the past few years has been a great honour and privilege. My own library is now very extensive and really fully complete, although I have now extended my collection to the works of Fanny and Thomas and many other Victorian authors. The moments of joy and achievement are now less frequent than they were but I hope that the forthcoming year will be a really memorable one for all of us.

We have always enjoyed and appreciated our relationship and links with The Trollope Society New York and I hope that these will continue to develop and increase as the years pass. I hope that Randy and I can continue to seek ways of improving this relationship in the future so that our societies can both fully benefit from our joint endeavours Also that we can continue to promote the love and appreciation of the work of Anthony Trollope.

While lunching at Harrow a few weeks ago, one of the fellow guests remarked how nice it was that so many of our members referred to the author as Anthony. It is rare certainly that anybody refers to Dickens or Thackeray or Mrs Gaskell by their Christian names. I like to think that this perhaps indicates a humanity within our Society that perhaps others lack. Certainly I think that we enjoy ourselves a little more than some.

Before I close I wanted to include another quotation and, in the end, I couldn’t decide between two! The first, a word of encouragement to us all from Orley Farm:

It is not the prize that can make us happy; it is not even the winning of the prize…(it is) the struggle, the long hot hour of the honest fight… There is no human bliss equal to twelve hours of work with only six hours in which to do it.

Steven and Bob will know all about that of course so perhaps I should conclude with a reference from The Duke’s Children which may or may not have been augmented in its new form:

Hope is, of all our feelings, the strongest.

So, let us remember with sincere gratitude the work of John Letts, Al Gordon and so many others in the early days but let us also be prepared to embrace change and move forward confidently into a third century of Trollope. Ladies and Gentlemen, can I now ask you to rise and join me in drinking a toast to the future success and prosperity of The Trollope Society.