Anthony Trollope.

Autobiography of Anthony Trollope online

. (page 3 of 23)
Online LibraryAnthony TrollopeAutobiography of Anthony Trollope → online text (page 3 of 23)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

the house, and hers were the hands that tended them. The novels went
on, of course. We had already learned to know that they would be
forthcoming at stated intervals, - and they always were forthcoming.
The doctor's vials and the ink-bottle held equal places in my
mother's rooms. I have written many novels under many circumstances;
but I doubt much whether I could write one when my whole heart was by
the bedside of a dying son. Her power of dividing herself into two
parts, and keeping her intellect by itself clear from the troubles of
the world, and fit for the duty it had to do, I never saw equalled. I
do not think that the writing of a novel is the most difficult task
which a man may be called upon to do; but it is a task that may be
supposed to demand a spirit fairly at ease. The work of doing it with
a troubled spirit killed Sir Walter Scott. My mother went through it
unscathed in strength, though she performed all the work of day-nurse
and night-nurse to a sick household; - for there were soon three of
them dying.

At this time there came from some quarter an offer to me of a
commission in an Austrian cavalry regiment; and so it was apparently
my destiny to be a soldier. But I must first learn German and French,
of which languages I knew almost nothing. For this a year was allowed
me, and in order that it might be accomplished without expense, I
undertook the duties of a classical usher to a school then kept by
William Drury at Brussels. Mr. Drury had been one of the masters at
Harrow when I went there at seven years old, and is now, after an
interval of fifty-three years, even yet officiating as clergyman at
that place.[3] To Brussels I went, and my heart still sinks within
me as I reflect that any one should have intrusted to me the tuition
of thirty boys. I can only hope that those boys went there to learn
French, and that their parents were not particular as to their
classical acquirements. I remember that on two occasions I was sent
to take the school out for a walk; but that after the second attempt
Mrs. Drury declared that the boys' clothes would not stand any
further experiments of that kind. I cannot call to mind any learning
by me of other languages; but as I only remained in that position for
six weeks, perhaps the return lessons had not been as yet commenced.
At the end of the six weeks a letter reached me, offering me a
clerkship in the General Post Office, and I accepted it. Among my
mother's dearest friends she reckoned Mrs. Freeling, the wife of
Clayton Freeling, whose father, Sir Francis Freeling, then ruled the
Post Office. She had heard of my desolate position, and had begged
from her father-in-law the offer of a berth in his own office.

[Footnote 3: He died two years after these words were written.]

I hurried back from Brussels to Bruges on my way to London, and
found that the number of invalids had been increased. My younger
sister, Emily, who, when I had left the house, was trembling on the
balance, - who had been pronounced to be delicate, but with that
false-tongued hope which knows the truth, but will lie lest the heart
should faint, had been called delicate, but only delicate, - was now
ill. Of course she was doomed. I knew it of both of them, though I
had never heard the word spoken, or had spoken it to any one. And my
father was very ill, - ill to dying, though I did not know it. And my
mother had decreed to send my elder sister away to England, thinking
that the vicinity of so much sickness might be injurious to her. All
this happened late in the autumn of 1834, in the spring of which
year we had come to Bruges; and then my mother was left alone in
a big house outside the town, with two Belgian women-servants, to
nurse these dying patients - the patients being her husband and
children - and to write novels for the sustenance of the family!
It was about this period of her career that her best novels were

To my own initiation at the Post Office I will return in the next
chapter. Just before Christmas my brother died, and was buried at
Bruges. In the following February my father died, and was buried
alongside of him, - and with him died that tedious task of his,
which I can only hope may have solaced many of his latter hours. I
sometimes look back, meditating for hours together, on his adverse
fate. He was a man, finely educated, of great parts, with immense
capacity for work, physically strong very much beyond the average of
men, addicted to no vices, carried off by no pleasures, affectionate
by nature, most anxious for the welfare of his children, born to fair
fortunes, - who, when he started in the world, may be said to have had
everything at his feet. But everything went wrong with him. The touch
of his hand seemed to create failure. He embarked in one hopeless
enterprise after another, spending on each all the money he could at
the time command. But the worse curse to him of all was a temper so
irritable that even those whom he loved the best could not endure it.
We were all estranged from him, and yet I believe that he would have
given his heart's blood for any of us. His life as I knew it was one
long tragedy.

After his death my mother moved to England, and took and furnished a
small house at Hadley, near Barnet. I was then a clerk in the London
Post Office, and I remember well how gay she made the place with
little dinners, little dances, and little picnics, while she herself
was at work every morning long before others had left their beds. But
she did not stay at Hadley much above a year. She went up to London,
where she again took and furnished a house, from which my remaining
sister was married and carried away into Cumberland. My mother soon
followed her, and on this occasion did more than take a house. She
bought a bit of land, - a field of three acres near the town, - and
built a residence for herself. This, I think, was in 1841, and she
had thus established and re-established herself six times in ten
years. But in Cumberland she found the climate too severe, and in
1844 she moved herself to Florence, where she remained till her death
in 1863. She continued writing up to 1856, when she was seventy-six
years old, - and had at that time produced 114 volumes, of which the
first was not written till she was fifty. Her career offers great
encouragement to those who have not begun early in life, but are
still ambitious to do something before they depart hence.

She was an unselfish, affectionate, and most industrious woman,
with great capacity for enjoyment and high physical gifts. She was
endowed too, with much creative power, with considerable humour, and
a genuine feeling for romance. But she was neither clear-sighted nor
accurate; and in her attempts to describe morals, manners, and even
facts, was unable to avoid the pitfalls of exaggeration.



While I was still learning my duty as an usher at Mr. Drury's school
at Brussels, I was summoned to my clerkship in the London Post
Office, and on my way passed through Bruges. I then saw my father
and my brother Henry for the last time. A sadder household never was
held together. They were all dying; except my mother, who would sit
up night after night nursing the dying ones and writing novels the
while, - so that there might be a decent roof for them to die under.
Had she failed to write the novels, I do not know where the roof
would have been found. It is now more than forty years ago, and
looking back over so long a lapse of time I can tell the story,
though it be the story of my own father and mother, of my own brother
and sister, almost as coldly as I have often done some scene of
intended pathos in fiction; but that scene was indeed full of pathos.
I was then becoming alive to the blighted ambition of my father's
life, and becoming alive also to the violence of the strain which my
mother was enduring. But I could do nothing but go and leave them.
There was something that comforted me in the idea that I need no
longer be a burden, - a fallacious idea, as it soon proved. My salary
was to be £90 a year, and on that I was to live in London, keep up my
character as a gentleman, and be happy. That I should have thought
this possible at the age of nineteen, and should have been delighted
at being able to make the attempt, does not surprise me now; but that
others should have thought it possible, friends who knew something
of the world, does astonish me. A lad might have done so, no doubt,
or might do so even in these days, who was properly looked after and
kept under control, - on whose behalf some law of life had been laid
down. Let him pay so much a week for his board and lodging, so much
for his clothes, so much for his washing, and then let him understand
that he has - shall we say? - sixpence a day left for pocket-money and
omnibuses. Any one making the calculation will find the sixpence
far too much. No such calculation was made for me or by me. It was
supposed that a sufficient income had been secured to me, and that
I should live upon it as other clerks lived.

But as yet the £90 a year was not secured to me. On reaching London
I went to my friend Clayton Freeling, who was then secretary at the
Stamp Office, and was taken by him to the scene of my future labours
in St. Martin's le Grand. Sir Francis Freeling was the secretary,
but he was greatly too high an official to be seen at first by a
new junior clerk. I was taken, therefore, to his eldest son Henry
Freeling, who was the assistant secretary, and by him I was examined
as to my fitness. The story of that examination is given accurately
in one of the opening chapters of a novel written by me, called _The
Three Clerks_. If any reader of this memoir would refer to that
chapter and see how Charley Tudor was supposed to have been admitted
into the Internal Navigation Office, that reader will learn how
Anthony Trollope was actually admitted into the Secretary's office
of the General Post Office in 1834. I was asked to copy some lines
from the _Times_ newspaper with an old quill pen, and at once made a
series of blots and false spellings. "That won't do, you know," said
Henry Freeling to his brother Clayton. Clayton, who was my friend,
urged that I was nervous, and asked that I might be allowed to do a
bit of writing at home and bring it as a sample on the next day. I
was then asked whether I was a proficient in arithmetic. What could
I say? I had never learned the multiplication table, and had no more
idea of the rule of three than of conic sections. "I know a little
of it," I said humbly, whereupon I was sternly assured that on the
morrow, should I succeed in showing that my handwriting was all that
it ought to be, I should be examined as to that little of arithmetic.
If that little should not be found to comprise a thorough knowledge
of all the ordinary rules, together with practised and quick skill,
my career in life could not be made at the Post Office. Going down
the main stairs of the building, - stairs which have I believe been
now pulled down to make room for sorters and stampers, - Clayton
Freeling told me not to be too downhearted. I was myself inclined
to think that I had better go back to the school in Brussels. But
nevertheless I went to work, and under the surveillance of my elder
brother made a beautiful transcript of four or five pages of Gibbon.
With a faltering heart I took these on the next day to the office.
With my caligraphy I was contented, but was certain that I should
come to the ground among the figures. But when I got to "The Grand,"
as we used to call our office in those days, from its site in St.
Martin's le Grand, I was seated at a desk without any further
reference to my competency. No one condescended even to look at my
beautiful penmanship.

That was the way in which candidates for the Civil Service were
examined in my young days. It was at any rate the way in which I
was examined. Since that time there has been a very great change
indeed; - and in some respects a great improvement. But in regard
to the absolute fitness of the young men selected for the public
service, I doubt whether more harm has not been done than good. And
I think that good might have been done without the harm. The rule
of the present day is, that every place shall be open to public
competition, and that it shall be given to the best among the comers.
I object to this, that at present there exists no known mode of
learning who is best, and that the method employed has no tendency
to elicit the best. That method pretends only to decide who among a
certain number of lads will best answer a string of questions, for
the answering of which they are prepared by tutors, who have sprung
up for the purpose since this fashion of election has been adopted.
When it is decided in a family that a boy shall "try the Civil
Service," he is made to undergo a certain amount of cramming.
But such treatment has, I maintain, no connection whatever with
education. The lad is no better fitted after it than he was before
for the future work of his life. But his very success fills him with
false ideas of his own educational standing, and so far unfits him.
And, by the plan now in vogue, it has come to pass that no one is in
truth responsible either for the conduct, the manners, or even for
the character of the youth. The responsibility was perhaps slight
before; but existed, and was on the increase.

There might have been, - in some future time of still increased
wisdom, there yet may be, - a department established to test the
fitness of acolytes without recourse to the dangerous optimism of
competitive choice. I will not say but that there should have been
some one to reject me, - though I will have the hardihood to say that,
had I been so rejected, the Civil Service would have lost a valuable
public servant. This is a statement that will not, I think, be denied
by those who, after I am gone, may remember anything of my work.
Lads, no doubt, should not be admitted who have none of the small
acquirements that are wanted. Our offices should not be schools in
which writing and early lessons in geography, arithmetic, or French
should be learned. But all that could be ascertained without the
perils of competitive examination.

The desire to insure the efficiency of the young men selected, has
not been the only object - perhaps not the chief object - of those who
have yielded in this matter to the arguments of the reformers. There
had arisen in England a system of patronage, under which it had
become gradually necessary for politicians to use their influence for
the purchase of political support. A member of the House of Commons,
holding office, who might chance to have five clerkships to give away
in a year, found himself compelled to distribute them among those
who sent him to the House. In this there was nothing pleasant to the
distributer of patronage. Do away with the system altogether, and
he would have as much chance of support as another. He bartered
his patronage only because another did so also. The beggings,
the refusings, the jealousies, the correspondence, were simply
troublesome. Gentlemen in office were not therefore indisposed to rid
themselves of the care of patronage. I have no doubt their hands are
the cleaner and their hearts are the lighter; but I do doubt whether
the offices are on the whole better manned.

As what I now write will certainly never be read till I am dead, I
may dare to say what no one now does dare to say in print, - though
some of us whisper it occasionally into our friends' ears. There are
places in life which can hardly be well filled except by "Gentlemen."
The word is one the use of which almost subjects one to ignominy. If
I say that a judge should be a gentleman, or a bishop, I am met with
a scornful allusion to "Nature's Gentlemen." Were I to make such an
assertion with reference to the House of Commons, nothing that I ever
said again would receive the slightest attention. A man in public
life could not do himself a greater injury than by saying in public
that the commissions in the army or navy, or berths in the Civil
Service, should be given exclusively to gentlemen. He would be defied
to define the term, - and would fail should he attempt to do so. But
he would know what he meant, and so very probably would they who
defied him. It may be that the son of the butcher of the village
shall become as well fitted for employments requiring gentle culture
as the son of the parson. Such is often the case. When such is the
case, no one has been more prone to give the butcher's son all the
welcome he has merited than I myself; but the chances are greatly
in favour of the parson's son. The gates of the one class should be
open to the other; but neither to the one class nor to the other can
good be done by declaring that there are no gates, no barrier, no
difference. The system of competitive examination is, I think, based
on a supposition that there is no difference.

I got into my place without any examining. Looking back now, I think
I can see with accuracy what was then the condition of my own mind
and intelligence. Of things to be learned by lessons I knew almost
less than could be supposed possible after the amount of schooling I
had received. I could read neither French, Latin, nor Greek. I could
speak no foreign language, - and I may as well say here as elsewhere
that I never acquired the power of really talking French. I have been
able to order my dinner and take a railway ticket, but never got much
beyond that. Of the merest rudiments of the sciences I was completely
ignorant. My handwriting was in truth wretched. My spelling was
imperfect. There was no subject as to which examination would have
been possible on which I could have gone through an examination
otherwise than disgracefully. And yet I think I knew more than the
average of young men of the same rank who began life at nineteen.
I could have given a fuller list of the names of the poets of
all countries, with their subjects and periods, - and probably of
historians, - than many others; and had, perhaps, a more accurate idea
of the manner in which my own country was governed. I knew the names
of all the Bishops, all the Judges, all the Heads of Colleges, and
all the Cabinet Ministers, - not a very useful knowledge indeed, but
one that had not been acquired without other matter which was more
useful. I had read Shakespeare and Byron and Scott, and could talk
about them. The music of the Miltonic line was familiar to me. I had
already made up my mind that _Pride and Prejudice_ was the best novel
in the English language, - a palm which I only partially withdrew
after a second reading of _Ivanhoe_, and did not completely bestow
elsewhere till _Esmond_ was written. And though I would occasionally
break down in my spelling, I could write a letter. If I had a thing
to say, I could so say it in written words that the readers should
know what I meant, - a power which is by no means at the command of
all those who come out from these competitive examinations with
triumph. Early in life, at the age of fifteen, I had commenced the
dangerous habit of keeping a journal, and this I maintained for
ten years. The volumes remained in my possession unregarded - never
looked at - till 1870, when I examined them, and, with many blushes,
destroyed them. They convicted me of folly, ignorance, indiscretion,
idleness, extravagance, and conceit. But they had habituated me to
the rapid use of pen and ink, and taught me how to express myself
with facility.

I will mention here another habit which had grown upon me from still
earlier years, - which I myself often regarded with dismay when I
thought of the hours devoted to it, but which, I suppose, must have
tended to make me what I have been. As a boy, even as a child, I
was thrown much upon myself. I have explained, when speaking of my
school-days, how it came to pass that other boys would not play with
me. I was therefore alone, and had to form my plays within myself.
Play of some kind was necessary to me then, as it has always been.
Study was not my bent, and I could not please myself by being all
idle. Thus it came to pass that I was always going about with some
castle in the air firmly built within my mind. Nor were these efforts
in architecture spasmodic, or subject to constant change from day
to day. For weeks, for months, if I remember rightly, from year to
year, I would carry on the same tale, binding myself down to certain
laws, to certain proportions, and proprieties, and unities. Nothing
impossible was ever introduced, - nor even anything which, from
outward circumstances, would seem to be violently improbable.
I myself was of course my own hero. Such is a necessity of
castle-building. But I never became a king, or a duke, - much less
when my height and personal appearance were fixed could I be an
Antinous, or six feet high. I never was a learned man, nor even a
philosopher. But I was a very clever person, and beautiful young
women used to be fond of me. And I strove to be kind of heart, and
open of hand, and noble in thought, despising mean things; and
altogether I was a very much better fellow than I have ever succeeded
in being since. This had been the occupation of my life for six or
seven years before I went to the Post Office, and was by no means
abandoned when I commenced my work. There can, I imagine, hardly be
a more dangerous mental practice; but I have often doubted whether,
had it not been my practice, I should ever have written a novel. I
learned in this way to maintain an interest in a fictitious story, to
dwell on a work created by my own imagination, and to live in a world
altogether outside the world of my own material life. In after years
I have done the same, - with this difference, that I have discarded
the hero of my early dreams, and have been able to lay my own
identity aside.

I must certainly acknowledge that the first seven years of my
official life were neither creditable to myself nor useful to the
public service. These seven years were passed in London, and during
this period of my life it was my duty to be present every morning
at the office punctually at 10 A.M. I think I commenced my quarrels
with the authorities there by having in my possession a watch which
was always ten minutes late. I know that I very soon achieved a
character for irregularity, and came to be regarded as a black sheep
by men around me who were not themselves, I think, very good public
servants. From time to time rumours reached me that if I did not
take care I should be dismissed; especially one rumour in my early
days, through my dearly beloved friend Mrs. Clayton Freeling, - who,
as I write this, is still living, and who, with tears in her eyes,
besought me to think of my mother. That was during the life of Sir
Francis Freeling, who died, - still in harness, - a little more than
twelve months after I joined the office. And yet the old man showed
me signs of almost affectionate kindness, writing to me with his own
hand more than once from his death-bed.

Sir Francis Freeling was followed at the Post Office by Colonel
Maberly, who certainly was not my friend. I do not know that I
deserved to find a friend in my new master, but I think that a man
with better judgment would not have formed so low an opinion of me
as he did. Years have gone by, and I can write now, and almost feel,
without anger; but I can remember well the keenness of my anguish
when I was treated as though I were unfit for any useful work. I did
struggle - not to do the work, for there was nothing which was not
easy without any struggling - but to show that I was willing to do it.
My bad character nevertheless stuck to me, and was not to be got rid
of by any efforts within my power. I do admit that I was irregular.
It was not considered to be much in my favour that I could write
letters - which was mainly the work of our office - rapidly, correctly,
and to the purpose. The man who came at ten, and who was always still
at his desk at half-past four, was preferred before me, though when
at his desk he might be less efficient. Such preference was no doubt
proper; but, with a little encouragement, I also would have been
punctual. I got credit for nothing, and was reckless.

As it was, the conduct of some of us was very bad. There was a
comfortable sitting-room up-stairs, devoted to the use of some one of
our number who in turn was required to remain in the place all night.
Hither one or two of us would adjourn after lunch, and play _écarté_
for an hour or two. I do not know whether such ways are possible

1 3 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23

Online LibraryAnthony TrollopeAutobiography of Anthony Trollope → online text (page 3 of 23)