Susannah Fullerton

Susannah Fullerton, OAM, FRSN, has been President of the Jane Austen Society of Australia since 1996. She is the Patron of the Rudyard Kipling Society of Australia and a founding member of the NSW Dickens Society and of the Australian Brontë Association. She has been a member of the Trollope Society for many years.

Susannah is the author of several books – Jane Austen and Crime, Brief Encounters: Literary Travellers in Australia, A Dance with Jane Austen, Happily Ever After: Celebrating Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and Jane & I: A Tale of Austen Addiction. She has written and recorded two audio CDs, Finding Katherine Mansfield and Poetry to Fill a Room.

Susannah leads popular literary tours for Australians Studying Abroad, and is one of Australia’s most popular literary lecturers.

My love affair with the novels of Anthony Trollope began when I was fifteen and living in New Zealand. The 26 episodes of The Pallisers began screening on TV, and I sat down to watch the first episode. Within two minutes, I was hooked. The local bookshop stocked the set of the six novels, each adorned on its cover with a photograph from the film series. I had enough pocket money to purchase the first, took it home, and had finished reading it before episode 2 screened the following Sunday evening. Over the next months I had to do a great deal of saving and borrowing in order to buy each book and stay just ahead of what was being shown on TV each week. I so loved all the books and, even at that young age, was riveted by Trollope’s skill at depicting women, his immense understanding of human nature, and his extraordinary ability with words.

I was so hooked on the novels, that I even took them to school with me and read below the desk in science classes (which bored me senseless). Unfortunately, I was caught out and my book was confiscated. It was Phineas Redux and I was up to the exciting moment when Phineas was in prison and may or may not be found guilty of the murder of Mr Bonteen. It took four days for me to get my book back, and I was reduced to trying to surreptitiously read a few paragraphs in the book shop without damaging a new copy.  I was starting to get some black looks from the book store owner, when at last my copy was returned, with a strict warning from the teacher who, poor man, had obviously never been exposed to the delights of Trollope, or surely he would have been a little more understanding?

My mother, who read me many of the classics, even into my teens, had never read me Trollope. She had The Warden and Barchester Towers on her bookshelves, so I turned next to those. And that was the extent of my Trollope reading for some years to come.

My next experience of Trollope was again a TV one. In 1982, The Barchester Chronicles screened, starring fabulous Donald Pleasance, Susan Hampshire and Nigel Hawthorne. By that time, I was living in the UK, newly married and short of money, but my local library had the books and I made my way through the Barchester series with delight. Dr Thorne has remained my favourite of all Trollope’s novels.

In 1986 I moved with my husband to Sydney, Australia. Soon I had young children and life was busy and for some years Trollope went onto the back burner. I got involved in the Jane Austen Society of Australia, the largest literary society in this country, and became its President, a position I have held for 25 years. Jane Austen has always been my favourite novelist and I read more and more critical books about her works, attended Jane Austen conferences, and studied her era and her life. That meant there was not a great deal of time left for Trollope. I did, however, find time for Victoria Glendinning’s excellent biography of Trollope when it was published in 1992.

I have always been a great user of libraries, and as time went on, I noticed that libraries were stocking more and more audio books. Just the thing for listening to in the car, I decided. One day I borrowed Barchester Towers read by Timothy West, and was entranced. For me, he will always be the perfect reader of Trollope. He gets the voices just right, whether it is Mrs Proudie and her Bishop, Lady Glen or Plantaganet Palliser. I have listened to his audio readings many times, recommended them to friends (who have likewise become hooked on Trollope) and have regretted that Timothy West did not do an audio recording of every novel that Trollope wrote.

My involvement in the Jane Austen Society of Australia has hugely enriched my life. I felt sad that no similar society existed in this country for Trollope, so suggested to a group of friends that we might start a Trollope reading group. We began with a picnic at ‘Trollope’s Reach’ on the Hawkesbury River. For about twelve years the members of this group met, with the aim of reading our way through all the novels that Trollope wrote. Each Christmas we’d focus on a short story, and we eventually managed to get through all the books. I had to miss the occasional meeting because of tours, so I’ve still got two novels to read – The Kellys and the O’Kellys and The Bertrams. I must complete my list this year and read those two books. At each meeting we had a designated leader, who prepared an introduction about the book, told us how it was first received, and provided interesting background information. We then got on with the pleasurable task of discussing its merits. There were so many that I fell in love with, books I had hardly heard of before – Ayala’s Angel, Miss Mackenzie, He Knew He was Right, The Vicar of Bullhampton, Marian Fay and Mr Scarborough’s Family were some of the ones I especially enjoyed.

Gradually my lecturing career began and I started giving talks on famous authors and their works around Australia. ‘Anthony Trollope: His Life and Works’ was soon one of my popular talks. Then I was asked by an Australia tour company, Australians Studying Abroad, to lead literary tours overseas. My first tour to England booked out within a week and has since been repeated many times. It included a visit to the glorious Hospital of St Cross near Winchester, the institution whose financial mismanagement scandal inspired some of the plot of The Warden. Being shown round the medieval buildings and the beautiful grounds made me feel I was walking straight into a Trollope novel.

About twenty years ago I started my writing career. My first book, Jane Austen and Crime, was a work of social history, looking at how crimes such as duelling, poaching, elopements and even murder are depicted in Jane Austen’s fiction. Trollope loved Jane Austen’s novels, and he too had an interest in crime – financial mis-dealings, murder, law-suits and prisons all play their parts in his fictional world. I like to think he’d have approved of my book.

My next book included a chapter on Trollope. On the shores of Sydney harbour there is a ‘Writers Walk’, with brass plaques set into the pavement recording the visits of famous writers to Sydney. There is a plaque for Trollope included there. I paused to look at it one day and thought that perhaps I could give an interesting talk about some of the writers who came to Sydney. I did give that talk, but quickly realised that there were so many fascinating stories to tell that I could write a book on the subject. My Brief Encounters: Literary Travellers in Australia had a chapter about what Trollope saw and did on his two visits to Australia. It explained how those visits influenced his fiction (with such works as Harry Heathcote of Gangoil, John Caldigate and Australia and New Zealand), and showed what he thought of Aussies and what they thought of him. Nigel Starck has since followed up on the topic with his excellent book The First Celebrity. My book also included chapters on the visits of Charles Darwin, Joseph Conrad, Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, Jack London, DH Lawrence, Agatha Christie and HG Wells, and it was published by Picador in 2009.

A few years ago I published a 25-page reader’s guide to my favourite Dr Thorne, which is available on my web-site, and which has proved popular with book groups.

When I knew that there was a Trollope Society in the UK, I instantly became a member, and over the years I have gained knowledge and enjoyment from Trollopiana. I must admit that I do sometimes have to repress feelings of envy when I read of some of the events planned, the tours to Ireland and Prague, and other delights that I must miss out on because of distance. I keep hoping that, when Covid allows and my tours can start up again, I will one day have a tour timed so that I can stay on in the UK for a few days and attend one of the society’s events in some fabulous historic setting.

This Covid year put a stop to my career. I could no longer give talks to hundreds of people in a library, or take literary tour groups to England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Italy, Scandinavia and the USA. I have had to adapt and try new ways of reaching people who love books. One way of doing that has been to create video talks, fabulously illustrated lectures about some of my favourite authors and their works. My video talk on ‘Trollope and Barchester Towers’ includes readings from the novel, information about its background and characters, and it tells the story of Trollope’s life. This is available on my website for just $9 (about £5), and it has gone out to hundreds of people, many of whom knew little about Trollope before watching it. I am a registered speaker with ADFAS (the Australian equivalent of the British NADFAS) and with societies being unable to meet because of the virus, many of them purchased my video talk on Trollope to send out to their members. The Barchester Chronicles series remains one of the most popular series ever shown on TV in Australia, so many of my viewers were at least familiar with that, but I hopefully encouraged them to do further explorations into his wonderful literary world.

I have also, in this Covid year, designed Australian literary tours – these will hopefully be taking place over the next months, and they include many of the places visited by Anthony and Rose on their travels, and described by Trollope in his book. In my view, his Australia and New Zealand is the first ‘Lonely Planet’ guide to this country. We will even stay a night in a hotel where Trollope and his wife stayed – Craig’s Hotel of Ballarat. I’ll be taking one tour group to ‘Trollope’s Reach’ – am I right in thinking this is the only place in the world named for our author?

I am a member of the Anthony Trollope Society on Facebook and love connecting with other Trollopians on social media. Every month I publish a literary newsletter, ‘Notes from a Book Addict’. This discusses a poem every month, provides good reading recommendations, talks about film versions of classic novels (I was bitterly disappointed in the adaptation of Dr Thorne which just left out so much!), and promotes the reading of the classics. Trollope gets many mentions in my newsletter and as this now goes to over 6000 readers each month, I do feel I am doing my bit to promote the reading of his works. When an International Dickens conference was held in Sydney a few years ago, I gave a talk on Dickens and Trollope – looking at how Dickens would have reacted to this country had he ever, like Trollope, come to the shores of Australia, and discussing Trollope’s reactions to things Dickens would have seen here. I also examined the rivalry and relationship between the two famous authors. It saddens me that Trollope had never gained the fame and status of Dickens in the public eye.

I think it is natural that those who adore the novels of Jane Austen should also love the writings of Trollope. He shares her great perceptiveness when it comes to human failings and weaknesses, though he lacks the sharpness and sheer genius of her touch. I find Trollope’s fictional world wonderfully soothing. I also love his compassion as a novelist – he sees why people sometimes fail and is understanding of foibles and mis-steps in his characters. Dickens created characters who are usually very very good or very very bad, but Trollope gives his readers all the many shades in between. With unpleasant characters such as Mr Slope or Mrs Proudie, you can see why they are the way they are and how, given different circumstances, they could have been better people. Lily Dale annoys me, Lady Glencora enchants me, I love the repetition that says the same thing often, but in a manner just slightly different and slightly deeper each time, and I love Trollope’s gentle humour. There are scenes which stun you with their brilliance – that moment when Adolphus Crosbie and Lady Alexandrina find themselves alone in their honeymoon carriage, or when Lady Arabella learns that Mary Thorne is actually an heiress, or when Mr Harding visits a cigar divan in London in an attempt to avoid his son-in-law, and there’s the momentous tearing of Mrs Proudie’s dress at the ‘conversazione’ – they are memorable moments and can be revisited with joy and heightened appreciation on each re-reading.

In 2017 I was awarded an OAM (Order of Australia medal) for my services to literature, and in the same year was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of NSW because of my work promoting great books. I have made a career out of my absorbing passion in life – books! I feel I’m very lucky to have been able to do this, and to share my enthusiasm for superb writing with thousands of people around this country. While Jane Austen is my greatest literary passion, Trollope comes in at second place. His novels have given me untold hours of reading pleasure, have taught me so much, have helped my career, and have delighted me on television. Thank you, Anthony Trollope, for changing and improving my life.

Susannah Fullerton

‘Anthony Trollope and Barchester Towers’ video talk

Susannah is giving complimentary access to her video talk on ‘Anthony Trollope and Barchester Towers’ to members of the Trollope Society until 31 June 2021.

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Visit Susannah Fullerton’s website

Enjoy the wonderful world of literature through talks, travels and books by Susannah Fullerton, Sydney’s best-known literary lecturer.