Austen, Dickens, & Co: The Birth, Life, and Adventures of the Nineteenth-Century Novel

Dr Anna Beer is a Fellow of Kellogg College, University of Oxford, lecturing on Literature and Creative Writing. She is also the widow of Roger Harvey, who was a member of the Trollope Society and a leading light in the Oxford Seminar Group. Here she writes about the task she took on, after Roger’s death, in bringing to publication the book he was working on when he died.

Some of you reading this may have known Roger Harvey, many of you will not. Suffice to say he was an active member of the Trollope Society and was delighted by, and instrumental to, the flourishing of the local Oxford meetings. As I write this, I am looking at a bookshelf of Trollope first editions, beautiful works, collected by him over many, many years.

What even those close to Roger did not know is how far he took his appreciation of Anthony Trollope and his remarkable century. At around the age of fifty, Roger decided (and he realised how privileged he was to be able to make this choice) to take early retirement and finally indulge his interest in literature. He was surprised but of course pleased to gain a place at the University of Oxford where he studied English Literature for three years. Having gone straight to work at seventeen, he seized this opportunity to be a student (he rowed for his college, he was President of the JCR, and there was quite a lot of drinking done), but the real work began after university. Never one to do things by halves, he set out to explore every aspect of Anthony Trollope’s life and works and, having got the research bug, he spread his net even further, working his way through the remarkable Trollope family and then assiduously setting their works within the context of the long nineteenth century as a whole.

Which is why, in January 2014, I found myself sitting across from Roger at a very small kitchen table in an apartment in Palermo as we both tapped the first words of our respective books into our computers. Many writing trips, research visits, and wonderful conversations (not least with the local Trollope group) followed over the next three years as Roger worked tirelessly – he was a great hunter of primary sources, a great sceptic of received wisdom – on his chosen thirty authors. He had his favourites – Trollope, of course, but also Disraeli – and he became fascinated by a number of writers who have fallen entirely out of fashion, Charlotte Yonge for one. He never quite got over his suspicion of Dickens, who he felt had – entirely unfairly – hogged the Victorian limelight for far too long!

Fast forward three years. The work I had begun in Palermo (Sounds and Sweet Airs: the Forgotten Women of Classical Music) had come out the previous year. Roger, an amateur in the best sense of the word, was putting the final touches to his book, now titled Austen, Dickens & Co: The Life and Adventures of the Nineteenth-Century Novel. Over the Christmas break of 2016, we talked about getting his work published in the new year, and I offered to investigate self-publishing and to manage the sometimes messy business of turning a manuscript into a finished book, hoping that my experience as a Lady Author (I could write more about my affinity with the fragrant Lady Carbury…) would come in useful.

Then, on 20 January 2017, Roger suffered a catastrophic stroke. He died three days later without recovering consciousness.

Over the following months and years, I did all of the things that widows and widowers have to do, none of them easy, but I ticked off each grief task and gradually, the worst of the pain passed. But the one thing I could not do was turn on Roger’s computer and set in motion the publication of his book. Maybe it was because, somewhere on a deeply irrational level, it meant truly recognising that he wasn’t coming back. Maybe it was because it was so him. I honestly don’t know.

And then came Covid-19. I – guiltily, belatedly – turned to bringing Roger’s book into the world. There was little, really, I needed to do at least in terms of content. I found, as everyone does, that copy-editing and proof-reading take a lot of time, and when you think you have finished, you always find another mistake. But with the help of an excellent self-publishing company (Matador) and my daughter (who designed the cover), Austen, Dickens & Co: The Life and Adventures of the Nineteenth-Century Novel emerged as a thing of beauty, to my mind at least.

Roger wrote the book because he felt that the kinds of conversations he had with members of the Trollope Society – which he valued so much – fell between two stools: academic studies written, often impenetrably, for specialists on the one hand, and simplistic or sensationalist works recycling half-truths on the other. Everything he wrote was based on months and years of archival work but you will find, if you do read the book, that he handles this research lightly. But you can trust him, which to my mind is the highest tribute one can pay to an author of non-fiction.

One more personal anecdote, if I may. Roger and I met in later life. I was a single parent with two young-ish children, he was a retired investment banker-cum-student, some eighteen years my senior, with three grown-up children. We were a rather unlikely couple, and there were some well-meaning friends and family who questioned the wisdom and future of the relationship. Roger felt he needed to demonstrate his sincerity and commitment. What this meant in practice was that he gave me, as a birthday present, his first edition of The Way We Live Now, breaking up his collection. I understood what this meant. Reader, I married him.

This article was first published in Trollopiana Issue 118, Winter 2020/21