Struggles of Brown, Jones and Robinson, The
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Introduction by Juliet McMaster
First published: N.Y., Harper, 1862.
Originally published in The Cornhill Magazine, Aug. 1861-March 1862.
In August 1857, Trollope commenced work on his twelfth novel, just after completing The Three Clerks. His intention, he wrote, was to make a ‘hit at the present system of advertising’. He intended it as another part of his campaign against dishonesty in public life, but the novel was virtually abandoned two weeks later. Trollope didn’t return to this untypical, unusual venture into the lower middle-class world of the retail trade until 1861, just after he had completed Orley Farm.
George Robinson, the youthful narrator of the story, retired butter dealer Mr Brown, and Mr Jones, set up a haberdashery in Bishopsgate street, called Magenta House: ‘magenta from the roof to the window tops.’ Despite a huge advertising campaign, for which George is responsible, a lack of capital leads the trio into shady dealings and then bankruptcy. George is in love with Maryanne Brown, the daughter of his partner, but Maryane is also the object of another character’s affections, William Brisket, a butcher from Aldersgate Street. Brisket will only marry Maryanne with her dowry of £500.
When the haberdashery goes bankrupt, George loses Maryanne, who is in turn rejected by the butcher when he discovers that she is now penniless. Matters are further complicated by the discovery that Mr Jones, the third partner, has swindled the other two out of a considerable sum. The irrepressible George Robinson is left at the end as penniless as he began, but determined once again to make his fortune in the world.
This is the only novel where Trollope attempts a comic tone throughout, and in attempting this light satire he was also consciously moulding his style on his friend Thackeray’s. His narrator George is editing this memoir for publication, but writing about himself in the third person, a distancing device used by Thackeray in works like Henry Esmond, one of Trollope’s favourite novels. But his own experimentation with this literary trick does not altogether work. Contemporary critics loathed the book, finding its satire too crude. Trollope himself said of the book that ‘it was meant to be funny, was full of slang… but I have heard no-one else express such an opinion.’ The Saturday Review certainly didn’t: ‘A dreadful story … odiously vulgar and stupid.’
But there is always some fun to be found in Trollope, particularly when he was experimenting. The book has its champions: Juliet McMaster points out in her introduction that throughout his career Trollope attempted to experiment, and that ‘the hostile chorus seems to me to proceed from some indignation that Trollope should diverge from what they deem to be the true Trollopian path. After The Warden and Barchester Towers, he was expected to go on doing more of the same.’