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Introduction by David Skilton
First published: London, Chapman and Hall, 1859. 3v.
…perhaps the most serious objection which can be brought against the book from the point of view of literature is that it is too much like life.
Algar Thorold, Introduction to the New Pocket Library edition, Lane, London, 1905
John Henry Newman said of Trollope after reading The Bertrams: ‘There is a touch of scepticism which I have never seen in him before’: it is an oddly moody and melancholic work.’
Cajoled by his miserly uncle into going up to Oxford, George Bertram excels there, and befriending a fellow student, vicar’s son Arthur Wilkinson, he wonders if he too has a vocation for the Church. His uncle, with his wealthy merchant’s feet planted squarely in the world of commerce, tries to dissuade him, which prompts George to postpone any vocational decisions while going on a grand tour of The Holy Land. There he meets his degenerate father Sir Lionel, who holds a pathetic military sinecure in Persia and sponges from everyone. In fact he has no interest whatever in his son’s welfare, and though charming proves utterly hollow.
More happily, George meets and falls in love with Caroline Waddington, who is his uncle’s granddaughter. Caroline persuades George to study for the Bar, refusing to marry him without money. With no help from their rich relative, the couple squabble for over two years before mutually deciding to part. On impulse, Caroline marries Sir Henry Harcourt, an ambitious Tory barrister, only to discover that his interest lies in the fortune which he mistakenly thinks she will inherit from her grandfather. She leaves him, and immediately his careful schemes begin to collapse, whilst George and Caroline try to repair some mutual damage: the house they share is ‘quiet’, there are no children. But, unexpectedly, Trollope writes: ‘they are not unhappy’.
Trollope once advised a friend intending to be ordained: ‘Don’t. Nothing cripples a man more certainly’, and George Bertram’s character echoes this. But Trollope tries to balance the novel, adding a sub-plot involving Arthur Wilkinson, who is trapped in his father’s parish, takes the salary of a curate, and gives a share of his income to his mother and sisters. Trouble occurs when Arthur marries, his mother soon forgetting that the money derives from her son. Both friends yearn for successful lives, both try – despite dependent parents – to attain some degree of probity, and their attempts contrast with the greedy ambition of Henry Harcourt.
Criticised for being ‘too much like life’ The Bertrams has a dark tone, yet, scattered with comical minor characters, it seems very fresh and modern.