Three Clerks, The
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Introduction by Jack Hall
London, Bentley, 1858. 3v
The Three Clerks was Trollope’s sixth novel and was written mostly in railway carriages, since his work for the Post Office still entailed a good deal of travelling; to make life easier for himself, Trollope had devised what he called his ‘tablet’, a square block which he rested upon his knees in such a way that he could write in complete comfort.
The story is drawn from his memories of his work (as a clerk) at the GPO in St Martin-le-Grand, and Richard Mullen has called it the most autobiographical of Trollope’s novels. The plot concerns three civil servants, Henry Norman and the cousins Alaric and Charley Tudor. They are involved with the three daughters of a clergyman’s widow, Mrs Woodward. The shy and reserved Henry, the eldest of the three friends, falls in love with the eldest daughter (Gertrude), but she rejects his advances and marries Alaric Tudor instead: this proves a slightly unfortunate choice when Alaric is tried and imprisoned for embezzlement. However, Gertrude stands by him, and the couple emigrate with their two sons to Australia when his six-month sentence is over: meanwhile, the embittered Henry finds true happiness with the second Woodward daughter.
The third of the clerks, however, is a different proposition altogether. The character of Charley Tudor has long been claimed as an autobiographical portrait of Trollope, ‘in his hobbledehoy days’. Certainly Charley’s entrance examination to the Internal Navigation Office is very reminiscent of Trollope’s on entering the Post Office. Charley Tudor makes bad friends and adopts bad manners and habits in the process; nonetheless, the youngest Woodward daughter, Katie, falls in love with Charley despite the opposition of her mother; however, a suitably Trollopian twist of fate lies in store for her…
Trollope sent the novel to his mother in Italy, and from there it made its way to the home of Elizabeth Barrett Browning; she read it with great enjoyment, but reported in a letter that the grave illness Katie Woodward faces in the third volume of the novel ‘wrung [her] to tears’. (Trollope himself always cried when he read this particular section). She concluded: ‘My husband, who can seldom get a novel to hold him, has been held by this….what a thoroughly man’s book it is!’ The Three Clerks was published in 1858, and is also notable – to Trollope afficionados – for the first appearance of Mr Chaffanbrass the barrister.