Curator at Senate House Library Dr Karen Attar teases out what makes this novel different, including marriage and morality and clinical depression.

One hundred and fifty years ago the final part of Anthony Trollope’s The Vicar of Bullhampton appeared – in accordance with standard practice, a month after the novel had been issued in entirety in a single volume.

The work engages with topics that still concern us today: marriage, sex outside it, and double standards within the broader context of the role of women in society; homosexuality; and clinical depression. Open the field to the novel’s publication history, and English/continental rivalries enter the scene.

The Vicar of Bullhampton is the 24th of Trollope’s 47 novels and is the most unusual. Like several others, it has three main plot strands, including wrangling between different Protestant viewpoints, and a theme of marriage. But it diverges from others in making no fewer than five characters suffer from clinical depression, in the amount of attention it pays to working-class characters, especially to the seduced and consequently repudiated young woman Carry Brattle and her family, and even more markedly for treating Carry’s position sympathetically as one from which society in its severe punishment will not allow redemption.

Unlike other Trollopian novels, The Vicar of Bullhampton includes a preface, a feature Trollope normally abhorred (‘the writing of a preface to a novel is almost always a vain thing’), and Trollope considered this preface so important that he reproduced it in his An Autobiography. In it he focuses on the story of Carry Brattle, pleading for the acceptability of the subject matter and his stance: ‘But it may perhaps be possible that if the matter be handled with truth to life, some girl, who would have been thoughtless, may be made thoughtful, or some parent’s heart may be softened. It may also at last be felt that this misery is worthy of alleviation, as is ever misery to which humanity is subject.’

Whatever readers thought of his views, Trollope need not have feared a backlash for his boldness. The Times called the novel ‘nice, easy, safe reading’. The Saturday Review, while describing the book as third-rate, hastened on to say that Trollope’s third-rate was more readable than the best of most novelists. Trollope, looking back in his Autobiography, opined: ‘As regards all the Brattles, the story is, I think, well told. … For the rest of the book I have little to say. It is not very bad, and it certainly is not good.’

Trollope started to write The Vicar of Bullhampton in Washington in the spring of 1868, the day after he completed He Knew He Was Right, and finished it in November 1868, whereupon he immediately embarked upon Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite. The publishers Bradbury & Evans had agreed a deadline with Trollope of July 1869 for serial publication of The Vicar of Bullhampton in their journal Once a Week.

Punctilious as he always was about meeting deadlines and comfortably early as he had been to submit The Vicar, Trollope was enraged when Bradbury & Evans reneged on the basis that the novel to precede Trollope’s in the journal, an English translation of Victor Hugo’s L’Homme qui rit, had to be deferred because Hugo’s attitude towards deadlines was more cavalier than Trollope’s. Trollope would appreciate, apologised the publishers, that for reasons of space the two novels could not appear in the journal simultaneously; would Trollope mind appearing in The Gentleman’s Magazine instead.

As a literary outlet The Gentleman’s Magazine was far less prestigious. Trollope did mind, and so the novel was published in 11 monthly parts instead. Some 13 years later he expressed his views strongly in his autobiography: ‘My disgust at this proposition was, I think, chiefly due to my dislike to Victor Hugo’s latter novels, which I regard as pretentious and untrue to nature.’

As an Englishman, he also resented being asked to give way to a tardy Frenchman. Broken engagements thus become a theme outside the novel as they are within it, when Mary Lowther twice allows herself to be talked into agreeing to marry a man whom she does not love for economic reasons, and twice breaks the engagement.

Ultimately, Trollope did not suffer from the deal. He was paid £2,500 for the novel (down from the initial fee of £2,800 because the work was shorter than at first agreed). This is less than he was paid for his later Barchester novels or the earlier Palliser ones, but still renders The Vicar of Bullhampton one of his more profitable endeavours.

Senate House Library is fortunate to hold, thanks to the good graces of Sir Louis Sterling a copy of the original parts of The Vicar of Bullhampton. Thus users can see how the book’s first readers absorbed, along with the text of the novel and its illustrations by Henry Woods, regular full-page advertisements for the Prudential Assurance Company, with smaller ones for Godfrey’s extract of elder flowers, Joseph Gillott’s steel pens, Bryant & May’s patent safety matches, and the cough lozenges, insect-destroying powder, and children’s worm tablet sold by the London chemist Thomas Keating. Seen in conjunction with contemporary part publications, the original parts are also valuable as an indication of comparative popularity.

The advertisements in The Vicar of Bullhampton are limited chiefly to the covers of each part, with a splurge of eight pages of publisher’s advertisements in the final one. Sterling also owned a copy of the original parts of Charles Dickens’s Mystery of Edwin Drood, which overlapped in publication with Trollope’s Vicar. The greater number of advertisements in Edwin Drood – 26 pages in Part Five, 34 in Part Four, and 48 pages, discounting an eight-page insert for the Selection Library of Fiction, in Part One – testify to Dickens’s greater pull. Trollope preferred both Thackeray and George Eliot.

Dr Karen Attar is the curator of rare books and university art at Senate House Library, and a research fellow at the Institute of English Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. She has published widely on library history and aspects of special collections and is the reviews editor for Library & Information History.

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