Thursday 27 January 2011


As some of you may already be aware, I recently caved into the desire to get an e-reader and purchased a Kindle of my very own.  I've been playing around with it a bit, but I haven't given it a name; that's a bit of a girly thing to do and also seems to be the first step towards madness (one day you're calling your i-Pod Trixie, the next you're talking to Betty the kettle and holding a funeral for Charlie the toaster, whose filaments burned out at such a tragically young age).

My reason for getting an e-reader was to be able to download, and read, tons of free classics, and I've managed to find a lot of favourites and save them to the memory of my new toy - Victoriana, French- and German-language classics, you know the drill.  So here's a review of my first foray into hand-held electronic reading: guess who I chose to start off the new era of literary enjoyment...

The Three Clerks is one of Anthony Trollope's early novels, published between Barchester Towers and Doctor Thorne.  It follows the fortunes of three young men, gainfully employed in the service of their country at various public offices in London.  Harry Norman, a very respectable fellow, is joined at the Weights and Measures by the clever Alaric Tudor, whose cousin Charley Tudor is taken on at the Internal Navigation office.  Just down the river lives a distant relative of Norman's, Mrs. Woodward, a widow with three young daughters, and the three young clerks become quite intimate with the ladies of the Woodward family.  It does not take a brain surgeon to see where this story is going...

Admittedly, this early work is not up there with Trollope's best novels, but it's an entertaining read and worth trying for a couple of reasons.  The first is the light it sheds on what is to come in Trollope's fiction throughout the remainder of his career, as The Three Clerks, seen in retrospect, is filled with pointers as to future themes and characters.  The duo of the ambitious Alaric and the dastardly Undecimus Scott, a nasty Scotch nobleman who uses Tudor's ambition to further his own interests, are surely prototypes of Mark Robarts, the 'hero' of Framley Parsonage, and the very persuasive Nathaniel Sowerby.  The Woodward sisters would remind any fan of the Barchester Chronicles of the Dale sisters, first seen in The Small House at Allington, while Charley Tudor is most certainly reincarnated as Johnny Eames in the same book.

The areas covered in the novel are also revisited later in Trollope's career, forming the background to some of his finest work.  The seed of The Way We Live Now, Trollope's epic tale of greed, is sown in The Three Clerks, where Trollope first explores the dire consequences of dabbling with stocks and shares, and the extraordinary characters who manage to make a living from it.  Of course, the political side of the novel, only briefly mentioned, will eventually lead to the Palliser novels, perhaps the finest portrayal of politics in British literature.  It's also a warning to anyone who is thinking of running for office - a warning Trollope himself ignored...  Ever yearning for acceptance, Trollope stood for parliament later in life, coming (as expected) last of the four candidates, and gaining nothing from the experience but more room in his wallet, but it's hardly surprising when you read his eulogies in the novel to serving the Empire in this way.

And this is the second reason for reading The Three Clerks: its autobiographical nature.  Charley Tudor is Anthony Trollope, just as David Copperfield is Charles Dickens, and the difference in the way these two famous authors deal with their youthful alter-ego is telling.  Copperfield's journey to manhood is sedate, and he appears to have been born mature and ready to face the world.  Tudor is a disaster waiting to happen, a likeable, lazy lad, thrown into the world of adults before he is ready, able to drink, flirt and joke around at work - yet with a good heart and a burning sense of what he really should be doing.  I know which one I find more interesting.

In An Autobiography, Trollope discussed the art of novel writing, claiming (bound by Victorian morals as he was) that the writer is torn between the moral imperative to portray good behaviour and the writer's need to liven up his story, saying that good literature trod the fine line between the two sides.  Of course, today we don't share the Victiorian requirement for every villain to get his come-uppance, but The Three Clerks shows the truth in Trollope's words.  Harry Norman, morally by far the superior of our three young friends, is easily the most boring; the other two flawed men capture the reader's attention and carry the story along, and the treacherous Undy Scott, entertaining as he is, is doomed to be punished by the everpresent Victorian Nemesis of fate.

There are several flaws in The Three Clerks - the ridiculous names (Sir Gregory Hardlines, Mr. Oldeschole, the lawyer Gitemthrouit), the predictable plot, and the rather lengthy and trying start to the novel.  However, Trollope always comes good and, at times, pokes fun at his own failings.  In Charley's literary attempts, the writer parodies his own style, when Charley repeats his editor's pleas to start the book in the middle of the action, claiming that once the reader has committed themself to the first volume, the writer can describe people and places at whatever length he desires.  If Trollope had taken his own tongue-in-cheek advice, it would probably have improved the novel; nevertheless, for Trollope aficionados at least, it's still one which is well worth the effort.

And what of the Kindle experience, I hear you ask (no, you did, I heard you).  Well, it's not all good.  I was forever adjusting the font, trying to get as much as possible onto the screen without the text becoming too small to actually read.  I'm also not a big fan of the need to click to turn the page, especially as you're reading twice as many pages (at least) as in a paper book.  The biggest issue, however, was probably due more to the free classic than the format - without a cover page, introduction and notes, the novel seemed a little bare and uninviting.  It was free though :)

All in all, the jury's still out on the Kindle - watch this space...