My second read for the Trollope bicentennial being celebrated at Books and Chocolate was The Three Clerks. I just finished it yesterday, so just two days before the birthday bicentennial. Of the five books of his that I have now read, this is definitely my least favorite. Coming in at around 550 pages this is one of Trollope’s shorter (HA!) works. The story revolves around three young gentlemen, all who work for the British Civil Service in London and their relationship to three young sisters who live a genteel, middle class life in Hampton, near London.
The two clerks who work for the office of Weights & Measures are Harry Norman who is hardworking and steady and Alaric Tudor who is very bright but exceedingly ambitious. The third clerk and cousin to Alaric is Charley Tudor who is genial, but lacks direction and discipline and who works for the Internal Navigation office, nicknamed “the Infernal Navigation” for its reputation of sloth and debauchery.
Harry and Alaric are at first fast friends and as such, Harry introduces Alaric to his cousins, Gertrude, Linda and Katie and their widowed mother, the lovable but slightly lax Mrs. Woodward. However, when a possible promotion at the office puts Harry and Alaric in direct competition with each other, their friendship begins to fray and eventually it falls apart based on a perceived betrayal that Harry cannot forgive. As the story progresses, Alaric begins his meteoric rise in the world, which ascension is not without peril due to Alaric’s hunger for power and prestige at any cost. Meanwhile, Charley sinks further and further in to debt and dallies with a bar maid, all the while wishing he could be a better man, but not knowing how to quite pull that off.
I think what put me off slightly in this case is that the title should really be “two and a half” clerks, since Harry is so upstanding and is consequently fairly dull; Trollope had nothing much to write about him. For me, it made the narrative uneven since the same weight is not given to each storyline. Also, up to now, I have always appreciated Trollope’s fairly well rounded female characters, but with the exception of perhaps Mrs. Woodward and maybe Gertrude near the end, I didn’t find the female personalities to be particularly noteworthy. Linda and Katie were very one note, although I suppose Katie’s actions and passions were not atypical for a teenager. Lastly, I found the last names of most of the minor secondary characters (the lawyer, Mr. Geitemthruet or the money lender, Jabesh M’Ruen) too over the top.
One thing I love about reading books written over 100 years ago is the feeling of déjà vu. You know, “Plus que ça change…” or the more things change, the more they remain the same. In The Three Clerks there is a bit of a scandal about stock speculation based on a bridge intended to replace a perfectly serviceable ferry which never gets built. I totally though about the Gravina Island Bridge in Alaska, or the “Bridge to Nowhere” which was a bit of a catch phrase in the 2008 election year. There were lots of other similar observations about human behavior, politics, etc. that I made while reading, but that one really stuck out to me.
Unfortunately, the Penguin edition I read of The Three Clerks this time was not part of their classics series. So it was not annotated nor was there an introduction. I had to puzzle out the Latin quotations on my own, or just ignore them (usually the latter). So instead I have used in illustration from one of the old-timey editions showing Linda and Alaric on a rather fateful walk.