Let us pretend, for a moment, that Anthony Trollope did not write nine million words of fiction but only (only!) eight hundred thousand – the approximate sum total, that is, of his five Irish novels ‑ The Macdermots of Ballycloran (1847), The Kellys and the O’Kellys (1848), Castle Richmond (1860), An Eye for an Eye (1879), The Landleaguers (unfinished and published posthumously in 1883). To that we might add the half a million or so words that make upPhineas Finn (1869) and Phineas Redux (1874) the two British parliamentary novels which form such an integral part of the extraordinary roman fleuve that is the Palliser series and that have as their protagonist the eponymous Clare-born Irish parliamentarian. The story of Phineas is that of a young Irish lawyer who, like so many Irishmen before and after him, goes to England and builds a successful career, even if it is also punctuated by false starts and more than a fair share of tragedy (the premature death of his young Irish wife, Mary Flood, which takes place in the fictional time that passes between the two novels, and trauma (his imprisonment, trial and eventual acquittal for murder, in Phineas Redux). He also appears in the final two novels in the series, The Prime Minister (1876) and The Duke’s Children (1880). Even if he has, in these latter two works, slipped out of central focus and had his Irishness partially erased, it is hard to ignore Finn’s assured social prominence and his enduring political success at the heart of British government as Trollope’s exemplary Irish character in Britain.
Leaving aside the final two novels of the Palliser series, in which Irish issues are at best of secondary importance, the five Irish novels along with the two Phineas volumes make up approximately 1.3 million words and it is clear that we are dealing with a very substantial Irish novelist and a more than respectable literary career. Even if Trollope’s over forty mostly English novels dwarf his Irish output, his Irish writings remain a centrally important part of his overall oeuvre (which also includes some ten short stories set in Ireland or with Irish protagonists) and one that is deserving of study and that can even be classified, despite the lengthy time gaps that separate the individual works, as a distinct group of novels, in the way that we look at the Palliser or Barchester novels. Throughout his long and rich literary career, Trollope attempted – almost uniquely ‑ to understand and interpret Ireland in the difficult and often calamitous four-decade period that stretched from his arrival in 1843 in a country about to suffer the devastating effects of a long Famine to his final visits as an old man in 1881, at the height of the Land War. He is unique among English novelists in this sustained, life-long engagement with Ireland, but he is almost equally a rarity within the Irish nineteenth century canon ‑ just one of a handful of writers who kept faith with Irish issues over four decades. At a time when, as William Carleton complained in his “General Introduction” to Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry, “our literary men followed the example of our great landlords; they became absentees, and drained the country of its intellectual wealth precisely as the others exhausted it of its rents”, Trollope stood out for choosing to move in the opposite direction and join those few Irish writers who, again in Carleton’s words, “laboured at home under all the dark privations of a literary famine”. He did so, knowing well that it would, to borrow a phrase from Flann O’Brien, be neither profitable nor popular to do so. Indeed, after the unsuccessful publication of his second novel, The Kellys and the O’Kellys, his publisher, Colburn, wrote telling him that it was “evident that readers do not like novels on Irish subjects as well as others”. It was a message to which he would pay little attention, returning stubbornly, many times over, to Irish themes, characters and settings. He did, however, sometimes feel the need to justify his Irish interest, as for example, in his preface to his Famine novel Castle Richmond (1860), where he wrote: “I fear that Irish character is in these days considered as unattractive as historical incident but nevertheless I will make the attempt.”
Most of Trollope’s early English critics would be as lukewarm as Colburn towards his Irish works. Particularly so Michael Sadleir (elsewhere known as the author of Fanny by Lamplight) who played a decisive role in the Twenties and Thirties in resuscitating Trollope’s reputation ‑ which had suffered a calamitous decline following the publication of his Autobiography, in which he all too honestly admitted the extent to which his career was driven by the need for commercial success. Sadleir saw Trollope’s Irish fiction as an aberration from which he was fortunate to escape when he belatedly fell under “the slow, wise, soothing spell of rural England”. In Sadleir’s influential view, expressed in his 1927 Trollope: A Commentary:
Ireland produced the man; but it was left to England to inspire the novelist. Indeed one may go further. Ireland, having by friendliness, sport and open air saved Trollope from himself, all but choked the very genius that she had vitalised by her insane absorption in her own wrongs and thwarted hopes.