In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle examines a most unTrollopian Trollope novel
Anthony Trollope was a prolific writer. He wrote 47 novels, as well as numerous works of non-fiction including autobiography and travel writing. And he did much of this while holding down a job at the Post Office, by getting up at 5.30 every morning and writing 250 words every 15 minutes, pacing himself with a watch. (Clearly such industriousness ran in the family: Trollope’s mother, Frances Trollope, woke at 4 o’clock every morning and got her day’s writing finished in time to serve breakfast.) Not everyone was a fan of his work, which was considered too workmanlike for such an artful writer as Henry James. In response to the title of one of Trollope’s novels, Can You Forgive Her?, James is said to have quipped: ‘Yes, and forget her, too.’ Yet his novels of provincial life, British politics, and ecclesiastical scheming remain in print, with his Chronicles of Barsetshire and his Palliser novels still firm favourites with many readers.
The Fixed Period (1882), Trollope’s last novel, is an oddity among Trollope’s other works of social realism documenting contemporary life. Set in 1980 in the fictional republic of Britannula, the novel is everything a Trollope novel shouldn’t be: futuristic, speculative, with a central ‘concept’ rather than a series of finely observed social observations. But perhaps this is the wrong way of looking at it. In many ways the work is quintessentially Trollopian, dealing with the rules and regulations of institutions and focusing on the individual who is caught up within it all. It even brings some of his other, more famous work more sharply into focus. It’s been called a sort of answer to Trollope’s first great novel, The Warden, published more than a quarter of a century earlier.
It’s true: Trollope’s novel seems like a departure from his other fiction. But speculative fiction merely involves a different approach to engaging with and critiquing contemporary issues from the approach that realist fiction demands. Although we celebrate Trollope for his portrayals of contemporary Victorian life – The Way We Live Now, as his 1875 novel has it – he chose, in The Fixed Period, to project his fears and anxieties into the future, in order to portray them as a more extreme version of contemporary issues.
The plot of The Fixed Period can be summarised as follows: the president of Britannula, a fictional republic off the coast of Australia, passes a law whereby when an inhabitant of the republic turns 67 years old, they are effectively taken off to prepare for involuntary euthanasia when they turn 68. The novel’s protagonist, Gabriel Crasweller, initially embraces the idea but has a change of heart as his own 68th birthday approaches, and the novel follows his own struggle with the system which wants to put him to death. As with Samuel Butler’s Erewhon from a decade earlier, the shadow of Charles Darwin is found lurking over The Fixed Period, since the idea of euthanasia – for people once they reach a certain stage in life and are no longer useful to society and may well consume more resources than they contribute (shades of Malthus here too, who was an important influence on Darwin himself) – smacks of selection, artificial rather than natural.
In one analysis, The Fixed Period could be considered a turning point, since it is arguably the first novel on which we can confidently pin the label ‘dystopian’. Unlike Erewhon and Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race, there is no outsider figure who is transported, Gulliver-like, to another land; instead, the protagonist is a figure already on the inside of the world he inhabits. What’s more, he is a figure who occupies a dubious moral position in the dystopian world he inhabits, just as Bernard Marx, Winston Smith, and Guy Montag do in the famous dystopian novels of the following century.
In an informative article in The Guardian about Trollope’s novel, David Lodge reveals that the novel sold just 877 copies when it was first published, making a loss for his publisher. He also describes the novel as a ‘fable’ that has been unfairly overlooked. Lodge also points out that the naval officers in the novel have a communication device that is rather like a mobile phone, so as well as foreshadowing the dystopias of the next century, Trollope’s novel also occasionally stumbles upon the future technologies of our own time. If you’re a fan of Trollope, The Fixed Period is worth reading as it shows the author attempting something different – and yet, oddly, something that sets a crown upon his lifetime’s effort. Sure enough, if would prove his final novel: Trollope died (supposedly having collapsed from laughter after reading F. Anstey’s farcical novel Vice Versa) in December 1882, around five months short of his own 68th birthday.
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Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.