Charles Dickens may be the quintessential Victorian Christmas writer in many people’s eyes, but around these parts it’s usually Anthony Trollope that we turn to for some festive reading, and last week I spent a happy couple of hours rereading a collection of stories I posted on a few years back. While doing so, I was reminded of a promise I made to myself at the time, namely to look up the book a couple of these pieces were taken from, and having decided that I’d finished with review copies for the year, that’s exactly what I did. Here, then, is a look at a relatively unknown Trollope work, but one that’s great fun, especially for those of you involved behind the scenes in the bookselling world…
Mary Gresley, And an Editor’s Tales is a collection of six stories published in 1870 when Trollope was near the peak of his powers (the following year saw the release of both Phineas Finn and He Knew He Was Right). The stories are narrated by a good-natured editor and each one recounts an amusing episode from his many years of experience. Two of the better stories, as alluded to above, can be found in the Dover Thrift Editions Selected Short Stories collection: ‘Mary Gresley’, in which the narrator does his best to help a young woman achieve her aim of writing a novel within a year; and the excellent ‘The Spotted Dog’, where an erudite sot struggles against his inclinations, and his wife’s alcoholism, while working on an academic text.
I won’t go over those stories again here (see the earlier review for a few more details), but the remaining pieces are very much in a similar vein. We have the same narrator, an editor who is too kind for his own good, a character ‘failing’ that leads to his being dragged into situations he’d rather have stayed out of. One interesting feature of the book, and one that fooled me when I read the earlier collection, is the editor’s use of ‘we’, rather than ‘I’, in many stories. Luckily, that’s cleared up here – in our friend’s own words:
This little story records the experience of one individual man; but our readers, we hope, will, without a grudge, allow us the use of the editorial we. We doubt whether the story could be told at all in any other form.
‘The Turkish Bath’
While not totally convinced by this explanation, ‘we’re’ quite prepared to give him (them) the benefit of the doubt 😉
One story that stands out for its length (another two-part piece) and its content is ‘The Panjandrum’. Here, the editor actually abandons his stately ‘we’ to tell a story from thirty years before, when he and a group of like-minded friends decided to found a new literary magazine, one that would shake up the tired literary coterie of the capital and become the talk of the town. The first half, ‘Hope’, introduces the motley half-dozen contributors, with discussions as to the style and format of the periodical over tea and muffins, scenes dripping with the enthusiasm and good humour of people who know they are onto something good.
Alas, publishing isn’t quite as easy as it seems, and it comes as little surprise that in the second half, ‘Despair’, matters go downhill. The colleagues struggle to agree on the simplest of matters, leading our friend to exclaim:
If we were thus to disagree on every point, how should we ever blend the elements? If we could not forbear with one another, how could we hope to act together upon the age as one great force? If there was no agreement between us, how could we have the strength of union?
Still, that’s nothing compared to the ordeal of actually writing something, and it’s at this point that the poor man discovers that he’s far more suited to editing content than producing it…
The problem, of course, is that when you’re an editor, you have to deal with those who write, or those who think they can, and the remaining stories are fun conflicts between our friend and three people who won’t take no for an answer. ‘The Turkish Bath’ has the editor making the acquaintance of a charming Irishman, Michael Molloy, whose silver tongue belies an inability to write coherently. Meanwhile, in ‘Josephine de Montmorenci’, the narrator carries out a correspondence by post, intrigued by both the potential of the manuscript he’s sent and the mystery behind the exotic name. Alas, the poor editor has a soft spot for ladies in need, and this weakness leads him to go out on a limb for a woman he’s never even seen.
However, it’s in the concluding story, ‘Mrs. Brumby’, that the full hell of the editor’s job is laid bare, with our mild-mannered friend making his thoughts clear in the very first sentence:
We think we are justified in asserting that of all the persons with whom we have been brought in contact in the course of our editorial experiences, men or women, boys or girls, Mrs. Brumby was the most hateful and the most hated.
Strong words, but fully justified, as we’re soon to find out. Where many of the other budding writers use gentle trickery to bring themselves to the editor’s attention (such as Malloy’s approach under cover of steam in ‘The Turkish Bath’), the lady in question here simply bulldozes her way into his office, berates him, tells blatant lies and then eventually resorts to lawyers. Who’d be an editor…
An Editor’s Tales isn’t one of Trollope’s classics, but it’s great fun, and I’d certainly recommend it to anyone looking to read more of his work. The format of linked short stories probably suits the writer more than stand-alone pieces, which tend to be novels condensed to within an inch of their lives, and the self-mockery of the poor editor, a successful man who can afford to poke fun at himself, is a nice touch. Those of you working in publishing will probably find that little has changed since the Victorian era, with one particular observation hitting particularly close to home:
As soon as she brought her first visit to a close, the roll, which was still in our hands, was chucked across our table to a corner commodiously supported by the wall, so that occasionally there was accumulated in it a heap of such unwelcome manuscripts.
Yes, it’s the slush pile, and I can hear some of you out there shuddering even from this distance.
Sadly, An Editor’s Tale hasn’t been brought out in an edition by any major publisher (although several print-on-demand editions seem to be available), but if you’re happy to read digitally, you can download it instantly from Project Gutenberg in the format of your choice. I’d still be recommending a trip to Barchester, or a stay with the Pallisers, but for the Trollopian who has already sampled these delights, a few hours spent in the publishing world might be just what the doctor (or editor…) ordered 🙂