Iain Spillman – Guest Blog

Iain Spillman, a SPUR undergraduate researcher at Nottingham Trent University, updates us on his recent work at the BT Archives. Here, he writes about Anthony Trollope, novelist and clerk at the General Post Office, and his short story, ‘The Telegraph Girl’.


One of the most abiding topics of the early Post Office magazines Blackfriars and St. Martin’s-le-Grand was the life, career and work of Anthony Trollope. The anecdotes published exhibit ‘a certain degree of gratitude and affection’ and as Tristram Crutchley writes: ‘there have been, and are, other distinguished writers among the servants of the Post Office, but Trollope was one of the first to achieve the measure of success that spells fame, and we have not forgotten it.’[1]

Memories are shared of Trollope’s schooldays (described by Sir William Gregory as ‘without exception the most slovenly and dirty boy I ever met,’) as well as his physicality and appetites (the first remark he made was ‘I have walked up from Cardiff’ – a distance of 24 miles. ‘Any hotels here; which is best?’ I directed him; and, as he marched out, still at a six mile-an-hour-stride, he said, ‘back soon, going to have a raw beef steak.’)[2] The reminiscences also show Trollope continually in trouble with his superiors for insubordination and unpunctuality, ‘which he seems to think was fairly compensated by his energy when he set to work,’ and, interestingly, glimpses into his method of writing.[3] Over dinner Trollope explained to James Russell Lowell how he rises at five (at four on hunting mornings) and completes the same number of pages before breakfast every day, writing ‘just like a shoemaker (works) on a shoe, only taking care to make honest stiches.’[4] It was Trollope’s ability to write anywhere and at any time that indirectly brought him into conflict with his superiors and nearly led to him to be summarily dismissed.

His most autobiographical work, The Three Clerks (1857), was principally written by Trollope in railway carriages when travelling on G.P.O. business.  Of all the characters in the book, Trollope is most closely associated with Charley Tudor. Not only do their early, unpromising careers mirror each other but there are also specific incidents identical to both. Mrs. Davis, the guardian of Charley’s admirer, Norah, appears in his office to challenge him to ‘settle something … when do you mean to marry her?’[5] Similarly, there is an account of Trollope’s discomfort at his office ‘invaded’ by ‘the mother of a girl to whom he had been paying innocent attentions … and addressed him in a loud voice: ‘’Anthony Trollope, when are you going to marry my daughter?”’[6] Charley was ‘deeply, inextricably in debt’, while Trollope, with money problems of his own, formed ‘that intimate acquaintance with the habits of bill-discounters which is written large on half a score of his books.’[7]

However, the chief concern of The Three Clerks was to satirize and denounce the Civil Service competitive examination system. In the novel, Mr Jobbles (jobless?) was ‘enthusiastically intent on examining the whole male adult population of Great Britain’ and opposed patronage only for the reason that it ‘limits the number of candidates among whom his examination papers would be distributed.’[8] Trollope’s condemnation of the examination scheme was evidently too much for his employers, as he had already criticised it in his first paid article which was deliberately ‘intended to be very savage in its denunciation.’[9] He compounded his offence with his lecture ‘The Civil Service’ made at an early meeting of the Post Office Literary Association and subsequently published in the Cornhill Magazine. Trollope alludes to the speech in his autobiography, describing how it ‘advocated the doctrine that a Civil Servant is only a servant as far as his contract goes; and that beyond that entitled to be as free as a man in politics, as free in his general to be as free in his general pursuits and as free in opinion as those who are open professionals, and open trades.’[10] The incident prompted the Postmaster General to send for Trollope and inform him that the Secretary recommended his dismissal. When Trollope confidently ‘asked his lordship whether he was prepared to dismiss’ him, the Postmaster General ‘only laughed. The threat was no threat to me, as I knew myself to be too good to be treated in that fashion.’[11]

The Post Office magazine’s colourful caricatures of Trollope almost obscure the fact that he was, as described by A. M. Cunynghame (the first Surveyor of the Metropolitan District) ‘an excellent man of business, (who) wrote splendid reports, and was an indefatigable worker.’[12] Additionally, it denies the small but significant contribution Trollope made to telecommunications in literature. During the writing of The Prime Minister, Trollope composed and published the essay, ‘Young Women at the London Telegraph Office (June 1877), and the short story, ‘The Telegraph Girl’ (December 1877); the latter is particularly notable for several reasons.[13] Firstly, it serves as a ‘social artefact that registers the effect of technological work for women in the Victorian period,’ encouraging increased autonomy and self-reliance.[14] When it was suggested to Lucy Graham that she should leave ‘the Telegraph Office and seek the security of some household, her spirit rebelled against the council. Why should she not be independent, and respectable, and safe?’[15] She ‘had to think of her independence.’[16]

Trollope also highlights the potential dilemmas women faced that threatened their independence. As Lucy discovers, female telegraph operators were notoriously low paid and her ‘three shillings a day, though sufficient for life, would hardly be more than sufficient.’ She decides to share lodgings with her co-worker, Sophy Wilson, in an attempt to stretch their resources and to avoid the solitude of living alone, an aspect of ‘her independence which almost terrified her.’[17] It has also been noted that of the limited civil service opportunities available to women, only in telegraphy was it ‘found unavoidable to mix the staff of male and female clerks.’[18] This is clearly illustrated in ‘The Telegraph Girl’ as Trollope describes how ‘as no girls were employed there after eight there would always be on duty in the afternoon an increasing number of the other sex, some of whom remained there till late at night – some indeed all night.’[19] The cultural conventions of gendered behaviour of the period create a tension with the ‘certain amount of intimacy’ developed in the work place and the desire for female independence (‘she knew that a young woman all alone could not go to the theatre with propriety.’)[20] By introducing a marriage plot, Trollope diffuses these threats, acting as a ‘safety net’ for Lucy and Sophy and is an early example of a device frequently found in ‘operator’ fiction.[21] Additionally, by acting as an intermediary between Sophy and Abraham Hall, Lucy becomes a ‘transmitter in her personal life’ requiring her to make judgements (‘she…could not be the medium of sending on presents of which she disapproved.’) [22] This contrasts with her employment which was to count words and not to interpret them or, at any time, allow them to be interfered with. This divide is punctured by Trollope when he allows Hall to succeed in speaking to Lucy during her shift despite regulation that forbid staff ‘who are engaged in sending and receiving messages … (to be) kept during the hours of work as free as possible from communication with the public.’ [23] The interpretation of communications, romance, and the blurring of public and private worlds are themes that would later be found in another significant contribution to ‘telegraph’ literature: ‘In The Cage’ by Henry James, published in 1898.

Trollope also conveys the changing nature of telegraphic data, how ‘pundits of the office were in favour of a system of communicating messages by ear instead of by eye.’[24] The familiar ‘dots and pricks’ of telegraph paper were to be replaced by a ‘system of tickling sounds,’ substituting the textual with the acoustic.[25] Richard Menke illuminates how Trollope relates his writing to this form of telegraphy, citing Trollope’s assertion that ‘[The writer’s] language must come from him … as the syllables tinkled out by little bells form themselves to the ear of the telegraphist.’[26]

[1] Tristram Crutchley, ‘Anthony Trollope’, in St. Martin’s-le-Grand, Volume 17, 1907, pp. 160-164 (p.160).

[2] ‘Early Post Office Days: III, the Metropolitan District’, in St. Martin’s-le-Grand, Volume 6, 1896, pp. 293-304 (p.295); G.G., ‘Anthony Trollope as a Post Office Surveyor’, in St. Martin’s-le-Grand, Volume 4, 1904, p. 453.

[3] Stephen Gwynn, ‘Anthony Trollope’, in St. Martin’s-le-Grand, Volume 10, 1900, pp. 207-208 (p.207).

[4] James Russell Lowell, ‘James Russell Lowell on Anthony Trollope, in St. Martin’s-le-Grand, Volume 12, 1902, p.315, extract originally published in Life of James Russell Lowell, Vol. 2, 1861, p. 82; ‘Early Post Office’, p. 296.

[5] Anthony Trollope, The Three Clerks [1857] (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1860), p. 292.

[6] Crutchley, ‘Trollope’, p.162.

[7] Trollope, Clerks, p. 211; Gwynn, ‘Trollope’, p.208.

[8] Trollope, Clerks, p. 295.

[9] Crutchley, ‘Trollope’, p.161.

[10] Housden, J.A.J., ‘Civil Service Institutions: The Post Office Library and Literary Institution’, in Blackfriars, Volume 5, September 1887 to February 1888, pp.91-100 (p. 94).

[11] Crutchley, ‘Trollope’, pp. 164-5.

[12] ‘Early Post Office’, p. 296

[13] Susan Shelangoskie, ‘Anthony Trollope and the Social Discourse of Telegraphy after Nationalisation’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 01/2009, Vol. 14(1), 72-93 (p. 72).

[14] Shelangoskie, ‘Anthony Trollope’, p. 73.

[15] Anthony Trollope, ‘The Telegraph Girl’ [1877], Later Short Stories (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995) pp. 354-385 (p.355).

[16] Trollope, ‘Telegraph’, p. 354.

[17] Trollope, ‘Telegraph’, p. 355.

[18] A Government Official, ‘Ladies as Clerks’, Fraser’s Magazine, September1875, pp.375-6

[19] Trollope, ‘Telegraph’, p. 359.

[20] Trollope, ‘Telegraph’, pp. 357, 359.

[21] Shelangoskie, ‘Anthony Trollope’, p. 72.

[22] Shelangoskie, ‘Anthony Trollope’, p. 88; Trollope, ‘Telegraph’, p. 377.

[23] Trollope, ‘Telegraph’, p. 379.

[24] Trollope, ‘Telegraph’, p. 365.

[25] Trollope, ‘Telegraph’, pp. 365-6.

[26] Richard Menke, Telegraphic Realism: Victorian Fiction and Other Information Systems (Stamford: Stamford University Press, 2008), p. 186.

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