Someone once remarked to me that “there’s nothing quite like going to bed with a good Trollope”. He was, of course, referring to one of Anthony Trollope’s popular novels as ideal bedtime reading. And there are many of his works to choose from, mostly perceptive stories of political, social and gender issues of the times, but all very readable, well critiqued and reprinted over the decades.
What I don’t think is generally known is that Anthony Trollope visited New Zealand in the 1870s. And he stirred up bit of a storm!
His brief tour of both North and South Islands was not without controversy. Locals waited with bated breath to hear the literary giant’s impressions of their colony, desperate for praise and a good review… looking for comfort and reassurance that they had chosen well in their resettlement in the Antipodes. But Trollope proceeded in silence. That’s when some correspondents wrote what they imagined Anthony Trollope might have been thinking – always a dangerous conjecture! And which can lead to “fake news” as President Trump would call it.
It was a London family: Trollope’s mother was a successful novelist, and so was his brother, Thomas. His father was a failure at law, as a farmer and in business. Anthony, born April 1815, started his early days as a lack-lustre pupil in England followed by a brief stay in Brussels. He took a job in the Post Office there. “The first seven years of my official life were neither creditable to myself nor useful to the public service,” he said: he hated the job and took off to Ireland to escape mounting debts. His reputation there as an inspector with the Post Office improved and after a lengthy courtship he married Rose in 1844.
His first novel, The Macdermots of Ballycloran, was completed within a year of his wedding but it had been a work in progress for some years. It was not a popular read. Several other works followed in quick succession, reflected local life during the Great Famine in Ireland. Critical acclaim accompanied most of his later novels. He also wrote short stories.
From Post to Pen
In 1851 he returned to England, to take a travelling position to report on, and reorganise, rural mail services. This exposed Trollope to a wide section of rural society…The Barsetshire series followed, drawing on his experiences. While not hugely popular the series set Trollope up for later works that sold well, such as Framely Parsonage.
Trollope remained in the Post Office, rose to senior positions and is credited, in 1851, with pioneering the familiar red pillar letter box where, in lieu of a Post Office, mail could be securely posted.
First pillar boxes sprung up at St Helier in Jersey where Trollope was working at the time. Buoyed by income from his novels, Trollope left the Post Office in 1867, had a brief unsuccessful flourish with politics and then in 1871 undertook the voyage to Australia and New Zealand.
Arrives Down Under
He ventured to the Antipodes to see his son Frederic who was a farmer in New South Wales and in the course of his southern travels included visits to many places in New Zealand.
Trollope landed at Bluff in August 1872 and after a short stay in Southland continued to Queenstown. The Lake Wakatip Mail, 7th August 1872, reflected the expectations of those wherever Trollope visited. “Such a distinguished tourist as Mr Trollope must be looked upon as a good authority, and we shall anxiously look forward for his opinion of the residents and the scenery of this land of lakes and mountains”.
There was opportunity for locals to hear the visitor’s opinions when it was expected that, by arrangement, he would attend a ceremony in Dunedin to mark the anniversary of Sir Walter Scott’s birth. Trollope’s promised appearance was much anticipated according to Otago Daily Times but, instead, he shunned the appointment, setting out for Oamaru on his way to Christchurch.
This sparked criticism. The Bruce Herald, 4th September 1872, chided “Mr Trollope seems to be very close, not to shew much sign, and is not easily drawn. Is this pride or modesty? Why did he not shew at the Scott Conversazione in Dunedin? A little courtesy does not cost much. Mr Trollope, however, knows his own business best, and may have had very good reasons for absenting himself…”
The Tuapeka Times, 4th September 1872, had some inside information which amounted to a sweetener at taxpayers’ expense. “We have been informed, on what it considers reliable authority that the expenses of Mr Trollope while in Otago are paid by the Provincial Government… by this means it seeks to secure the good opinion of Mr Trollope, and, as an equivalent for the sum expended, to get a glowing description of the Province published in some British newspaper or magazine but, considering the circumstances and the way Mr Trollope rushed through Otago, their object ls unlikely to be accomplished”.
Tuapeka Times, and other newspapers who published the article, later retracted the suggestion. An unthinking Otago Provincial Government had, in fact, offered to foot Mr Trollope’s expenses. But, sensibly, he had declined.
Then, later, with some glee, the same newspaper, along with others, revealed that £24 had been incurred by Auckland Provincial Council for the hire of a carriage and coach for Mr Trollope’s travels in the North.
After sightseeing in Canterbury, Trollope went on to Wellington where he was guest at a Queen’s Birthday Ball at Government House and he attended a debate in Parliament.
Much store was put in Trollope’s judgement of the standard of debate in the House. It had been specially arranged that while the visitor was in the Gallery one of the “better speakers”, Julius Vogel, would argue for the “no confidence” motion.
(Vogel’s Independent Party successfully won a similar subsequent motion and became the Government in 1873 – Vogel as Prime Minister).
A day or two after Trollope’s visit to the House the Wellington correspondent for the Daily Southern Cross, 10th September 1872, provided the newspaper’s readers with Trollope’s eagerly awaited impressions of Parliament.
“I happen to know that of Mr Vogel’s speech Mr Trollope spoke in terms of high praise, and that it would have befitted and been listened to in the atmosphere of St. Stephen’s. Of course Trollope did not put it in these words, for he is averse from periphrasatic or pedantic utterances such as those with which newspaper correspondents occasionally garnish their letters by way of ‘stuffing’ or to give a pretentious sort of polish”.
In that last sentence the correspondent seems to have scored an “own goal”, himself guilty of a touch of the garnish!
Other newspapers, perhaps miffed they had been unable to get any comment from Trollope, unmasked the Daily Southern Cross’s Wellington Correspondent as David Luckie, Member of Parliament for Nelson, a former newspaper editor. Ironically, he was to become editor of Daily Southern Cross in 1873.
Undaunted, Luckie decided to go further to sate a starved public appetite. Daily Southern Cross chanced the question, “Shall I try and describe him?” And went on, “Trollope is tall, squarely built, slightly florid-faced, portly in figure yet singularly light in his step, and a buoyancy and springiness reminding one of the free and elastic gait of Bishop Selwyn. A bright hazel eye looks at its interlocutor through spectacles, and a pleasant decided kind of voice is suggestive of being that of a man who has seen for himself, taken in all surrounding circumstances, weighed them, compared them, and drawn his conclusions according to the evidence. It is surprising how in half-an-hour’s conversation you can discover how much he knows of the state of affairs”.
Luckie does not say where, or in what capacity, he engaged with Trollope for “half-an-hour’s conversation”, nor whether Trollope, otherwise observing deliberate silence, expected it to be published. Trollope continued on his travels without a word in public. But, as we have seen, the newspapers of the day weren’t slow to try to fill the gap.
The Evening Herald, September 6th 1872, also had doubts about a favourable outcome to the visit and painted the visitor as a bit of an eccentric. “The arrival of Anthony Trollope in New Zealand in search of fresh matter for his versatile pen has not created much excitement but there can be no reasonable doubt that he will find suitable material. At the same time it would be as well if our critic should endeavour to set an example in his own person. Eccentricity of behaviour will, of course, receive every allowance, coming as it does from a stranger – and from one who has established himself as a writer of some merit”.
Bruce Herald in its article of 4th September 1872 claimed the same doubts. “As far as we can judge of Mr Trollope by the many clever and delightful novels he has written, we should honour him as an extremely good word artist, who has depicted the characters of humanity with much skill and power. Like some other travellers who make flying visits to distant countries, Mr Trollope seems to have occasionally got wrong impressions about the countries and people visited by him, and seems to have, to some extent, offended our neighbours in Victoria by misrepresenting them occasionally according to their statements. I know not whether Mr Trollope will find much pabulum, or raw material for novel-manufacture in these parts. His beat has generally been supposed to lie among bishops, rectors, curates and the upper ten thousand”.
Trollope went on to tour through the North Island. He traversed Taranaki, visited Taupo and stopped off in the Bay of Plenty.
At Rotomahana he took the waters in Lake Tarawera, bathing in the pools of the Pink and White Terraces, a popular tourist attraction. He commented “The baths are … like vast open shells, the walls of which are concave, and the lips ornamented in a thousand forms … I have never heard of other bathing like this in the world”. Mount Tarawera’s eruption 14 years later destroyed what others often referred-to as “a wonder of the world”.
Trollope continued through Waikato and finally reached Auckland, where the Mayor, Philip Philips, himself interceded, trying to persuade the famous visitor to give a public lecture. The Mayoral pleadings fell on deaf ears.
Trollope also postponed answering, and then declined another invitation to speak at the august Mechanics’ Institute while in the city.
“Trollopia” – as one newspaper called the country’s intense interest in anything to do with the author – was thus alive and very well, renewing interest in Trollope’s works. New Zealand Herald dusted off literary notes for some of his novels while local bookseller, G. T. Chapman, in Letters to the Editor was pleased to advise readers that he had stocks of most of Trollope’s works. But not for long: the shelves quickly emptied. One newspaper reported that Auckland booksellers could have easily quit many, many more volumes had they anticipated the rush. Libraries quoted unprecedented borrowings.
But it wasn’t all “good press”. Otago Daily Times, 19th October 1872, opines that “Mr Anthony Trollope does not appear to have gained golden opinions at Tauranga. The Bay of Plenty Times, in noticing his departure, says “We shan’t miss him much. He did not make himself very popular here, hardly showed himself in public at all. ‘Let him gush’ as Artemus Ward* says.”
On 2nd October Trollope was reported as returning to Auckland from the interior and there was a farewell dinner at the Northern Club on the eve of his departure for Honolulu, “a flying visit, indeed”, as one reporter put it.
*Artemus Ward was an American writer; in his humorous sketch about women’s suffrage, he writes of a woman who describes her daughter as “a sweet gushin’ child of nature”. “Let her gush!” was the roared reply, “let her gush!” Whereupon “the women all sprung back with the simultaneous observation that I was a beast”.
First Impressions, or Were They?
Reporters were not present at the dinner. Nevertheless Daily Southern Cross, 3rd October 1872, wrote up remarks Trollope purportedly made in reply to a toast during the dinner. The newspaper thus published the only public comments attributed to Trollope while he had been in New Zealand, remarks that a colony was desperate to hear from the distinguished and influential visitor. Hopefully there would be praise and positive findings. Here’s what Trollope was reported as saying:
- He was highly pleased with kindnesses and hospitality shown to him during his visit.
- He believed New Zealand, on a population basis, was a superior patron of literature
- He referred to New Zealand’s enormous indebtedness
- But locals he had seen convinced him that they also know how to spend money satisfactorily
- Road and railway construction was a great investment for the future
- There would be no want of money on applying for it in England
- New Zealand had done what no other country had: acquiring lands by fair means
- He hoped fair purchase from the natives would continue in the future
- Peace following the Land Wars needed to be preserved
- He referred very briefly to the scenery he had seen and he admired the climate
- He hoped no separation of the two islands would ever take place
“I have been 18 months in these colonies of the South Pacific, and if I had not thought something of them I would not have stayed so long. 18 months in one place is a long time for me, and I’m afraid if I remain here much longer I won’t leave my bones in old England.
He attributed the rapid progress in material prosperity in the colony more to the influence of goldfields than agricultural resources “…the latter so far haven’t been developed”.
“What I have seen in New Zealand, has yet to be told!”
The article in the Southern Cross concluded with the fact that Mr. Trollope, while speaking of his colonial experiences at the dinner, was repeatedly applauded and cheered by those around the tables. The diners were apparently well satisfied with what the man of letters had to say about their land and way of life.
Several newspapers, immediately following-up, threw cold water on the Southern Cross report, questioning its authenticity.
“The Press was not represented when Mr Anthony Trollope was entertained by the Northern Club at a semi-public dinner in Auckland. But a report of the proceedings was sent to the Southern Cross. In that report, Mr Trollope is made to speak glowingly and eloquently of the future of New Zealand, and warmly against Separation. We hear on good authority that this report does not in the least represent what was said, and it may be a consolation to those who do not speak well in public, to hear that this brilliant writer broke down signally, and could only manage to get out a few somewhat incoherent sentences. This may give a clue to what would in that case be Mr Trollope’s very reasonable dislike to take part in any of our public ceremonies – a dislike which was so marked in Otago and other provinces”.
Doubts… and Other Interests
Was this true? Had the Southern Cross report of the dinner been blather, written to make Trollope look good? Was it penned so it appeared as though the visitor had said all the things his audience wanted to hear, now passed on to the newspaper’s readers? And did Anthony Trollope have a speech impediment or a lack of confidence when speaking to an audience? And how, exactly, did he “break down signally” while addressing diners at the Northern Club?
Another reason for Trollope not to say much while he was in New Zealand could have been the fact that he was under contract to London’s Daily Telegraph to supply letters from Australasia under the pen-name “Antipodean”. Moreover, he’d sold the rights to a book to be titled Australia and New Zealand, a volume planned by publisher George Robertson, while the newspaper Australasian bought the serialisation rights. In November 1872 the Australasian was moved to protect its investment with an article following on Trollope’s visit to New Zealand, and mentioning the newspaper articles which criticised Trollope’s apparent inability to speak in public. The Australasian obviously didn’t like spoilers. “He has, like others similarly situated, to pay the penalty of greatness, and living within the glare of that fierce light that beats upon all positions of distinction, at times inconvenient. Mr Trollope has made a great name by his writings, and on the score of that he is compelled wherever he goes to assist in public ceremonies, and to deliver speeches about the greatness of the colony that he is for the time visiting. Speaking is not his vocation, but be does his best, and with a little touching-up the speech looks pretty well. Australasian hospitality is always warm and kind, but it is apt to become rather too exacting”.
Those awaiting Trollope’s views of the antipodes did not have to wait long. Australia and New Zealand appeared in serial form in the Australasian from February, 1873.
Even before the first instalment appeared, New Zealand newspapers were questioning the outcome. “We have no doubt that the book will contain much striking and interesting matter, although Mr Trollope’s flying visit, despite his shrewd intellect and piercing eye, could hardly have prepared him for the office of an unquestioned chronicler of the deeper phases of colonial life”.
Meanwhile, excerpts from his letters to the Daily Telegraph reached Auckland. Trollope notes the comparative ease of agriculture in the South Island, undisturbed by natives; his advice to prospective settlers is that the man with the capital should go to Canterbury or Otago, the poor man to Auckland or Wellington; and he admires natural resources in Auckland where he “travelled through the whole district, bathed in numerous natural warm baths, and just escaped being boiled alive in numberless hot springs. Before many years have passed”, he correctly predicts, “roads will be made, coaches and boats will run, hotels will have been built, and these wonderful lakes will be the thronged resort of tourists. Roto Mahana is certainly a place of exquisite charms”.
Of Nelson, Trollope said “The eye of man never rested on a prettier little town than Nelson. Embedded between green hills, it has the sweetest flowers, and fruit, and air in the world.
But it is a sleepy place, and fortunes can hardly be made there with true Colonial rapidity”.
On alienation of Maoris towards the settlers, Trollope wrote “… Nature or, rather, the evil condition of the Maoris themselves, is aiding our cause in a manner which is as distressing to our humanity as it is conducive to our success. They are dying-out very quickly. As the number further decreases, they will become harmless. Then they will vanish, and Maori courage and Maori independence will become work for the imagination of poets and novelists”.
New Zealanders, he found, lacked sobriety. “I must specially observe one point as to which the New Zealand colonist imitates his brethren and ancestors at home – and far surpasses his Australian rival. He is very fond of getting drunk”.
And, a point that offended Australians, Trollope also labels New Zealanders loud-mouth braggers. “I would also observe to the New Zealander generally, as I have done to other colonists, that if he would blow his trumpet somewhat less loudly, the music would gain in its effect upon the world at large”.
“New Zealand is a land very happy in its climate, very happy in its promises”.
Trollope went on to publish more novels, indeed one he wrote during his sea voyage from England to Australia in 1871, Lady Anna, appeared in 1873.
He was in Australia again in 1875 to help his son wind up farming interests. He found his harsh accusation of bragging had not been forgotten and, indeed, the fuming continued until his death in December 1882, which, in all Australian newspapers, blighted eulogistic acknowledgment of Anthony Trollope, albeit the successful writer of some 50 novels.
Newspaper articles of the day from Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand