The Trollope Prize Expository Writing Program at Harvard University has recognized two William and Mary English scholars for their essays expanding understanding of the works of Victorian writer Anthony Trollope (1815-1882). Senior Matthew Sherrill won the $2,500 Trollope Prize for his essay, “A Novel Against Novels: The Collision of Story and History in Trollope’s Castle Richmond.” Senior Lauren Klapper-Lehman received $1,000 for her third-place essay, “Avoiding Extremes: Women and Work in Castle Richmond.” In addition, the College received awards on behalf of Deborah Morse, associate professor of English, who served as adviser to both students regarding their submissions.
Sherrill and Klapper-Lehman were introduced to Trollope as members of Morse’s senior honors class. Immediately the students were drawn to the social commentary he contributed through his works, and they each found his insights instructive for contemporary readers. Their essays focused on the novel Castle Richmond (1860), a relatively early Trollope work in which he traces the social and courtship rituals of upper-class Irish men and women against a backdrop of peasants dying amid the Irish potato famine (1845-1849).
Concerning his essay, “A Novel Against Novels,” Sherrill said that Trollope presented the main aristocratic characters as archetypes, a device that drew attention to the “fictionality of the story” in opposition to the reality of suffering caused by the famine and the devastated economy. “Basically, how this plays out, is that Trollope makes the readers realize the inadequacy of the fictional enterprise as a whole in dealing with social problems because fiction is ultimately alluring, escapist and unreal,” he said. At the same time, Sherrill called Trollope’s treatment of the Irish people “sympathetic” at a time when others in Great Britain essentially dismissed them.
Klapper-Lehman, upon reading the novel, said she was struck by the absence of references to women and work, a subject that Trollope historically pursued. “As I read secondary sources on Trollope’s involvement and sympathy with women’s work, as well as its prevalence as a topic of social discourse, I found myself more and more certain that this could not be a topic ignored in this novel,” she said. In her paper, she examined the “binds that women were placed in by their inability to gain employment in or out of the home and the damage that it did not only to their manner of living but to the progress of the famine,” she said.
The fact that the two essays considered Trollope as an advocate of tolerance and women’s rights pleased Morse. After all, before she wrote Women in Trollope’s Palliser Novels, which is considered the first feminist study of the writer, Trollope had been considered much more conservative in his views on women. Her next book will consider Trollope’s views on tolerance. She called Sherrill’s paper very sophisticated. “He challenged published critics who all had said there is a conflict between fiction and history in the novel,” she said. “Matt looked at the book and completely argued against that, saying that Trollope actually challenged the demarcation between fiction and fantasy.” She said that Klapper-Lehman’s essay was “original” in the way it “looked at the novel through the lens of gender, depicting the women of all classes as being bound together.”
As Morse’s honors class got under way, Sherill and Klapper-Lehman became fascinated with Trollope’s “understated” style and with their professor’s passion for the subject. “She always has thought-provoking approaches to his novels, which inspire new ways of viewing them and sometimes heated class discussions, which she both values and moderates appropriately,” Klapper-Lehman said about Morse. Both students discovered through their reading of Trollope ideas that are relevant today.
Sherrill explained, “This is a day in which a lot of people in American are dissatisfied with the government’s treatment of certain things abroad, just as people may have been dissatisfied with the British government’s treatment of the famine. If you interpret Trollope as I have, it’s sort of a wake-up call to the sort of literary intelligentsia who are sitting around writing fiction. They’re not going to change anything unless they get up and get out there and make their voices heard.”
Klapper-Lehman added, “This novel is not only significant because of being overlooked, despite its obviously thoughtful treament of a cultural issue, but as as with all Victorian novels, I believe, there is a lesson, in this case perhaps an awareness of suffering at our doorstep while we live in the midst of abundance, even in these difficult economic times.”
For her part, Morse will continue introducing students to Trollope. “One reason that it is so important in our society is that so many people don’t look at moral decisions critically. They tend to have a knee-jerk response,” Morse said. Likewise, she will encourage them to submit essays to the Trollope Prize committee. “We have such high-level students here at William and Mary, and they have such original ideas,” she said. “Trollope is provocative to them.”
Read the winning essays on the Trollope Prize winner Web site.