LAST Wednesday 200 guests assembled in Lincoln's Inn, London, at the annual dinner of the Trollope Society. Margaret Drabble, the novelist, proposed the society's health; Lord Alexander of Weedon, the former Chairman of NatWest, responded; Lord Hurd, the former foreign secretary, applauded.
Would their evening have been such a success if they had known that their hero, Anthony Trollope may have practised sleaze at first hand and not merely in fiction?
Papers at Glasgow's Mitchell Library suggest Trollope, a civil servant, accepted hospitality from government contractors before doing them a favour that saved their business.
The papers reveal a dubious side to Trollope's 30-year friendships with the Scottish shipping magnate George Burns and his son John, who became the first Lord Inverclyde. The Burnses ran a near-monopoly of mail boats for Britain's postal service to Ireland, and relied on this to finance the purchase of the Cunard Line, which ran mail to America.
In October 1854, Trollope, then 39, had finished his first novel, The Warden, when he took up the postal service position of surveyor for the Northern Ireland district ? and a mysterious gap appeared in his meticulously documented life.
A newspaper interview with John Burns among the papers in the Mitchell Library reveals that the civil servant was enjoying the Burnses' hospitality at Castle Wemyss, their palatial home on the Clyde near Largs.
The Burnses had no interest in literature, but they had every reason to see Trollope in his post office role. Their postal service cash-cow was being threatened by a rival company bidding for the Irish mail run.
The interview with John Burns ? found in Burns family scrapbooks known as the Inverclyde Collection ? suggests Trollope's stay at Castle Wemyss was a long one, as he "thought out and wrote a great portion of Barchester Towers", his second novel, while there.
A few months later, when a parliamentary committee investigated the rival bid for the Irish mail run, Trollope gave evidence on behalf of the Bumses.
Speaking for four days, using his authority as the recognised expert on the Irish postal service, he demonstrated that the rival proposal would be neither cheaper nor more efficient. "I do not think any other officer has local knowledge of the whole district except myself," he said. The committee decided in favour of the Burnses.
Trollope's stay at Castle Wemyss may explain the snatches of Scottish poetry throughout Barchester Towers.
The Bums connection is also a clue to the plot ? the arrival of an evangelical bishop in Barchester. This had been regarded as prescient, as it was written immediately before the promotion of the evangelicals in the Church of England by Lord Palmerston. Trollope appears to have heard of it from Palmerston's adviser, the Earl of Shaftesbury, a fellow guest.
In his autobiography, Trollope inveighed against corruption. "A man who takes public money is so odious I can find no pardon in him. Nothing would annoy me more than to think I should ever be supposed to have been among their number.
NB Sub's error on the Sunday Times. Barchester Towers was the second Barchester novel and not Trollope's second novel.
Why not spread the word: use your favourite social network!