The Dark Secret that Mr Trollope hid from his Victorian Admirers.

  • Source: Daily Mail
  • Date: July 29, 2000
  • Author: Sue Tranter

Revealed: How a visit to the library exposed the hypocrisy of the Barchester Chronicles author.

The hushed rooms of Glasgow's Mitchell Library do not lend themselves to exuberant whoops of excitement. So, when Antonia Swinson turned the pages of a fading scrap-book and discovered the answer to a literary mystery that has baffled scholars for years, she showed admirable restraint.

Despite what she describes as a jolt as if from an electrical current she continued to make her painstaking notes, digging around among the records of a wealthy Scottish family.

Swinson, a financial journalist and author from North Berwick, was delving into the life of literary giant Anthony Trollope.

In doing so, she has uncovered a tale of corruption to rival any told by the Victorian icon. And she has posed some very pertinent questions about his relationship with one of Britain's richest businessmen, John Bums, the first Lord Inverclyde and his father George, founder of the Cunard line.

Trollope, a self-appointed guardian of the nation's values, was, it seems, in the pay of the equally evangelical entrepreneur George Bums. In return for what was almost certainly the Victorian equivalent of brown envelopes and luxury holidays, Trollope fed his benefactor the valuable business information to which, as a Government civil servant, he was privy.

It was while researching the plot of her latest novel that Swinson slowly uncovered the scandal which history had, until now, very successfully kept under wraps.

Since publishing her discoveries, however, the reaction has been anything but muted. While many academics have hailed her services to literature, she has also incurred a tirade of criticism and insult from around the world. One particularly vicious email, of which she receives at least 15 a day, described the 40-year-old mother of two as 'unclean.'

To those who have never read Barchester Towers, or any other of Trollope's novels, it is worth putting this Victorian colossus in context.

A quick look at his website shows thousands of entries from fans across the globe. In America, societies and literary groups have been set up to honour him. Kansas has recently become the latest state to establish its own Trollope Society.

Writer Margaret Drabble, speaking at a recent British Society dinner in his honour, where guests included Lord Hurd and Lord Archer, made the slight suggestion that his writing was formulaic. She was hissed at.

Yet, despite being the subject of such intense interest and acclaim over a century after his death, no one has uncovered a number of important facts about his life - not least where he was when he wrote Barchester Towers, his most famous book.

Most telling of all, none of his biographers have uncovered the extraordinary facts about his friendship with the Burns family.

From her quiet studies in the Mitchell, Swinson has almost certainly revealed all. Her conclusions show Trollope to be a hypocrite and probably a liar.

Known for the high moral tone of his books, he wrote in his autobiography: '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.'

Swinson's interest began when, by chance, she discovered that her husband Alan Reid journalist - also a financial journalist - had a rather interesting family background himself.

A fan of Trollope's writing, she was fascinated to hear that Reid's great-great-grandfather had known him while employed as George Burns' yachtmaster on the Clyde.

Together they began checking out the Reid family and came upon the Inverclyde Collection buried away in Glasgow's Mitchell Library. It is a series of neglected scrapbooks charting the history of the Bums dynasty and recording the famous people they entertained at their palatial mansion, Castle Wemyss, overlooking the Fifth of Clyde.

She also found an article published in The World of 1889 which contained an interview with John Burns, in which he says: 'It was here (at Castle Wemyss) that Anthony Trollope thought out and wrote a great portion of Barchester Towers.'

Yet Trollope had always painted a rather humbler picture - maintaining that during this period he wrote in railway carriages, leaning on a board.

Why, Swinson wondered, did he not want the public to know that he had really been staying at Castle Wemyss, home of the fabulously rich Lord Inverclyde? Carefully picking her way through his writings and the Mitchell scrapbooks, Swinson pieced together the clues like detective.

She says: 'George Burns was an evangelical Christian determined to make it big.'

He and his brother James set up as G & J Burns & Co, general merchants, in the 1820s. They were soon running the mails between Greenock, Liverpool, Belfast and Londonderry. In the 1830s, Samuel Cunard, a Boston merchant looking for funding for a mail shipping line between Liverpool and the United States, visited George Burns after being turned down by Wall Street and the City of London. Within weeks, Burns founded a consortium investing ?270,000. By 1839, he was installed as the first Chairman of the Cunard Steam Packet Company. Burns had his own mail ships running to Ireland. With the profits, he acquired the luxurious Castle Wemyss estate near Largs. A few years later he offered to transport the British-Irish mails for nothing, thus really finishing off any competition.

Trollope suddenly enters the glittering Inverclyde set in 1854 - an odd occurrence, since Burns' religious leanings forbade the reading of novels.

Trollope had a history of financial ruin. He was pretty desperate when, in October of that year, having finished The Warden, the then civil servant took up the promoted post of surveyor for the Government-run postal service in the Northern District of Ireland.

Normally, he would finish a book and then immediately start another,' says Swinson. 'But this is a dark period in an otherwise well-documented life. Just where he wrote Barchester Towers has remained a mystery till now. Keen to find a motive for the connection between the Burns clan and the civil servant author, Swinson read the heavily approved biography of the Inverclyde family.

She says: 'I finally realised that Trollope possessed something that Burns needed desperately - information. By late 1854, the cash-cow mail business, which was funding the buy-out of the Cunard consortium and piling up the Burns fortune, was threatened by a new rival - the Ardrossan Line.

'With the Glasgow and Western Railway Company, it had proposed a Parliamentary Bill to incorporate timetabling of rail and boats for faster delivery of passengers and mails to and from Ireland. Burns had to sink that Bill. He did so with a little help from a certain civil servant author.

'I believe Trollope stayed at Castle Wemyss that winter to advise on fighting the Bill and wooing the postal service high command. He provided a form of 19th century manage-ment consultancy. The amendment was thrown out in Committee. Burns later took over the Ardrossan Line.'

Life at Wemyss would have been delightful for any guest, with luxury cruises around the Western Isles and as far as the Mediterranean. There were regattas, parties and strawberry teas on the lawn, attended by well-heeled Victorians who built their palatial summer homes along the river.

Trollope enjoyed 30 years of such hospitality, almost certainly in return for a place on Burns payroll. It helps to explain the references to Scottish poetry throughout the Barchester Towers and makes Wemyss the near certain location of Castle Portray in Trollope's epic novel The Eustace Diamonds.

Despite exposing his dubious side, Swinson is sympathetic to Trollope. She says: 'Our definition of corruption in these sleaze-sensitive days is irrelevant here. The search has given me greater understanding of his work. There is much left for doughtier scholars to do, but it does explain why Trollope described 11 per cent of his literary earnings as 'sundries'.

On the barrage of criticism her findings have brought her, Swinson is philosophical: 'Curiously, it is the more serious and expert academics who have been the kindest and most interested. They are delighted to discover unknown facts about Trollope, seeing it as more flesh on the bones while also uncovering a very human side to the man.

'I didn't know anything about the Inverclydes when I started, nor did I realise they were so fascinating. But then I just smelt it - a scandal, and perfect for a fun, sexy novel.

Even after I had finished the book, I couldn't walk away from it.'

Swinson now finds herself a popular speaker and has given talks on her discoveries. She laughs off the critics and is encouraged and delighted by the plaudits of serious experts, who have contacted her from as far away as Australia to thank her for her detection work.

She is also hoping that, with sponsorship, it will be possible to restore and preserve the much neglected Inverclyde scrapbooks. Barely read these days, they are a fascinating record of a bygone era in a great house.

Castle Wemyss saw everyone who was anyone for a century, including Gladstone, Queen Mary, Gracie Fields, Maurice Chevalier, Stewart Granger and Haile Selassie, former Emperor of Ethiopia - all guests of generations of Lords of Inverclyde.

John Burns died in 1901 and his great-grandson succeeded to the title. In 1957, the line died out, the castle's roof was removed and by 1995 it was a pile of rubble.

Today, the grounds where glittering garden parties were the toast of the Clyde have become an estate of executive homes. The scrapbooks carefully compiled to tell their fantastic story are crumbling.

'There are literally thousands of pages devoted to Trollope in cyberspace,' says Swinson. 'Yet I couldn't find a single mention of George and John Burns.

'It's just one more example of Glasgow turning its back on a part of its extraordinary mercantile and industrial history.'

Curiously, the sniff of sleaze may just help to restore its reputation again.

Antonia Swinson's latest book, The Love Child, published by Hodder & Stouqhton, is out now.

Wednesday, 24 April, 2019
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