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Anthony Trollope and ‘The Story of a Cheque for £20, and of the Mischief Which It Did’

One of the more affordable forms in which it is possible to acquire the manuscript signatures of Victorian writers today is the used cheque. Quantities of these minor, sometimes biographically revealing, documents left the archives of banks and went onto the open market in the 1990s; they now circulate through the catalogues of manuscript dealers and in the online pages of eBay, some of them leaving traceable e-narratives of their patterns of ownership.

The particular cheque described in the Explanatory Notes to the new edition of The Last Chronicle of Barset is only one of several Trollope cheques currently on the market. It records a payment, on the Union Bank of London, of £205 to Frederic Chapman, dated 17 December 1868. As the note to the new edition points out, Trollope has crossed out the ‘or bearer’ option for the payee, and substituted ‘order’, meaning that the bank is instructed to pay only Frederick Chapman himself or a specific person Chapman endorses in his place. The purpose (not of course stated on the cheque) was to secure acquisition of a third stake in Chapman and Hall publishing company for Trollope’s son (you can learn more from this earlier dealer’s description). The cheque was presumably acquired at auction by its present owner who is now selling it again on eBay, priced at £329-99. Some reader of this blog may even want to bid.

Early Edition of The Last Chronicles of Barset from 1867
Early Edition of The Last Chronicles of Barset from 1867. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This and similar surviving examples of Trollope’s day-to-day financial practices show him exercising a basic precaution in the transfer of money (like crossing out ‘or bearer’) that would have saved the protagonist of his novel a world of trouble. The Last Chronicle is, like most of Trollope’s fiction (and indeed most Victorian realist fiction), acutely alert to how money operates in the world to shape individual and collective narratives for good and ill. Often, the main novelistic interest shown in money is moral and political (Trollope’s own satire The Way We Live Now is a good example). But in this, the last of the Barsetshire series, Trollope’s focus is more intimate, and much closer to the plot gearings and the mood of tragedy. For Josiah Crawley, impoverished cleric, unable to scrape a living in the under-remunerated curacy of Hogglestock, the unthinking use of a cheque made out to its payee ‘or bearer’ (not crossed out, and therefore able to act in effect as cash) is a personal disaster. It brings him under suspicion of theft, and (in his own eyes) puts his sanity in doubt, since he cannot recall how he came by the cheque in the first place.

Editing this novel, one becomes aware how far the technicalities of the financial plot may be moving out of memory for readers today—though one could readily enough substitute modern forms of payment equally capable of giving rise to suspicion of misappropriation of funds (the online fraud; the computer error). The financial instruments change, but the personal predicaments they may generate are strikingly persistent. Trollope’s working title for the novel was, for a while, ‘The Story of a Cheque for £20, and of the Mischief Which It Did’—which would have made for a cluttered title page, and put Victorian readers in expectation of a much more conventional ‘it-narrative’: the picaresque adventures of a cheque, circulating through society and articulating, for us, a moral portrait of that society. This isn’t that kind of novel: it is much less programmatically moral, much more psychologically subtler, and (its plot technicalities notwithstanding) it is a remarkably topical portrait of how far our dealings with money may still expose us to public, and the most intimate forms of private, scrutiny.

Heading image: An 1870 Bill of Exchange payable in London with British Foreign Bill revenue stamps attached, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.