Dirty Work: Trollope and the Labour of the Artist


  • Flora C. Armetta (City University of New York)




This article considers Anthony Trollope’s emphasis on art as a form of necessarily dirty work: mental, manual, and visual labour grounded in messy, everyday real-life experience. I focus on critically neglected artist characters in several of Trollope’s novels in order to connect his ideas, especially on work and social order, to those of John Ruskin. The implications of Trollope’s interest in work become clear when read in the context of Ruskin’s argument – most fully articulated in The Stones of Venice – that artistic work such as the craftsmanship of the Gothic stone-carver, is more fully human than any apparently perfect ‘high’ art, and therefore more real. Both Trollope and Ruskin, I argue, explore this idea of “realityâ€, suggesting that artists must embrace it by engaging in a particular, art-informed process of perception that reveals to them things that seem “low†(literally and figuratively), especially things that are in fact of the earth—dusty, dirty, and stony. For each author, this radical departure from the Victorian credo, ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’, paradoxically demonstrates what is of real value in even the humblest of humanity, and allows the seer to recognise the higher spiritual truths that inform every element of creation, down to its very particles of dirt. Such an approach to images of dirt enables Trollope to demand that his characters, and more importantly his readers, recognise social ills (visually marked by their presence in dirty places, filled with dirty people), and, finally, desire to do something about them. In Barchester Towers, Ayala’s Angel, and The Last Chronicle of Barset, Trollope’s narrators insist that the visual labour that makes this recognition possible is part of a thoughtful approach to the world, and attempt to prod his readers into thinking, and perceiving, for themselves, even if it means that they question his story.