The Struggles of Brown, Jones & Robinson, as the book is properly titled, is one of Trollope’s less well known and even lesser read novels. I don’t know why The Folio Society in their complete Trollope novels series decided to drop ‘The Struggles of’ from the title other than the probable difficulty of fitting all the words into the standard spine layout for the series. That this is a relatively unknown work can be judged by its sporadic printing history and the fact that even The Trollope Society themselves largely dismiss it in a single paragraph write up and that the list of primary characters on that web page fails to mention any of Mr Brown, Mr Jones or Mr Robinson. I mentioned the printing history because it is so odd for a novelist of the stature of Trollope, Longman along with Chapman & Hall both declined the novel and it first appeared in eight monthly parts in The Cornhill Magazine in 1861/2. Despite being written in 1857 it didn’t appear as a book until American publisher Harper’s Library issued a copy in 1862, the first British edition was Smith, Elder’s (who also published The Cornhill Magazine) copy in 1870, there then followed another American edition in 1882 and then nothing for ninety nine years!
It largely seems to have been reprinted since 1981 as part of sets of complete works with no publisher judging it sufficiently commercial to make it a stand alone book in its own right. Indeed even The Folio Society, whose copy I have, left it to the last to be printed of the forty seven Trollope novels in their complete set which they started in 1989 with ‘Can You Forgive Her?’ and finally finished in 1999 with this book and then topped off the collection with Trollope’s autobiography. There isn’t even a Wikipedia entry for the novel. With all that in mind it was with some trepidation that I decided to see if it was really that bad.
Happily the answer is no, and whilst it isn’t a great novel I definitely enjoyed it both as a satire of the advertising industry and a tale of intertwined relationships. To set the scene Mr Brown becomes a widower at the start of the book and gains control of his wife’s butter business which he has no interest in so subsequently sells. He has two daughters Sarah Jane who had married Mr Jones and Maryanne who is single but has promised marriage to Mr Brisket, the butcher. Mr Robinson has fallen in love with the flighty Maryanne to the extreme annoyance of the much larger butcher who several times threatens him with violence if he doesn’t stay away from her. Oddly the three title characters subsequently start a business together selling haberdashery which none of them know anything about, with Brown putting up the money, Jones being the floor manager and Robinson in charge of advertising, he also takes charge of the decor and uniforms in the shop which is themed around the recently invented colour, magenta. The original capital in the business is stated as £4,000, which is the equivalent of around £365,000 today, a massive sum to start a small business with, but right from the off the partners, encouraged by Robinson, planned big with significant premises at 81 Bishopsgate Street and a significant amount of staff to match. What they didn’t have was much stock as Robinson was convinced that spending a lot on advertising would bring people in and then you could sell them what you had, rather than what you had promised you had.
It is not only Robinson’s extremely expensive advertising ploys, which range from horse riding knights in armour, to liverymen handing out leaflets but Jones’s dodgy selling which involved putting high quality items in the windows with low prices then actually selling similar looking but lower quality items to the customers for the same price which leads to the reputation of the business starting to fall away. Brown meanwhile is still dealing badly with his two daughters who see their inheritance frittered away in the business whilst he banks less than the actual takings and salts some away from himself. It’s difficult to find a single likeable character in the book with the possible exception of Robinson who is more naive than criminal, Brown’s two daughters are truly horrible and I rejoiced when Maryanne, after playing Brisket and Robinson off one another throughout the book ends up with neither of them and both count themselves lucky to be rid of her.The firm needless to say burns through the large amount of capital it started with in about a year and goes bust, a story that could be applied to numerous businesses that have more ideas than plans or solid foundations. It would have been interesting to see what Trollope would have made of the various overinflated dotcom and IT companies and dodgy banks built on loans to them over the last twenty years but ‘The Struggles of Brown, Jones and Robinson’ is an excellent primer on dubious companies living well beyond their means but believed to be sound right up until they crash. It may not ever have been rated highly but it should be read by anyone looking to start, or invest, in a company in the present day.
The forty eight Trollope books in the complete works set by the Folio Society.