In The Three Clerks Anthony Trollope, who famously had done so poorly in school, attacks the notion of testing aptitude and achievement as a means of obtaining positions in the nation’s civil service or in gaining promotions once there employed. In chapter six, the narrator mentions “a strange rumour” that spread around government employees that a “new scheme of competitive examination” would be used for the first time to fill open positions. At this point Trollope points out that

It was no wonder that men's minds should be disturbed. Competitive examinations at eighteen, twenty, and twenty-two may be very well, and give an interesting stimulus to young men at college. But it is a fearful thing for a married man with a family, who has long looked forward to rise to a certain income by the worth of his general conduct and by the value of his seniority—it is a fearful thing for such a one to learn that he has again to go through his school tricks, and fill up examination papers, with all his juniors round him using their stoutest efforts to take his promised bread from out of his mouth.

Oddly enough, the one thing Trollope (or his narrator) doesn't summon in his opposition to competitive examinations is any claim that they don’t test qualities or knowledge essential to the performance of the test takers’ actual duties in the civil service. Trollope’s fundamental conservatism appears in an acceptance that students have to take exams because, well, they have always done so, and he has no desire to abandon old practices or confidence that he could do so.

Much later in the novel — chapter 27 — we learn that one force driving the new examination requirement was a Mr. Jobbles (job-less?), “who wanted to crush all patronage at a blow,” but he does so not because he opposes patronage for the good of the nation but simply because it would reduce the number of people over whom he'd have power, since “any system of patronage would lamentably limit the number of candidates among whom his examination papers would be distributed. He longed to behold, crowding around him, an attendance as copious as Mr. Spurgeon's, and to see every head bowed over the posing questions which he should have dictated. No legion could be too many for him.” Unfortunately for Jobbles, “his energies were crushed by the opposition of his colleagues, one of whom, Sir Gregory, believes “that every one admitted into the Service should be educated in such a manner as to be fit for any profession or calling under the sun” and that “the question of patronage might for the present remain untouched.” Nonetheless, Jobbles thinks, 'appoint whom you like. . . I, however, I am the St. Peter to whom are confided the keys of the Elysium. Do you send whatever candidates you please.”


Trollope, Anthony. The Three Cerks. Project Gutenberg E-text prepared by Andrew Turek and revised by Joseph E. Loewenstein, M.D., and an anonymous Project Gutenberg volunteer.

Last modified 8 April 2016