Anthony Trollope’s late novel The Fixed Period (1882), set a century in the future in a fictional South Pacific island, has often puzzled readers. It deals with a policy of compulsory euthanasia in the politically independent island of Britannula, a policy that is overturned when the island is taken over by Britain. My article aims to explain an odd interlude in the novel: a cricket match in Britannula between a local and an English team. Drawing on the history of cricket matches between England and its antipodean colonies around the time of the novel’s composition, I argue that the cricketing interlude serves to highlight the text’s take on the Britannulans. This community, living a hundred years in the future, claims to be autonomous, but it possesses a mindset still governed by a sense of Britain as the “mother country.” Hence Trollope emphasizes how difficult it is for settler societies to shake off such attitudes and ties.
Anthony Trollope’s short novel, The Fixed Period, was written between December 1880 and February 1881, serialized in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine from October 1881 to March 1882, and published in volume form in the latter month. This late and still understudied work is unusual in Trollope’s oeuvre in that it deploys a first-person narrator—and an unreliable one at that. Moreover, rather than being set in Trollope’s England, the story told in The Fixed Period asks readers to look a century into the future, to 1980, and to imagine an island called Britannula in the Pacific Ocean. This island had, thirty years earlier, been settled by a few hundred people who had left New Zealand in protest at that country’s proposals about public debt.
By 1980, New Zealand, Britannula, and Australia were all independent of Britain—Britannula, from its inception—but the story relates how Britain has forcibly taken control of Britannula, on account of the latter’s distinctive policy of the “Fixed Period.” The policy mandates that, because old age both makes people suffer and may prolong their service in roles they can no longer fulfil effectively, euthanasia is compulsory. On his or her sixty-seventh birthday, each person would be sequestered in a special “college,” and would prepare to be cremated a year later, having reached his or her “Fixed Period.” Meanwhile the story’s narrator, President John Neverbend, has been the country’s greatest advocate for this policy, but is now writing his defence of it as he is forcibly returned to Britain on a British gunboat.
Both contemporary commentators and more recent critics have found The Fixed Period puzzling. John Neverbend’s planning had begun to unravel when the first Britannulan to reach sixty-seven, his own best friend Gabriel Crasweller, had shown reluctance to move to the college, and was supported by most of the community, but Neverbend (as his name signals), is unwavering in his views. Thus, this novel does express, like much of Trollope’s more familiar political fiction, what happens when abstract ideas are confronted by the vagaries of human thoughts and feelings—a kind of conflict evident, for example, in Phineas Finn’s experience in the “Palliser” novels. In The Fixed Period, the tension is aggravated by Neverbend’s tendency to represent himself as an enlightened but misunderstood pioneer, like Columbus or Galileo, who will be vindicated by posterity—while he remains oblivious to other people’s more immediate emotions and preoccupations. He thus recalls a figure like Louis Trevelyan in Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right (1869).
Yet, rather than being linked with Trollope’s earlier fiction, The Fixed Period could be considered in relation to Trollope’s responses to the antipodean colonies of his own day. Helen Lucy Blythe sees Neverbend’s story as a kind of rewriting of the New Zealand section of Trollope’s travelogue, Australia and New Zealand, which had appeared a few years earlier (in 1873) as a record of his experience in those countries over 1871-72. Whereas the travelogue, for all its inconsistencies, endorsed the supposedly “civilizing mission” of the British to the New Zealand Maori (which would in reality lead to brutality and dispossession), The Fixed Period, according to Blythe, transposes this theme so as to condemn the effects of British colonization on New Zealand’s indigenous people. That is, John Neverbend tries to impose on the Britannulans a policy of enforced serial murder which he represents as a sign of progress, thus evoking what was, at the time of writing, past and current practice toward the Maori (Blythe 169-94).
John Neverbend is obviously not an overt imperialist—rather the opposite, as he leads an independent republic. However, as both Blythe and David Skilton have observed, Neverbend has affinities with the powers that do represent British colonial might, affinities manifested especially by the misuse of language. Neverbend constantly deploys euphemistic terms that play down the physical and psychological reality of what the “Fixed Period” means, while the British Secretary of War is, in 1980, the “Secretary for Benevolence,” and the new British governor, Sir Ferdinando Brown, is given to “flowery speeches” that mask his nation’s threat to use force (Blythe 168-69, 190-91; Skilton, ix, xi). In Britain, in fact, the political leaders are descendants of those prominent a century before—Sir William Gladstone, great-grandson of William Ewart Gladstone, and the Duke of Hatfield, grandson of the Marquess of Salisbury. Some change is for the worse, too—and Trollope is being prescient here—since British dominance over Britannula is assured not by actual military power, but by Britain’s possessing a weapon so destructive that the mere threat of its deployment subdues all opposition. So, an independent republic becomes a colony because its president has emulated colonial attitudes and practices.
What I intend to focus on here, however, is an element of the novel that has received scant attention—a cricket match between the Britannulans and a visiting English team that for a time suspends the controversy over Crasweller’s predicament as the first citizen to confront his “Fixed Period.” This match occupies considerable space in a short novel, and its textual function is by no means obvious. From the reader’s viewpoint, the effect is at least partly comic. The English team have jokey, cricket-related names, such as Stumps, Sir Lords Longstop, Sir Kennington Oval, and Lord Marylebone. Both teams also engage in elaborate preparations and training, because the cricket of 1980 is more dependent on technology than that of a century earlier. For bowling, the English team have brought a large catapult, while the Britannulans rely on a “steam-bowler” (The Fixed Period 69).
Anthony Bateman, who deals with The Fixed Period briefly in his study of discursive and literary representations of cricket, argues that the cricket match is a caricature of professionalization and commercialization in sport. These were developments that Trollope opposed, and that he saw as exemplified through “the intense media attention already being given to imperial sporting encounters by the early 1880s”; moreover, Bateman further contends, “organised sport” is shown to be “a distraction from political reality” (142). My argument here is somewhat different. I agree with Bateman about the relevance to the novel of the cricket matches played between England and its settler colonies of Australia and New Zealand in the years immediately before the novel was written. Nonetheless, rather than being a “distraction from political reality,” the cricket match in The Fixed Period finally is the catalyst for events that bring “political reality” to the fore. And one reason for this is that the citizens of the supposedly independent republic of Britannula are mentally and emotionally tied to Britain—as had been their forbears of Trollope’s day. This circumstance gives the novel’s comedy a darker tinge.
Considering the motif of cricket in the novel throws up a paradox. The ironic treatment of Neverbend’s narration means that he emerges as a stubborn man, deluded about others’ priorities. It is part of his single-mindedness that he resents the cricketing interlude as an interruption to activating his first “Fixed Period” case. By contrast, the cricket match is entertainment for the other characters, partly because it takes attention away from the projected death of Gabriel Crasweller, and apparently delays it. The Britannulan team, meanwhile, is actually led by Neverbend’s only child, Jack, who exemplifies the primacy of human feelings over abstract theories. He is a vocal opponent of the “Fixed Period,” mainly because he is in love with Crasweller’s daughter, Eva. In the cricket match, Jack turns out to be the Britannulans’ star batsman, and wins the match for them in a thrilling finish. The victory is all the more impressive because Britannula’s population is only a quarter of a million, against Britain’s sixty million. Jack Neverbend also wins Eva, thwarting the suit of visiting cricketer Sir Kennington Oval. Yet the cricket match creates the means for defeating Neverbend’s unpopular policy, through a rapid and ruthless annexation of the republic of Britannula as a British colony. In particular, the Britannulans’ mental frame of reference, that is, their orientation toward the colonial power despite—or because of—their sporting contest against it, makes this outcome possible.
In this context, considering actual Anglo-colonial cricketing relations is illuminating. On one level the Britannulan cricketers are sturdily independent. One aspect of real-life cricketing relations between England and the settler colonies that the novel evokes is the vexed question of the difference between the amateur “gentleman” cricketer and the professional, paid player. That such a contrast existed in Trollope’s day (and continued to exist up to the 1960s) resulted, of course, from class differences. In the late 1870s, accusations were regularly exchanged when both Australian and English players claimed to be amateur but also sought payment: being amateur carried prestige, but cricketers often looked for means of accruing money from matches (Lazenby 10, 46-48, 177ff, 251-52). In the novel, however, payment and thus potential hypocrisy are not at issue. Rather, the visiting English team consists of a mixture of gentlemen (here, aristocrats) and professionals, while the Britannulan team is proudly amateur. This choice on the Britannulans’ part is nevertheless not represented as a claim to gentlemanly status, so much as an assertion that they do not overvalue what is only a game. Britannulans, Neverbend explains, would consider it degrading that “a man should earn his bread by playing cricket,” rather than by some more worthwhile endeavour (The Fixed Period 62). The young republic apparently has its priorities straight, and its team wins.
In the 1870s and 1880s, real-life victories by Australia and New Zealand in cricket could be seen to prove the superiority of antipodean sportsmen. But such a judgement was not straightforward. Because the actual antipodean players were almost all of English heritage, their victories could equally be interpreted as exemplifying the successful transplantation of English traits into the colonies. Indeed, in the chapter on cricket in a collection Trollope himself edited on British Sports and Pastimes in 1868, Charles Merewether declared that cricket had become the game “by which Englishmen may be recognized in every corner of the earth,” such that “[w]here a score or so of our sons is found, there is found cricket” (296). In his history of New Zealand cricket, Greg Ryan comments on how, in Victorian culture, cricket became an expression of the relationship between physical and mental health, the maintenance of moral standards, the cultivation of a “manly” character, and English racial and military pre-eminence.
In the settler colonies, then, cricketing rhetoric was coloured by concerns over the quality of the new society in relation to that of the “mother country” (Ryan 74). In New Zealand, “[t]o perform honourably on the field was a means of informing those at ‘home’ that New Zealand had inherited and maintained requisite standards of Englishness” (Ryan 166). In the case of Australia, the cricketing victories of the 1870s belied fears that the English race in that country had deteriorated from either the taint of convict origins or the effects of a hot climate (Ryan 169). When James Lillywhite’s English touring team lost to an Inter-Colonial XI team at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in March 1877, English-born Australia-based journalist and novelist Marcus Clarke declared, in his pamphlet The Future Australian Race, that exertions on the gold-fields had strengthened men’s bodies and minds, so that everywhere in Australia were to be found “the makings of a great nation”; but the men who had been thus strengthened represented “[t]he best nerve-power of England, the best bone of Cornwall, the best beef of Yorkshire, the keenest brains of Cockneydom” (qtd. in Lazenby 6). Then, after an Australian team unexpectedly triumphed at Lords in May 1878, the British press trumpeted the Englishness of the Australian players, notably the Yorkshire background of Australia’s demon bowler, Fred Spofforth. In fact, according to the Home News, the Australian team were “all of our own flesh and blood,” and their achievements “a proof that the old blood is not degenerating in those far off lands” (qtd. in Lazenby 93).
Although not invoking cricket, Trollope had commented in Australia and New Zealand in 1873 that pride in England and her institutions was not only present in Australia and New Zealand, but was “very much more conspicuous among our different offshoots than it is at home” (3: 615)—that is, pride in being English by descent, governed by English laws, and speaking the English language. But this pride was really based on feeling both English and superior to the English:
He tells you that he has the same climate,—only somewhat improved; that he grows the same produce,—only with somewhat heavier crops; that he has the same beautiful scenery at his doors,—only somewhat grander in its nature and more diversified in its details; that he follows the same pursuits and after the same fashion,—but with less of misery, less of want, and a more general participation in the gifts which God has given to the country. (Australia and New Zealand 3: 632)
For all their sense of greater achievement, nonetheless, the point of reference for these settlers of the 1870s is still England. Many of them, after all, would have been born in England, as was the case with some of the cricketers who represented New Zealand or Australia at the period.
As regards The Fixed Period, however, what is striking is that, in a novel supposedly set a century into the future, this orientation towards the original colonial power is still salient. Most obviously, an island republic that in about 1950 was established by settlers from New Zealand—an independent New Zealand—took the name “Britannula” (“little Britain”). Crasweller’s prosperous sheep-farm, which hosts the cricket match, is called “Little Christchurch,” a name that references both various English locations and the city in New Zealand that Trollope knew as the hub of a settlement with another very English name, Canterbury. In the novel, Neverbend deploys the trope of “like England, but better” in this context. As Blythe points out, he draws attention to the “old English fruit-trees” which the Britannulan settlers brought from New Zealand to Little Christchurch, where they “throve … with an exuberant fertility, of which … the mother country knows nothing” (The Fixed Period 17; Blythe 165). England is still the “mother country.”
Before Britain annexes Britannula, the cricketing interlude does serve to introduce explicitly the question of how independent of England Britannula really is. The topic is addressed in a conversation between Neverbend and the English cricketing captain, Lord Marylebone, with the Britannulan president highlighting his country’s independence, and the English lord, its ties to England. As far as Britannulan coinage is concerned, Neverbend acknowledges the difficulties of creating an independent currency, but represents these difficulties as practical. It would be desirable, in his view, to feature on Britannulan coinage the Southern Cross—that is, the constellation visible from the southern hemisphere (and a symbol associated with countries in the South Pacific both in Trollope’s lifetime and since). The Britannulans have adopted this symbol for their flag, rather than the Union Jack. But the republic is actually reliant on British coinage, not having established its own mint, such that superimposing the Southern Cross on the British coat-of-arms is not feasible, according to Neverbend (The Fixed Period 67). Lord Marylebone, meanwhile, claims that the Britannulans are still English, because they speak English. Neverbend can riposte that this is equally true of the Americans, but that the Americans would not consider themselves English. This is certainly true in 1980, for a peace treaty has only just ended a war between America and Russia on one side, and England and France on the other! But the overall impression conveyed by the novel is that despite being politically independent, the Britannulans of 1980, even Neverbend, still derive their collective identity from England and Englishness.
To counter Marylebone’s argument, Neverbend declares that “a nation does not depend on the small external accidents of its coin or its language,” but on “the hearts of its people” (The Fixed Period 67). The “hearts” of the Britannulans have, however, mostly turned against the policy of the “Fixed Period,” which was part of the republic’s founding legislation. In order to overturn it, they have recourse to seek the help of the leaders of the country they have just defeated in cricket. Neverbend initially believes that it is a few elderly and hence fearful locals who have sought Britain’s help, but it transpires that Neverbend’s son Jack has also called on the assistance of his own former rival in love and cricket, Sir Kennington Oval. This baronet had an uncle in high places he could ask to intercede—that man with the Orwellian title of “Secretary for Benevolence” (The Fixed Period 120). Hence, a 250-ton gunboat rapidly appears, armed with troops and the weapon so powerful that the threat of its operation quells any resistance, and Britannula becomes a British colony for the first time.
In one sense, the outcome here is in keeping with traditional motifs of romantic comedy, including those familiar from other novels by Trollope. That is, the marital desires of a young couple have been threatened by the behaviour of a family patriarch, but the young pair succeed in the end. The stakes in The Fixed Period, however, have been more than personal, and the prospective union of the couple is overshadowed by the political ramifications of the developments that made it possible, as the novel turns to the conduct of the new governor and the forcible return to Britain of ex-President Neverbend. Sir Ferdinando Brown treats the situation euphemistically, making a long public speech in which he commends the “prosperity, intelligence, and civilisation” of the Britannulans. He is at first rewarded with applause, but after alluding to the new constitution “which it is [his] purpose to inaugurate,” he finds that continued praise is then met by stern silence. It is as if the community has started to realize the implications of Brown’s presence, so that the governor finishes his speech “to a certain amount of clamour” (The Fixed Period 142ff). Neverbend’s narrative shows that he is clearly given to self-justifying rationalization, but in repudiating his leadership, the Britannulans have surrendered their autonomy. They have surrendered it too, to a power represented by a man who must admit that, in “contests throughout the world … the highest respect is paid to the greatest battalions” (The Fixed Period 133). That circumstance, the novel suggests, is, depressingly, as true in 1980 as it was in 1880, whether it is a colonial power laying claim to a colony, or any combination of nations at war with one another.
Neverbend’s and Brown’s administrations represent, then, two sides of the same coin. And even were the coin to have the Southern Cross on one side, it would still be an English coin. The Britannulans have always been orientated towards the “mother country.” This had been true of New Zealanders and Australians back in 1880, as the cricketing history of that period exemplifies. In The Fixed Period, the Britannulan cricketers exult in their victory over the English team, but call on their contacts within that team to counter an unpopular local policy. As a result, even though the British team lost their cricket match, they still win a new colony. Forcible colonization has been made possible by prior mental colonization. In Australia and New Zealand, Trollope’s overall contention had been that the existing antipodean colonies would become separate from Britain once they were fully ready for the change. The Fixed Period suggests, nevertheless, that the obstacles ahead might be internal as much as external, mental and emotional as well as practical.
Trollope was aware that people might remain perfectly healthy well past sixty-seven, as his portrayal of Gabriel Crasweller shows. He also knew that death could be sudden, as it was in the case of his friend, the novelist George Eliot, who died in December 1880 at sixty-one while Trollope was writing The Fixed Period. Trollope was as well a humane man, as had been very evident when his friend Shirley Brooks, editor of Punch, had died unexpectedly in April 1874: Trollope bestirred himself in a flurry of letter-writing to raise money to assist Brooks’s widow and two sons. I mention this because the elder son, Reginald, having followed his father into journalism, went on to write an article that was brief, but central to cricketing history. This was the “obituary” published in the Sporting Times of 2 September 1882 in response to Australia’s startling defeat of England in a cricket match a few days before:
An Affectionate Remembrance of English Cricket which died at The Oval, on 29th August, 1882. Deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing friends and acquaintances. R.I.P. N.B. The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia. (qtd. in Whimpress 20)
The article would eventually give the name “the Ashes” to the still-ongoing cricketing series between England and Australia. Although this mock-obituary slightly postdates the publication of The Fixed Period, and thus had no impact on the novel, it would be interesting to know if Trollope saw it!
If he had been transported to the world of 1980, Trollope would have found that Australia and New Zealand were long politically independent of Britain. However, both countries continued to play cricket matches against England and other former British colonies. But the game had become more diverse in the kinds of matches played, as well as more overtly commercial. The most notable of these changes, in fact, had occurred shortly before 1980, and their architect, media magnate Kerry Packer—was an Australian.
published June 2019
HOW TO CITE THIS BRANCH ENTRY (MLA format)
Wilkes, Joanne. “The Implications of the Cricket Match in Anthony Trollope’s The Fixed Period (1882).” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].
Bateman, Anthony. Cricket, Literature and Culture: Symbolising the Nation, Destabilising Empire. Ashgate, 2009.
Blythe, Helen Lucy. The Victorian Colonial Romance with the Antipodes. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
Lazenby, John. The Strangers Who Came Home: The First Australian Cricket Tour of England. Bloomsbury, 2015.
Merewether, Charles. “On Cricket.” British Sports and Pastimes, edited by Anthony Trollope, Virtue, 1868, pp. 290-322. Internet Archive. Accessed 7 Jan. 2019.
“New Novels.” The Graphic, 6 May 1882, p. 454. ProQuest. Accessed 23 Jan. 2018.
“Recent Novels.” Daily News, 7 April 1882. ProQuest. Accessed 23 Jan. 2018.
Reeves, Nancee. “Euthanasia and (De)volution in Speculative Fiction.” Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 54, 2017, pp. 95-117. JSTOR. Accessed 13 Mar. 2018.
Review of The Fixed Period, by Anthony Trollope. Glasgow Herald, 19 April 1882, p. 9. ProQuest. Accessed 23 Jan. 2018.
Ryan, Greg. The Making of New Zealand Cricket, 1832-1914. Frank Cass, 2003.
Skilton, David. Introduction. The Fixed Period, by Anthony Trollope, 1882, World’s Classics, 1993, pp. vii-xix.
Trollope, Anthony. Australia and New Zealand, vol. 3, George Robertson, 1873.
—. The Fixed Period. Edited by David Skilton, World’s Classics, 1993.
Whimpress, Bernard. The Official MCC Story of the Ashes. 4th ed., Carlton Books, 2015.
 For contemporary responses, see “Recent Novels,” Daily News, 7 April 1882; a review in the Glasgow Herald, 19 April 1882; and “New Novels,” The Graphic, 6 May 1882. For recent comments on the novel’s ambiguity, see especially David Skilton’s introduction to his edition of The Fixed Period, World’s Classics, 1993, pp. vii-xix, and Nancee Reeves, “Euthanasia and (De)volution in Speculative Fiction,” Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 45, 2017, pp. 95-117.
 The novel is not consistent overall in its use of “Britain/British” and “England/English,” but in the interlude involving cricket, “England/English” predominates.