I've been reading Trollope's works, and coming across the Three Clerks, thought it might be as interesting and as exciting as the novels I had already read. Not so. Generally, Trollope takes his time at the beginning of his books, setting up characters, situations, locations -- so for about one hundred pages or less, you have a rather slow-paced, dull introduction. Then the suspense tends to emerge and the books become difficult to put down until the very satisfying (in most cases) ending. However, The Three Clerks lacks suspense. Partly, this is due to Trollope's negligence in fleshing out his characters; otherwise, it is the result of concentrating on his exposition on the civil service and less on his characters and their private situations. The book becomes Dickensian in some respects, and Dickens isn't exactly known for clarity or excitement. There being no suspense about the characters, and in fact no great interest in any of them, the book is more of an endurance test to read than a pleasure.
One problem could be that Trollope tries to handle too many characters. The Three Clerks of the title are Harry Norman, his best friend and eventually worst enemy Alaric Tudor (who steals his promotion and then his lady-love), and Alaric's cousin, the dissipated and indebted Charley Tudor. Of these young men, Harry Norman in his innocence, having much to learn about the ways of men, women and the world, would have been the most interesting to pursue, but Trollope concentrates on Alaric and his ambitions which eventually get him into a courtroom and jail -- though with a surprisingly light sentence for a man who swindles a client's fortune. The young men are matched to three young women, the Woodward sisters. Gertrude, the eldest, is cold-hearted and ambitious, and though Harry Norman loves her greatly, makes a heartless but intellectual decision to unite herself with Alaric, whose ambition she admires. She pays the price for this, but she does so in the typical female role, always viewing her husband as something near to a god, never blaming him for his failings and his crimes, and standing by her man through the trials that will follow for her and her children. Gertrude, like Alaric, gets her comeuppance, but she is also symbolic of the dependent woman of her time and often of our times, sticking to a man through all insult because the world has convinced her that not only can she not stand on her own, but she deserves no better than to be the support of a man whose ethics and behaviors are questionable. Linda, Gertrude's younger sister, who is loved and romanced but then dumped by Alaric, who cold-heartedly and ambitiously wants the oldest daughter rather than the one he professes to love, is like Harry Norman an interesting character who should have been explored but who gets little mention in the pages of the book. She is superceded by her baby sister, Katie, who falls for the useless rogue Charley and thus falls into an hysterical wasting-away that is so annoying that you almost wish . . . Well, never mind what you wish, but all six of these characters are dissatisfying and foolish, victims of their era and their stations in life. Add to that, we have Mrs. Woodward, mother to the three women, who is very nice but ineffectual and though having the opportunity to succeed, succumbs to being helpless without a man to take care of her. She is of no benefit to her daughters and actually far too negligent in her mothering of them, leading to the disasters and potential disasters in the book. Lesser characters include Undecimus Scott, the villian who leads Alaric astray, who is not as evil as he is expected to be but merely manipulative and conniving, essentially a bore. There is also Uncle Bat, a retired sea captain who makes a home with the Woodwards and generally drinks himself into a stupor. Or members of the civil service who both support or compete with Harry and Alaric in their rise in their careers. Everything ends well for Harry, at least, and Linda -- two good people get their just reward. Charley Tudor turns into a Trollope himself, writing stories for the literary magazines of his day, although the author reproduces his stories within the context of the book, which introduces just another method of dulling the pace and the action of the novel itself. Plenty of pages here to skim or skip, the book could have been half the size but still have retained the essence of the story -- on the other hand, if the author had only developed his characters and followed the important ones more closely, we could have had a finer novel of psychological and moral import.