in Three Clerks

Chapter 02 – The Internal Navigation

plebeian and vulgarity

Somerset House is described as “not so decidely plebeian” as other civil service buildings, while the Office of Internal Navigation within Somerset House is described as a “vulgarity.” The word plebeian comes from the Latin word plebs meaning common people, and the word vulgar comes from the Latin word vulgus meaning crowd or mass of people, in a lower-class sense. Both of these words clearly reinforce social hierarchy, and because they are Classically derived, their use further reinforces status and prestige. [GZ 2016]


“Infernal” Navigation, Shades, and elysium

The Internal Navigation Office is jokingly referred to as “Infernal” Navigation, a word-play which reflects the office’s lower status in the world of civil service as well as the more questionable behavior of its clerks. While “infernal” could call to mind the Christian hell, Trollope here draws on the word’s associations with the Classical underworld when he mentions that its clerks frequent an establishment named “Shades” and when he ironically calls the office an “elysium,” the pleasant region of the underworld in which the shades of the blessed reside. [RR 2016]


simpathy and sympathy

During the Internal Navigation examination, Charley must transcribe an article, in which he spells the words sympathy and sympathize as “simpathy” and “simpathize.” These misspellings suggest that Charley does not have a strong Classical foundation, particularly in ancient Greek, from which these two words derive: someone who knows Greek would know that the common prefix sym- contains an upsilon (borrowed into in English as a Y) rather than an iota (borrowed into English as an I). But although Charley cannot spell sympathy correctly, he doesn’t lack the capacity the word names. Later in the chapter Trollope tells us that Charley feels sympathy for the abuses which Mr. Oldeschole suffers at the hands of the younger clerks. Trollope makes sure we know that, despite his educational short-comings, Charley has a decent heart. [GZ & RR 2016]


a volume of Gibbon

At Harry and Alaric’s lodgings Charley uses a volume of Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire so that he can practice his transcription and penmanship, both of which are needed to pass the examination for the Internal Navigation Office. The title of Gibbon’s book alludes to Charley’s own “decline and fall” in the same chapter by becoming an “infernal navvy.” That Harry and Alaric have such a book on their shelves shows a level of education, and perhaps of aspiration, different from Charley’s. [GZ & RR 2016]


herculean labors

Before beginning his job at Internal Navigation, Charley is led to believe that the office “was a place of herculean labors.” This phrase refers to the grueling set of twelve tasks completed by the Classical hero Hercules. That the Office of Internal Navigation is exaggerated in this way, and then is downplayed later in the same paragraph, reveals to the reader how effortless is the work and how lazy are the workers who populate the office. [GZ 2016]


lapsus naturae

The narrator goes easy on Charley’s behavior due to the influence of his peers at the Internal Navigation, and he even says that only a lapsus naturae wouldn’t be shaped by his peers. This Latin phrase is translated as “slip of nature,” and in this context it means that it would be unnatural for such a young man as Charley to be above the influence of his friends. Through the narrator’s contrast of Charley and this cold and clinical phrase, something which he is not, the reader is made to feel warmer and more understanding of Charley’s situation. [GZ 2016]


facile princeps

This phrase, which is Latin for “easily foremost,” is used ironically to describe Charley’s excellence at doing no work in the Internal Navigation Office. This expression was used almost solely by Cicero and always as compliment. The use of Latin in this context inverts Cicero’s original intention of the phrase as a compliment. See commentary for Chapter 4 of Dr. Wortle’s School.


the lectures of Charley’s father

While we tend to think of lectures being delivered orally, the word lecture contains the Latin element lect- that refers to reading. It is apt, then, that the lectures Charley receives from his father are contained in letters that he reads. [RR 2016]



When Charley moves in with Harry and Alaric at the strong request of Charley’s mother, the narrator says that Charley was “domesticated.” This word derives from the Latin domus, meaning household. In a literal sense, this word simply refers to the fact that Charley moves into Harry and Alaric’s home. In a metaphorical sense, this word implies that Charley is made tame. [GZ 2016]