In Defense of the “Nerd” – 19th Century Style…

I am always intrigued when I read something written long ago that rings true across the passage of time.  Most of the time the subject is human nature, and that was the case when I came across Anthony Trollope’s near perfect description of a nerd (or “hobbledehoy” in the parlance of the day when The Small House of Allington was written in 1864).  I mentioned in an earlier post that I was struggling to get into this book.  I think this passage has won me over.  I suspect, too, that having written this ‘defense of the nerd’ so eloquently, the author surely must’ve counted himself among those considered hobbledehoys in his youth…  Just read this:

“I have said that John Eames had been petted by none but his mother, but I would not have it supposed, on this account that John Eames has no friends. There is a class of young men who never get petted, though they may not be the less esteemed or perhaps loved.  They do not come forth to the world as Apollos, nor shine at all, keeping what light they may have for inward purposes.  Such young men are often awkward, ungainly, and not yet formed in their gait; they straggle with their limbs, and are shy; words do not come to them with ease, when words are required, among any but their accustomed associates.  Social meetings are periods of penance to them, and any appearance in public will unnerve them.  They go much about alone, and blush when women speak to them.  In truth, they are not as yet men, whatever the number may be of their years; and, as they are no longer boys, the world has found for them the ungraceful name of hobbledehoy.

Such observations, however, as I have been enabled to make in this matter have led me to believe that the hobbledehoy is by no means the least valuable species of the human race.  When I compare the hobbledehoy of one or two and twenty to some finished Apollo of the same age, I regard the former as unripe fruit, and the latter as fruit that is ripe.  Then comes the question as to the two fruits.  Which is the better fruit, that which ripens early-which is, perhaps, favoured with some little forcing apparatus, or which, at least, is backed by the warmth of a southern wall; or that fruit of slower growth, as to which nature works without assistance, on which the sun operates in its own time – or perhaps never operates if some ungenial shade has been allowed to interpose itself?  The world, no doubt, is in favour of the forcing apparatus or of the southern wall.  The fruit comes certainly, and at an assured period.  It is spotless, speck-less, and of a certain quality by no means despicable.  The owner has it when he wants it, and it serves its turn.  But, nevertheless, according to my thinking, the fullest flavor of the sun is given to that other fruit – is given in the sun’s own good time, if so be that no ungenial shade has interposed itself. I like the smack of the natural growth, and like it, perhaps, the better because that which has been obtained without favour.

But the hobbledehoy, though he blushes when women address him, and is uneasy even when he is near them, though he is not master of his limbs in a ball-room, and is hardly master of his tongue at any time, is the most eloquent of beings, and especially eloquent among beautiful women.  He enjoys all the triumphs of a Don Juan, without any of Don Juan’s heartlessness, and is able to conquer in all encounters, through the force of his wit and the sweetness of his voice. But this eloquence is heard only by his own inner ears, and these triumphs are the triumphs of his imagination.

He has probably become a hobbledehoy instead of an Apollo, because circumstances have not afforded him much social intercourse; and, therefore, he wanders about in solitude, taking long walks, in which he dreams of those successes which are so far removed from his powers of achievement.  Out in the fields, with his stick in his hand, he is very eloquent, cutting off the heads of the springing summer weeds, as he practices his oratory with energy.  And thus he feeds an imagination for which those who know give him but scanty credit, and unconsciously prepares himself for that latter ripening, if only the ungenial shade will some day cease to interpose itself.”

(Anthony Trollope)


  1. Scott said,

    March 28, 2011 at 6:29 pm

    Let’s hear it for the hobbledehoys of the world. I think many can be found in their parent’s basement. My son (although he will not return to live at home) fits well into the description Mr. Trollope gives. We are still waiting for him to ripen in the sun, but is has been a slow process.


    • Jay said,

      March 29, 2011 at 12:21 pm

      Hi Scott,

      Hey, now wait a second… I used to live in my parent’s basement! 🙂 Don’t worry, though, I’m sure whatever “ungenial shade” your son is currently fighting will some day “cease to interpose” itself…

      It’s a strange coincidence, but lately almost everything I read seems to include a character like John Eames. Irving’s Ichabod Crane and Goethe’s “Young Werther” are a couple more examples. There was also the scientist Hoenniker in Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle” and in his short story, “The Euphio Question,” Dr. Fred Bockman is yet another example. Maybe I’m just noticing them more than before…



  2. anatheimp said,

    April 20, 2011 at 4:24 am

    Jay, BBC radio was serilaising the Chronicles of Barsetshire. Unfortunately I missed most of it, pressure of time etc. etc. Those I did catch, including a couple of episodes of Dr Thorne were very good. Have you read Michael Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White?. I’ve not long started, encouraged by the current BBC TV adaptation, which I love.


    • Jay said,

      April 20, 2011 at 6:37 am

      Hi Ana,
      I have not read The Crimson Petal and the White. I was exposed to Faber for the first time this year via his novel Under the Skin, which I enjoyed even though it was creepy. Thanks for the tip – I’ll look into that one as well.

      BBC radio, eh? I’m not sure how well Trollope would translate to that medium (for me, anyway)…



      • anatheimp said,

        April 27, 2011 at 3:15 am

        It worked reasonably well I thought. Anyway, Jay, this is just to let you know that I’ve now posted a review of Phineas Finn.


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