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A Roaring Positive Fellow’

The Letters of Anthony Trollope; Volume I, 1835–1870 Volume II, 1871–1882

edited by N. John Hall
Stanford University Press, 1082 pp., $87.50 (the set)

In the portraits done in middle life, Anthony Trollope is a threatening figure. The bald head gleams, the eyes behind the small steel spectacles glare, the nose is ready to snort, the rough beard looks like a bunch of thistles: the ungainly man in the frock coat and loud trousers has the general air of a ferocious headmaster with a cane behind his back. He looks greedy for the opportunity of contradicting you loudly, flat in the face. Yet for all the fierce fuss and noise the bear will not hurt a fly. James Russell Lowell gave a comic account of meeting him in Boston in 1861:

I dined the other day with Anthony Trollope, a big, red-faced, rather underbred Englishman of the bald-with-spectacles type. A good roaring positive fellow who deafened me (sitting on his right) till I thought of Dante’s Cerberus. He says he goes to work on a novel “just like a shoemaker on a shoe, only taking care to make honest stitches.” Gets up at 5 every day, does all his writing before breakfast, and always writes just so many pages a day. He and Dr. Holmes were very entertaining. The Autocrat started one or two hobbies, and charged, paradox in rest—but it was pelting a rhinoceros with seed-pearl.

Dr. You don’t know what Madeira is in England?

T. I’m not sure it’s worth knowing.

Underbred? Schooled at fashionable Harrow and bishop-breeding Winchester, and stuffed with Greek and Latin tags, Trollope was distinctly a gentleman. He simply bawled in male company as if he were out fox-hunting. In fact the only rhinoceros-like thing about him was his hide. It was his misfortune that his feckless father, a city man, had ruined the family by throwing up the law for the fancy of becoming a small country squire, the result being that the gawky son was humiliated at school because his fees were not promptly paid and soon had to leave. His hard-working mother kept the bankrupt family together by writing her popular novels and—practical in the Yorkshire way—migrated for a year or two to the United States and wrote her notorious Domestic Manners of the Americans. She eventually retired to cheap Italy. Neglected by her, Anthony was pushed into that rising prospect, the Post Office, by the influence of a relative, and lived the pinched and lonely life of a London clerk. It turned out that he was born for the plodding life of the Civil Service. (It is not surprising, in the comic scene with Lowell, that Trollope and Hawthorne, with the Customs House behind him, saw eye to eye and loved each other.) Later on in his life Trollope could claim that he was responsible for giving to London the friendliest and drollest minor monument to officialdom that London streets have known: the cheerful bright-red pillar box. It is, at any rate, a monument to a man who was not only one of the most fertile Victorian novelists but a compulsive writer of letters.

As is well known, what liberated Trollope from his early slavery was being sent to Ireland where he introduced the services of the alien pillar box. In careless, beautiful, and backward Ireland he found the freedom of country life. He at once threw himself into the wild pursuit of the fox. He not only established all the town and village post offices but, a man for practical detail, measured on foot the exact distances the village “post boy” would have to walk on his long rounds to scattered cottages. He laid down the timing of the mails. He was angered by the famine and general despair, cursed British politicians, but himself bluntly opposed Irish freedom. The Irish loved this sporting and pedantic John Bull. He knew how to keep in with the priests and, as most Englishmen have done, preferred the papistical South to the dour Presbyterians of Ulster. His first novel was set in Ireland. He stayed there for seventeen years and the only thing that the Irish had against him was that he did not do the foreigner’s duty—he didn’t marry an Irish girl.

When we turn to Professor N. John Hall’s exhaustive two-volume edition of Trollope’s letters we find few from his youth beyond the charming letters written to his mother and next to nothing from his Irish period. Of the rest, it cannot be said that one of the masters of comedy and moral “comeuppance” is also one of the great letter writers. He is too professional. A great many letters expound his tussles with his publishers and are downright, expository, and honest, but they are interesting only to the historian of Victorian publishing. He is briskly informative about the lengths of his manuscripts, distinctly the tradesman or the precise Civil Servant. He writes and argues in committee or in clubs. There are far too many one-liners replying to social invitations. The annotations are often more interesting than the text. On the subject of the long Anglo-American row about piracy and copyright he is as exhaustive as a sarcastic lawyer. One can only respect the way his plain-speaking character comes through. Still we are rather amused by his earnest inquiries about his horses and his despair (when he has to go abroad) at missing the hunting season. His moderation is often cheered by the sportive elegance of Latin quotation.

He is tender but firm with plaguing ladies who ask him advice about their stories, and one is struck by his devotion to his friends, his hero worship of Thackeray. He greatly loved George Eliot—her liaison with Lewes did not bother him—and he praised Romola for its learning and documentation, but he does discreetly warn her “not to fire too much over the heads of your readers.” He loathed Dickens as a man. It is comically characteristic in his accounts of travel in the United States that Trollope set out to correct the bad impression of his mother’s book and couldn’t stop making matters worse.

He was a slave to paradox; tough schools had made him despise the thin-skinned. In one of his letters to Kate Field, the pretty young American feminist whom he treated affectionately as a wrong-headed daughter, the “liberal Tory” comes out with startling remarks about the Civil War. He wants the North to win though he is at odds with Miss Field about Abolition. She tells him she is depressed. He says he is not as depressed as he was because he has found another bogey: conscription.

My feeling is that a man should die rather than be made a soldier against his will. One’s country has no right to demand everything. There is much that is higher & better & greater than one’s country. One is patriotic only because one is too small & weak to be cosmopolitan…. I do not on this account [conscription] despair. It was not to be supposed that in doing so much all should be done without a mistake.

He is at this time in the middle of the historic piracy quarrel with American publishers, especially Harper. Spelling is not his strong point: “Why don’t they draught him & send him to New Orleans!” And then, like a provocative referee who longs to join the game and kick the ball himself, he goes on:

I was thinking today that nature intended me for an American rather than an Englishman. I think I should have made a better American. Yet I hold it higher to be a bad Englishman, as I am, than a good American,—as I am not.

In 1876, in a letter to his New Zealand friend, G.W. Rusden, who had spoken of the actor Macready and his “beautiful humility before God,” Trollope said he did not prize such humility. No one should be humble before God. If he (Trollope) were to talk to God about his work he would say, “Thou knowest that it is honest,” and that “if ever there came to me the choice between success and truth, I stuck to truth.” So—no humility. It is false. He stands by manliness.

I do not think myself to be a worm, and a grub, grass of the field fit only to be burned, a clod, a morsel of putrid atoms that should be thrown on the dungheap…. Nor if I did should I therefore expect to sit with Angels and Archangels.

Reading that string of comic fantasies one remembers that fantasy is always present in his novels, when he is evoking the double nature of ordinary people and their moral history. A pestering correspondent is likely to start his fancy. To one, Mary Holmes, a lady of a musical turn, who had bad luck as a writer, he writes:

I like your enthusiasm about the fiddle,—for in spite of all that you say I will keep to the old word which is much older than the french violin—Fidibus was the term in the time of Augustus. I do not agree with you in your depreciation of the every-day piano,—not from any love which I bear it myself, or from liking to hear the ordinary playing of ordinary ladies, but from the conviction that they as regards themselves and their own minds and souls, are better with it than they would be without it. It is said that a little learning is a dangerous thing. I entirely differ from the intended meaning of the proverb. A little learning is very much more dangerous than extended learning, but infinitely less so than utter ignorance. I think the same of music. Any awakening is better than lifeless somnolence.

How digressively he proses on! One can see that one of the attractions of the novelist was his habit of rippling on, delighting in the turn and turnabout in human character. “Ordinary playing of ordinary ladies”—a bizarre population, neglected by novelists, springs to mind. And here, I must say, Trollope’s pedantic annotator hits a farcical note of learned conjecture:

The term in the time of Augustus was fidis; Trollope may have been led to use a dative plural form by his memory of Horace’s “Aeoliae fidibus puellas.”

Merci—as one might say.

As these letters show, Trollope was less the slave than the contented master of the Victorian work ethic. “I can conceive of no contentment of which toil is not to be the immediate parent.” He sits very much in amiable club committee as he considers his experience and the characters of others. He observes and listens for confirming evidence of what one calls “things as they are.” Here it is interesting to compare The Eustace Diamonds with James’s The Spoils of Poynton. James saw how the magnificent Spoils could corrupt by their very beauty. The Spoils are fatal treasure; The Diamonds are property on which the courts can decide. They turn out to be worthless. The Spoils evoke the questions of moral and aesthetic pride and value, quite outside anything a court or debate or vote can settle. They exist on passion.

Possibly, as Professor Hall says, the only serious disappointment in Trollope’s life was that he did not succeed in getting elected to the best of all clubs, the House of Commons. How he would have raged at Gladstone and Disraeli and maddened the party Whips. But what haunts is his satisfaction in attaining normality—a blessing that was denied him in his miserable youth. It is perfect that he was hit by a stroke, when roaring with laughter in company, as he read Anstey’s Vice Versa—the tale of a successful father who dreams that he has been sent back to the humiliations of school.

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