Trollope: A Biography
Trollope: An Illustrated Biography
A good many Victorian writers forbade biographies of themselves, or else their executors did all they could to make them impossible to write. Billows of smoke, for instance, merge with our picture of Hardy, redolent from the bonfires of his papers at Max Gate, leaving behind only a faked biography, supposedly by his widow, and several volumes of letters with about as much interest as the laundry lists Catherine finds in Northanger Abbey. Matthew Arnold insisted that there should be no life of him. Tennyson feared being “ripped like a pig” by outsiders, and kept it in the family by turning over the writing of his biography to his adoring son. The day after Hopkins’s death an “old fellow, all in black” was busy tearing papers out of a chest of drawers and piling them on a blazing grate at University College, Dublin. Of course the biographies appeared all the same, but their writers had been led a merry chase.
Probably best of all at the game was Anthony Trollope, who for years provided proof of the difficulty of writing about an artist whose inner life seemed either indistinguishable from his public image, irrecoverable because of the lack of documents, or simply nonexistent. He never publicly refused to have his life written, but only now are full-length biographies of him appearing. An odd situation, when he had been accepted for a quarter of a century as one of the half dozen Victorian novelists who count.
Besides several assorted earlier studies, including that of C.P. Snow, there have been three admirably detailed lives of Trollope since 1988, by R.H. Super, Richard Mullen, and now Professor N. John Hall. All so fat that merely opening any of them is sufficient to endanger its spine, and between them not far short of two thousand closely packed big pages. Enough, you might think, to chew on for a while, even for the most devoted Trollopian, but still to come this year is a further Life by Victoria Glendinning, its weight and pagination as yet unannounced.
A copy of Trollope’s Autobiography, in the small pages of the old World’s Classics, lies easily in one hand and takes up some 115,000 words, if my count is accurate, while Hall’s new biography is three times as long. (Sorry for the figures, but the habit is catching when considering Trollope.) One can’t help speculating about what lies behind that difference in length, whether there is so much new material to be considered, or whether scholars have found such radical new ways of looking at Trollope’s life and work that it all needs revaluation. The short answer is that the new biographies have dug out much detail about the small beer of his life, about his work in the Post Office, and about his relations with his publishers: the size of print runs, his royalties, the number of words in his chapters, and a very great deal indeed about contemporary reviews of his work. Extremely useful for enquiries into limited aspects of his life, but they inevitably concentrate on endings rather than beginnings, on the external rewards of the life of a writer with little hint of what kind of beliefs or compulsions or eccentricities prompted the works in the first place. They don’t change our view of Trollope in any important way. The day-to-day slog of a writer’s existence is often central to his life and hence an important part of literary biography, but it is not the most interesting, part to the reader and must be smuggled in as ballast to any consideration of his creative imagination. Add to this information two or three pages of plot recapitulation on each of forty-seven novels, and the total of detailed fact Professor Hall gives us lies heavy on the reader.
It is now nearly a decade since Hall published a thoroughly serviceable edition of Trollope’s letters. The reader’s feeling of disappointment in those two volumes stemmed from the quality of the letters themselves rather than from the efficient editing, which unostentatiously showed that their editor knew practically everything factual about Trollope. Correspondence and private papers are usually the best key to a man’s inner life, but those terse notes are primarily remarkable for revealing so little of what makes a novelist. According to Trollope’s son, his letters were bald and unaccommodating even with those nearest him; he “confined himself to the matter on hand and wrote shortly. He loved usâ€Śvery dearly, but I think he had too much writing (P.O. work and books) to do to make him wish to dally pleasantly with his pen in writing to us.” The depth of detailed information that Hall brings to bear on the correspondence, as well as his insistence on ascertainable fact, is admirably suited to the buttoned-up, no-nonsense contents of the letters; whether it is equally appropriate in a biography is debatable.
It is not Hall’s fault that his sources are so unrewarding, but biography dependent upon external event quickly runs dry unless it is accompanied by an attempt to understand motivation. He is quite right to distrust reckless guesswork, but informed speculation is part of what we expect from an expert: careful postulation made credible by what responsible evidence there is, of which the expert knows more than we. Too often in this book the reader worries fretfully about what the purpose of Hall’s research is if it doesn’t suggest new ways of thinking about either Trollope or his fiction.
Probably without deliberate intention, Trollope made it as tough for critics as for biographers. Once more it is thinness of material that stands in the way. The novels are extraordinarily accessible to modern readers, for there is little that seems mysterious in them; the intellectual currents of the day lying behind them are moderately well known to anyone having a passing acquaintance with nineteenth-century history, and those that are not already known can be found easily. Like the biographical studies, the criticism of Trollope’s works occasionally helps in small matters without finally making the books any clearer to us, and we are driven to ask how necessary it is, when the critic so often seems extraneous. These are surely the most immediately available group of major nineteenth-century novels, not excepting those of Dickens, and their very openness may seem to dispense with the necessity for criticism.
But what drives would-be critics to the edge of distraction is in large part responsible for the popularity of the novels with ordinary readers. The stories deal with an attractively unambiguous world in which moral decisions can be made with some reasonable expectation of being correct if one’s motives are right. Trollope’s simple world is not difficult to understand precisely because it operates on simple ethical assumptions. It is not surprising that the big change in Trollope’s twentieth-century reputation came during World War II when refuge in an uncomplicated system of values seemed more attractive than ever. Many of his readers have always regarded him as a favorite uncle, of whom one is fond without expecting him ever to unsettle one’s convictions. Of Framley Parsonage Trollope wrote,
The story was thoroughly English. There was a little fox-hunting and a little tuft-hunting, some Christian virtue and some Christian cant. There was no heroism and no villainy. There was much Church, but more love-making.
Had he not been so reticent, he might also have mentioned the humor of his novels, which endeared them to such unlikely readers as John Henry Newman, who woke himself laughing one night at the memory of Barchester Towers, which he had just been reading.
Like Newman, most readers have preferred Barchester Towers and the other novels set in that most peaceful of ecclesiastical backwaters, where papers with news of the great world are nearly always late in arriving, where decisions about ecclesiastical advancement seem more the province of the bishop’s wife than of the prime minister, where Signora Vesey-Neroni (born Stanhope) is regarded as a foreigner less for her acquired speech than for her most un-Barsetshire habit of ensnaring men, where a spare clergyman can always be found for a daughter of the close, and where evil is so remote that there is no chance Mr. Crawley can be guilty of criminal dealings. It is not a world that seems alien to its creator and his own low-pressure life. Plot was never Trollope’s strong point, and most of his books are memorable instead for their characters, normally at their most interesting as great set-pieces not often shown in action.
In the past two or three decades there has been a fashion among critics for preferring the Palliser novels, with their parliamentary and high society settings, to the Barset series, but one suspects that the great messy heart of the reading public may be nearer the truth than that of the critics. Anyway, with admirers like James, George Eliot, Hawthorne, and Tolstoy, the Barset novels hardly need other defenders.
Elsewhere, the divide between the two groups can be seen most clearly in the changing attitudes to The Way We Live Now, once dismissed as unreadable, more recently acclaimed as Trollope’s greatest work. As usual, the truth probably lies somewhere between the two extremes. The novel postulates that London, then England, and ultimately the world, have become a venal mercantile hell obliterating the unified country that existed a century before. A grand conception, like one of the engravings of DorĂŠ, but it rings false because it is pure nightmare with none of the sanity of the comic skepticism that hangs over Barsetshire. Even the characters seem the stuff of caricature rather than of life, and one wonders whether Trollope was not trying to make up for the lack of villainy that characterized Framley Parsonage. The Way We Live Now has never been popular with readers in spite of its modern critical standing, and at times it seems as if it has been singled out for praise through an earnest kind of low seriousness that distrusts comedy, feeling that whatever is depressing is automatically more important than anything that provokes laughter.
Before the recent election, the British newspapers made much of the predilection of the prime minister for Trollope’s novels. Whether John Major actually spends as much time reading them as he does in pulling a middle-aged muscle on the cricket pitch, or whether he was merely following the advice of his campaign advisers in declaring his preference for the charms of Lily Dale in The Small House at Allington is not very important, for his liking of Trollope was surely meant to indicate to the voters that he is one of your Jolly Good Uncomplicated Types with none of those fancy literary tastes that you might expect of a Conservative. All his life Trollope was caught between wanting to make writing seem a reasonable amateur occupation for a gentleman in his spare time, something that any man might do if he really put his mind to it, and wanting to preen himself upon his thoroughly professional knowledge of the world of writing and publishing.