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 …