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 us…very 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 Doré, 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.
“Gentleman” is a word that echoes through Trollope’s novels as he tries to come to terms with its meaning when birth, behavior, and circumstance don’t quite coincide. A real-life example lay close at hand in his father, who was an irascible, unsuccessful barrister, gradually coming down the slippery ladder from gentility to penury, the downward slither made more bitter by his being the descendant of a baronet (the fourth in the line; the title did not come to the novelist’s branch of the family until his grandson became the fourteenth baronet). As Trollope was to write, his father’s problems arose from “a mixture of poverty and gentle standing,” complicated by disappointed hopes when an uncle, whose heir he expected to become, married and had children who inherited the money. In such a case, it wasn’t very clear what being a gentleman meant. Trollope himself was an even better case in point, never quite sure where he belonged.
He was educated at gentlemen’s schools, first as a day pupil at Harrow, then as “scholar” (free boy) at Winchester, and back once more to Harrow. He was miserable in both places, with almost no friends; he wore hand-me-down clothes, he was physically awkward, he thought that he was ugly, and in later years he seemed almost ashamed of having been so bright. On leaving school, he failed to get an Oxford scholarship as his two elder brothers had done, and at nineteen he became a clerk at the bottom of the managerial ranks in the Post Office. Seven years later he was sent on duty to Ireland and there began his literary career in his spare hours.
When the family fortunes were at their worst, Trollope’s mother, tired of decayed gentility, left home with two daughters and a son to go to the United States, explaining that she hoped to have them schooled more cheaply there. Most of the remaining family money was lost in unsuccessful business ventures in America, but she returned to England with the manuscript of a book of pungent social observations of the New World that she called Domestic Manners of the Americans. In spite of unfavorable reviews in both countries, it became a great popular success; at fifty-three she began her career as writer, and by the time she was eighty had published forty-one books. In doing so, she had somewhat compromised her social position, like Lady Carbury in The Way We Live Now, but she had also found a means of keeping the family from sinking into complete poverty, a way that was to provide a model for her son. If she could make money from writing, so could he. At the time of his own death, he had written forty-seven novels and some fifteen to twenty other books of short stories, travels, and essays.
Trollope himself is probably responsible for his reputation as the plain man’s great novelist. His books apparently flowed forth in an easy stream, with almost no rewriting, which he regarded as somehow dishonest, and he deliberately tried to strip his craft of any romanticism by emphasizing that it was merely the result of regular habits and a judicious re-use of well-worn elements of fiction. So successfully did he discount the importance of imagination that there has been a minor industry in searching for the “originals” of characters, places, and situations in his stories. The truth is closer to his mother’s tart reply when it was said that her models came directly from her own experience: “I always pulp my acquaintances before serving them up. You would never recognize a pig in a sausage.”
What Trollope never allowed to show through his image as fox-hunting upper-level civil servant was the back-breaking work that was secret even from his friends. Through much of his adult life he began his writing before breakfast, at 5:30, expecting to complete one page every fifteen minutes, or some ten pages before he ate. After that he would go to his Post Office work. No wonder he had an enormous output.
It is difficult to know how to take his conspicuous warning at the end of his Autobiography:
It will not, I trust, be supposed by any reader that I have intended…to give a record of my inner life…. If the rustle of a woman’s petticoats has ever stirred my blood; if a cup of wine has been a joy to me; if I have thought tobacco at midnight in pleasant company to be one of the elements of an earthly Paradise; if now and again I have somewhat recklessly fluttered a £5 note over a card-table;—of what matter is that to any reader?
The passage appears to hint at a life very unlike his public one, if only a gentleman could speak of it, but the truth may be that his small deceptions kept close guard over little that was discreditable or even particularly complicated; at least, the queue of biographers has so far not told us about it if anything has been found.
Even the photographs and painted likenesses that have survived indicate his instinctive self-disguise; in most of them his face is concealed by an enormous, unattractive beard, whose shape, color, and neatness constantly shift, while his wary eyes are unchanging behind their spectacles, giving away little of what is going on inside his head. He further hid himself, and his serious deafness, behind a blustering manner that made Wilkie Collins say, “He was an incarnate gale of wind. He blew off my hat, he turned my umbrella inside out.” As one might expect of someone so ill at ease in society, he was at his best with only one or two friends, but the wind began to blow in larger groups.
We know comparatively little of his relations with his wife, from which he warned off all intruders: “My marriage was like the marriage of other people, and of no special interest to any one except my wife and me.” Research seems to have revealed little more about Rose Trollope, but she must have been an understanding and extraordinarily secure wife, for she accepted with equanimity the period during which Trollope was in love (to be sure, she must have realized its essential innocence) with a young American woman nearly a quarter century his junior. To her eternal credit, Rose Trollope simply invited Kate Field to stay with them, treated her like any other charming young visitor, apparently aware that she had only to wait until her husband’s attentions returned to her.
Trollope’s meeting with the twenty-one-year-old Kate in 1860 was probably the most upsetting of his life, but he was too sensible to let it become catastrophic. She was very good-looking, intelligent, ambitious, penniless, with the New World independence that was so appealing to Englishmen of the period. Like some of James’s young women, she was clearly attractive to both sexes, and she was later to make a career for herself as actress, singer, journalist, and lecturer on women’s rights. Trollope described her simply as “my most chosen friend. She is a ray of light to me, from which I can always strike a spark by thinking of her.” If his avuncular and playful relations with her concealed deeper feelings, he never allowed them to take over. Perhaps the nearest he came to confessing what he might have felt under other circumstances was a letter sending his love to her mother: “The same to yourself dear Kate—if I do not see you again,—with a kiss that shall be semi-paternal—one third brotherly, and as regards the small remainder, as loving as you please.” He could hardly have indicated better the tentative, wistfully unvoiced love of a shy man for a woman who he knew would probably never feel more for him.
His feelings for Kate surely contributed to Trollope’s understanding of the pert but lovable young women (often American) of the novels, but it would be wrong to claim her as their original; what is more plausible is that she and the fictional women shared qualities that had appealed to Trollope since long before his acquaintance with either. Certainly, he denied to Kate that she had anything to do with the betrousered “Miss Doctor Olivia Q. Fleabody” from Vermont in Is He Popenjoy?, or the American “poetess” Wallachie Petrie, the “Republican Browning” of He Knew He Was Right. He often showed that he shared with Kate a real sympathy for the wrongs done to women by an insensitive society, but he was close to defining his own views on woman’s role when he said that her first purpose in life was “to fall in love, marry the man, have two children, and live happy ever afterwards.” It may have been this difference in opinion that led to occasional small coolnesses with Kate.
But if Trollope left little indication of a fertile inner life, we can hardly help feeling that its potential has been refined and channeled into the rich legacy of novels he left. Professor Hall will have nothing to do with psychological guesswork about his subject. Since his major source of basic information is Trollope’s Autobiography, and that is so notably reticent, he is often forced into elaborating what has already been told more concisely. For example, Trollope mentions joining his first London club, the Cosmopolitan, a small group of literary and political friends who met near Berkeley Square twice a week in the late evening after most of them had come from parties elsewhere. With enviable brevity, the American historian J.L. Morley said that its “object seems to be to collect noted people and smoke very bad cigars.” Less laconically, Trollope gives the names of sixteen members whom he was accustomed to see there; Hall expands the list to twenty-four, although there is no evidence that Trollope was intimate with those whose names are added, and most of them never surface again in the book. On another occasion Hall describes a trip abroad in which Trollope’s party visited twenty-five places, each of which is dutifully recorded, and then on the same page he sets down a list of eighteen foreign settings Trollope used in his fiction. It all feels accurate enough and comes of close reading of the novels, but it is perilously close to cruelty to the reader.
In 1975, when C.P. Snow’s study of Trollope was first published, there were few literate persons who hadn’t heard of his study of “The Two Cultures”; his own reputation was riding nearly as high as his subject’s, and it would have been hard to predict how different it would seem today. Both he and Trollope had successful careers completely separate from their very popular writing; both were chiefly admired by readers with little time for arty theories about novels, both were deeply interested in how personality changed practical affairs; both had written series of books demonstrating the maneuverings for power in a limited society, and though Trollope had not been rewarded with a peerage, he would certainly have deserved one in a later day, as Lord Snow points out. He should have been the ideal novelist to write about Trollope, but something went slightly wrong.
Snow evidently wrote the book for an American audience unfamiliar with Trollope’s life and works. The chief excuse for its republication today seems to be its 116 opulent illustrations, but it is difficult to see their particular relevance to Trollope, and one feels that many might have been picked at random from a bag labeled “Victoriana” and would apply as well to almost any other writer of the period. One of the lavish two-page color reproductions is of Tissot’s genre painting “Too Early,” showing the first arrivals at a ball in a great house. Victorian it certainly is, and undeniably handsome, but since Trollope didn’t customarily go to balls and there is no indication that he was anything but prompt for social engagements, the reader can only guess at the reason for its inclusion. Perhaps to justify $21.95 for a paperback?
Tolstoy was an admirer of Trollope, so we get a drawing of “Tolstoi reading on the couch on which he was born. It was certainly in that house, and probably in that room, that he read The Prime Minister.” Not a bad guess, but Trollope was never in Russia and never met Tolstoy, so inevitably we feel that the drawing has blundered in from another book. Just as the illustrations frequently go awkwardly off their mark, many of Snow’s observations seem to slide off his central intentions. Like any Trollope biographer, he was clearly worried by the shortage of evidence about his subject’s inner life, and his own substitution was to explain social niceties of nineteenth-century England to the great unwashed across the Atlantic. One can almost hear his sigh of relief as he closes his copies of Trollope’s books and turns to something with which he feels more secure.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t always get it right. In 1861, writing of his love of the Garrick Club, Trollope said that it “was the first assembly of men at which I felt myself to be popular.” There’s not much to add to a statement as poignant as that, so Snow changes its focus to Trollope’s choice of refreshment at the club, when at five PM he “settled down to a cup of tea and a rubber of whist. Tea, at that time in the afternoon, was a fairly recent innovation. There is a minor trap here for readers of early Victorian novels. Tea, as a daily function, usually means a kind of nightcap, taken some hours after dinner, say between nine and ten, often with a miniature snack.” Not an uninteresting detour, but since neither tea nor the hour at which it was drunk comes into what Trollope wrote, the information would surely seem extraneous even if it were correct. (As a matter of fact, tea had already been customarily taken in the afternoon for a quarter of a century or more.) The ham-handed misinformation obliterates Trollope’s nicely understated point.
Snow’s tracking around Trollope’s life in his muddy boots is a double shame, since he often has perceptive things to say of the novels, which his sloppiness elsewhere automatically inclines the reader to discount. And since he apparently loved Trollope as a man, it is probably easier to get some sense of the personality of the shambling, awkward Victorian from Snow’s book than from other biographies—except, of course, Trollope’s own Autobiography, to which readers are recommended.*
R.H. Super, who has written a full-length study of Trollope’s career in the Post Office, as well as a biography, has now edited and reprinted The Landleaguers, an uncompleted novel about the Irish land troubles in the early 1880s, which Trollope had already begun publishing serially at his death in 1882, although he had finished only forty-nine of the projected sixty chapters.
The heroine of the book, Rachel O’Mahony, apparently owes more than most of his young women to his friendship with Kate Field, and Trollope seems on the verge of admitting it: “Though there was something hard, fixed, imperious, almost manlike about her manner, still she was as softhearted as any other girl. We may best describe her by saying that she was an American and an actress.” Did he also believe that all young American women carried a dagger, as Rachel does, to plunge into too-eager admirers?
The Landleaguers is fascinating in demonstrating how little the tribal murders in the name of political and religious freedom have changed in Ireland during the last century. Trollope seems, however, to have forgotten that he is a novelist, not an essayist, particularly when he drops all pretense of plot and writes a long chapter of direct preaching to the reader about the history of Home Rule and the Land Law. With whiskers wagging, he warns the reader bluntly that “it will be well that they who are interested only in the sensational incidents of our story should skip this chapter and go on to other parts of our tale which may be more in accordance with their taste.” Suddenly he seems to have lost all faith in the power of unaided fiction to deal with truth. In the switch from personal to political, he assumes the hectoring tones that his friends complained of when he was in company, and the wind of bluster begins to blow. As Super has written elsewhere of the book, “it is insignificant as a novel,” but it has not been easy to find a copy and its republication is welcome to Trollopians.
Oxford University Press, 1980; 1989.↩
Oxford University Press, 1980; 1989.↩