Trollope’s Comédie Humaine

It is not the kind of thing you could prove by statistics, but I suspect that nowadays Trollope is the most genuinely popular of the great Victorian novelists. Dickens or George Eliot rate higher, of course, and loom larger as college texts; but when people want to read something for pleasure, it is the author of Barchester Towers and The Way We Live Now that they are more likely to turn to. Or such is my impression.

At the time of his death, in 1882, the idea would have seemed wildly unlikely. In the years that followed, as his reputation drifted downwards, it would have seemed unthinkable. The first big revival, spurred on by Michael Sadleir’s biography, didn’t come until the 1920s; but since then there have been repeated waves of rediscovery and renewed enthusiasm. In Britain, for example, his novels became a legendary solace during the Blitz. In America, in 1945, Time ran an article about the vogue he was enjoying, and around the same time “a dollop of Trollope” took its place among the hot items listed by Phyllis McGinley in her amusing poem “Notes on Literary Revivals.”

His modern fame owes relatively little to criticism. A great deal has been written about him; some of it, beginning with Sadleir’s clearing of the ground, has been very useful. But there has been no major act of rehabilitation, nothing comparable to Edmund Wilson’s “The Two Scrooges” or Leavis on George Eliot. For those to whom he is merely a respectable entertainer—the “middlebrow’s darling,” somebody called him—this is no doubt only as it should be: he hasn’t received what he doesn’t deserve. And even those who take him seriously may well feel that it is in keeping with the particular nature of his gift, that he is a writer whose virtues are best left to speak for themselves.

What is much more surprising is that the biographers should have taken so long to get round to him. Once again, Sadleir provided an excellent preliminary sketch; but for sixty years after that there was nothing of much consequence. As recently as 1988, if someone had gone out in search of a good reliable life, he would have come back empty-handed.

And now there are four. At the end of 1988 R. H. Super, who had already written a pioneering study of Trollope’s work in the post office, published The Chronicler of Barset: A Life of Anthony Trollope. In 1990 Richard Mullen published Anthony Trollope: A Victorian in His World. In 1991, N. John Hall, the editor of Trollope’s letters, published Trollope: A Biography. All three books have solid and distinctive merits, all three are the fruit of years of scholarship: it was hard not to feel rather sorry for the authors as they came crowding in on one another, and with the appearance of Victoria Glendinning’s biography it is hard not to feel doubly sorry. For while their work is far from being canceled out by Mrs. Glendinning’s, it lacks her literary flair.

Mrs. Glendinning has written four previous biographies, all of them notable for imaginative sympathy, shrewd appraisal of character, and an easy narrative style. Trollope displays the same qualities, but it also represents a more substantial achievement. In her earlier books, she was writing about figures from the recent past—Elizabeth Bowen, Edith Sitwell, Vita Sackville-West, Rebecca West. With Trollope, she has had to think her way back into another century, and another world.

One of the book’s great strengths is its weaving together of personal detail and social history. A biographer is naturally tempted to concentrate on the things that make his subject unique. But the things he had in common with everyone else are important, too, and if you want to convey the feel of a life that was lived a long time ago, you must be prepared to explain all kinds of habits and routines that contemporaries would have taken for granted. This is a principle of which Mrs. Glendinning has a firm grasp. She provides guidance to a hundred different aspects of bygone domestic manners, from the sauces that were heaped on Victorian dinners to changing fashions in hairstyles, from the rules governing the use of first names to the necessity of pulling strings if you wanted to make your way in a profession. And none of this information is mere loosely sketched-in background. It all has an intimate bearing on our sense of Trollope himself, of the men and women he knew, and of the characters in his novels.

It is true that anyone undertaking his biography would find an emphasis on everyday detail hard to avoid. Henry James wrote of him, memorably, that “his great, his inestimable merit was a complete appreciation of the usual”; and “the usual” was as much a feature of his life as of his books. He led a settled existence and pursued a respectable bureaucratic career. Work was his addiction, twice over—pushing ahead with his novels before breakfast, laboring as a post office official for the rest of the day. His aspirations, his pastimes, and most of his opinions were pretty much in line with those of his neighbors. If there were any skeletons in his closet, they have remained well concealed.

In the beginning it was all rather different: he had the kind of childhood that might have turned another man into a rebel or an outsider or perhaps simply a crushed worm. His father—a difficult, depressive, argumentative parent—made a mess of things in two successive careers, first as a lawyer and then as a farmer. For a time financial difficulties forced the family to live abroad. He was neglected by his mother, and bullied and beaten by his elder brother. At school, the other boys made him wretchedly aware of his poverty. By the time he had reached adolescence, it was hard for him not to think of himself as an ungifted, unlovable hobbledehoy. He failed to get into a university and began his working life as a junior clerk.

His unhappiness was the seedbed of his future achievements. He took refuge in protracted, systematic day-dreams (“I was of course my own hero”), and he recognized, looking back, that it was the habit of spinning stories in his head that had led on to the habit of setting stories down on paper: “I have often doubted whether, had it not been my practice, I should ever have written a novel.” But the fantasies in his novels were predominantly adult. He had none of the demonic Dickensian compulsion to relive and rework his childhood, and the events of his early years, though affecting enough to read about, are less gripping, less indelible, than those of the greater novelist.

Trollope the young man, alone by himself in London, is a more haunting figure. Dingy lodgings; a meager salary; chop-houses; reprimands at the office; unpaid bills—and running through it all, restlessness. Restlessness, fairly obviously, about sex, and restlessness, it seems safe to assume, about unused powers. He was such a fluent and confident writer, once his literary career was launched, that it is hard to believe there was ever a time when writing did not come to him as naturally as breathing—or daydreaming. He also had the example of his mother’s success as a popular novelist to point the way. But for most of his twenties, his daydreams remained just that. A half-hearted attempt to break into journalism came to nothing; so, mercifully, did a mad scheme for writing a history of Western literature. It was not until he was twenty-eight that he began working on his first novel, The Macdermots of Ballycloran; not until he was thirty-two—in 1847—that it was published.

In 1841 he had gone to Ireland, to take up the position of deputy postal surveyor in the small town of Banagher in County Ofally. Later he moved on to other Irish postings, eventually settling just outside Dublin. There were to be visits back to England, and increasingly, as he rose in the post office hierarchy, trips abroad on official business; but the country was to remain his home for eighteen years, and one or two of his most “English” novels were written there. The Warden, for example, was finished in Belfast.

The pages in which Mrs. Glendinning describes the Irish and Anglo-Irish society into which !Trollope found himself plunged are among the best in her book. She is excellent on landscapes, politics, social mores—on the canal boats, for instance (Trollope called them “floating prisons”), which were still the standard way of traveling into the Irish midlands; on the harshness of absentee landlords (“though resident landlords were not necessarily any better”) and the tumbledown world of the dispossessed Irish aristocracy; on the hotels where you were routinely expected to share your bedroom with strangers; on Trollope’s shrewd observations in small matters, and the larger obtuseness which made him think that Irish nationalism began and ended with Daniel O’Connell; on churches and garrison towns and she-beens and country-house dances and half-cooked mutton and whisky punch and the joys of hunting with the famous Galway Blazers (nothing to do with jackets—they once set a hotel on fire in a fit of over-exuberance).

The impact of the Famine is forcefully described, too—and in the case of the Trollopes, and most of those who had money, its relative lack of impact, until it was well advanced; though eventually, of course, it was unignorable. Trollope himself was always tempted to play the horrors down, but they broke through nonetheless. They were finally summed up for him, Mrs. Glendinning suggests, by “one surreal and unforgettable image.” At one point during the Famine, he had been struck by the sight of a mountain of abandoned wheelbarrows. A dozen years later, when he came to write his novel Castle Richmond, the image multiplied in his mind, and he described “legions of wheelbarrows…lying near every hill; wheelbarrows in hundreds and thousands. The fate of those myriads of wheelbarrows has always been a mystery to me.”

Stark though much of her Irish material is, Mrs. Glendinning avoids black-and-white simplifications. She is equally alert to the deep differences between the English and the Irish, and the deep entanglements between them; and she positively warms to her subject when she discusses the ways in which Ireland helped to humanize Trollope and bring him out of himself. He might fume at the laxness and casualness which he encountered, especially in the course of his work, but “the friendliness and the disregard for forms and norms” which underlay them came to mean even more. They were, as she puts it, “the most healing aspects” of the country for him.

Ireland was equally the making of him in his post office career. Left largely to himself, he displayed a new confidence, and developed skills—at vetting accounts, for instance—of which he had previously given (or been allowed to give) no sign whatever. Professional confidence and an expanding social life both bred personal confidence; he was ready for marriage, and in the summer of 1842, while on postal business in the seaside town of Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire), he duly fell in love—with a twenty-year-old English girl called Rose Heseltine who was on holiday there with her family. They were married two years later.

Mrs. Glendinning places Trollope’s marriage at the center of her book. Rightly so; it was central to his own life. It was also the last decisive step on his road to becoming a writer; he began work on The Macdermots of Ballycloran shortly after getting engaged. And it plainly influenced the kind of novels he wrote. Rose was no more Mrs. Proudie or Lady Glencora than Trollope himself was Bishop Proudie or Plantagenet Palliser; but could anyone have created such characters who didn’t know the married condition from the inside?

There is only one problem about making Rose the co-star of the story, which is that we know so little about her. About her background, yes. She came from Rotherham, in Yorkshire. Her father, who was already a widower at the time Trollope met her, was a bank manager and the director of a small local railway, a man of some consequence in his own world. But the Trollopes, in spite of the reverses they had suffered, were several notches higher in terms of class, and Anthony could almost certainly have made a more advantageous match if the advantages he was looking for had been worldly ones. It was Rose’s own charms that had drawn him to her, and we are correspondingly eager to learn what we can of her personality. Unfortunately, however, the accounts of her that survive are meager and unrevealing. She seems to have been a willing helpmate; she raised the children, entertained Anthony’s friends, accompanied him on his travels; the two of them gave every sign of being happy together. But the woman herself remains elusive, and all too often we are tempted to echo the reaction which G. H. Lewes set down in his journal after meeting her for the first time: “Mrs Trollope did not make any decided impression on me, one way or the other.”

Even pictorial records seem almost impossible to come by, although the one known photograph of her in her prime makes it clear that she was no great beauty. (A second photo which Mrs. Glendinning reproduces, taken during her widowhood, makes her look like Charley’s Aunt.) And if there are any vivid verbal portraits by contemporaries, her biographers have failed to unearth them. She survived Trollope by thirty-five years, and it really is curious that so few memories should remain of someone who died as recently, comparatively speaking, as 1917; but there it is.

Mrs. Glendinning makes the most of the available facts, and when they run out she always has the fiction to fall back on. Her reading of the novels in this respect is both sensitive and sensible; she cites what they have to say about love, marriage, courtship, jealousy, infidelity, household management, family responsibilities, dress, deportment, domestic harmony (or the reverse), and invites us to join her in a number of conclusions. The most important of them, the ones with which she chooses to close the book, are that Rose, for all her public loyalty, was well able to stick up for herself in private, and that Anthony, for all his difficult or overbearing qualities, was a loving husband. “Whatever the strains, Rose was lucky. So was he.”

The general verdict is a persuasive one. The backup material in the novels is well chosen, especially the examples of wives who claim their rights by force of personality, of seemingly docile helpmates who are fully prepared to give their husbands a piece of their minds once they are alone. But the evidence of fiction can never be more than oblique, and occasionally Mrs. Glendinning is tempted to go further, to convert a speculation into a fact. The most notable instance occurs in her account of the middle-aged Trollope’s infatuation with the young American Kate Field. Rose was well aware of it, maintained friendly—or outwardly friendly—relations with Kate, wrote to her signing her letters “Yours affly R. T.” But she was also upset, and “had her ample say about it in the privacy of the bedroom, in her deflationary north-country way.” Or so Mrs. Glendinning tells us, adding in a footnote, “I cannot prove that he told her, nor that she reacted as I say, but I am sure of it. The reader is free to disagree.”

In an age of faction and licensed biographical fantasies, this particular claim may not seem very startling. Nor would it be, if Mrs. Glendinning were not normally so respectful of the facts. But in the context, it makes a powerful impact. She is asserting the right of any biographer, even the most scrupulous, to go beyond the documentary sources; and she carries the reader along with her—so much so, that it comes as a shock to recollect that we have no way of telling whether the episode she describes actually took place or not. How do we know that Rose did not decide to turn a blind eye? And if she did say something, how do we know that it did not come out shrill or tearful, rather than deflationary and north-country? We don’t; but I would rather be made to think about possible collisions by Mrs. Glendinning than accept, say, N. John Hall’s quiet judgment that “Rose evidently made no or little fuss.”

In addition to its comforts and restrictions, marriage brought Trollope into contact with a spectacular fall from grace. At the end of 1852 Rose’s father, Edward Heseltine, retired and moved south. His successor at the bank soon noticed “large deficiencies,” and an investigation revealed that he had been cooking the books for nearly twenty years. He declined an invitation to return to Rotherham, kept changing his address in an effort to avoid the bank’s emissaries, and eventually fled to France, where he died in 1855. The missing money was never traced: it seems likely that most of it was lost speculating in railway shares, and that Heseltine had been drawn into the web of the notorious railway financier George Hudson, whose empire came crashing down in 1849.

There is no firm evidence that Anthony and Rose knew what happened, but it is inconceivable, as Mrs. Glendinning says, that they did not find out. It seems equally obvious that the scandal must have made Trollope think hard—harder than before—about dishonesty, commercial morality, and double lives, and that some of his thoughts found their way into his books. Not immediately: the first novel he published after his father-in-law’s death was Barchester Towers. But the accounts of swindling and fraud in his later work rest on something more than detached observation; and although the most tremendous of his swindlers, Melmotte in The Way We Live Now, is an exotic, an irredeemable alien, he had his origins close to home—not so much in Edward Heseltine himself, who was small fry, as in George Hudson and the climate to which Heseltine succumbed.

In general Mrs. Glendinning shows herself expert at the difficult art of matching the work and the life—and of knowing when they don’t match. Most literary biographers proceed in an orderly chronological fashion, pausing over a novel (or poem or play) as it comes up in the writer’s career, and then asking what biographical lessons can be learned from it. Mrs. Glendinning, who seems to have all seventy-odd volumes of Trollope at her fingertips, is more likely to find an aspect of the life reminding her of an incident in one of the books. She points out, for example, that while Trollope’s mother was the daughter of a clergyman, his father had been a saddler; and then she deftly slips in a sentence from the delightfully named novel Is He Popenjoy? (written when Trollope was over sixty) about a character called Lovelace, the son of a stable keeper, who has taken holy orders and ended up as a dean: “The man looked like a gentleman, but still there was the smell of a stable.” Coming across the quotation in this context may not have any effect on our response to Is He Popenjoy? (assuming we get round to reading it), but it certainly sharpens our sense of the particular family constellation that Trollope was born into.

Nowhere in the book is there a happier meshing of life and literature than in the brilliant discussion of Trollope as a letter writer. He was a man whose entire salaried career was devoted to ensuring and improving the safe delivery of other people’s letters: “I…was as anxious for their welfare,” he wrote in his autobiography, “as though they were all my own.” It makes it all the more curious, given his gifts, that those letters which he did write himself should have been usually plain, even humdrum. Mrs. Glendinning is forced to conclude, as others have before her, that his collected correspondence makes dull reading. And yet, she adds, “he was a very great letter-writer.” The great letters were the ones in his novels, the letters he wrote on behalf of his characters, the letters in which he became his characters—and she proceeds to discuss them in all their variety, from the passionate to the inhibited, the treacherous to the ingenuous, the pompous to the titillating.

At one extreme there is the ruthless candor of Alice in Can You Forgive Her?, keeping a worthy but dull suitor at arm’s length: “What if I should wake some morning after six months living with you, and tell you that the quiet of your home was making me mad?” At the other extreme there is foxy Francesca in Kept in the Dark, trying to snare a baronet with a flirtatious letter that she copies out three times, the third time in handwriting calculated to look like “the very work of negligence.” And for exquisite comedy, worthy of Max Beerbohm, there are the three letters that the hard-pressed authoress Lady Carbury is shown sending to a trio of literary editors in the opening chapter of The Way We Live Now, each of them aimed at procuring a favorable review for her latest book, each skillfully adapted to the character of the recipient.

Trollope could be very good, too (and Mrs. Glendinning is very good on the ways in which he was very good), on both the mechanics of letter writing, and its psychology. In Marion Fay, for example, there is one of those Trollopean digressions which may violate the strict principles of art, but which at the same time root the action more deeply in common reality:

Who does not know how odious a letter will become by being shoved on one side day after day? Answer it at the moment, and it will be nothing. Put it away unread, or at least undigested, for a day, and it at once begins to assume ugly proportions. When you have been weak enough to let it lie on your desk, or, worse again, hidden in your breast-pocket, for a week or ten days, it will have become an enemy so strong and so odious that you will not dare to attack it. It makes you cross to your wife, severe to your cook, and critical to your own wine cellar.

The knowledge of human nature which this displays is what makes Trollope a sound psychologist. The final touch about the wine cellar is what makes him something more.

By the time we have finished reading Mrs. Glendinning, we know as much about Trollope as we are ever likely to. And although criticism is not her main concern, we understand the novels a good deal better. We have been given fresh insight into the satisfactions they offer, into the reasons why they are neither superficial nor profound, into the qualities which make them—for all their limitations—the nearest thing to a comédie humaine that English fiction has to show.

Finally, the book puts paid to the idea of the middlebrow’s darling—puts paid to it all the more effectively because it doesn’t claim too much, and because its claims are implicit or lightly handled rather than systematic and assertive.

Trollope himself would never have willingly consented to being docketed as a mere entertainer. “The writer of stories must please,” he wrote in his autobiography, “or he will be nothing. And he must teach whether he wish to teach or no.” For his own part, it was what he wished: he had no hesitation in avowing that he wrote with a conscious moral purpose. At the same time, he was well aware that his morality was entwined with purely social values—as concrete morality always is. Most notoriously, there was the all-important but slippery term “gentleman,” which had to double as a class label and an ethical ideal.

The world has moved on. Trollope’s prejudices are not our prejudices; some of his attitudes now seem offensive, some are hopelessly antiquated, and Mrs. Glendinning, who will have no truck with the cosier kind of Trollopean, never pretends otherwise. But she also patiently demonstrates (or perhaps it would be truer to say, suggests) how many of his judgments are still valid and valuable. The finest lessons in his work transcend time and place and class—though it is also time and place and class that they depend on for much of their substance and color.