• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

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.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print