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 …

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