Keeping the Secret

Trollope: His Life and Art

by C.P. Snow
Scribner's, 191 pp., $14.95

Anthony Trollope
Anthony Trollope; drawing by David Levine

Lord Snow’s book only seems larger than it is. This is because it has been blown up, with dozens and dozens of black-and-white illustrations and many very handsome plates in rich color. Some of these are closely connected with Trollope, being period illustrations from his novels, or paintings of Trollope himself and drawings of the houses he lived in and the places where he worked for the post office. But most of them are simply Victorian period studies—some, very delightful ones—which can only be tied up to Trollope by the adroit use of captions: one of these tells us, for instance, that though the engraving above is not of a house in which Trollope lived, it looks very much like a house in which Trollope did live. And so on. The reader will get some amusement out of these captions, though of course, as is always the way with such handsome Christmas books, there is no need to be a reader at all.

Lord Snow’s contribution to the Trollope “revival” announced by his publisher fits in pretty well with all the other bits and pieces. It is badly written in a self-assured manner, and very scatterbrained. Sentences start off strongly in a particular direction and then run into commas, dashes, and parentheses that divert them entirely elsewhere; only with difficulty do they rediscover the line they first thought of. Some sentences seem to have no meaning at all, or must be cross-examined two or three times before they confess to one. The prose does not suggest a written text; the blurting and the hopping and the sudden shoots sideways are those of a dictated work or a series of lectures, as are the jumpy tempo and the intermittent vagaries. A lecture, for example, might begin (as Chapter VII does) with the sentence, “Trollope must be one of the few Englishmen whose lives have been changed for the better by going to Ireland”; but nobody would write such a statement because there would be time to think of the hundreds of thousands of Englishmen who have gone to Ireland most profitably over the last one thousand odd years.

Other puzzles are more difficult to explain. What sort of writing can be described as “quiet and discomforting to read”? What is meant by “Barchester Towers has gone further and wider than any other of Trollope’s novels”? Can it be right to say that “Mrs. Trollope viewed [Anthony’s] marriage with cheerful snobbish disapproval”—what is cheerful snobbish disapproval? As for “Now he had by effort made something a bit more respect-worthy,” it is just too far below the proper standard of a respect-worthy pen-pusher.

Most of Lord Snow’s text is written in this clumsy, thoughtless way, as if pressed for both time and thought. And yet, Lord Snow still finds room to ramble and is happy simply to entertain the reader with any matter that…

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