‘A Roaring Positive Fellow’

The Letters of Anthony Trollope; Volume I, 1835–1870 Volume II, 1871–1882

edited by N. John Hall
Stanford University Press, 1082 pp., $87.50 (the set)

In the portraits done in middle life, Anthony Trollope is a threatening figure. The bald head gleams, the eyes behind the small steel spectacles glare, the nose is ready to snort, the rough beard looks like a bunch of thistles: the ungainly man in the frock coat and loud trousers has the general air of a ferocious headmaster with a cane behind his back. He looks greedy for the opportunity of contradicting you loudly, flat in the face. Yet for all the fierce fuss and noise the bear will not hurt a fly. James Russell Lowell gave a comic account of meeting him in Boston in 1861:

I dined the other day with Anthony Trollope, a big, red-faced, rather underbred Englishman of the bald-with-spectacles type. A good roaring positive fellow who deafened me (sitting on his right) till I thought of Dante’s Cerberus. He says he goes to work on a novel “just like a shoemaker on a shoe, only taking care to make honest stitches.” Gets up at 5 every day, does all his writing before breakfast, and always writes just so many pages a day. He and Dr. Holmes were very entertaining. The Autocrat started one or two hobbies, and charged, paradox in rest—but it was pelting a rhinoceros with seed-pearl.

Dr. You don’t know what Madeira is in England?

T. I’m not sure it’s worth knowing.

Underbred? Schooled at fashionable Harrow and bishop-breeding Winchester, and stuffed with Greek and Latin tags, Trollope was distinctly a gentleman. He simply bawled in male company as if he were out fox-hunting. In fact the only rhinoceros-like thing about him was his hide. It was his misfortune that his feckless father, a city man, had ruined the family by throwing up the law for the fancy of becoming a small country squire, the result being that the gawky son was humiliated at school because his fees were not promptly paid and soon had to leave. His hard-working mother kept the bankrupt family together by writing her popular novels and—practical in the Yorkshire way—migrated for a year or two to the United States and wrote her notorious Domestic Manners of the Americans. She eventually retired to cheap Italy. Neglected by her, Anthony was pushed into that rising prospect, the Post Office, by the influence of a relative, and lived the pinched and lonely life of a London clerk. It turned out that he was born for the plodding life of the Civil Service. (It is not surprising, in the comic scene with Lowell, that Trollope and Hawthorne, with the Customs House behind him, saw eye to eye and loved each other.) Later on in his life Trollope could claim that he was responsible for giving to London the friendliest and drollest minor monument to officialdom that London streets have known: the cheerful bright-red pillar box. It is, at any rate, a monument to a man who was not only one of the most fertile Victorian novelists but a…

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