Thomas Adolphus Trollope (1810–92) was the elder brother of Anthony, the novelist, and the son of Fanny, the novelist and travel writer, whose Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832) caused such deep offence that many years later Tom was advised, only half jokingly, to adopt a pseudonym if he ever revisited the States. Mrs Trollope was married to an unsuccessful barrister who turned, equally unsuccessfully, to farming. Many of her writings were churned out in the intervals of nursing dying children, fleeing abroad to live more cheaply (and escape bailiffs), and coping, until his death, with the increasingly erratic and irascible behaviour of her husband. Tom Trollope describes symptoms which sound like migraine, and for which calomel was prescribed as the remedy. Calomel pops up quite frequently in Victorian sick-rooms, but I didn’t know until now what it was: mercurous chloride, of which the main use was as an all-purpose ‘purgative’, though it was also an ingredient (until the 1950s!!!) of tooth-cleaning powders. So poor Mr Trollope, whatever his original illness may have been, was during the formative years of his children being slowly poisoned with mercury.
Tom was also a writer, though as he himself cheerfully admits, a workaday producer of what would sell – journalism for the great Victorian periodicals, historical novels, history and travel writing. The three volumes of What I Remember were originally two, published in 1887 and taking the story of his life from his boyhood in (as he very frequently reminds us) the reign of George III to the death of his first wife, Theodosia Garrow, in 1865. The third volume – published in 1889, apparently by popular demand – ends in 1880 with another death, that of Beatrice (Bice), Tom’s only child, in childbirth.
Tom is not, on this evidence, a great writer, or even a very efficient one – all three volumes contain a great deal of repetition, and the production process appears to have been hasty, if not slapdash. (Letters are missing or upside-down, Greek phrases usually contain errors, and less familiar Italian words and names are frequently mis-spelled.) On the other hand, he is worth reading: a very engaging raconteur, with a cheerful approach to life (inherited, apparently, from his mother), shrewd pen-portraits of his contemporaries, and the helpful circumstance that so many distinguished Victorians came into his ambit at the hub of expatriate life in Florence and later in Rome.
The first volume is a bit of a slog, especially the long section devoted to the arcana of life at Winchester College (‘Beatae Virginis Mariae de Winton prope Winton Collegium’): the volume is dedicated ‘Omnibus Wiccamicis’, and the school clearly had a profound effect on the development of the man. The second volume deals with the travels of mother and son after his father’s death – Tom became his mother’s general manager and factotum, and they lived together all over Europe, and finally in Florence, until Mrs Trollope’s death in 1863. There is a chapter on Dickens, another on Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and two sections on ‘Mr and Mrs Lewes’ – G.H. Lewes and George Eliot. Trollope’s description of the mutual devotion of this notoriously unmarried couple, and his reverent portrait of George Eliot ‘to me a marvel, and an object of inexhaustible study and admiration’, are completely fascinating.
Tom’s tactful acceptance of Lewes and Eliot as ‘George Henry Lewes and his wife’ is especially interesting for a reason that his contemporary readers were almost certainly not aware of. His own second wife, Frances Ternan, who he met when, with the assistance of Anthony, she was sent out as a governess for Bice after her mother’s death, was the elder sister of Ellen Ternan, the ‘Invisible Woman’ who was the mistress of Charles Dickens for the last thirteen years of his life. From a theatrical family, all three Ternan girls had had not very successful stage careers, and it was effectively Dickens who supported the entire family once he had entered the potentially scandalous and hence completely secret relationship with Nelly. Frances’ marriage to Tom, nearly thirty years her senior, was by his account extremely happy: she too was a published writer and a translator from Italian of both prose and verse. At least once a year, she is described as visiting her mother and family in England, alone, and Nelly apparently visited Tom and Frances in Italy, though she is never mentioned in the last volume of What I Remember. So this garrulous and apparently unsophisticated autobiographical ramble is economical with the truth in one respect: one wonders in how many more?