Some years ago now, we reissued, and I wrote about, the autobiography of Thomas Adolphus Trollope. Since then, we have produced two of the travel narratives of his more famous brother: North America and Australia and New Zealand, with The West Indies and the Spanish Main (which he himself thought was the best) coming soon.
Most recently, Trollope’s two-volume Autobiography has arrived, and I have thoroughly enjoyed reading it again for the first time in many years. It is, and is not, a conventional autobiography. It contains almost nothing about his personal life after his thoroughly miserable childhood. His marriage to Rose Heseltine in 1844 is mentioned in one line, and ‘My marriage was like the marriage of other people, and of no special interest to any one except my wife and me’ – an almost Periclean reticence as admirable in some ways as it is annoying in others. (Rose outlived her husband by 35 years. Almost nothing is known of her.)
Similarly, the existence of his two children is acknowledged briefly: while the Trollopes were in Ireland, ‘two sons had been born, who certainly were important enough to have been mentioned sooner’. They are not mentioned again until late in Volume 2, when, in 1869, ‘I was called on to decide, in council with my two boys and their mother, what should be their destination in life’. (The elder became a not very successful publisher, and the younger a not very successful sheep-farmer in Australia.) In 1871, ‘we, – my wife and I, – had decided that we would go to Australia to visit our shepherd son. Of course, before doing so, I made a contract with a publisher for a book about the Colonies.’
That ‘of course’ is indicative: Trollope was a thoroughly professional author, and this is an account of his working, not his personal life. He saw himself as a craftsman, not an artist, and had no time for ‘artistic’ pretensions. He explains his modus operandi in some detail: having decided to write novels in the time he could spare from his work at the Post Office, when beginning a new book, he would prepare a diary for the period he expected to spend writing, and recorded for every day the number of pages completed.
If he fell into ‘idleness’, and failed to fulfill his task for a day or two, the record would sit, ‘staring me in the face, and demanding of me increased labour, so that the deficiency might be supplied’. He got up early in the morning (though the normal working hours of a civil servant appear to have been from 10 till 4) and, fortified by coffee, wrote the requisite number of pages. His did this every working day, unless absolutely prevented by travel – but he did write on trains and on long sea-voyages. And he was always two books ahead, keeping the manuscripts in a strong-box until a publisher asked for the next.
I’m sure I read somewhere that George Eliot, hearing him describe his working methods, buried her face in her hands and groaned. He (like his brother) was a great friend and admirer of Eliot, ‘that wonderful woman’, and of her partner G.H. Lewes. I wonder if one aspect of the character of Mr Casaubon in Middlemarch – his relentless devotion to his pointless magnum opus, the ‘Key to All Mythologies’ – owed anything to Trollope’s telling Eliot about his own father (failed barrister, failed farmer) and his ‘Encyclopaedia Ecclesiatica’, on which he worked until his death, and of which ‘three numbers out of eight had been published by subscription; and are now, I fear, unknown and buried in the midst of that huge pile of futile literature, the building up of which has broken so many hearts’.
Trollope did not rate himself very highly as an author. He states succinctly which of his books and characters he believed were successful and which were not. Ralph the Heir (1871), for example: ‘I have always thought it to be one of the worst novels I have written.’ And of his books on Australia: ‘Feeling that these volumes were dull and long, I was surprised to find that they had an extensive sale.’ He recognised that his greatest weakness in fiction was his inability to plot – but what brings one (me!) back again and again to his works is not the plot (broadly identical, in terms of the love story, in Dr Thorne, Framley Parsonage, The Last Chronicle of Barset and The Duke’s Children, for example), but the portrayal of character; and the development of character (sometimes over several novels) is entirely believable.
He famously decided to kill off Mrs Proudie after overhearing two clergymen in his club say how tired they were of her, and he daringly killed off Lady Glencora between novels: she’s alive and incorrigible at the end of The Prime Minister, and dead before the beginning of The Duke’s Children, which was not published until after these memoirs were completed. (He had finished writing them in 1876, but by his instruction they were not published until after his death in 1882 – another example of a manuscript ready in advance for the publisher.)
Trollope’s own favourite character was the upright, honourable, unmalleable, and somewhat boring Plantagenet Palliser, later the duke of Omnium and prime minister. To my distress, he doesn’t much like Lily Dale, ‘feeling that she is somewhat of a French prig’ – whatever that is. Apparently, people wrote to him regularly, ‘to beg me to marry Lily Dale to Johnny Eames’, but if he had done so, enthusiasm for the character would have waned: ‘It was because she could not get over her troubles that they loved her.’ Personally, I’m not convinced by this. And it’s interesting that he doesn’t mention Johnny very much – possibly because Johnny’s travails in emerging from the constricting chrysalis of ‘hobbledehoyhood’ have such clear connections to his own early life.
One of the most interesting parts of the book is Trollope’s assessment of other novelists, both past and contemporary. In his youth, he believed Pride and Prejudice to be the best novel ever written, but that was before he read Scott’s Ivanhoe, and that was before he read Thackeray’s Esmond. He was very close to worshipping Thackeray, whose friend, colleague, and later biographer he became, and put him first among the successful novelists of his own time, both for style and for characterisation. After Thackeray comes George Eliot, with the reservation that her imagination ‘acts in analysing rather than creating. Everything that comes before her is pulled to pieces so that the inside of it shall be seen … if possible by her readers as clearly as by herself’ –which makes for a difficult, and not necessarily enjoyable, read.
Dickens is given (perhaps rather grudgingly) third place. ‘Since the last book he wrote himself, I doubt if any book has been so popular as his biography by John Forster. There is no withstanding such testimony as this.’ A roundabout way of saying that Dickens was popular for the stories he wrote, rather than for the qualities of his writing, and Trollope goes on to clarify: ‘to my judgment they [Dickens’ characters] are not human beings … he has invested his puppets with a charm that has enabled him to dispense with human nature’. How very true! (Though it’s worth remembering that on the great breach between Dickens and Thackeray over Dickens’ separation from his wife, Trollope was on Thackeray’s side.)
Some of Trollope judgments have stood the test of time (who now reads the novels of Disraeli for pleasure?), others have not; but the most interesting one is that he did not believe that his own writing would be remembered. Like many Victorians, he did indeed go into eclipse in the early twentieth century, and some critics believe that his self-disparagement in his autobiography was partially responsible for this. There seems to have been a view that his novels were charming but irrelevant – the same judgment by which Mrs Oliphant was cast into oblivion. But for style, humour and needle-sharp-characterisation which presents real individuals who live, breathe, love and suffer, there’s no contest between Trollope and Dickens, or even his own beloved Thackeray.