Even a superficial perusal of Anthony Trollope’s life presents a conundrum: how to reconcile this most conventional, “clubbish, roast-beef” Englishman, this lifelong public servant, with his fantastic literary output, consisting of forty-seven novels plus travel writing, short fiction, and an autobiography. In part, it was the pedestrian nature of Trollope’s existence that allowed for this extraordinary creative effort. Clearly, the same habit of regularity that contributed to Trollope’s successful forty-three-year career with the Post Office permitted him to rise every day at 5:00 A.M. (later 6:00) and turn out between 20 and 120 pages per week, each page containing precisely 250 words (he counted every one of them).
However admirable Trollope’s discipline, it does not explain the high quality of most of his work; neither does it explain the extraordinary sensitivity and insight manifested in the novels toward his characters, particularly the females. In life Trollope exhibited unremarkable passions for politics and fox hunting, and he married a dutiful and seemingly unremarkable woman to whom he apparently remained faithful. Where then did he acquire—indeed, find the time to acquire—the wide- ranging psychological acumen displayed so abundantly in his literary work?
For answers Victoria Glendinning turns to Trollope’s childhood, which while not as conspicuously harrowing as that of his contemporary Charles Dickens, nevertheless contained more than enough trauma to mark any moderately sensitive child for life. To begin with, there were his parents.
His father, Thomas Anthony, a barrister educated at Winchester and an Oxford college, had all the appropriate credentials, but as his son Anthony put it later in life, he was a “mixture of poverty and gentle standing.” While continuing to declare himself a gentleman, the elder Trollope steadily—and seemingly inexorably—reduced his family’s circumstances to a state of bankruptcy. One of the most poignant and amusing scenes from the novelist’s early life occurred just as his father fled the country to escape his creditors. When the eighteen-year- old Anthony returned home after taking his father to catch a boat bound for Belgium, as he later noted in his Autobiography, “a scene of devastation was in progress, which was not without its amusement.” As the bailiff’s men carried furniture out the front door, Anthony’s sisters and three neighbor girls were snatching up anything they could carry and absconding with the goods to the neighbors’ house.
Fortunately, Fanny Trollope possessed enough energy and good humor to make up for her husband’s instability, poor health, and even poorer disposition. In order to rescue her family from destitution, she turned to writing, exhibiting a level of industry and discipline that surely influenced Anthony’s later workmanlike approach to the craft. But she, too, deserted the family because of financial exigency, going off to America to seek her fortune when she was forty-seven and Anthony only thirteen. Unlike her husband, she returned from exile and made something positive of her adventures by writing a celebrated book, The Domestic Manners of the Americans—the first of many literary efforts—but her nearly four-year absence must have cost young Anthony dearly.
From very early in their childhood, it was made clear to all the Trollope children that Anthony’s eldest brother, Tom, five years his senior, was Fanny’s favorite. Thus alienated from the affections of the only real source of stability during his early years, Anthony developed a sense of inferiority that was soundly reinforced by the beatings he received from Tom when both were schoolboys at Winchester College. Sullen, clumsy, antisocial, and an academic ne’er-do-well, the young Anthony seems nevertheless, at the nadir of adolescence, to have found the resolve eventually to succeed, to rescue for himself the gentle standing his father had squandered. Once redeemed, it was a status Trollope worked tenaciously to preserve.
If Trollope realized his father’s status, he got there by emulating his mother’s industry, and he did not get there alone. It was only after meeting and becoming engaged to Rose Heseltine at age twenty-eight that Trollope began his literary career. It may have been the prospect of increased financial responsibilities that initiated his first novel, The Macdermots of Ballycloran (1847), but clearly...
(The entire section is 1824 words.)