(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

The reputation as a novelist of Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) collapsed almost immediately after his death. After being for many years highly respected among the upper and middle classes of Victorian England, and at the same time commercially more than successful, he lost favor suddenly and completely. Of the nearly fifty novels which he published, a handful have remained popular and have been steadily reprinted. Most, however, have lain unread from the 1880’s to the 1980’s, only very recently enjoying republication in new collected editions of Trollope’s works. In his own time Trollope seemed a strong competitor to Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, and even Henry James, who took an early keen interest in his predecessor and rival. This judgment of Trollope’s contemporaries, however, has since seemed untenable.

The main reason for this critical downfall must certainly be Trollope’s posthumous work, An Autobiography (1883). Trollope left the manuscript of this to his son, telling him with studied care that he ought to make a few hundred pounds out of it (this would be some tens of thousands of dollars in modern money), and that the profits were to be his son’s personally and not to go to the estate. For that fifty thousand dollars or so, Trollope sacrificed his reputation.

Trollope’s autobiography revealed a personality of almost neurotic tidiness, effort, and industry. In his most productive years he would rise early to do his novel-writing before breakfast. He would write two thousand words a day. He contracted to supply so many thousand words to his publishers, he counted the words, he was never (he boasted) a word short, and never very much over. Because he often had to travel—Trollope spent much of his life as a senior official in the Post Office—he had a special tablet made so that he could write on the train. As the habit became established, he would finish a novel one day and start another the next. He compared himself, without irony, to a shoemaker; shoemakers finish one pair and then start on another. Why, he asked, should authors demand special treatment?

There are any number of answers to Trollope’s implied questions, and as soon as his autobiography was published, critics and general readers too began to give them. What about inspiration? What about art? Can anything composed so mechanically have more than a mechanical value? Can anything composed so commercially. Trollope calculated his lifetime profits from writing to the nearest penny, emerging at a sum just under seventy thousand pounds—be viewed as more lasting than a slick best-seller? Even speaking commercially, it could be said that Trollope killed his own market. He sometimes wrote three large novels a year, and his publishers were hard pressed to keep interest levels high. He might have done better, in short, without his easy, obsessive, unrevised torrent of words. People would have liked to see him take more trouble.

This has been the standard view of Trollope for many years, but it is challenged now in Stephen Wall’s book. This critical study, it has to be said, is (like Trollope) consciously and almost provocatively old-fashioned. It considers Trollope entirely from the point of view of an analyst of “character.” It suggests that a novelist can be great simply because of what he tells us about human beings. There are at least two arguments against this, one being that a novelist tells us nothing but words—so that some analysis of his language and style, of how he tells us rather than what he tells us, is vital; while the other argument says that one should be careful not to fall into what has been called “the roommate fallacy.” People enjoy talking about their roommates, and analyzing their characters, because they have a lot to go on: behavior, body-language, past history, and the like. But talking about people in books in the same way must be false, because all we have to go on there is what the author chooses to tell us. Characters in books are not characters in life, and much as authors struggle to maintain that delusion, it is wrong to be taken in by it. So the critical arguments would go. Wall, however, is impressed by neither of them.

Trollope, he points out, seems very much to have believed in his characters. He lived with them, he treated them like friends, he worried over how they would age. Is this concern and thoroughness not a strong point of the novels? So Wall argues, pointing out to begin with how very much Trollope liked recurrent characters, characters who came up again and again in a series, perhaps starting off as minor, peripheral, even anonymous, but slowly coming in to the center, and showing qualities—as real people often do—which one would not have expected of them at first sight. Wall looks first at the well-known Barsetshire series of novels, and notes how for example the...

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Trollope: Living with Character Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

London Review of Books. XI, February 2, 1989, p. 19.

New Statesman and Society. I, November 11, 1988, p. 36.

The New York Review of Books. XXXVI, August 17, 1989, p. 6.

The Times Educational Supplement. January 13, 1989, p. 19.

The Times Literary Supplement. November 11, 1988, p. 1245.