An Autobiography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1370

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An Autobiography, by Anthony Trollope, is at once egotistical and amusing. One of the most prolific novelists of the nineteenth century, Trollope tells how he rose from obscurity to become second only to Dickens and Thackeray in popularity, and he shares as interesting sidelights his opinions of his contemporaries and of the art of creative writing, opinions that are calculated to shock anyone who believes in “inspiration.” Trollope was a boisterous, outspoken man through whose eyes we can see a side of Victorianism that is often neglected—the rich humor of the satirist.

Trollope looked back on his childhood as a time of misery; his father was poor, and he was unable to defend himself in fist fights with the local boys. Also, his family was divided. His mother went to America, and he found himself pretty much on his own, with the responsibility of having to pay the bills of his father. From this miserable origin exaggerated in order to make An Autobiography more dramatic Trollope could move in only one way. He managed to obtain a job in the General Post Office in London, a civil service position that he always looked to with pride.

Never very studious, Trollope was the type of young man who worked so that he might play. He wanted to be a gentleman because gentlemen had more pleasures than other people enjoyed. Thus, his earliest days in the General Post Office were turbulent; he was continually making clumsy mistakes that threatened his dismissal. In fact, the situation became so bad that he hated his work and was only too glad to be transferred to Ireland. This transfer pleased his superior perhaps as much as himself.

In Ireland three things happened to the young man: he acquired a taste, almost an obsession, for fox hunting, he wrote his early novels, and he married. His marriage brought financial problems that his first novels were unable to alleviate. While he was at work on his third novel, he made a change in his literary endeavors; he wrote a short paper satirically denouncing the government’s policy in Ireland. Then, while he was surveying for the Post Office in rural England, a new idea matured. He decided to use material drawn from people he had met and to write satire directed against the abuses that he most frequently encountered. This novel was THE WARDEN, the first of the Barchester novels.

From this point on, his life was a continual rise. In his work at the Post Office, he was promoted, and in his literary career he wrote BARCHESTER TOWERS, his greatest novel. He began to travel more often in an official capacity, making trips to Egypt and the West Indies, and he learned to write in whatever situation he found himself—on horseback, on ship, even in sickness. He was very methodical: he kept a diary in which he maintained strict account of the number of pages he wrote each day. Then he set a certain number of pages that he planned to write each week, and finally he arranged his novels so that they would come to exactly the number of pages that the publisher wanted. Because he did not believe in inspiration, he thought of creative writing as he did of any other occupation; the excellence came as a result of practice and diligence. He therefore trained himself to begin a new novel on the day after an old one was finished, and in this way he managed to write on the average of three long novels a year.

In 1859, Trollope heard of Thackeray’s forthcoming periodical, The Cornhill Magazine. He wrote Thackeray asking if he might contribute and to his surprise was asked to write a novel for the first number. The connection with the magazine and FRAMLEY PARSONAGE, the first novel he published in its pages, introduced him to the London literary world. He moved to London and began to associate with the figures with whom he had previously wished to be acquainted. In 1861 he was asked to join the Garrick Club, and for the first time in his life he began to feel that he was popular. These years were also the time of his friendship with Thackeray. He thought that Thackeray was indolent and unorganized but that HENRY ESMOND was the greatest novel in the English language. Having begun a pauper, Trollope now had risen to the top of the literary ladder. Having become a name, he was frequently mentioned with Thackeray, Dickens, and Wilkie Collins.

As a successful novelist, Trollope felt that he was qualified to speak on novels, the art of writing them, and his contemporaries, and it is in these chapters that he gives some of his most valuable insights into his age. The novel, as he saw it, had taken poetry’s place as the most widely read literary form, but in its increasing popularity more and different types of readers had to be catered to. If the novel was to be good rather than harmful, the novelist must consider the extent of his influence; he must avoid pictures of vice and he must teach morally edifying lessons. But the novel has another responsibility; it must please. Thus, the good novel is a pleasing moral lesson. Because we are not moved by fantasy, the novel should also be “realistic”; that is, the novelist should strive to make his characters act and speak like ordinary people in our ordinary everyday world.

With these basic assumptions about the moral purpose of fiction, assumptions that were not at all original with Trollope, he discussed his contemporaries. He thought that Thackeray was the greatest English novelist not only of the nineteenth century but of all time; Thackeray wrote “good” (interesting) stories with high moral purposes. Second was George Eliot, who was too much a philosopher for Trollope’s simple taste, and third was Dickens, who was unrealistic in his description of human behavior but still very moral. Of the other novelists of his age—Bulwer-Lytton, Wilkie Collins, Charles Lever, Charlotte Bronte, Charles Reade, and Rhonda Broughton—Trollope has little to say, but what he does say is judicious and straightforward. He knew that he did not equal Thackeray, Eliot, or Dickens, but he was willing to say that he should stand fourth in literary rank.

Trollope had few words and no praise for criticism. He denied that it was an art because it had become subjective, arbitrary, and dogmatic, and because the leading critics lacked, of all things, critical ability. Also, he was well aware of the way that good reviews were purchased by the authors and publishers. All in all, he felt that criticism was a disgrace to English literature.

After these remarks on his contemporaries, Trollope returned to his own life to sketch in the major events of his “age of prosperity.” In these pages he makes one of the most startling comments in the book: he describes his writing technique. He wrote only three hours a day, and he wrote exactly 250 words every quarter of an hour. He set his watch before him and wrote, and when the three hours were up, he stopped, regardless of where he was. In other words, he daily produced the equivalent of ten printed pages and in a year turned out three novels of three volumes each. What he sacrificed in quality he gained in quantity, and through writing at this monumental rate he was able to resign from the Post Office and support himself with his pen. Free to associate with his literary friends and to pursue a life of gentlemanly leisure, Trollope took full advantage of his prosperity. He continued to write and for several years edited St. Paul’s Magazine; he also continued to travel, to hunt, and to spend social evenings in his favorite clubs. As he concludes An Autobiography, he looks in retrospect over his life and, to illustrate how successful he has been, gives a list of his books and the amount of money that he earned for each. Such a comfortable income is available to any person, Trollope tells us, if he is as diligent and hard-working as the author of An Autobiography.

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