Anthony Trollope 1815-1882
English novelist, autobiographer, short story writer, playwright, and essayist.
The following entry presents criticism from 1981 to 1997 on Anthony Trollope's works. For further discussion of Trollope's life and career see NCLC Volumes 6 and 33.
A prolific and popular writer, Trollope's esteemed reputation among many contemporary critics diminished somewhat throughout the length of his career. Accused of reworking the same, often narrow, plot in many of his novels, and focusing too heavily on the domestic realism that interested so many female readers, Trollope lost some ground with his male colleagues who sought to differentiate between popular tastes and “high art.” Despite the views of his contemporaries, Trollope's work is now regarded as among the best produced in the nineteenth-century, and his fiction is frequently compared to that of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, and George Eliot. Throughout his career, he penned 47 novels, as well as travel books, biographies, and collections of short stories and various sketches. Many late-twentieth-century critics focus their attention on the quality of Trollope's early, Irish novels. Other modern scholars concentrate their studies on Trollope's An Autobiography (1883), his lengthy novel The Way We Live Now (1874–75), Trollope's treatment of women and gender issues in his fiction, and the narrative techniques he employs.
Born in London to an impoverished family, Trollope was the son of a fellow of New College, Oxford, who had failed as both a lawyer and farmer. Trollope was tormented at Harrow and Winchester, the schools he attended, due to his family's poverty. When their financial difficulties reached the point of crisis, the Trollopes moved to Belgium; it was there that Trollope's father died. Trollope's mother, Frances, was at this point beginning to earn enough to support the family through her career as a writer. In 1834, Trollope began work as junior clerk in London's General Post Office, although his career did not flourish until he transferred to Ireland in 1841. Three years later, he married Rose Heseltine in Ireland, who bore him two sons. Trollope traveled extensively on behalf of the Post Office and did not take up permanent residence in England again until 1859. After resigning from the Post Office in 1867, he campaigned unsuccessfully for Parliament in 1868. Although Trollope’s political career ended with his failed attempt, he continued his interest in politics, incorporating political issues into his novels. In 1882, following a retirement of 15 years, Trollope died of a stroke.
Trollope's literary career began with the publication of the Irish novel, The Macdermots of Ballycloran, in 1847. Yet it was not until 1855, with the appearance of his fourth novel, The Warden, that Trollope established the material and style for which he became known. The Warden was the first in a six-book series known as the Barsetshire chronicles, which examined the everyday lives of recurring characters who inhabited the fictitious county of Barset. Trollope explored the possibilities of the novel-series further in another collection, referred to as the Political novels, or Palliser series, after the character of Plantagenet Palliser, who appeared in all six novels. Among Trollope's other notable works is his novel The Way We Live Now, a detailed and satirical view of late-nineteenth-century society. Only by adhering to a rigorous schedule, Trollope explains in An Autobiography, was he able to complete so many works. Although the factual accuracy of An Autobiography has been disputed, the book nevertheless captures the spirit of Trollope's literary vision, which was focused on presenting people, their lives, and social issues in a realistic manner.
Trollope's Irish novels were not particularly popular in England and modern critics often refer to them as apprentice works. These critics often explore the ways in which the early novels influenced Trollope's later writings. Others assess the novels as they stand on their own. Conor Johnston evaluates Trollope's political philosophy—specifically, his views on the treatment of the poor—as expressed in The Macdermots of Ballycloran. Johnston finds that Trollope took a conservative-liberal approach to the issue in that the author felt that the situation of the poor should be improved, but not at a pace so quick that the rest of society is disrupted, and not at a rate so slow that the suffering of the poor is unconscionably prolonged. In another essay, Johnston looks at Trollope's portrayal of Irish Catholic and Anglican clergymen, demonstrating that Trollope's distaste for the Church of Ireland did not prevent him from treating its members with sympathy. Similarly, Johnston points out, Trollope's more favorable attitude toward Irish Catholic priests did not prevent him from highlighting their flaws as well. Robert Tracy takes the view that Ireland “made” Trollope, that he learned his craft there. Tracy identifies significant differences—those that go beyond setting and character—between Trollope's Irish and English novels. Writing as intimately about Ireland as Trollope did enabled him to view English society as an outsider, argues Tracy. Likewise, Owen Dudley Edwards contends that Trollope wrote about Ireland as a participant in its affairs. Edwards reviews the characters and themes of Trollope's Irish novels and maintains that even after Trollope returned to England, his work was still based on the “rough designs” of his Irish experience, and that he wrote with Irish insights.
Often ignored by Trollope loyalists, The Way We Live Now has been rejected by even some of Trollope's staunchest supporters who believe that the work is too long, extremely cynical, and offers an unjustly harsh representation of foreigners. A. Abbott Ikeler defends the work against these charges, observing that the work reflects Trollope's response to a particularly decadent era. Ikeler maintains that in many ways, the work is typical of Trollope's style and structure, and that the satire of the work is in fact evenhanded, as Trollope abuses foreigners and natives alike. Also studying the satire in The Way We Live Now, Stephen Wall contends that Trollope is unable to sustain a scathing level of satire throughout the work. The reason, suggests Wall, is that Trollope is heavily involved with characterization in the novel; Trollope's dedication to the particular nature of each individual overrides all other stylistic concerns of the work. Examining the novel from another angle, R. D. McMaster assesses Trollope's treatment of the women in The Way We Live Now. McMaster maintains that despite Trollope's anti-feminist reputation, he depicts the women in the novel with sympathy toward female psychology and an understanding of the social influences on the lives of women.
Other critics join ranks with McMaster in exploring Trollope's ability to provide realistic illustrations of the lives and emotions of women. Robert H. Taylor compares Trollope's delineation of female characters to that of other nineteenth-century authors, including Dickens and Thackeray, and observes that unlike his contemporaries, Trollope does not allow his female characters to indulge in rhetorical flourishes. Trollope's women are spirited and are not portrayed as vacuous, like the female characters of other authors, asserts Taylor, who goes on to praise Trollope's power for observation and his ear for dialogue. Yoko Hatano also notices the spirited and strong-willed nature of Trollope's women, particularly the recurring heroines of the Barsetshire novels. These women, in addition to their spiritedness and strength of will also possess intelligence, firm principles, and a sense of obligation to their social inferiors. Such qualities, Hatano contends, allow them a certain social mobility.
In Trollope's An Autobiography, he reminisces about his early years and recounts the habits and experiences that enabled him to publish so many works. R. H. Super cites portions of the work that are obvious exaggerations, that are misleading or incomplete, and demonstrate Trollope's penchant for boasting. Despite the unreliability of the work, Super suggests that one should have confidence in Trollope's vision, if not his factual accuracy. Peter Allen also examines the sometimes baffling nature of An Autobiography, suggesting that Trollope adopts a persona similar to the identity he projected in social situations in which he felt he was “on display,” and accordingly performed as the boasting, self-assured writer. Allen concludes that An Autobiography leaves the reader with two choices (among others): that Trollope may be seen as a “vulgar materialist,” or, since his novels suggest otherwise, that this vulgar materialism is a pretension, a comic pose.
Many modern critics focus their analyses of Trollope's work on the narrative techniques he employs in his fiction. David R. Eastwood studies the interplay between the “romantic disposition” of many of Trollope's characters, and the realism that he so valued. Eastwood indicates that Trollope encouraged his audience to regard all elements in his stories, including the romantic nature of his characters, in a realistic way. Additionally, Eastwood considers the methods by which Trollope created aesthetic distance in his fiction, commenting on his use of non-participant narrators, and unappealing participant narrators. In his evaluation of Trollope's use of metonymy, Michael Riffaterre states that the function of Trollope's use of descriptive detail is to create “semantic displacement.” Riffaterre explains that Trollope uses metonymies as comic devices, and that this comic and descriptive tool is reflective of Trollope's emphasis on contradiction, a hallmark of his literary style. The repetitive nature of Trollope's plots was a source of irritation to his contemporary critics. L. J. Swingle suggests that this repetitive practice was not the result of Trollope's lack of imaginative power, but that it served his strategy by highlighting variation in the repeating plot. In Swingle's estimation Trollope used this maneuver to stress the instability of human nature.