(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 32)

“Anthony Trollope was born on 24 April 1815 at 16 Keppek Street, Russell Square, London” is not an auspicious beginning to a major new treatment of one of England’s most prolific and popular novelists. Not surprisingly, N. John Hall accepts the bulk of Trollope’s autobiographical writing at face value, rigorously follows his footsteps, and refrains from attempting a comprehensive explanation of the “mysteries of the man.” Indeed, Hall’s readers will hardly know that mysteries exist. Having accepted Hall’s clearly stated premises, one may quickly forget to remember that there should be more.

Trollope’s life in many ways reflects a common pattern of experience among middle-class Victorians. Death was ever present, claiming Trollope’s father and brother at early ages. Trollope was sent away to school (1823-1834) to learn little and endure much loneliness and misunderstanding. His once- prosperous family failed financially but was held together by the industry of a clever mother. Trollope was appointed clerk to the Postal Service in 1834 by virtue of family connections and there divided his efforts, working hard to establish a professional reputation while in his spare time developing his talents as a novelist. In early Victorian society both patronage and ability were necessary, and he was fortunate in having a good mixture for rising in the world.

It is easy to forget that Trollope spent more than twenty years in the civil service before achieving anything more than marginal success as an author. Official hours were long and schedules odd for a writer. As a surveyor’s clerk and postal inspector, he frequently traveled remote regions of Ireland and the English west country, sometimes spending more than two-thirds of his days on the road. Yet the travel expenses kept him financially comfortable and enabled him to pursue writing without threat of starvation. Even publication of The Warden (1855), his fourth novel and, according to Hall, the turning point in Trollope’s literary career, paid only 20 in royalties during its first two years in print. Stonebreaking, according to Trollope, would have been more profitable, but at least there were people around him who knew he had written a book. Having once embarked upon the novel of comfortable English characters, however, he was in his element. There appeared an occasional review or short story, the odd travel book or biography or critical study, but Trollope’s staple was the novel, manufactured at the prodigious rate of almost two per year during the last twenty-five years of his life.

The detailed, descriptive method of Trollope: A Biography is perhaps better suited to its subject than to most novelists, for Trollope’s genius was, in his own word, “mechanical.” An author who produces almost fifty novels, most of them to “exactly prescribed limits—installments per novel, chapters per instalment, pages per chapter, words per page”—is perhaps driven by less mysterious motivations than his more erratic counterparts are. If only because his habits were regular, Trollope is more easily followed, his path more clearly discernible. Yet the very regularity of his production raises questions about the quality of his art. How can one produce art in installments when life itself is so untidy? Hall explains the apparent discrepancy by identifying characterization as the hallmark of Trollope’s work. Plot and circumstance might fail in the process of serialization, but honest portraits of middle- and upper-class folk flowed from his pen with an unerring sensitivity and were not as dependent upon the structure of the work. From the 1847 publication of his first novel, The Macdermots of Ballycloran, critics recognized the gift that has remained the foundation of Trollope’s fame. That his harshest criticism was reserved for Benjamin Disraeli’s Lothair (1870), which included “personalities which would have disgraced the slightest novelist of the day,” says as much about his literary values as about Disraeli’s skill in portraiture.

Early training also helps to account for the regularity of Trollope’s art. Although far from outstanding as a student, as early as 1833 he had devised a working schedule to pace his Latin studies, foreshadowing the novel outlines he methodically produced in later life. About the same time, he was noticing his mother’s unequaled “power of dividing herself into two parts,” daily writing novels after laboriously caring for a dying husband and son. Thus, Trollope learned early how to work according to schedule. Although he considered himself...

(The entire section is 1894 words.)