December 17, 2017
The Triumph of Trollope
On this day in 1882 Anthony Trollope died. In 1993 a commemorative plaque to Trollope was placed in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey, upon which is inscribed the last sentence from his Autobiography, published the year after his death: "Now I stretch out my hand, and from the further shore I bid adieu to all who have cared to read any among the many words that I have written." The "many words" amount to forty-seven novels; this is ten more than the other literary giants of his time -- Dickens, Thackeray, George Eliot, the Brontës -- combined. And many hands continue to reach out to them: virtually all of Trollope's books are currently in print, bought in unrivalled quantities, says biographer N. John Hall, "not by students, forced to do so, but by people who read them because they enjoy them."
Though he is central to few university courses, Trollope has had many fans among those who are -- from Browning to Tolstoy to Woolf to P. D. James. The praise is always the same, and as it comes from writers, many of them noted stylists, it is high indeed: "His great, his inestimable merit," said Henry James, "was a complete appreciation of the usual." This is Nathaniel Hawthorne, in a letter from 1860:
Have you ever read the novels of Anthony Trollope? They precisely suit my taste; solid, substantial, written on strength of beef and through inspiration of ale, and just as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting that they were made a show of.
Some see this genius as weakness, too, and agree with British Authors of the Nineteenth Century that the small canvas of Trollope's fictional world-the clerics and shooting sherry folk of the "Barsetshire" books, the politicians of the "Palliser" novels -- can elevate him no further than "chronicler par excellence of storms in teacups." The implied comparison is with Dickens, whether as writer, social crusader, or large personality. Dickens would compose in a fever of excitement, walking all night through the London streets in the grip of his characters and places; Trollope wrote every day starting at 5.30 -- typically with his watch before him and a goal of 250 words every quarter-hour. Trollope worked for the Post Office for thirty-three years; his unrealized, lifelong aspiration (one which the anti-Establishment crusader Dickens scoffed at) was to be a member of the House of Commons; his most concrete social improvement was the invention of the red, street-corner letter-box.
When Dickens died, Trollope may have been proud to use his invention to post this candid letter to George Eliot and G. H. Lewes:
Dickens was no hero; he was a powerful, clever, humorous, and, in many respects, wise man; -- very ignorant, and thick-skinned, who had taught himself to be his own God, and to believe himself to be a sufficient God for all who came near him....
And, not least, Dickens had left his wife for the former actress, Ellen Ternan. Not that Trollope was a prude, but he preferred different conduct, and his own counsel. In the closing pages of his Autobiography he tells us that if his book has not dwelled on his inner life, it is not because he had none:
If the rustle of a woman's petticoat has ever stirred my blood; if a cup of wine has been a joy to me; if I have thought tobacco at midnight in pleasant company to be one of the elements of an earthly paradise; if now and again I have somewhat recklessly fluttered a 5-pound note over a card table; of what matter is that to any reader?
Trollope's funeral was private rather than Dickensian, his tombstone engraved with, "He was a loving husband, a loving father and a true friend." However he might have felt about being commemorated alongside Dickens a century later, the Abbey plaque confirms life as one of Trollope's characters saw it: "It's dogged as does it."