An Autobiography – Anthony Trollope

I pulled Anthony Trollope’s Autobiography off the tbr shelves a couple of months ago after reading Elaine’s enthusiastic review. But, the moment passed, I went on to other things & eventually Anthony went back to the shelves. Then, last weekend, I read Christine Poulson’s review at her blog, A Reading Life, & suddenly I knew what I would be reading that afternoon. I settled down & read almost half the book in one sitting. Reading impulses are like that! I’d read other biographies of Trollope, most memorably, Victoria Glendinning’s, but reading about his life in his own words was an absorbing experience. I can only agree with Christine’s description of Trollope as “the most lovable of writers.”

I admit to rushing through his miserable childhood. My heart ached for the awkward, poor, ignorant, badly dressed, neglected boy who was sent to one dreadful school after the other. His father was a bad-tempered, difficult man with no business sense so the family was often on the edge of ruin. His mother, Fanny, was a formidable woman. She took some of the family off to America to start a bazaar, of all things, to set her son, Henry, up in business. She also wrote a book, Domestic Manners of the Americans, which caused a scandal with its blunt assessments of Americans & their way of life. The book was, of course, wildly popular in England & started Fanny on a career as a writer which kept the family afloat. Neither parent seems to have had much time for Anthony & never seemed to have noticed his misery. The family even had to move abroad to Bruges, where Fanny nursed her dying husband & two children suffering from consumption, all the time writing constantly.

Anthony’s fortunes improved when he was employed as a clerk at the General Post Office in London. He got into debt as he struggled to live in London with no family support & earning a little money for the first time. He applied for a job as a Surveyor’s Assistant in Ireland, was sent there with dreadful references from his superiors at the GPO but met with success. Living was cheap in Ireland, he enjoyed the work which entailed riding around the countryside planning mail delivery routes & he met with great kindness & hospitality from the local people. He also met his wife, Rose, although we don’t get much sense of his family life at all from the book. He mentions children & says he was happy but we hear much more about his literary friends than we do about his family.

As the son of writers, Anthony always had ambitions to be a writer. He thought novels would be easier than poetry or plays (although he did attempt a play which was rejected by a theatre manager. He reused the plot of The Noble Jilt in Can You Forgive Her?) It took some years before he made any money by his pen. His first two novels were published at half-profits & he saw no profits from them at all. His first quiet success came with the publication of The Warden & Barchester Towers. Trollope had a very workmanlike attitude to the writing life. This shocked some of his original readers as his emphasis on writing as a profession rather than a vocation was not what was expected. He writes of his delight in earning his first £100 for Barchester Towers,

I am well aware that there are many who think that an author in his authorship should not regard money,- nor a painter, or sculptor, or composer in his art. I do not know that this unnatural self-sacrifice is supposed to extend itself further. A barrister, a clergyman, a doctor, an engineer, even actors and architects, may without disgrace follow the bent of human nature, and endeavour to fill their bellies and clothe their backs, and also those of their wives and children, as comfortably as they can by the exercise of their abilities and their crafts.

Trollope’s descriptions of the tables he drew up at the commencement of each book showing how many words per day he needed to write to finish the book in a certain time; his descriptions of finishing a novel one day & starting a new book the next day, led to accusations that he was nothing but a writing machine, devoid of inspiration. Trollope advises young writers to be disciplined, not waiting for inspiration but writing a set number of words a day. Success means hard work although that doesn’t mean that there weren’t times when the excitement of his story didn’t carry him away from his tables & careful plans,

When my work has been quickest done,- and it has sometimes been done very quickly – the rapidity has been achieved by hot pressure, not in the conception, but in the telling of the story. Instead of writing eight pages a day, I have written sixteen; instead of working five days a week, I have worked seven. I have trebled my usual average, and have done so in circumstances which have enabled me to give up all my thoughts for the time being to the book I have been writing…. And I am sure that the work so done has had in it the best truth and the highest spirit that I have been able to produce. At such times I have been able to imbue myself thoroughly with the characters I have had in hand. I have wandered alone among the rocks and woods, crying at their grief, laughing at their absurdities, and thoroughly enjoying their joy. I have been impregnated with my own creations till it has been my only excitement to sit with the pen in my hand, and drive my team before me at as quick a pace as I could make them travel.

Once Trollope had moved his family back to London, where he felt he needed to be in order to pursue his literary career, he found himself part of a literary milieu that included Thackeray, Dickens, George Eliot & George Henry Lewes among many others. He was still working for the GPO & regarded his literary earnings as the cream that allowed him some luxuries like his beloved hunting. He became a member of clubs & associations like the Garrick Club & he enjoyed his popularity with the enjoyment that only a man who remembered a lonely, friendless childhood can enjoy it.

I think that I became popular among those with whom I associated. I have long been aware of a certain weakness in my own character, which I may call a craving for love. I have ever had a wish to be liked by those around me,- a wish that during the first half of my life was never gratified. In my school-days no small part of my misery came from the envy with which I regarded the popularity of popular boys. They seemed to me to live in a social paradise, while the desolation of my Pandemonium was complete… My Irish life had been much better. I had had my wife and children, and had been sustained by a feeling of general respect…. It was not till we had settled ourselves at Waltham that I really began to live much with others. The Garrick Club was the first assemblage of men at which I felt myself to be popular.

What a disarmingly honest & touching thing to have written. Although Dickens’s childhood was just as miserable & he was just as much an outsider, I can’t imagine him ever writing anything so revealing about his feelings.

Trollope writes a lot about his method of writing, his relations with publishers & his opinions of other writers of the period. I found all this fascinating. His appraisals of Dickens, Eliot & Thackeray are so interesting. He doesn’t seem to be a big fan of Charlotte Brontё (although he does admire the second volume of Jane Eyre set at Thornfield) but I was amused & surprised at this perceptive comment about Villette, “The character of Paul… is a wonderful study. She must herself have been in love with some Paul when she wrote the book...” Charlotte’s unrequited love for M Heger had not, of course, been mentioned in Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte & her letters to him would not be published until 1913.

This is such a good-humoured book. Trollope was writing near the end of his life, although he still had many books to publish. He left the manuscript (written in 1878) to his son, asking that it be published, unchanged, after his death. Trollope died in 1882 & the Autobiography was published the next year. Although Trollope had listed all the books he’d written at the end of the manuscript, his son could add another 13 titles published in the last 4 years of his life! Prolific, indeed. I’ve read quite a few of Trollope’s novels but there are a lot more to read. I’ve been hoarding the last two Palliser novels for a few years now, not wanting to reach the end but I think I need to read The Prime Minister very soon.

5 thoughts on “An Autobiography – Anthony Trollope

  1. What a wonderful review! Trollope is one my favorite writers, and I also found this book fascinating – especially his frank evaluation of his fellow writers – and unexpectedly touching. I was very surprised to read about his miserable childhood. It seems to me that Dickens traded a bit on his, where Trollope's readers might never have known about his.

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  2. Another one to add to my TBR list, but not for awhile yet. Not until I make myself more familiar with Trollope. To that end I am currently reading (in between two other books – not the fastest way to read, but it's my way), CAN YOU FORGIVE HER?

    It was sent to me by my late friend, Rochelle, who was a Trollope groupie. 🙂

    She was a member of a Trollope association even traveled to England for one of their meetings.

    She sent me a couple of his books and I bought another. They seem daunting, but upon reading, they really aren't.

    Loved your review, Lyn.

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  3. Thanks Yvette. I haven't read any Trollope for ages but reading this has made me want to get back to his novels sooner rather than later. He's not daunting at all, even though some of his books are huge. Once you get into them they're very easy reading.

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  4. I really have been neglecting Trollope lately, thanks for reminding me! I just loved Barchester Towers and I really do want to read the whole series. Must put this one on the TBR list as well. Great review, thanks!

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