Friday, 24 April 2015

Happy 200th Birthday, Anthony Trollope

by Laura Burden

Anthony Trollope was one of the most widely read novelists in the Victorian era. His output was voluminous and the majority of his works commercially and critically successful. Today (24th April) marks the bicentenary of his birth and the inevitable “anniversary appraisal”. Is Trollope still regarded as an “eminent Victorian” – or as a celebrity writer whose works lack the substance to endure?

If you ask most people with even a small amount of knowledge of nineteenth century British fiction to name the key novelists of the Victorian period, most will begin with Charles Dickens and then add the Brontë sisters, and perhaps William Makepeace Thackeray and George Eliot.

Trollope was a more prolific writer than all of these great figures. Dickens and Thackeray lectured and wrote articles, sketches, short stories and novellas, but in terms of full-length works, Dickens published fifteen and Thackeray twelve. The longest living of the Brontë sisters, Charlotte, had three novels published in her lifetime and wrote a total of four. George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) wrote seven full-length novels. Anthony Trollope wrote and published forty-seven. Forty-seven!

It is, perhaps, the relentless nature of his output, as well as his popularity (sales at times topped 100,000 – even in today’s world of global marketing and widespread literacy that would be respectable; for the time, it was phenomenal) that has aroused critical suspicion. Art should be above grubby mercenary considerations! The creation of fiction should be a painful process, with the author sacrificing all on the altar of their creation. The ineffable process of writing a novel should be born from inspiration and from hours of frustrated toil in a garret.

In fact, Trollope understood the most basic of lessons for any author – that good writers write. They do not procrastinate. They have a routine. They rely on perspiration as well as inspiration. They manage to balance their burgeoning career as a writer with their day job.

Trollope was a practical man. He paid his servant an extra £5 a year to wake him before 5am every morning with a cup of coffee. He then sat down and wrote from 5am to 8am, often producing about 3,000 words (to put that into perspective, your average Sixth Form essay is about 1,500 words). Of course he would later edit, proof-read and re-write – but the words were there. At 8am he would change and go to work – for years as a Post Office official and then as a politician. He did not support himself and his family solely as a writer of fiction until he was 55.

Trollope’s “day jobs” were deeply interesting in their own right. The most famous piece of trivia about him is that he introduced the post box to Britain. After a wretched beginning in his civil service career for the Post Office, he rose within the ranks to hold great responsibility. He spent much of his Post Office Career in Ireland but returned to England in 1851 and spent two years riding around England and south Wales re-organising the delivery of mail to rural and isolated areas. The detailed depiction of countryside life and the concerns of those living in the shires across the social spectrum in his “Barchester novels” in particular originates from this time.

One of the aspects of his life and work that makes him a deeply interesting author in 2015 is Trollope’s career as a politician and his portrayal of electioneering. In 1868 he stood for parliament in Beverley (Yorkshire) as a Liberal. He never expected to win, and finished last, but in the process, and at great personal and financial cost, he drew national attention to political corruption in this constituency. Trollope’s six “Palliser novels” in particular draw upon his intimate knowledge of a political world that was, believe it or not, more cut-throat and shabby than today’s.
So, if you have never read a Trollope novel, where should you start? Here are a few recommendations:

·         He Knew He Was Right - The “he” of the title, Louis Trevelyan, is, in fact, completely wrong. He is a respectable and wealthy man, whose wife, Emily, adores him and has given birth to a little boy, their first child. But Louis becomes convinced that Emily is having an affair with the dashing Colonel Osborne. Louis is mistaken, and the reader knows it. It is with a feeling similar to watching Shakespeare’s Othello, another work that deals with the distorting mirror of jealousy, that we see him begin to destroy all of the good things in his life on the basis of a false assumption.
·         The Warden – This is not my favourite of the “Barchester novels” but it is the first, and the series of six should be read in chronological order. Trollope invented “Barchester” and “Barsetshire” on the basis of his rural rides working for the Post Office (in turn, the name helped inspire “Borsetshire” on Radio 4’s The Archers). Barchester is a cathedral city and many of the novels in the series focus on the principles and preoccupations of the clergy in this pre-Darwinian world. The Warden can seem a woolly book, lacking a clear villain and with a likeable but ineffectual hero, but it shows in a stark manner how an innocent man’s reputation can be ruined by the popular press in a way that eerily foreshadows the revelations of the Leveson Inquiry.
·         Miss Mackenzie – Miss Mackenzie has been a spinster all her life. She is pleasant and has lived blamelessly but is not particularly beautiful. But when she comes into some money, suddenly three suitors find her attractive enough to want to marry her, and an evangelical Christian circle wishes to embrace her. From a twenty-first century perspective it is a troubling novel. Trollope’s social satire and his focus on the relationship between love and money is reminiscent of Jane Austen’s but, although the wit is similar to Pride and Prejudice, the novel lacks a Mr Darcy.

My own favourite is Framley Parsonage, which is the fourth of the six “Barchester novels” (although it can be read independently from the small series). To me, this novel encapsulates Trollope’s preoccupations: it avoids polarised characters, with each individual being portrayed in a nuanced way; it centres upon the difficulties that clergymen, who are, after all, flawed human beings, face in setting an example to others; it portrays rural life both affectionately and realistically; it centres upon dangerous level of influence those in positions of power wield and upon the constraints of Victorian gender roles.

We are introduced to the “hero”, the Reverend Mark Robarts, Vicar of Framley, at the start of the novel. Typically, he is no hero, but nor is he a villain: “…he was born no heaven’s cherub, neither was he a born fallen devil’s spirit. Such as his training made him, such as he was. He had large capabilities for good – and aptitudes also for evil, quite enough: quite enough to make it needful that he should repel temptation as temptation only can be repelled.” In the opening biography of Mark Robarts, Trollope tells us in a straightforward manner of his birth, education, fortunate associations and rapid promotion on the basis of favouritism by Lady Lufton, who appoints Mark to the living of Framley, gaining him promotion from curate to vicar at a very young age. We have been given the facts, but we infer from the outset that Mark’s life is not his own: he is beholden to Lady Lufton and has been moulded into a career that may not have been his own choice.

And he is tempted. He accepts invitations away from Framley to mix with those inhabiting a higher social sphere – for his education and training has inflated his sense of self-importance. He misses Sunday services at Framley and annoys his patron, Lady Lufton. Then, catastrophe. He signs to guarantee a bill for the local wastrel of an MP, Mr Sowerby, and when Sowerby cannot pay the bill it falls to Mark, on a rural vicar’s income and with two children to support, to do so. Mark is tempted again and again and it is excruciating. Each time, we will him to resist, to go home to Framley and simply do his job diligently, to go and sit with his straightforward, wonderful wife…and, each time, he disappoints us, leading his family further and further towards debt and disgrace. It is a tempest in a teacup, but this is what Trollope does best – exploring the intricacies of ordinary lives.

As the novelist Amanda Craig wrote in her appraisal of Trollope in The Telegraph on 28th February: “Our manners and prejudices may have changed in 200 years, but in essence most of us want similar things to do with love, work, status, family and friends.”  If you have yet to read a Trollope novel, make some time over the summer break to do so. He faithfully renders small details about everyday successes and failings in a depth that makes him relevant in 2015.

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