Trollopiad

John Sutherland

  • The Chronicler of Barsetshire: A Life of Anthony Trollope by R.H. Super
    Manchester, 528 pp, £29.95, July 1990, ISBN 0 472 10102 1
  • Anthony Trollope: A Victorian in his World by Richard Mullen
    Duckworth, 767 pp, £25.00, July 1990, ISBN 0 7156 2293 5
  • Trollope: A Biography by N. John Hall
    Oxford, 581 pp, £25.00, October 1991, ISBN 0 19 812627 1

Trollope is our most popular and reprinted Victorian novelist. His new companions in the Abbey – Dickens, George Eliot and Hardy – may sell more copies of individual novels, but they cannot match the expansiveness of Trollope’s appeal. Forty or more of his works are currently in print – some in as many as five different editions. But for a century, Trollopians have complained about the lack of a reliable life of their author. In response to this, three scholars, working independently of each other, set out in the Eighties to write the authoritative biography. None has had access to substantially better or more informative primary materials. In the last two years their massive volumes have been delivered. Is this a good thing, or too much of a good thing?

There are problems facing the biographer of Trollope. His adult life was not (as far as we know) sensationally exciting. There is no Ellen Ternan, no mad Mrs Thackeray, no flagrantly unconventional union of the Lewes-Eliot kind. Trollope did not, like Wilkie Collins, steep himself in laudanum and keep two mistresses. He did not, like Bulwer Lytton, lock his wife in a lunatic asylum. He did not die tragically young like the Brontës or poor, like Charles Lever. He did not become Prime Minister of England, like Disraeli. Unlike the barren Hardy, he was happily married and left two respectable sons to carry on his name.

Trollope wrote more fiction than most and must also have written a lot of correspondence. But most of it has disappeared. The collected letters are excellently edited by N. John Hall, but they run only to a couple of volumes. Dickens, by contrast, looks like amassing 15 or so fatter volumes in the Pilgrim edition. George Eliot’s eight volumes and Thackeray’s four (soon to be supplemented) all outweigh Trollope. There is a particular shortage of intimate letters. Trollope evidently weeded these out. His wife Rose survived to 96, and may also have suppressed intimate material. There were diaries – at least in the early life – but Trollope evidently destroyed them in 1870. None of his close friends has left revealing testimony.

A further problem is Trollope’s own Autobiography. On the face of it, this is one of the most disarmingly candid confessions ever written. But where it can be checked, An Autobiography is sometimes misleading – perhaps deliberately so. Of the three biographers, R.H. Super is most suspicious of the testimony of An Autobiography and disregards it wherever he can. It is not, he says, ‘the authoritative record of events put down as they actually occurred’. Richard Mullen and Hall use An Autobiography extensively, but tactfully (and sometimes tacitly) correct its account.

Super, Mullen and Hall are skilled biographers, and each has his particular edge. Hall has edited the letters, and creates the most fluent narrative, nonetheless one which is packed with information. For my money, he tells the best story. Super, whose book I wrote about when it first came out, has done pioneering work on Trollope and the Post Office, and his account is particularly dense in that important area. He is the most self-denying of the three where speculation is concerned. Where there is no hard evidence, Super says nothing. Unlike the other two, he gives comprehensive summaries of the novels, and his narrative organisation is chronological and highly segmented. As a result, The Chronicler of Barsetshire works well as an encyclopedia of Trollope. Mullen, a journalist, not an academic (as the other two are), is strong on the social-historical context. As his title promises, he gives the fullest picture of Trollope’s ‘world’.

Each of these biographies can be recommended, but there are persistent discrepancies. For instance, in the opening pages, Super tells us that Trollope’s redoubtable mother, Frances Milton, was 29 when she married. Mullen hedges by saying that she was ‘already in her late twenties’. Hall declares ‘she was 30.’ Super tells us that one of the reasons Trollope’s father moved the family to Harrow in 1815 was that as residents of the parish his four boys could attend Harrow School ‘without charge’. According to Mullen, there was a charge of ten guineas a term per boy. Hall says the Trollope boys were ‘private’ pupils, but does not say what fees they paid. Variations of this kind can be found throughout the three books, and one of the advantages of having them all to hand is that cross-checking is so rewarding (all are well indexed). The general level of accuracy is high, as far as I can judge. The only serious mistake I have found is in Mullen, who on page 642 states that ‘within a few days of completing An Old Man’s Love Trollope turned his hand to a new field, historical writing, and in the space of a few weeks produced a short book about Lord Palmerston.’ Trollope wrote Palmerston just before An Old Man’s Love, which was his last completed book.

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