Trollope’s Delight

Richard Altick

  • The Letters of Anthony Trollope edited by John Hall
    Stanford, 1082 pp, $87.50, July 1983, ISBN 0 8047 1076 7
  • Anthony Trollope: Dream and Art by Andrew Wright
    Macmillan, 173 pp, £20.00, October 1983, ISBN 0 333 34593 2

Anthony Trollope was a self-confessed workaholic. ‘If my success were equal to my energy,’ he remarked at the age of 55, ‘I should be a great man.’ He was also a compulsive writer. Ten years later, aware of advancing age, he told his son: ‘I finished on Thursday the novel I was writing, and on Friday I began another. Nothing really frightens me but the idea of enforced idleness. As long as I can write books, even though they may not be published, I think that I can be happy.’ He had retired 13 years earlier from the responsible position of travelling Post Office surveyor which he had held during most of his wage-earning life. The only complaint he voiced about this and his other money-making occupation was that they left insufficient time for his true passion, which was hunting. ‘I have been trying to hunt three days a week,’ he wrote his friend and publisher George Smith. ‘I find it must be only two. Mortal man cannot write novels, do the Post Office, and go out three days.’ ‘In some coming perfect world,’ he said on another occasion, ‘there will be hunting 12 months in the year.’

An acquaintance once said in praise of Browning that he ‘wasn’t at all like a damned literary man’. Neither was Trollope. His collected letters substantiate the impression he conveyed of himself in his posthumously published Autobiography, as a conscientious but totally uninspired craftsman to whom literature was a business pure and simple, his writings – 70 books, including 47 novels – a commodity to be carefully merchandised and advantageously placed. There was honest pride in his statement to Baron Tauchnitz, the Leipzig mogul of the cheap reprint trade: ‘I have perhaps had more dealings with publishers than any man living.’

His letters to his chief publishers, Chapman and Hall, Blackwood, and Smith, Elder, are those of a hard-headed bargainer, civil but firm, who knew the market value of his product and was determined to get the best price for it. In a day when the royalty system was only beginning to be adopted and formal contractual arrangements between author and publisher, binding one to the other, book after book, through first-rights clauses, were rare, each new work was chaffered for individually. Trollope was a vendor who offered his wares either when they were as yet unwritten or when they were a neatly finished package. Precise as always, he could specify exactly how many words his latest product would or did contain – and how much he wanted for it. No doubt his native aptitude for driving a bargain was strengthened by his Post Office responsibilities, which frequently required him to negotiate with contractors for postal services at home and abroad. ‘Ah – I wish Providence had made me a publisher,’ he once remarked to one such, Edward Chapman. This is a prospect which his fellow authors would hardly have relished.

Although in his letters he often reiterated his modest purpose in writing novels – to ‘improve’ the personal and social morality of his day – he had no time for any romantic nonsense about the exalted mission of the literary artist and the indispensability of inspiration. To court the muse, to fret over narrative structure or presentation, to search relentlessly for the mot juste, was simply foreign to Trollope’s nature. His was, in his own phrase, ‘a mechanical mind’, so disciplined, in fact, that he managed as a matter of routine to tailor each chapter of a novel intended for serial publication to the exact length required. ‘No writer ever made work come easier to the editor of a periodical than I do,’ he wrote. In his autobiography he revealed – a notorious insight into his practice that was to blight his reputation until it rebloomed during the Second World War – that early each morning he placed his watch before him and wrote 250 words every quarter-hour toward his weekly quota, which averaged 40 pages. He reckoned up his wordage as matter-of-factly (and complacently) as Pepys totted up his wealth each New Year’s Eve, or as he himself listed at the end of the autobiography the amount he had earned from each book.

Nowhere is there any evidence that he rewrote. Throughout his life he liked to compare novel-writing to shoemaking. The analogy was more apt than he perhaps was aware: once a shoe is finished and it fits, the cobbler has no interest in improving it, even if that were possible. He converted his own habit into a universal principle. In the writing of fiction there was always the danger that ‘there should be too much attempt to polish and that the raciness of narrative’ – by which he meant its momentum, nothing else – should be

injured by little attentions which will smell of the oil. A man telling his story while the facts are fresh in his mind never mounts himself upon stilts. If by previous training he has learned the use of words he can tell his tale judiciously but yet quickly. The long training will have given him the power; – the freshness will give him the life. Changes after that will so often destroy the life! The author himself pondering over his own sentence, will desire polish – and still more polish – But the reader coming after him, and dashing over his page, will unconsciously find that the polished words are unnatural. The grating of the file will annoy his ears, the smell of the oil will offend his nose.

This is one of the few examples of practical criticism found in Trollope’s letters, and it is of a piece with the prudential advice he offered aspiring novelists in the autobiography. He was the Arnold Bennett of his day, not a second Henry James; he was interested in the nuts and bolts of fiction-writing and how one might make a living by that occupation. Never in the faintest degree a theorist, he was concerned only with a story’s effect on the people who paid to read it. His sense of audience is most evident in the recurrent comments he made in the Sixties, when the morbid Victorian susceptibility to ‘offence’ was at its height. (Georgina Podsnap, the archetypical adolescent girl whose maiden blushes the entire machinery of informal Victorian censorship was dedicated to forestalling, came on the scene in 1864-65.) Trollope himself collided with the prevailing prudery when the Rev. Norman Macleod, having commissioned him to write Rachel Ray for serialisation in a religious paper, was obliged to return it unpublished, on the ground that readers would not tolerate the approving mention of dancing in an early chapter. The incident was without parallel elsewhere in the career of a man who once doubted ‘whether a greater mass of prose fiction ever came from one pen.’ Thackeray might envy Fielding’s freedom, withheld from him and his fellow novelists, to depict men as they were; Trollope, though he was conscious of the requirements and taboos of his market, never felt hobbled by them.

Business matters apart, one finds in the more than a thousand pages of these letters few of the subjects ordinarily expected in the correspondence of a literary figure. Trollope, who spent his leisure following the hounds or playing whist at the Garrick Club, belonged to no literary circle, or indeed to any kind of congenial coterie such as Dickens energised, or to the sort of intellectual company kept by George Eliot, for instance. He had no regular correspondents with whom he might exchange literary ideas. He admired Thackeray’s novels long before they became friends, and he was on intimate terms with George Eliot and George Henry Lewes, but his letters add nothing to our sense of what literary society was like in the Victorian years. He seldom expresses his opinion of current authors or books of note. One rare comment is this early one on Carlyle, upon whose Latter Day Pamphlets he wasted, as he said, eight shillings:

To me it appears that the grain of sense is so smothered up in a sack of the sheerest trash, that the former is valueless. He does not himself know what he wants. He has one idea – a hatred of spoken and acted falsehood; and on that he harps through the whole eight pamphlets. I look on him as a man who was always in danger of going mad in literature, and who now has done so.

The burlesque of Carlyle as Dr Pessimist Anticant, in The Warden, was not far in the future.

It may be that Trollope had greater sensitivity in literary matters than appears in the informal record. Certainly he had a wider acquaintance with books than these letters reveal. He owned a library of some five thousand volumes, many of which he heavily annotated; interestingly, as a reader he was more partial to poetry and the drama than to fiction.

Apart from a very few details, such as the identification of Ullathorne House, in Barchester Towers, with Montacute House near Yeovil, Trollope’s correspondence sheds no light whatsoever on his creative processes. ‘I have never consciously drawn a character or plot from the writings of another author,’ he told a correspondent in 1878. His imagination was his only resource. It was stimulated at the outset by his wretched life as a child, a pariah in purgatory, as he described himself, who found in ‘day-dreams’ and ‘castle-building’ – homelier terms than ‘the imagination’ – escape from the oppression of an unhappy family and unfriendly schoolmates, compounded by his own ill health and intellectual torpor. His mention of this early fantasising, in a famous passage in the autobiography, is the closest he ever came to probing the origins of his creative power: ‘There can, I imagine, hardly be a more dangerous mental practice; but I have often doubted whether, had it not been my practice, I should ever have written a novel. I learned in this way to maintain an interest in a fictitious story, to dwell on a work created by my own imagination, and to live in a world altogether outside the world of my own material life. In after years I have done the same, – with this difference, that I have discarded the hero of my early dreams, and have been able to lay my own identity aside.’

That is all he says, and in essence he merely states what has been the common experience of novelists. Fielding, Jane Austen, Thackeray, demonstrably Scott and Dickens, could trace their story-making bent to some such exercise of the creative imagination in youth, however it was subsequently put to the uses of art. Trollope’s statement does not take us far toward possessing a key to his own distinctive experience which produced the 47 novels. This solitary biographical datum contributes to the subtitle of Andrew Wright’s Anthony Trollope: Dream and Art, but in the nature of the case it cannot supply a sustained thesis. Happily, between the book’s introduction and epilogue it is almost completely lost sight of, so that Wright’s discussions of 17 novels can be read for what they really are: gracefully written exercises in the almost extinct form of the literary essay, ‘appreciations’ which take account of the best that has already been written about Trollope but are always grounded in the vigorous independent judgment that distinguished Wright’s earlier books on Joyce Cary, Fielding and Austen.

The failure of Trollope’s letters to bring us any closer to understanding the mind of the artist is a particularly good instance of how incompletely the correspondences of most writers reveal the whole person. It would doubtless be hard to develop around Trollope any such hypothesis of dual personality as Henry James ascribed to Browning in his story ‘The Private Life’. There is no necessary discrepancy between the Trollope of the letters and the man of whom Wilkie Collins said: ‘He was an incarnate gale of wind. He blew off my hat; he turned my umbrella inside out.’ The bluster and vulgarity with which he was sometimes taxed do not appear in the letters. On the other hand, he never kicks up his heels as Dickens so often does in his letters, when sheer exuberance or even half-comic explosiveness redeems what would have struck more sober and censorious people as bluster and vulgarity. But on matters which Dickens’s letters expose with utter candour, the delights and trials of his personal life, Trollope’s are relatively silent. Rose, his wife, exists only as a faint figure in the background. For whatever is to be known of Trollope as a family man, one must repair to James Pope-Hennessy’s biography published a dozen years ago.

The capable and indefatigable editor and annotator of these letters tells us that the collection includes twice as many as were printed, many only in summary, in the earlier edition by the late Bradford Booth. Many of the newly printed ones are substantial and, in their various fields of interest, important. There is much official correspondence on postal matters – it is gratifying to note the several occasions on which the man who made a career out of improving the efficiency of the Post Office answers personal letters that were irritatingly delayed in the mail – and relating to his extended, book-producing trips to the United States, South Africa and Australia. But many more additions to the Trollope epistolary canon are a sheer waste of space. No recorded letter of a literary figure could conveniently be shorter, or less informative, than this one, written on Garrick Club letter paper and dated from its postmark, which reads in its entirety: ‘Dear Elmore/Delighted/Yours/Anthony Trollope.’ What delighted Trollope on 14 January 1873 does not appear.

In Trollope’s time, of course, such notes were the means by which routine business and social relations were conducted. Scores upon scores of the missives printed in these two thick volumes are the casual debris of pre-telephone days and have no conceivable significance to a critic or a biographer. Modern editors of correspondences are victims of the scholarly superstition which assumes that the mere accidental survival of any scrap of paper bearing the signature of a celebrated writer requires that it be printed rather than allowed to rest in modest obscurity in someone’s autograph collection. Professor Hall has achieved the ideal of ‘completeness’ but at an excessive price. Our knowledge of Trollope would not be much the poorer if the 40 brief messages he sent, across the years, to the secretary of the Royal Literary Fund, of which he was a trustee, were summarised in a single paragraph. It would not suffer, either, if only one text of a form letter, or of the acknowledgment of charitable contributions garnered as a result of the letter, were printed, instead of every copy the editor has managed to locate. It is the plethora of such inconsequential scraps in Browning’s handwriting that has rendered impractical, even undesirable, a ‘complete’ edition of his correspondence, much as a full, but rubbish-free, one is needed. Now that the economics of scholarly publishing have reached a crisis for which there is no easy remedy, it is time for editors to bite the bullet and concede that the world of learning does not really need to see every word a poet or novelist used when paying his rent, acknowledging receipt of a publisher’s cheque, or accepting an invitation to dinner.