Unhappy Childhoods

John Sutherland

  • Trollope and Character by Stephen Wall
    Faber, 397 pp, £17.50, September 1988, ISBN 0 571 14595 7
  • The Chronicler of Barsetshire: A Life of Anthony Trollope by R.H. Super
    Michigan, 528 pp, $35.00, December 1988, ISBN 0 472 10102 1
  • Dickens: A Biography by Fred Kaplan
    Hodder, 607 pp, £17.95, November 1988, ISBN 0 340 48558 2
  • Charlotte Brontë by Rebecca Fraser
    Methuen, 543 pp, £14.95, October 1988, ISBN 0 413 57010 X

Stephen Wall sees as crucial those passages in An Autobiography where Trollope rhapsodises on his equality with the personages of his fiction: ‘There is a gallery of them, and of all in that gallery I may say that I know the tone of voice, and the colour of the hair, every flame of the eye, and the clothes they wear. Of each man I could assert whether he would have said these or the other words; of every woman, whether she would then have smiled or so have frowned.’ These Trollopian people did not dissolve with the end of their novels and novel sequences. After the narrative had done with them, they were like friends who go to live in another town: no less solid because out of view. A character like Plantagenet Palliser ducks in and out of novels for the best part of two decades, evolving between his appearances from odious young prig to noble old man. Like wine in the cellar, he was maturing, even when we couldn’t see him. The author, Trollope claimed in another rhapsody, must be prepared to argue with his characters, ‘quarrel with them, forgive them, and even submit to them’. Trollope, not to put too fine a point on it, verges on the crazy in his insistence that his characters ‘live’. One would like to think it a foible – Pirandelloish game-playing. But he goes on about it at such length that we have in the end to believe that Plantagenet Palliser, Glencora, Lizzie Eustace, Madame Max, Phineas Finn and all the rest of the gallery were as real to him as Joan of Arc’s voices, Blake’s angels or Elwood P. Dowd’s giant white rabbit, Harvey.

Trollope’s obsession about his characters originates in the kind of trauma that classically deranges sensitive minds. His wretchedness as a schoolboy is famous from the extended descriptions of it in An Autobiography. He uses terms like ‘horror’, ‘disgrace’, ‘agony’ to describe his years at Winchester and Harrow. It was not so much the flogging as the shameful loneliness. He was, as he recalled, a ‘Pariah’. And out of this schoolboy misery came his love of creating characters: ‘Other boys would not play with me, I was thrown much upon myself ... Thus it came to pass that I was always going about with some castle in the air.’ It was a therapy, and eventually a profession. His castles became novels. But Trollope realised that by indulging his castle-building he was – like the Victorian masturbator – risking his sanity: ‘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.’

It is interesting to note in this context Trollope’s adult habit of writing at ungodly hours of the day. He would get up, An Autobiography tells us, at 5.30 a.m. without fail when there was a novel to write. On the face of it, this early rising follows the standard prescription for making a man healthy, wealthy and wise. But part of the attraction must have been the loneliness. Houses are solitary places at 5.30 a.m.; not as suicidally still as they are at 3.30, but considerably less bustling than they are at 8.30, when Trollope stopped work and dressed to join his now-risen family for breakfast. Trollope clearly liked to write novels in what trade-unionists now call ‘unsocial hours’ and demand extra money for. His early-morning stints reproduce the conditions of the solitary cell, or autism. At that time of day he could recapture the pure loneliness of the schoolboy, in which condition his characters came to him.

‘Sanity’ is so much the shibboleth of Trollopian commentary that it will seem perverse to argue that his creative energy has a core of derangement. But Wall’s first chapter (‘Living with characters’) cites other suggestive evidence. For instance, Trollope’s anxiety whenever he reached the end of a novel. He confessed it to his son in December 1880: ‘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 be not published, I think I can be happy.’ Trollope had years’ worth of novels stacked up at this point; publishers simply did not want his manuscripts, and he was cheapening his price by selling even as many as they would take. But, as he says, the prospect of not having a novel on the go was too ‘frightening’ to contemplate.

Wall would have the reader share in Trollope’s delusions as a kind of folie à deux. We, too, must get to know Trollope’s characters over many years and even on occasion submit to them. (‘All right, Josiah, if you say so you didn’t take the damned £20 cheque. But it still looks fishy to me.’) It’s challenging stuff. Academics of course have their fields and specialisms. They may even love their authors and know their work better than most people. But the idea that the critic should live in the imaginary landscapes and with the imaginary creatures of an author is somehow – well, ‘uncritical’.

The fact is, Wall has little time for the Trollope critics. One of the striking features of his book is its thinness of scholarly reference. Trollope and Character is, I guess, the longest work of commentary on the author ever written. It has no bibliography and just twenty terse endnotes. As the editor of Essays in Criticism, Wall must be up with the latest work in the field, but he clearly finds little use for it. His anti-critical sentiment is signalled by his aggressively unfashionable title. ‘The old gentleman who reads Trollope for the characters’ has traditionally been mocked (even by critics now as prehistoric-looking themselves as Walter Allen) as the epitome of middlebrow philistinism – on a par with the Janeite who reads Austen every year to relish her ‘wit’. This, however, is the company Wall prefers.

Wall takes it for granted that Trollope must be swallowed as the boa takes the buffalo – whole and over a long time. His text analyses in detail 25 novels and has substantial things to say about all 47. The method is close commentary, and an unfailingly polite jogging of the reader’s elbow: ‘Look at this, isn’t it fine?’, or ‘did you happen to notice this?’ The procedure requires a Leavisite lavishness of long quotation, and after reading the book, one has a stronger aftertaste of Trollope (now better understood) than of his exegete Stephen Wall, who remains an unfailingly helpful but unobtrusive intelligence.

The key to Wall’s readings is never to force anything, always letting the narrative pull one along. Reciprocally, Trollope is at his best when he too does not force things. This leads to Wall’s major revisionary judgment, which forms the last chapter of Trollope and Character. The way we live now is not, as ‘modern academic critics’ would have it, Trollope’s masterpiece. It is, Wall asserts, a work severely limited by Trollope’s imposition of a ‘pre-ordained’ satirical design which cramps the play of character. As such, it must take its place, not in the top drawer of Trollope’s achievement, but with those weak, thesis-ridden early works like The Warden. I think Wall is wrong about The way we live now – wrong because he assumes that Trollope could write only one kind of novel. But his book otherwise strikes me as overwhelmingly right. Trollope and Character should join Sadleir as the indispensable commentary on the novelist.

Hitherto, Sadleir’s 1927 Commentary and the author’s own posthumous An Autobiography have had to serve as the standard accounts of Trollope’s life. Three modern biographers have set out to fill the gap. R.H. Super has delivered his book first; N. John Hall’s and Victoria Glendinning’s Trollopes are still to come. Sportingly, Super subtitles his biography ‘A Life’, leaving open the possibility that this may not turn out to be the life. But at least he has the consolation of being first past the post.

Necessarily, Super’s narrative draws heavily on his rival Hall’s two-volume edition of the Letters (1982) – a debt which he fully acknowledges in his preface and notes. But Super brings a quantity of primary research of his own. His account of Trollope and the Post Office – a main strand of the adult life – is masterly. Equally illuminating, if less central, are his discoveries about Trollope’s schooldays. Super makes excellent use of new material found in the Royal Literary Fund and the author’s travel diaries. Each novel is dealt with as a little capsule, with a handy (and handily simplified) plot summary attached. The book is superbly indexed four different ways and its narrative is laid out year-by-year, which makes for a dullish read from cover to cover but will mean that anyone wanting quick reliable information can dip into it easily. The Chronicler of Barsetshire will serve, if nothing else, as the essential reference book. Super excels in marshalling facts clearly and accurately.

But how to go beyond this? Any biographer of Trollope is handicapped by the virtually entire absence of emotionally revealing correspondence or private papers. Perhaps Hall or Glendinning may discover some trove, but I doubt it. Super hasn’t, and he must have looked very hard. Trollope evidently took care to cover his tracks. In later life – civil servant that he was – he rarely if ever committed his private self to incriminating paper. One result is that we know absolutely nothing of his sexual life other than that he married. And his wife Rose is as elusive a personage as the Dark Lady of the Sonnets. Super is reduced to dredging up passages from Doctor Thorne and The Eustace Diamonds to evoke what Miss Heseltine might have been like in her lover’s eyes.

In these circumstances, An Autobiography is, or should be, a godsend. It contains a wealth of intimate material about Trollope’s unhappy childhood and young manhood that would otherwise be wholly lost to posterity. Trollope gives us his innermost state of being at the most formative stages of his life. Written in his 61st year and published (at his desire) posthumously, An Autobiography has the credibility of a deathbed confession. And were we inclined to query anything in it we have the author’s oath in the first paragraph: ‘this I protest; – that nothing that I say shall be untrue.’

The biggest upset in The Chronicler of Barsetshire is that Super – wherever possible – avoids using An Autobiography. He explains his reluctance in a rather tight-lipped way in the Preface: Trollope’s ‘is not an authoritative record of events put down as they actually occurred, and where my story differs from An Autobiography it may be assumed that the evidence is on the side of the present narrative.’ Super does not elaborate. But what does ‘not an authoritative record’ mean, taken together with ‘nothing that I say shall be untrue’? Unpleasant words seem to hover unspoken in the air.

Super’s ‘story’ differs from Trollope’s on very substantive points. In general, he does not accept that Trollope’s schooldays (‘the worst period of my life’) were all that unhappy – let alone suicidally unhappy. He does not accept Trollope’s assertion that he had ‘no friend’ at school. Nor does Super agree with Trollope’s verdict that educationally his school years were ‘a waste of time’. Trollope could not be more forthright on the matter: ‘From the first to the last there was nothing satisfactory in my school career.’ And Super could not be more forthright in his contradiction: ‘The young man who completed his schooling ... was not a dunce, not uneducated, not indeed notably unhappy with his life; he had lively interests and the foundation for substantial intellectual accomplishment – and he was proud to be a Harrovian and a Wykehamist.’

The discrepancies are more painful where clear-cut misstatements of simple fact are involved. Trollope writes that at Harrow ‘I bear in mind well with how prodigal a hand prizes used to be showered about; but I never got a prize.’ Yes he did, says Super: ‘An Autobiography rightly remarks that Harrow had the reputation of giving out more prizes than any other school; at least one of them came to Anthony.’ So too with the unpaid ‘school bills’ at Winchester that the autobiographer tells us caused him so much wretchedness (‘I suffered horribly!’). In the biographer’s version, there were no unpaid bills and no consequent horrible suffering. Old men forget. But not even Kurt Waldheim would forget that he won a prize at school if winning prizes meant much to him, or would forget that bills were in fact paid when their not being paid was so calamitous that he seriously considered climbing to the tallest building in the school and hurling himself off it.

There are further examples discreetly recorded in Super’s notes and still others, I suspect, which he has kept out of sight. It clearly troubles the biographer, and unsteadies his aim even in those areas where his research is soundest. The main theme of An Autobiography’s account of Trollope’s early years at the Post Office is his superior Colonel Maberley’s unwavering and unjust hostility. Even after three decades, Trollope’s wounds were still open: ‘Years have gone by, and I can write now, and almost feel, without anger; but I can remember well the keenness of my anguish when I was treated as though I were unfit for any work.’ Not so, says Super: Maberley was ‘something of a martinet, and Trollope asserts the two were constantly at odds, but the slight evidence of the record suggests that he was on the whole well disposed toward Anthony.’ The height of Maberley’s ill-disposition is recorded in An Autobiography as occurring in 1841, when Trollope made his life-changing move to Ireland. Colonel Maberley, Trollope tells us, ‘sent a very bad character with me’. Trollope’s new master was ‘informed that I was worthless, and must in all probability be dismissed.’ It was a horribly malicious thing to do, and might easily have destroyed the young man. But is it true? Super very briefly notes Trollope’s assertion about the ‘bad character’ and adds, tellingly: ‘There is no record of such a letter from Maberley in the Post Office archives.’ This means that either Maberley (who on the evidence of the record was well-disposed to the young clerk) sent an unofficial poison-pen letter, or that there was no official ‘character’ of the damning kind Trollope describes. There would of course be no problem if Super could trust that Trollope is ‘truthful’ in An Autobiography, but he can’t bring himself to do so.

We have to wait until very late in the book when Super devotes a few paragraphs to explaining how Trollope came in 1876 to write this ‘unauthoritative’ autobiography which he protests is truthful and isn’t. Super’s explanations are unconvincing – even to himself, one suspects. Trollope, he recalls, read Forster’s Life of Dickens in 1872 and ‘consciously or unconsciously’ may have echoed the blacking factory episode. (But Dickens, surely, is telling the truth about his childhood wretchedness?) A year or two after writing An Autobiography, Trollope ‘defended Cicero for saying that the orator may “garnish his good story with little white lies”.’ (Are Trollope’s distortions about his schooldays ‘little white lies’, or substantial fabrication?) Finally, with an uneasy double negative, Super decides to give Trollope the benefit of the doubt: ‘No doubt he did not deliberately misrepresent the facts, but his memory was sometimes remarkably false to them.’

Super looks like a man who by admirable detective work discovers a ticking time-bomb then stuffs it under his mattress, hoping it won’t explode. It is the strength of The Chronicler of Barsetshire that the biographer should have dug up these awkward facts. What one looks forward to in the next biographies is a more compex analysis of Trollope’s personality, one which will help us understand sympathetically (and as something more than absent-mindedness) what produced a narrative as symptomatically distorted as An Autobiography.

Fred Kaplan begins his Dickens: A Biography with the event that makes writing a biography of Dickens so frustrating. On a fine September day in 1860 the author had a gigantic bonfire at Gad’s Hill in which ‘the accumulated letters and papers of twenty years’ were ruthlessly destroyed. His sons, Henry and Plorn, carried basketful after basketful to the flames. As he watched the records of his life turn to smoke, Dickens exclaimed: ‘Would to God every letter I had ever written was on that pile.’ They weren’t, of course, as the increasingly daunting mass of the Pilgrim Edition witnesses. But Dickens’s bonfire and his vigilance until his death ten years later effectively keep intruders like Edgar Johnson, Kaplan and the still-to-come Peter Ackroyd for ever out of the intimate recesses of his life. But in one respect Dickens, like Trollope, very invitingly opened a door for his future biographers by recording – in all its inwardness and sordid detail – his suffering at the blacking factory.

The emergence and survival of Dickens’s ‘autobiographical fragment’ is a complicated business. (Details can be found in the fifth volume of the Pilgrim letters and Nina Burgis’s introduction to the Clarendon edition of David Copperfield.) But it seems that Dickens first confided the material to Forster in 1847. Forster, of course, had already lined himself up as the great inimitable’s Boswell. There was the tantalising promise that Dickens might write more – a whole autobiography, perhaps. If he did, Forster never saw it; and certainly there was no move by Dickens to publish even the fragment during his lifetime. In 1860, Dickens could easily have recovered and burned the document or have bound Forster to silence (as he presumably did on anything relating to Ellen Ternan). By not suppressing the fragment, he ensured that it would come out after his death. Forster duly reproduced it in the Life. The harrowing reminiscence of Dickens’s employment in Warren’s blacking factory has since become the foundation-stone of every biographical interpretation.

Kaplan – who is psychoanalytically-disposed – makes even more of the weeks at Warren’s factory than his predecessors. As he sees it, the trauma reverberates through all Dickens’s subsequent life and fiction. In the immediate circumstances it was on his parents that his ‘complicated anger’ was discharged. ‘I shall never forget, I never can forget, that my mother was warm for my being sent back,’ he recalled. It became what Kaplan calls a ‘fertile wound’, whose main suppurations are the women in Dickens’s fiction, all of whom are decoded as some version of the ‘anti-mother’. His anger against the failed father who set him to slavery and confiscated his tiny wages was wider-ranging. The novelist’s insatiable voracity for wealth and fame find their origin in a desire to escape his genetic destiny. An urge to revenge himself on feeble John Dickens is discerned by Kaplan even in such unvindictive places as the Christmas books, which ‘for Dickens increasingly embodied the misplaced benevolence or the antibenevolence of his of his own father, an unreliable deity who unfairly, exploitatively took money from him’. Very simply, the key word in Kaplan’s biography is ‘anti’: Dickens’s whole life and literary work was a reaction formation to that extremely brief period (a blink of the eye set against the length of childhood) which – as a direct result of parental betrayal – he spent working for six shillings a week pasting labels.

With Super’s book fresh in the mind, one cannot suppress some impertinent speculations about Dickens’s abused childhood. What if he, like Trollope, were given to ‘white lies’ on the subject? Perhaps there is a ‘famous Victorian novelist hysteria syndrome’ – let’s call it the Bounderby complex – which makes them rewrite the past with themselves as lonely victims. Perhaps Mrs Dickens was warm to send Charles back because her mother’s eye could see that he really rather liked the adventure of being a little working-man.

Of course one believes Dickens’s autobiographical narrative and – for a certainty – biographers are going to continue believing it implicitly. But one used to believe Trollope’s autobiography implicitly. Authentication of Dickens’s fragment is, I think, now impossible. No one is sure (certainly Kaplan isn’t) how many months Charles worked at Warren’s factory. There is, I believe, no proof other than Dickens’s assertion that he spent any time there at all. No witness to his sufferings has left any confirming testimony.

Kaplan’s biography is joyously unhindered by doubts as to its mastery of the Dickensian problem. The narrative is paced briskly, like a novel, and unencumbered by the deadweight of scholarly jargon or apparatus. (The notes and index are set in a point size so tiny that the publishers ought to consider issuing the book like the compact OED with a free magnifying-glass.) Sentences are kept short and the biographer’s visual imagination is given a long leash – the Atlantic ‘tosses heavily’ as Dickens embarks for America, the train wheels ‘screech’ as fatal Staplehurst approaches. Kaplan loves the vivifying touch. A ‘tall, pudgy-faced, well-educated young man’ knocks at the door at Furnival’s Inn eager to illustrate Pickwick Papers – it is William Makepeace Thackeray. The coincidence is well-known to literary history, stale even. But ‘pudgy-faced’ gingers it up nicely.

Kaplan’s Dickens may not entirely please the Dickensians. But its clean lines and sheer enjoyability will earn it a wide readership. Kaplan untangles brilliantly even such Gordian episodes as the marriage break-up. And – despite the popular address of his style – he is the most unsensational of interpreters. His Dickens, for instance, ‘would have found it difficult to have casual sex’, and although Kaplan concedes that on the balance of very sparse evidence Ternan was a mistress, he makes relatively little of it. All in all, this is a sensible and eminently well-done biography that should keep us going at least until all the letters are edited.

There was some heated dispute, when Mrs Gaskell’s biography was published, over the authenticity of Charlotte Brontë’s harrowing depiction of the scene of her childhood suffering. Jane Eyre’s Lowood School was, Charlotte claimed, ‘true’ and ‘photographed’ from the reality of the Clergy Daughters School at Cowan Bridge. Those who knew the school and its director Carus Wilson (Mr Brocklehurst in the novel) furiously contradicted Brontë’s version. One former teacher at the school asserted in the Halifax Guardian of 1857 that, far from being abused, chastised and wretched, Miss Brontë was ‘a general favourite, a bright, clever, happy little girl, never in disgrace, punishment she certainly did not experience while she was at Cowan Bridge.’ Even Mrs Gaskell – a biographer who was prepared to libel on her friend’s behalf – admitted that Charlotte in her depiction of Cowan Bridge ‘had not considered it necessary, in a work of fiction, to state every particular with the impartiality that might be required in a court of justice.’ It is not, as R.H. Super would say, ‘the authoritative record of facts as they actually occurred’. In her new biography, Rebecca Fraser is rather in two minds about Lowood/Cowan Bridge. She scrupulously notes the major anomaly: would Patrick Brontë – ‘naturally kind-hearted’ – have kept his children at a school only fifty miles away where they were being tortured literally to death? Fraser concludes that Charlotte’s account was ‘clouded by emotion’ but ‘somewhere close to the truth’. Fraser’s biography is at its best in teasing out this and other enigmas such as Branwell’s Mrs Robinson imbroglio: probably – as with that other Mrs Robinson in The Graduate – something did go on. Fraser is similarly judicious on the Heger affair, citing some interesting evidence that Charlotte’s Belgian professor may, after all, have had a weakness for a ‘pretty pair of eyes’.

Fraser plausibly justifies another life on the grounds that since Winifred Gérin’s Charlotte Brontë: The Evolution of Genius twenty years ago much new material has been discovered (not by Fraser, it should be added). Nevertheless one of the things that has still not emerged is a reliable or complete edition of the letters – something that continues to hobble Brontë studies. Prime among Fraser’s new discoveries is a photograph of Charlotte taken on her honeymoon in 1854. It is the only unvarnished portrait of the novelist that we have, and allows one to test the assertion of her publisher (and reluctant suitor) George Smith that ‘I never could have loved any woman who had not some grace of person, and Charlotte Brontë had none.’ The photograph, if it’s untouched, shows an extremely attractive face in profile.

The major contention in Rebecca Fraser’s book is one which has already provoked irritation among feminist literary critics. Fraser’s Charlotte Brontë was appalled by the moral backlash against Jane Eyre. Her subsequent life and career was a desperate quest for respectability and gentility. This she found in her marriage with her father’s extremely un-Rochesterian curate, Arthur Nicholls. After marriage, ‘the driving ambition, the burning desire for fame, seem to have died down; she was mellow and contented, almost proving the truth of that 19th-century dictum that women only wrote if they were unhappy, single, or had some hereditary tendency.’ It seems that all the madwoman in the attic ever wanted was to be the matron in the parlour.