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.

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