Besieged by Female Writers

John Pemble

  • Anthony Trollope’s Late Style: Victorian Liberalism and Literary Form by Frederik Van Dam
    Edinburgh, 180 pp, £70.00, January 2016, ISBN 978 0 7486 9955 1

For a long time Anthony Trollope was remembered as the civil servant who introduced the pillar box to Britain and wrote fiction in three-hour stints before breakfast, sitting in front of a clock to make sure he produced 250 words every 15 minutes. Most had heard of Barchester Towers, but few read it, and the rest was forgotten. Three-volume, double-plot novels about people in crinolines, gaiters and stovepipe hats had had their day, especially when their author was reputed less for quality than quantity, and more for observation than vision. But in 1927, 45 years after Trollope’s death, Michael Sadleir published a reassessment. He argued that Trollope was a writer with the rare gift of being able to produce memorable books without writing memorable sentences, and probe depths without seeming to move beyond the surface. Interest revived; the books were reprinted; academia took them up. Trollope made it into the canon and finally into Westminster Abbey, where a plaque was unveiled in 1993.

Among the leaders of the Trollope revival was Virginia Woolf. She admired him for providing ‘the same sort of refreshment and delight that we get from seeing something actually happen in the street below’, and she envied his ability to convey both the ‘moments of non-being’ that are life as lived, and the ‘moments of being’ that are life as remembered. The year after the publication of Sadleir’s Trollope: A Commentary, she went to the women’s colleges in Cambridge to address the students on the subject of women and fiction. She didn’t deal with Trollope directly but talked about why, in his world, women hadn’t written so well as men. She argued that, so far as the 19th century was concerned, there wasn’t much to say about ‘women and fiction’ at all: ‘A few remarks about Fanny Burney; a few more about Jane Austen; a tribute to the Brontës and a sketch of Haworth Parsonage under snow … a respectful allusion to George Eliot; a reference to Mrs Gaskell and one would have done.’ Women novelists had come late to English literature, and had no more than a toehold in what was still a male domain. They were second-class citizens – just like their granddaughters and great granddaughters in the Cambridge of 1928. Not only did those women novelists have to do without men’s advantages, Woolf continued: they had at the same time to write like men, and even – following the example of George Sand in France – to adopt male names, like ‘Currer Bell’ and ‘George Eliot’. No wonder their achievement had been meagre: a handful of classics and ‘innumerable bad novels which have ceased to be recorded even in textbooks … novels that lie scattered like small pock-marked apples in an orchard, about the second-hand bookshops of London’.

‘Wonderful stuff,’ Trollope might have thought, ‘but what has it to do with the world I knew?’ Woolf was talking about women writers marginalised in what was still a male environment, but Trollope had counted himself among male writers increasingly besieged by female ones. The English novel, forged in the 18th century by men (Defoe, Richardson, Smollett, Fielding, Sterne), was, as he saw it, being taken over by women. There were now probably more women than men writing novels, and there was no doubt that more women than men were reading them. For most of the 1860s, Mrs Henry Wood and Margaret Oliphant outsold not only Trollope, but Dickens and Thackeray too. In the 1870s, it was George Eliot who reigned, and when Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd appeared in 1874 the Spectator declared that she must be its real author, and that if she wasn’t then she’d finally met her match. Robert Elsmere (1888) set Mrs Humphry Ward on Eliot’s vacant throne, and ten years later The Sorrows of Satan (1895) established Marie Corelli as heir apparent.

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