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.

Trollope would have been provoked by Woolf’s celebrated requirement for women writers. A room of one’s own and £500 a year wasn’t a new idea; Woolf was paraphrasing what Mill had said in The Subjection of Women in 1869. Mill had argued that women lagged behind men not because they were ‘the weaker sex’ but because they were denied men’s privileges. Trollope understood the plight of Victorian women, and returned to it again and again with sympathy in his novels, but he always resisted calls for emancipation. This was partly because, where novelists were concerned, he deemed it irrelevant. Lack of privacy, education and money hadn’t held his mother back. Fanny Trollope had been a prolific writer in spite of formidable adversity, managing to feed and house her family while looking after four dying children in turn. Her books had ended up in the trash trays of the Charing Cross Road, but that wasn’t true of Jane Austen’s and Charlotte Brontë’s, which had also been written under duress. Austen wrote at a table in the family parlour, near a creaking door; Brontë wrote while working as a governess, or at Haworth during a series of fatal family illnesses. Nothing, it seemed, could prevent women from writing fiction. Kipling remembered that one of the ‘three dear ladies’ of Knightsbridge, who looked after him as a boy, ‘wrote novels on her knee, sitting just outside the edge of conversation’.

Woolf knew all this. Nevertheless, she endorsed Mill’s feminism because she saw Austen and Brontë as underachievers. If they had worked in the conditions enjoyed by men they would have been even better. Austen, had she travelled and gone to university, ‘would have been the forerunner of Henry James and Proust’, instead of merely ‘the most perfect artist among women’, preoccupied with ‘the trivialities of day-to-day existence’. Trollope, on the other hand, reckoned the best women novelists were already as good as men. He had rated Emma the greatest novel in English until he discovered Thackeray’s Henry Esmond, and after Thackeray’s death he thought of Eliot as Britain’s novelist laureate.

Trollope feared that if the brakes were taken off, women would not just encroach on male territory but take possession of it. The possibility unsettled him. It explains why he was forever trying to remasculinise the process of fiction-writing. He flooded the market by writing all the time, everywhere: at odd moments, often in public view, while working full-time for the General Post Office, either travelling on postal business or drawing up official reports; he wrote at home, abroad and at sea, in trains all over Britain and on roads criss-crossing Ireland and the South African veldt, under canvas in the Australian outback, at temporary desks in hotel bedrooms, on pitching steamships. ‘He drove his pen,’ Henry James said, ‘as steadily on the tumbling ocean as in Montague Square.’ Having once crossed the Atlantic in Trollope’s company, James recalled that though ‘the season was unpropitious, the vessel overcrowded, the voyage detestable … Trollope shut himself up in his cabin every morning for … communion with the muse.’ He had not needed money in order to write because he made money by writing – a lot more than £500 a year. He earned enough in the end to retire from the Post Office at the age of 52 and live in well-upholstered comfort at Waltham Cross.

Novel-writing, he wanted everyone to know, was men’s work. He wasn’t an artist pursuing a vocation, but an artisan plying a trade. Austen said she worked with a fine brush on ivory; Trollope talked about working with shoe leather and a cobbler’s tools. In the 1860s and 1870s, when Margaret Oliphant took up the Barchester genre and scored a sensational success with her Chronicles of Carlingford, Trollope dropped it. He had always avoided crises of religious doubt and conversion, which were thought to be female territory; now he stopped writing about tea-table politics, ecclesiastical capers in cathedral cities and family dramas about wills and inheritance too. Instead, he addressed topics women supposedly couldn’t manage: parliamentary politics (in the Palliser saga) and finance capitalism (in The Way We Live Now, his longest novel). He boosted what Henry James called his ‘saving grace of coarseness’ by introducing female characters who bend or break the rules (Lady Mason in Orley Farm, Lady Glencora in the Palliser sequence, Lizzie Eustace in The Eustace Diamonds, Mrs Hurtle in The Way We Live Now), and male ones who enjoy gambling or field sports and whose talk is ribald, even lewd (‘There’s nothing like a good screw’; ‘It’ll cost you something to mount Lady Tewett’).

Trollope was even more bothered by men who wrote like women than he was by women who wrote like men. Disraeli’s fiction was repellent: ‘The wit of hairdressers … the enterprise of mountebanks … stage properties, a smell of hair oil, an aspect of buhl, a remembrance of tailors, and that pricking of the conscience which must be the general accompaniment of paste diamonds’. In everything Bulwer-Lytton wrote ‘affectation was his fault,’ and his dialogue was often ‘devious conversations’. Dickens was maudlin, melodramatic or hysterical; Thackeray was ‘disfigured by a slight touch of affectation, by little conceits which smell of the oil’ (hair oil, that is); Meredith’s prose was ‘twisted into curlpapers’. He deplored the loss of Fielding’s roistering virility, and made it his mission to bring it back. This fixation on manliness may have had something to do with a lurking uncertainty about his own sexuality, dating from his childhood. He wrote in his autobiography of ‘the disgrace of my schooldays [that] has clung to me all through life’ and linked it to his failure to earn the credentials of masculinity: ‘Of the cricket ground or racket court I was allowed to know nothing. And yet I longed for these things with an exceeding longing.’ This perhaps explains the instances of intense male bonding in his fiction but it also suggests the possibility of some psychosexual crisis. We know from the memoirs of John Addington Symonds that boys weren’t likely to leave Harrow sexually innocent, and it could be significant that Trollope destroyed all his youthful journals because he thought they were too revealing.

Since his father was bankrupt and he had failed to win a scholarship, he went neither to Oxford nor to Cambridge. As an adult he was even more ungainly and short-sighted than he had been at school, so never took up cricket or squash or joined a regiment. Nevertheless he played the Victorian game of manliness for all he was worth. He hitched himself to the public-school network and did everything Old Harrovians were supposed to do. He compensated for his lack of a university education by brushing up his schoolboy Latin, swotting up on Roman history, publishing The Commentaries of Caesar and The Life of Cicero, and peppering his books and letters with Latin quotations (French, Italian and German ones were for women). He threw himself into foxhunting, the only sport he could cope with, because, as with his lovelorn hero Larry Twentyman in The American Senator, hunting ‘did not cure … but it helped to enable him to be a man’. He made a fetish of martial discipline: no sooner had he finished one book than he had begun the next and planned its sequel, getting up at 5 a.m., sticking rigorously to a schedule and never missing a deadline. Soldiers returned unshaven from the Crimean War, so he grew a palaeolithic beard and enhanced its awesome effect by smoking enormous cigars. He was a member of not one but three London clubs, and though he failed to get into Parliament, the most exclusively masculine club of all, he fought an election campaign at Beverley in 1868 that left the other candidates exhausted. He often posed as philistine (‘when I am in Italy, my mind runs chiefly on grapes, roast chestnuts, cigars and lemonade’) and he scorned the notion of ‘inspiration’ as wimpish. When Eliot told him that she sometimes couldn’t write a word for days on end, he gallantly replied that this was because her work was more serious than his; what he wanted to say was that procrastination was a woman’s privilege and a man’s weakness. In public he was overbearing, and to some – women especially – unbearable. James Russell Lowell, who met him in Boston in 1861, remembered ‘a good, roaring positive fellow who deafened me (sitting on his right) until I thought of Dante’s Cerberus’. He decided he ‘rather liked him’, but Rose Fane found him ‘detestable – vulgar, noisy and domineering’ in London five years later. There’s evidence he was never offered a peerage because he was deemed ‘too loud’.

In his autobiography, written for posthumous publication, he portrayed himself as a robustly anti-Byronic hero – a shunned, clumsy and tormented schoolboy transformed by hard work into a wealthy, serene and popular man of the world. Even his admirers were embarrassed by its drab civil-service prose, its almost indecent combination of frankness and furtiveness, and its narcissistic harping on how much money he had made and how prolific he had been:

My literary performances … I think are more in amount than the works of any other living English author … I have published much more than twice as much as Carlyle … considerably more than Voltaire, even including his letters. We are told that Varro, at the age of 80, had written 480 volumes … I comfort myself by reflecting that the amount of manuscript described as a book in Varro’s time was not much. Varro, too, is dead, and Voltaire; whereas I am still living, and may add to the pile.

Which he duly did. In his remaining six years he published another 11 books – eight novels, two biographies and a travel book – bringing the total to 47 novels, five volumes of short stories, four travel books and three biographies.

‘I am still living’: it’s a cry of defiance. In his final years he seems to have been driven by a sense of panic to pile up evidence of his undiminished potency and manliness – especially in An Old Man’s Love, which fictionalises his platonic, low-voltage epistolary relationship with the young American writer and feminist Kate Field as an amitié amoureuse perilously on the verge of passion (a fiction biographers have made full use of). As he got slower at pushing a pen, he kept up his output of 3000 words a day by dictating them instead. Cousin Henry, a novel of 75,000 words, was rattled off in 25 days. No fast fiction was ever faster than Dr Wortle’s School: 85,000 words in three weeks. His brother Tom believed he killed himself by overwork: ‘He used often to say that he envied me my capacity for being idle. Had he possessed it, poor fellow, I might not now be speaking of him in the past tense.’

Henry James criticised Trollope’s late works for their ‘dryness of texture’ and ‘strangest mechanical movement’. Frederik Van Dam’s Anthony Trollope’s Late Style adds ‘detailed dullness’ and ‘jumbling confusion’ to their faults. But, Van Dam also argues, these works show Trollope revisiting modernity and questioning its individualism. He suggests they should be considered in the context of Adorno’s ideas about lateness in literature and music and detects an echo of Beethoven’s and Hölderlin’s ‘restless departure from earlier efforts’ in Trollope’s stylistic experimentation (with allegory, parody, periphrasis and so on) as he engaged with capitalism, imperialism, republicanism, female emancipation, education and the conflicting claims of natural and positive law.

This is a strange reading given Trollope’s mistrust of novels of ideas (he feared George Eliot might spoil her work with too much philosophy). Van Dam shows how much Trollope’s late works owe to his private emotional concerns, but he also argues that they made him ‘an intellectual exile among the elite of his time’. What the book demonstrates more convincingly is how far the late works reconnected Trollope with the male world of debate beyond the feminised world of fiction (a world he’d briefly entered in the 1860s, when he edited the short-lived St Paul’s Magazine). The names that dominate Van Dam’s discussion read like a roll call of the Victorian male intelligentsia: Mill, Arnold, Froude, Freeman, Merivale, Harrison, Congreve, G.H. Lewes. There’s not a woman in sight. Van Dam also shows that when, in his Life of Cicero, Trollope claimed that he was writing for young ladies, it was really schoolboys that he had in mind. Always unsettled by his own aptitude for fine brushwork on ivory, Trollope became even more so as his vitality failed. Rather than a new departure, these late works seem to reflect an ongoing need to identify with the world of men.

It’s time to abandon the Trollope resurrected by Sadleir in the 1920s, which has served as the template for every biographer since. Sadleir’s verdict on the oeuvre remains intact but his portrait of the man now looks seriously flawed. He depicted a writer of untroubled equilibrium – eccentric and shy, but secure in his Victorianism, his Englishness and his manliness; alert to the absurdities of his world and of himself, yet fundamentally at odds with neither; perpetually abroad, yet never really leaving home; blustery and truculent, but always with a twinkle in his eye. This Trollope has been displaced by a more unstable and troubled figure – a beleaguered, restless casualty of contingency and inner conflict, stranded where he didn’t want to be and wanting to be remarkable for reasons other than those that made him so.