Anthony Trollope

IT is pleasant to see signs of a Trollope revival, and we may well hope that readers who are a little tired of cloak and sword romance will be glad to seek variety in the pages of Doctor Thorne and the Barchester Chronicles.1 Perhaps no writer represents more perfectly than Trollope the great development of social and domestic tendencies in the English novel of the middle and third quarter of the last century. A man of real genius, he yet had not genius enough to stand out from and above his time; and for that very reason he portrays it more fully, just as Ben Jonson brings us nearer to the Elizabethan Age than does Shakespeare.

Trollope was essentially a realist: by which I do not mean that he had any elaborate theory as to his art, but simply that he described common life as common people see it. Realism is genius in the expression of the commonplace. Imagine a beef - eating, fox - hunting, Gaul-hating Englishman, red-cheeked, arrogant, stuffed full of prejudice,loathing a radical, idolizing a bishop and a lord, and worshiping British liberty, — imagine such a one with the exceptional gift of depicting himself and many another like him to the very life, and you have the author of Orley Farm and Phineas Finn.

It would be desirable to reprint Trollope’s Autobiography with the novels, as no novelist has left us a more entertaining and instructive account of himself and his objects and methods of work. No character in his stories stands out more distinctly before us than the awkward, unfortunate, neglected boy, who tripped and stumbled through an imperfect education and a premature manhood, a burden and annoyance to his friends, an object of disgust and dissatisfaction to himself. Nor does any novel present a happier ending to the imagination of the sympathetic reader than that pleasant picture of a way found out of difficulties, of success achieved by honest industry, of self-respecting middle-class virtue rewarded with unlimited whist, wine, cigars, and fox-hunting. It is enough to turn the ambition of every poor boy in the direction of authorship.

What is especially delightful in Trollope’s confessions is the utter absence of shame. Other artists — some others — do their pot-boiling in private, and proclaim publicly their scorn of pecuniary gain, their adoration of art for art’s sake. Trollope writes for money, and is proud of getting it. He speaks of “that high-flown doctrine of the contempt of money, which I have never admired.” If he can make a work of perfect art, well and good; but perfect or imperfect, it must sell. He gives an elaborate table — doubtless to many young authors the most interesting portion of the book — containing a full, dated list of all his writings and the sums received for each of them up to the year 1879, amounting to three hundred and fifty thousand dollars.

Nor did Trollope believe that genius must be pampered, humored, taken at its propitious times and seasons. In the nineteenth century everything should be manufactured mechanically, books as well as shoes. “ I had long since convinced myself that in such work as mine the great merit consisted in acknowledging myself to be bound by rules of labor similar to those which an artisan or a mechanic is forced to obey. A shoemaker, when he has finished one pair of shoes, does not sit down and contemplate his work in idle satisfaction : ‘ There is my pair of shoes finished at last! What a pair of shoes it is! ’ The shoemaker who so indulged himself would be without wages half his time. It is the same with a professional writer of books. . . . Having thought much of all this, and having made up my mind that I could be really happy only when I was at work, I had now quite accustomed myself to begin a second pair so soon as the first was out of my hands.”

All the details of this cobbling process are complacently revealed to us. So many words an hour, — “to write with my watch before me, and to require from myself two hundred and fifty words every quarter of an hour. I have found that the two hundred and fifty words were forthcoming as regularly as my watch went, ” — so many hours a day, so many novels a year! Carlyle required absolute silence and leisure for production: the hand-organ over the way tormented him to fury. But this characteristic author of the nineteenth century is indifferent to time and place. “I made for myself, therefore, a little tablet, and found, after a few days’ exercise, that I could write as quickly in a railway carriage as I could at my desk.” But these bits of insight into the method of production will mean more to us when we come to look more closely into the product itself.

Trollope’s novels deal almost entirely with the author’s own time; no mediæval history, bravos, swordplay, moonlight romance. His people are common people; that is, they are human beings like other human beings before they are anything else. It is this constant detection of ordinary human nature under the disguises of wealth and aristocracy which misleads Mr. Saintsbury into calling Trollope a painter of middle-class life. His painting of middle-class life is good, much better than his painting of low life; but certainly his best work is on the upper classes, — dukes and duchesses, earls and barons, bishops and Cabinet ministers, or, more briefly, ladies and gentlemen. Only somehow, under his quiet but penetrating insight, all these high personages, without becoming in the least vulgar or unnatural,2 seem to drop their titles and tinsel and appear just as middling as the middlest of us. This, too, without any of those constant depreciatory remarks which so abound in Thackeray and constitute a sort of back-handed snobbishness. Trollope’s great ones are simply and naturally men and women, — nothing more.

So far as plot goes, in the stricter sense of the word, Trollope confesses that he is weak, and few will be found to differ from him. Sir Walter Besant’s entertaining pamphlet containing a recipe for producing novels — Besant novels — has no application here. The elaborate machinery of scenarii, with every motive and every climax carefully fitted into place before one line is written, does not at all suit our easy-going improvisator. “ There are usually some hours of agonizing doubt, almost of despair, — so, at least, it has been with me. And then, with nothing settled in my brain as to the final development of events, with no capability of settling anything, but with a most distinct conception of some character or characters, I have rushed at the work as a rider rushes at a fence which he does not see. ” And speaking of that arch-plotter of plotters, Wilkie Collins, he says: “When I sit down to write a novel, I do not at all know and I do not very much care how it is to end. Wilkie Collins seems so to construct his that he not only, before writing, plans everything on, down to the minutest detail, from the beginning to the end ; but then plots it all back again to see that there is no piece of necessary dovetailing which does not dovetail with absolute accuracy. . . . Such work gives me no pleasure. I am, however, quite prepared to admit that the want of pleasure comes from fault of my intellect. ”

Yet, although the dramatic continuity of Trollope’s stories is seldom complete, we constantly come across those intensely effective and striking scenes which are perhaps the best thing in a good novel, which we pause to read twice over, which cling in the memory and keep returning to us, yet are always fresh and delightful when we come to them again. Mr. Slope’s slap in the face and his fierce fight with Mrs. Proudie for the domination of the Bishop, the pitched battle between Mrs. Proudie and Mrs. Grantly, the delicious scene between Lady Lufton and Lucy Roberts, and the somewhat similar one between the Archdeacon and Grace Crawley, Johnny Eames and the bull, Lord Chiltern riding Dandolo, Madame Max and the Duchess over the jewels, Phineas’ acquittal,—these are but a tithe of what lovers of Trollope will take joy in recalling.

The life of such scenes comes from the ever present and admirably sustained interest of character, and this interest gives to Trollope’s novels a unity which is wanting in their plots. One can never insist too much on the immense superiority of English literature in general over all others on this point of character. Richness and fullness of human life is what distinguishes the drama of Shakespeare from that of Sophocles, of Calderon, of Racine, of Dumas fils. An excellence of the same kind, unusual in French writers, but far inferior not only to Shakespeare’s, but to Jonson’s or Fletcher’s or Massinger’s, gives Molière his great reputation. So in the novel, French fiction may surpass English in skill of construction, in finished elegance of style, in grace and charm. It never approaches it in fertility, variety, and strength of character production. One has only to compare Dumas with Scott, George Sand with George Eliot, to feel the force of this. Balzac, like Molière, is great because he is an exception; but, like Molière, he accomplishes with titanic effort what Shakespeare, Fielding, Miss Austen, Thackeray, and Dickens do with divine ease and unerring instinct. With a great price bought he this freedom, but they were born free.

Without placing Trollope on a level with these greatest masters, it is easy to see that with him also character is a strong point. He always recognizes this himself, and in his Autobiography he has some admirable observations on the subject in connection with the sensational in novels. Speaking of The Bride of Lammermoor, of Esmond, of Jane Eyre, he says: “These stories charm us, not simply because they are tragic, but because we feel that men and women with flesh and blood, creatures with whom we can sympathize, are struggling amid their woes. It all lies in that. No novel is anything, for the purposes either of comedy or tragedy, unless the reader can sympathize with the characters whose names he finds upon the pages. . . . Truth let there be, truth of description, truth of character, human truth as to men and women. If there be such truth, I do not know that a novel can be too sensational.”

From the very fact of pitching his characters so largely on a middle note, of choosing them and keeping them always in the common light of every day, Trollope gives peculiarly the impression of having lived with them and of making us live with them. He often goes into very diffuse analyses of the thoughts and actions of his heroes and heroines; yet in so doing he does not seem to sap their vitality as do Thackeray and George Eliot. The reason of this is that he does not appear to be explaining, but speculating. He does not say, “I made this machine, and I can tell you just how it goes.” He talks to you as a friend would talk about another friend in a desultory, twilight chat before a smouldering fire. His characters seem to exist entirely independent of their author, and to work out their own natures with no volition or even control from him. This is doubtless one of the advantages of his rapid and instinctive method of working.

This common naturalness of Trollope’s characters, this feeling that we have lived with them and known them, is much intensified by their constant reappearance in different stories. Of course, many other authors have held their characters along from one book to another; but neither Dumas nor Balzac nor Mr. Howells has done it to the same extent as Trollope. He speaks somewhere of his lack of memory; but surely a memory approaching instinct was needed to carry a company of people through thirty-two volumes,3 with long intervals of time both in the subjects and in the composition, and to keep constantly a distinct grasp not only of general traits of character, but of eyes and hair, of gait and gesture. In this vast and loose sequence of events and circumstances slips and inaccuracies doubtless occur, but their rarity is wonderful.

In such a crowd of characters we can hardly single out many for special consideration. Mr. Saintsbury, who has written of Trollope with sympathy and appreciation, speaks of Mr. Crawley as almost the only one of his personages who stands out with real originality and permanent significance, and Trollope himself has an unusual affection for that eccentric gentleman; but Mr. Crawley is too exceptional, too near the limits of sanity, for the deepest human interest. How inferior he is to the Archdeacon, the admirable Archdeacon, at once perfect (artistically perfect) man and perfect English clergyman! How we love him, with his conventional dignity, his conventional religion, his bustling meddlesomeness, his tyrannous impertinence, his sturdy British common sense, his never failing ejaculation, “ Good Heavens! ”— how we love him! And in a far different fashion how we love Mr. Harding, one of the tenderest, simplest, most touching figures in fiction, whose gentle memory brings the tears to one’s eyes! How we should delight, unobserved, to watch him in one of the stalls of his beloved cathedral choir, turning over the pages of his own church music, gently and absently playing seraphic airs on an imaginary violoncello!

“ Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard Are sweeter.”

Mr. Harding, perhaps the most striking of all Trollope’s creations, because so totally unlike Trollope himself, whereas the Archdeacon is clearly the very image of the author of his being.

Then the women. Mrs. Proudie,— we all detest her. Yet we have a sneaking fondness for her, too. There is one of the marks of large humanness in Trollope: he brings out something not wholly hateful in the worst character he touches. The masters of human life in literature, Shakespeare and Scott, have the same trait. And Lady Glencora, — how well we know her, and who does not feel her fascination! Trollope’s own observations on her show how far a true artist’s judgment may be below his genius: “She has, or has been intended to have, beneath the thin stratum of her follies a basis of good principle, which enabled her to live down the original wrong that was done to her, and taught her to endeavor to do her duty in the position to which she was called. ” And this is Lady Glen, — the sprightly, the mobile, the petulant, the willful, the bewitching Lady Glen! It would be instructive if we had the original skeletons of Rosalind and Die Vernon to range and ticket on the same shelf with this inert anatomy.

Nor is it only in what dramatic slang would call “character parts” that Trollope succeeds. In the still more difficult task of giving individual life to heroes and heroines he shows himself equally skillful. Phineas Finn, for example, is intended to be and is a very ordinary person ; yet an indescribable and indefinable something of lovableness pervades his character everywhere, so that one cannot choose but love him. As for Trollope’s girls, — Eleanor Harding, Mary Thorne, Lucy Roberts, Lily Dale, Grace Crawley, Violet Effingham, Isabel Boncassen, and the rest, — they are charming, and at the same time they are remarkably distinct: each keeps her individuality in the midst of the general fascination.

The style in which Trollope writes about all these personages is what might be expected from the author’s method of working, — loose, free, easily followed. After all, perhaps this is the best style for story-telling, when a man has the gift of it. The curious felicity of Flaubert and Stevenson is a precious thing; but one never escapes the sense that it is born of painful effort, and one feels a little guilty not to enjoy it with a certain effort, also. The De Goncourts speak somewhere of the struggle with which an author tears forth a beautiful page from his very vitals. Trollope never tore any pages from his vitals; he had no vitals, literarily speaking. Easy, rapid, graceful improvisation, at the rate of a thousand words an hour, as aforesaid, was good enough for him — and for most of his readers. Gautier said that the production of copy was a natural function with George Sand. So it was with Trollope: he wrote as easily as he breathed, —or hunted, — yet his style is full of individuality. It has neither dignity nor power nor remarkable precision; but it has a peculiar, homely, personal flavor, as of a man loosely noting his natural thought, writing in old clothes, with a pipe in his mouth and a glass of old wine beside him. The very tricks of it — that most marked one, which Mr. Saintsbury has noted, of repeating and emphasizing words — are characteristic of the man, and one gets attached to them as to him.

As for observation, Trollope had little, so far as the external world is concerned ; but his moral insight is close and keen on the somewhat superficial plane to which he was limited by nature, “That which enables the avaricious and unjust to pass scathless through the world is not the ignorance of the world as to their sins, but the indifference of the world as to whether they be sinful or no.” “The little sacrifices of society are all made by women, as are also the great sacrifices of life. A man who is good for anything is always ready for his duty, and so is a good woman for her sacrifice.” “Men are cowards before women till they become tyrants.” “Why is it that girls so constantly do this? So frequently ask men who have loved them to be present at their marriages with other men ? There is no triumph in it; it is done in sheer kindness and affection. ‘ You can’t marry me yourself, ’ the lady seems to say, ‘ but the next greatest blessing I can offer you, you shall have: you shall see me married to somebody else.’ I fully appreciate the intention, but in all honesty I doubt the eligibility of the proffered entertainment. ”

The last quotation shows the sort of good - natured satire which keeps one smiling through a great part of Trollope’s work. Mr. Howells, in his otherwise most appreciative criticism, charges Trollope with a lack of humor. To most of Trollope’s admirers it seems that his novels are full of humor; not indeed overcharged and farcical, like Dickens’s, always restrained within the limits of nature, but true humor nevertheless.

I have said nothing as yet, however, of that which constitutes the greatest claim of Trollope’s novels to permanence ; that is, their picture of contemporary English life. Even where plot and character are weakest there is always something of vitality and truth, and so of interest in the background and surroundings; but when we come to the Barchester and parliamentary series, the richness and accuracy of detail is wonderful. Every syllable that deals with Barchester has the accent of truth. I have already referred to Archdeacon Grantly, who is so clerical and so English as well as so human; but all his surroundings, the bishops and the deans and canons, and the wives of these dignitaries, and their very children, and all that they say and do, bring the quaint, quiet air of the cathedral town about us. Surely future ages will turn to Trollope more than to any other author for a true and vivid picture of this life, when it shall have wholly passed away.

The parliamentary atmosphere is naturally less peculiar in its interest, but its appeal is stronger on that very account. We know by Trollope’s own confession that he failed to obtain a seat in the House of Commons. We know from the same source that to obtain such a seat was one of the ambitions of his life. It does not seem possible that if he had obtained it he could have acquired a more intimate knowledge of the details of parliamentary practice. Certainly no formal history could give us half the insight into the machinery of government that we get from him. All the technicalities of majorities, cabinets, readings, questions, committees, whips, and the rest of it, all the ins and outs of candidacies, elections, ballotings with eggthrowing accompaniment, take life and significance from the human figures with which they are associated, and in turn give to those human figures a body and a substance which would otherwise be lacking.

Then the hunting, — oh, the hunting ! I have referred to it before, but it is worth mentioning ten times over. Unquestionably it is the best part of Trollope. Others have described it from the desk and the chimney corner; but he gives it fresh from the field, crisp with the hoarfrost of the autumn morning, glowing with the very rush and ardor of the thing itself. Oh, the deep voice of the hounds, and the red coats flashing, and the stride of the steeds, and the thick of the hurlyburly ! It is dragged into novel after novel, as Trollope himself admits; yet the novels that are without it seem by comparison to be only half alive.

With this note of external, physical life and activity it is well to leave Trollope. As I said in the beginning, he is a true realist, a common man giving the views and the feelings of common men. His moral attitude is always proper and decent, sometimes even to the extent of sermonizing; but he has no spiritual ideal, no sense of passionate moral struggle, no aspiration after the unseen and the divine. Stuffed full of British conventions, he is, and will remain, the loyal interpreter of British — and other — Philistinism, all the more loyal because instinctive and unconscious. What Philistine would not die happy if he could sum up his career in the following paragraph ? “If the rustle of a woman’s petticoat has ever stirred my blood, if a cup of wine has been a joy to me, if I have thought tobacco at midnight in pleasant company to be one of the elements of an earthly paradise, if now and again I have somewhat recklessly fluttered a five-pound note over a card table, of what matter is it to any reader ? I have betrayed no woman. Wine has brought me to no sorrow. It has been the companionship of smoking that I have loved rather than the habit. I have never desired to win money, and I have lost none. To enjoy the excitement of pleasure, but to be free from its vices and evil effects, to have the sweet and leave the bitter untasted, — that has been my study. The preachers tell us that this is impossible. It seems to me that I have succeeded fairly well.”

Gamaliel Bradford, Jr.

  1. The Warden. Barchester Towers. Doctor Thorne. By ANTHONY TROLLOPE. New York: John Lane. 1901.
  2. In spite of some odd lapses of grammar and occasionally of manners, which make it seem as if Trollope himself had not always lived with dukes and bishops.
  3. It may interest some of Trollope’s admirers to have a complete list of the long series of connected novels which includes most of his best work. The six chronicles of Barset come first, as follows : The Warden, Barchester Towers, Doctor Thorne, Framley Parsonage, The Small House at Allington, The Last Chronicle of Barset. These are followed by the parliamentary novels, the connection between them being maintained through Mr. Palliser and some others : Can You Forgive Her ? Phineas Finn, The Eustace Diamonds, Phineas Redux, The Prime Minister, The Duke’s Children.