Trollope is our most popular and reprinted Victorian novelist. His new companions in the Abbey – Dickens, George Eliot and Hardy – may sell more copies of individual novels, but they cannot match the expansiveness of Trollope’s appeal. Forty or more of his works are currently in print – some in as many as five different editions. But for a century, Trollopians have complained about the lack of a reliable life of their author. In response to this, three scholars, working independently of each other, set out in the Eighties to write the authoritative biography. None has had access to substantially better or more informative primary materials. In the last two years their massive volumes have been delivered. Is this a good thing, or too much of a good thing?
There are problems facing the biographer of Trollope. His adult life was not (as far as we know) sensationally exciting. There is no Ellen Ternan, no mad Mrs Thackeray, no flagrantly unconventional union of the Lewes-Eliot kind. Trollope did not, like Wilkie Collins, steep himself in laudanum and keep two mistresses. He did not, like Bulwer Lytton, lock his wife in a lunatic asylum. He did not die tragically young like the Brontës or poor, like Charles Lever. He did not become Prime Minister of England, like Disraeli. Unlike the barren Hardy, he was happily married and left two respectable sons to carry on his name.
Trollope wrote more fiction than most and must also have written a lot of correspondence. But most of it has disappeared. The collected letters are excellently edited by N. John Hall, but they run only to a couple of volumes. Dickens, by contrast, looks like amassing 15 or so fatter volumes in the Pilgrim edition. George Eliot’s eight volumes and Thackeray’s four (soon to be supplemented) all outweigh Trollope. There is a particular shortage of intimate letters. Trollope evidently weeded these out. His wife Rose survived to 96, and may also have suppressed intimate material. There were diaries – at least in the early life – but Trollope evidently destroyed them in 1870. None of his close friends has left revealing testimony.
A further problem is Trollope’s own Autobiography. On the face of it, this is one of the most disarmingly candid confessions ever written. But where it can be checked, An Autobiography is sometimes misleading – perhaps deliberately so. Of the three biographers, R.H. Super is most suspicious of the testimony of An Autobiography and disregards it wherever he can. It is not, he says, ‘the authoritative record of events put down as they actually occurred’. Richard Mullen and Hall use An Autobiography extensively, but tactfully (and sometimes tacitly) correct its account.
Super, Mullen and Hall are skilled biographers, and each has his particular edge. Hall has edited the letters, and creates the most fluent narrative, nonetheless one which is packed with information. For my money, he tells the best story. Super, whose book I wrote about when it first came out, has done pioneering work on Trollope and the Post Office, and his account is particularly dense in that important area. He is the most self-denying of the three where speculation is concerned. Where there is no hard evidence, Super says nothing. Unlike the other two, he gives comprehensive summaries of the novels, and his narrative organisation is chronological and highly segmented. As a result, The Chronicler of Barsetshire works well as an encyclopedia of Trollope. Mullen, a journalist, not an academic (as the other two are), is strong on the social-historical context. As his title promises, he gives the fullest picture of Trollope’s ‘world’.
Each of these biographies can be recommended, but there are persistent discrepancies. For instance, in the opening pages, Super tells us that Trollope’s redoubtable mother, Frances Milton, was 29 when she married. Mullen hedges by saying that she was ‘already in her late twenties’. Hall declares ‘she was 30.’ Super tells us that one of the reasons Trollope’s father moved the family to Harrow in 1815 was that as residents of the parish his four boys could attend Harrow School ‘without charge’. According to Mullen, there was a charge of ten guineas a term per boy. Hall says the Trollope boys were ‘private’ pupils, but does not say what fees they paid. Variations of this kind can be found throughout the three books, and one of the advantages of having them all to hand is that cross-checking is so rewarding (all are well indexed). The general level of accuracy is high, as far as I can judge. The only serious mistake I have found is in Mullen, who on page 642 states that ‘within a few days of completing An Old Man’s Love Trollope turned his hand to a new field, historical writing, and in the space of a few weeks produced a short book about Lord Palmerston.’ Trollope wrote Palmerston just before An Old Man’s Love, which was his last completed book.
Super, Mullen and Hall have distinctly different angles on the familiar biographical cruxes. The first crux is Trollope’s childhood and schooldays. The author’s own verdict in An Autobiography is uncompromising. It was ‘the worst period of my life’. His father’s bankruptcy and mental instability; his mother’s decamping to America in what were seen as scandalous circumstances; the shuttling from one school to another (four moves in seven years); the bullying; the loneliness; the being branded as a dunce – all combined to bring young Anthony to the brink of suicide. Mullen and Hall go along with Trollope’s version of his schooldays (Mullen less so than Hall, perhaps). But Super disagrees radically. Despite what Trollope himself declares, he insists that in 1834 ‘the young man who completed his schooling just as the bailiffs descended was not a dunce, not uneducated, not indeed notably unhappy with his life; had had lively interests and the foundation for substantial intellectual accomplishment – and he was proud to be a Harrovian and a Wykehamist.’
Super has common sense on his side. Trollope’s mature writing is certainly that of a well-educated and psychologically stable man. And Trollope’s own brother, Thomas, declared that the Autobiography account of their childhood years was too much en noir. But Super sometimes seems to tilt inconvenient evidence his way. One of the clinching confirmations of Anthony’s account of his wretched schooldays came from Sir William Gregory, who was at Harrow with him. On reading An Autobiography, Gregory recalled that Trollope was
a big boy, older than the rest of the form, and without exception the most slovenly and dirty boy I ever met. He was not only slovenly in person and in dress, but his work was equally dirty. His exercises were a mass of blots and smudges. These peculiarities created a great prejudice against him, and the poor fellow was generally avoided ... I had plenty of opportunities of judging Anthony, and I am bound to say, though my heart smites me sorely for my unkindness, that I did not like him. I avoided him, for he was rude and uncouth, but I thought him an honest brave fellow. He was no sneak. His faults were external; all the rest of him was right enough. But the faults were of that character for which school boys would never make allowances, and so poor Trollope was tabooed, and had not ... a single friend ... He gave no sign of promise whatsoever, was always in the lowest part of the form, and was regarded by masters and by boys as an incorrigible dunce.
Mullen and Hall quote this in full as clear corroboration that Trollope’s time at Harrow was ‘torture’. Super quotes Gregory selectively, so as to give a quite different impression:
Living as he did with only one parent and that a negligent one, Anthony was ‘the most slovenly and dirty boy I ever met’, not only in person and dress, but also in his work: ‘His exercises were a mass of blots and smudges,’ as William Gregory of Coole Park, near Gort in Galway, recalled; yet Gregory rather liked him. Though rude and uncouth, ‘I thought him an honest, brave fellow. His faults were external; all the rest of him was right enough.’ (Many years later, Gregory’s widow was to befriend William Butler Yeats at Coole Park.)
In the section that Super suppresses, Gregory declares quite unequivocally: ‘I did not like him.’ There is no doubt as to what this means. Yet, by judicious quotation, Super can turn this upside down and assert, ‘Gregory rather liked him,’ sketch a Richmal Cromptonish picture of schoolboy Anthony, and then change the subject by dragging the Yeats red herring across the reader’s path.
In 1834 Anthony was yanked out of school to join the family in Belgium, where they were hiding from their creditors. Consumption was sweeping through the Trollopes. A brother, a sister and Anthony’s father all died within three years, while Mrs Trollope wrote jaunty novels and travel books to pay for their funerals. There was no question of university. The family used its influence to get Anthony a job in the Post Office, and he spent seven aimless years as an underpaid clerk. He was, he asserts, persecuted by his superior, Colonel William Maberly (Super disputes this – convincingly, I think). In describing his moral condition at this period in An Autobiography, Trollope alludes to ‘dirt’, ‘looseness’, and the ‘lowest pits’. In the fictional depiction of these years in his novel The Three Clerks, Charley Tudor gets himself sexually involved with a blowsy barmaid. How should we picture Trollope at this dangerous period of his life, adrift in London? Super does not speculate on the adolescent Trollope’s possible dissipations, and records merely what we do know about – his walking expeditions with friends, his games of cards, his tobacco smoking. Hall is much more willing to read between the lines: ‘all the talk in An Autobiography about “dirt” and debauchery and the temptations of a loose life surely meant more than smoking cigars and drinking gin and bitters. Trollope would have thought it unbecoming to go into further details, but he gives obvious hints that he was involved with loose women; perhaps, when he could afford it, he went with prostitutes.’ Mullen does not discern any such hints. He is censorious of biographers who ‘have kindly invented various vices for Trollope for which there is no evidence’. But he ‘did not flee from “the rustle of a lady’s dress” nor the swish of a barmaid’s apron. The type of mild flirtation he enjoyed is seen in one of his few surviving letters from the period.’ Take your pick: whores, mild flirtation, or long healthy walks in the country.
When Trollope went to Ireland in 1841, good things began to happen to him. He rose in his profession; discovered hunting; began to write novels. And he got married. Trollope’s bride, Rose Heseltine, is what Hall aptly calls ‘the great unknown in Trollope’s life’. Although she lived until l917, only two photographs of Rose are known to survive. It is Mullen who tries hardest to pierce the obscurity, and to establish Rose’s ‘true importance in the life of her husband’. Mullen’s energetic research into Rose’s family background turns up some nuggets. He speculates interestingly about her Unitarian background, identifies her date of birth, and suggests – persuasively – that she was in Ireland in summer 1842 to escape the filthy drains in her father’s house in Rotherham. Mullen also goes most fully into the embezzling scandal which forced Rose Trollope’s father to flee the country in 1855. The secrecy that surrounds this woman – a secrecy that spreads onto her husband’s personal life – could well be the result of a lifelong fear of posterity discovering her father’s crime.
In the 1850s Trollope busily advanced his Post Office career (which did not go wonderfully well) and made his name as a novelist. His struggle for literary fame involved some epic tussles with the publishers. These professional negotiations are better recorded than most of Trollope’s affairs, but they are not always easy to decipher. Take, for instance, the pre-publication haggling about Doctor Thorne, in early 1858. According to Trollope in An Autobiography, having written a portion of the novel and about to sail to Egypt on GPO business, he ‘went to Mr Bentley’, who had published his previous novel, and
demanded £400, – for the copyright. He acceded, but came to me the next morning at the General Post Office to say that it could not be. He had gone to work on his figures after I had left him, and had found that £300 would be the outside value of the novel. I was intent on the larger sum; and in furious haste, – for I had but an hour at my disposal, – I rushed to Chapman & Hall in Piccadilly, and said what I had to say to Mr Edward Chapman in a quick torrent of words ... Looking at me as he might have done at a highway robber who had stopped him on Hounslow Heath, Mr Chapman said that he might as well do as I desired. I considered this to be a sale, and it was a sale.
It’s a nice story. But it is contradicted by the surviving correspondence. It may well be that Trollope, as he says, had some conversation with Richard Bentley at the Post Office, or elsewhere in London, in which payment for the new work was discussed. Bentley then wrote to Trollope, on 25 January 1858, saying that after calculation, he could offer no more than £300 for Doctor Thorne. On 27 January, after more calculation, Bentley wrote again, raising his offer to £450, but with £150 withheld until after the sale of the first edition. How the novelist responded we do not know. We only know that on 29 January, Trollope signed a contract with Chapman and Hall, selling the copyright entire for £400. Next day, he left the country. And on 28 April, he wrote to Bentley from Cadiz, informing him that ‘The day after I last saw you, I sold the Mss of Dr Thorne to Mr Chapman.’
How do the three biographers deal with the contradictions between the story Trollope tells and the correspondence? Super does not mention the Autobiography account, presumably on the grounds that here as elsewhere the Autobiography is wholly unreliable. In Super’s version Trollope ‘approaches’ Bentley, who in conversation concedes the £400 which the novelist asks for Doctor Thorne. Then ‘a few hours’ later Bentley realises his mistake and dispatches a note saying that on consulting his ledgers, he can only offer £300. Trollope ‘immediately called upon’ Edward Chapman and ‘concluded with him an agreement for the larger sum’. Bentley soon realises his blunder and ‘three days after that first note, he added £150 to his offer (contingent upon sales), but Trollope had already left London’. All this is plausible, but the dates don’t quite fit. Trollope did not ‘conclude’ his agreement with Chapman until the 29th. There were probably two meetings (contracts take some time to draw up). ‘Immediately’ is rather vague. Postal deliveries were prompt in the 1850s, and there is no reason to suppose that Trollope did not see Bentley’s counterbid before he left for Paris on the boat-train on 30 January (Super evidently thinks that Trollope would have accepted it had he seen it). And there were two, not three days, between Bentley’s letters.
Mullen gives some credence to the Autobiography and reproduces the vignette of Bentley attending in person at the Post Office, to reduce his offer to £300. But he notes that in the Bodleian there is a copy of Bentley’s 25 January letter, saying he cannot afford more than £300. The Bodleian also has the contract of 29 January. Mullen guesses that ‘in Trollope’s memory, and perhaps in his desire to make a good story better, a letter became a visit and the four days became one hour.’ Mullen then assumes that Trollope received Bentley’s letter on 25 January (i.e. the day it was written) before noon. Trollope, as Mullen further hypothesises, had only
an hour’s free time, presumably for lunch. Annoyed with Bentley and anxious to get the money he felt he deserved, he arrived at Chapman’s offices in Piccadilly in a flushed state. Part of his condition could have been due to the difficulty in getting there: 25 January was the day on which Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter, the Princess Royal, was married ... The streets were thronged with spectators. Trollope might well have been very hard pressed to get from St Martin’s to Piccadilly to negotiate the terms of an agreement and to get back to work, all within an hour.
It is typically resourceful of Mullen to have discovered the business about the royal wedding. But his account doesn’t add up. Victorian postal deliveries were prompt. But a letter written by a publisher on the 25th would hardly arrive before lunch that same day. And Mullen apparently hasn’t noticed the letter of April, in which Trollope tells Bentley that ‘the day after I last saw you, I sold the Mss of Dr Thorne to Mr Chapman.’ Nor does Mullen know about the existence of Bentley’s counterbid letter of 27 January (which is not in the Bodleian, but the BL Bentley archive).
Hall puts another spin on the episode. As he tells it, around 23 or 24 January Trollope
saw Bentley and ‘demanded’£400 for the entire copyright of Doctor Thorne. Bentley agreed, but the next day, according to Trollope, came around to the General Post Office, saying that he had miscalculated and could offer but £300, a figure he put in writing on 25 January. On the 27th Bentley sweetened the offer somewhat [offering the extra £150 contingent on sales]. But Trollope wanted his price outright, independent of sales, and went ‘in furious haste, – for I had but an hour then at my disposal’ – to Chapman and Hall in Piccadilly [where Edward Chapman] said ‘he supposed he might as well do as I desired.’ The agreement was signed on 29 January, and the next day Trollope left for the East.
The motive in Hall’s version is to preserve as much of the Autobiography version as possible, and to make Trollope look that much less of a fibber. But there are some questionable assumptions. The notion that Bentley told Trollope about the £300 in person, then sent a letter confirming it is ingenious, and preserves Trollope’s veracity as to Bentley’s personal attendance at the post office. But there is no warrant for assuming that it was on receiving the second, 27 January letter, with a substantially better offer, that an enraged Trollope charged down to Piccadilly to take less money from Edward Chapman. Since Bentley was clearly weakening, it would have made more sense to call at New Burlington Street. And – once again – how does this square with Trollope saying that he sold the manuscript the day after seeing Bentley? (By Hall’s account, the meeting at the Post Office must have been 24 January, at the latest).
To summarise: Super has Trollope receive the 25 January letter and ‘immediately’ (on the 26th, presumably) call on Chapman. He does not receive the letter of 27 January before leaving the country. Mullen has Trollope receive the 25 January letter a few minutes after it is written, and rush down to Chapman on noon that same day, elbowing aside tourists at the Royal Wedding. For him, the 27 January letter does not exist. Hall has Trollope wait until he receives the 27 January letter and then rush down to Piccadilly (presumably on the 28th).
Does it matter what day of the week, 133 years ago, Trollope made his deal, and whether it was done in person or by letter? I believe it does. When he wrote this section of An Autobiography Trollope was a vigorous 60-year-old, with a sharp memory. He had in his possession Bentley’s letters and Chapman’s contract. His version of events is deliberately fabricated to project an image of himself: that of the young novelist in a hurry, impatiently kicking the backside of any publisher who gets in his way. What the biographer has to do is to penetrate that self-serving image, retaining what elements of it are true. At the same time the biographer has to follow the incontrovertible evidence of the surviving letters. Super’s decision to discount Trollope’s autobiographical account is, I think, intellectually honourable, even if it tacitly brands Trollope a liar. But Hall’s knitting as much as possible of An Autobiography with the letters (which he knows better than anyone) makes for more humane biography.
After 1860, Trollope’s career took off with the triumph of Framley Parsonage. In the same year he met the young American, Kate Field – actress, feminist, intellectual and beauty. Much has been speculated about their relationship, much of it building on Trollope’s tribute to ‘an American woman’ in An Autobiography: ‘In the last 15 years she has been, out of my own family, my most chosen friend. She is a ray of light to me, from which I can always strike a spark by thinking of her.’ Only 20 letters from Trollope to Kate survive. All hers to him were destroyed by Trollope. What was the nature of their relationship? Was it, as some have argued, ‘romantic’, or even adulterous? Super is contemptuous in his preface of weak-minded commentators who have given credence to ‘Trollope’s presumed infatuation with the young Bostonian woman Kate Field’. He does not waste space on the subject, and merely gives the facts of the relationship as they survive. Hall goes briefly into the quality of the relationship (using cues in surviving correspondence) and concludes that ‘as a married man 23 years her senior, Trollope’s tactic was constantly to emphasise this age difference, and act the avuncular, even fatherly adviser, who with her own good in mind found fault and gave difficult advice. This was evidently the way in which he delivered himself of shyness and fought off some feelings of guilt.’ But why did he feel guilty? What is Hall hinting at? That at some early meeting Trollope committed some physical indiscretion? Mullen again invokes his favourite phrase, ‘mild flirtation’. Kate, he declares, ‘undoubtedly filled certain emotional needs for Trollope ... but his friendship – indeed his love – for Kate Field can only be understood if one first realises that Rose Trollope always remained what he called her in letters, “Dearest Love”.’ No guilt or indiscretion here.
These three biographies supplement, correct and enrich one another, and offer a composite account of Trollope’s life. My own preference is for Hall, on the grounds that his Trollope is the most human and complex of the three.