Trollope at 200
By MICHAEL CAINES
After the death of Rupert Brooke, commemorated on April 23 – although possibly this is to state things the wrong way round, at least in chronological terms – comes the birth of Anthony Trollope, who was born on April 24, 1815.
Both are given due critical attention in this week’s TLS (see the cover, above); it seems to me that there’s a connecting intellectual thread between them, in the form of the notions of Englishness that they seem to represent, or have been made to represent. . . .
In the post-war years, for example, Brooke was made to play the tragically short-lived Soldier Poet of myth – a matinée idol in verse. The mischievous authors of Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without suggested that Trollope was meanwhile being served up as a safe cultural replacement for Jane Austen:
“Trollope is that nice, maundering spinster lady with a poke bonnet and a taste for cottagey gardens whom superficial readers thought they had got hold of when they had in fact got hold of the morally sabre-toothed Jane Austen. . . . it was not until the 1939–45 war that he became a popular (indeed, a paperback) novelist. Perhaps it was then that the English middle classes discovered that Jane Austen was not what they had supposed and took to Trollope in her place . . . .”
The waspishness of such criticism has its appeal (how pleasant it is when you’re not stung yourself), but it ignores the fact that readers are quite free to enjoy both Austen and Trollope for their different qualities. Trollope himself was modest in his estimation of his own work – lofalutin, even – and full of generous praise for Austen, conveying admiration rather than rivalry, even of different leagues rather than close competitors.
In his essay “On English Prose Fiction”, Trollope describes Austen as “surely a great novelist” – that “surely” implying that he cannot take that fact for granted as he addresses his contemporaries. Nor can he assume that they are all familiar with her novels, and he urges them to read her to enjoy, among other things, her “comedy of folly”. In that regard, he could say, “I know no novelist who has beaten her”. As Matthew Ingleby shows in this week’s TLS, there are comparisons to be drawn between them – but is it is really a case of either/or? Call me greedy, but I prefer both/and.
On looking back through the Barchester books, and leafing through the many short stories I’ve never read before, in preparation for the latest episode of TLS Voices, what I've noticed most often might be described not as the comedy of folly but the comedy of pride. (TLS Voices, incidentally, passed its first anniversary recently; how young it is.) Early, ticklish stories such as “George Walker at Suez”, “Relics of General Chassé” and “The O’Conors of Castle Conor, County Mayo” involve fits of farcical pride brought low, just as those proud Barsetshire clergymen have to jostle for the reader’s attention against one another, and against Mrs Proudie and Wilfred Thorne, Esq.
The first line of Trollope’s fortieth novel, Dr Wortle’s School – once singled out by the TLS’s former poetry editor Mick Imlah as “the fastest-written of all novels of lasting worth” – cuts to the chase: “The Rev. Jeffrey Wortle, DD, was a man much esteemed by others – and by himself”. There is nothing dignified and Darcy-ish about such formidable self-regard.
In the meantime, Trollope had been, like Dr Wortle, a man of “two professions”, and wrote his books while working for the Post Office, over the best part of four decades. How he did that, and his industrious, demystifying remarks about writing (would they have sounded better coming from, say, Joyce Carol Oates or Georges Simenon?), is something we cover in this episode of TLS Voices, while John Sutherland also writes this week about the unstinting productivity of Trollope’s last years, and Gerri Kimber reviews the new Oxford edition of Trollope’s Autobiography.
Elsewhere, bicentenary celebrations are under way or coming soon, in the form of a “Big Read” of Barchester Towers, a talk and conferences and evensong at Westminster Abbey, where Trollope belatedly received some recognition in Poets’ Corner, a theatrical adaptation of Lady Anna, and more. And while Maggs have been busy cataloguing the Schroder collection of Rupert Brooke, Joshua Clayton has compiled an impressive catalogue of first editions, and other delights, for the nineteenth-century specialist bookseller Jarndyce.
You may wish to look away at this point, if you’re neither a book collector nor related to one:
The Jarndyce catalogue begins with two letters not found in the Letters of 1983, concerning Post Office preferment and an unspecified problem concerning the name of Saint Pauls Magazine, of which Trollope was to be editor. For deeper-pocketed types, there is The Warden (“scarce” in the original cloth, £3,500) or the uniform twenty-seven volumes of the Works that have perhaps come from Easton Neston, that splendid folly of a family seat in Northamptonshire sold a decade ago to the fashion designer Leon Max (original uniform olive green cloth covers, £850).
A manuscript page of Castle Richmond, dated May 5, 1861, will set you back £2,500; it’s £1,500 for The Fixed Period, the euthanasia-espousing exercise in science fiction set in “Gladstonopolis” mentioned by Professor Sutherland. Gratuitous mention must also be made of a gift copy of The Golden Lion of Granpere from Geoffrey Keynes to G. E. Moore’s wife Dorothy (£350), merely because Keynes’s name cropped up yesterday, too – and of the second edition of Kept in the Dark at the same price, because it seems to have eluded the redoubtable collector Michael Sadleir, and indeed all library catalogues bar that of the National Library of Scotland.
At less alarming prices are the volumes on offer here from Trollope's mother Frances and his brother Thomas Adolphus; the aspiring collector could also pick up a late nineteenth-century copy of The Small House at Allington for £40, Lady Anna for £30, Trollope’s brief study of Thackeray for £20 (notable for its tutting over Thackeray’s transcription of the Irish accent and habit of being late with his “copy”), or the Trollope Society's illustrated edition of Hunting Sketches for a tenner.
The abundance of cheaper twentieth-century editions shows that, for all that the critics have always been ready for Trollope to dwindle into oblivion, either relishing or lamenting the prospect, demand seems to have kept up for new editions of oddities and entities as well as for the more obvious Barchesters and Pallisers. It bears little resemblance to the half-patriotic, half-prurient cult of Brooke, but the cult of Trollope perhaps has more persistent, happier life in it yet.