BORN: 1815, London, England
DIED: 1882, Harting, Sussex, England
GENRE: Drama, fiction
Barchester Towers (1857)
Orley Farm (1862)
The Eustace Diamonds (1873)
The Way We Live Now (1875)
Anthony Trollope. Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Anthony Trollope was one of the most prolific English writers of the nineteenth century, writing some forty- seven novels and many further volumes of travels, sketches, criticism, and short fiction. Although most critics consider him a major Victorian novelist, the precise nature of his achievement has often proved elusive. In spite of conflicting interpretations, commentators tend to agree that his realistic characterizations form the basis of his importance and appeal.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Poor Victorian. Trollope lived nearly all of his adult life during a time known as the Victorian era. This era was named after Queen Victoria, who ruled England and its territories, including Ireland. Queen Victoria sat on the throne longer than any other British monarch, from 1837 until 1901. This period saw significant changes for both Britain and Europe as a whole, with advances in industrialization leading much of the population to jobs in factories instead of on farms as in the past. The era was also marked by a preoccupation with proper behavior in society and domestic life, common themes found in Trollope’s works.
Anthony Trollope was born on April 24, 1815, in London. His father, Thomas Trollope, failed at law and farming before going bankrupt, and his mother, Frances, began what eventually became a lucrative writing career to support the family. Trollope’s early years were marked by poverty and humiliation; he was under constant ridicule by his wealthier classmates at Harrow and Winchester. At the age of nineteen he found work as a junior clerk at the post office and seven years later was transferred to Ireland.
The Barsetshire Series. Trollope’s move to Ireland inaugurated a period of change: For the first time in his life he was successful in work, love, friendship, and financial matters. Trollope began writing, though his first novel, The Macdermots of Ballycloran (1847), received little critical attention. In the early 1850s Trollope’s post office work absorbed all his energies. He was assigned to work out the routes for rural deliveries, first in a district in Ireland and then in a number of counties in England, particularly in the west. He did his work with zeal, riding over all the routes himself, determined to make it possible that a letter could be delivered to every remote residence in his district. It was while visiting the close of Salisbury Cathedral that he conceived the story of The Warden, the first in the series of novels about his invented county of Barsetshire that was to make him famous.
The Warden (1855), Trollope’s fourth novel, was a moderate success. The story was followed by Barchester Towers (1857), the second novel in the series, which marked the public’s recognition of a new major novelist. Many readers still regard it as the apogee of Trollope’s achievement.
The other novels in the Barset series, with which Trollope was engaged intermittently over the next decade, were Doctor Thorne (1858), Framley Parsonage (1861), The Small House at Aldington (1864), and The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867). Each of these novels is distinctive, with its own plot, new major characters, and a few recurring characters. All were set in the quiet cathedral city of Barchester with its surrounding town, villages, and ancestral estates of Barsetshire. Framley Parsonage, the fourth novel in the Barsetshire series, was Trollope’s first work to appear in serial form, a method of magazine publication that promised a wide readership and greater critical response.
The Palliser Series. Before he had written his last chronicle of Barset, Trollope had already launched into the first of a new series of interconnected novels, the Palliser, or political, novels. Young Plantagenet Palliser, a dedicated politician and the heir to the duke of Omnium, was first introduced as a minor character in The Small House at Allington in the Barset series. Where the clergy are the focus of interest in the Barset novels, politicians and their business are the concern of the Palliser novels; and the major scene of action shifts from the quiet though sufficiently busy rural county of Barsetshire to the more hectic bustle of the metropolis. Like the Barset novels, the Palliser novels all have separate plots and are complete in themselves, but characters introduced in one novel are apt to recur in subsequent ones.
Political Life. Having returned to England in 1859, the pattern of Trollope’s life seems to have changed in the late 1860s. He left the post office, worked as an editor, and attempted to pursue a career in politics. In 1868, he unsuccessfully ran for a seat in Parliament. Trollope called the years 1867 and 1868, the years of his resignation, editorship, second trip to America, and political campaign, ‘‘the busiest of my life.’’ With the new decade he seemed to slow down a little. He continued to be busy, but he was perhaps less cheerful.
Declining Popularity. The 1870s witnessed a decline in Trollope’s popularity as his writing style and focus changed. Although they often include subjects similar to those in his earlier works, Trollope’s later novels are more cynical and pessimistic in tone: He Knew He Was Right (1869) examines marriage and finds jealousy and corruption; The Way We Live Now (1875) studies society and uncovers financial and moral corruption. Critics objected to what they considered the sordid realism of these works, charging that Trollope ignored the novelist’s responsibility of providing solutions to the social problems he depicted. In addition, because he was so prolific, Trollope was accused of commercialism.
Posthumous Self-Effacement. During the 1870s, Trollope began to travel extensively and write travel books. He also found time to write literary criticism. Yet as he aged, he encountered trouble with asthma, deafness, and other ailments. During a friendly evening with his old friends, Trollope had a stroke. He lingered a few weeks, but died on December 6, 1882.
Trollope’s prudent habit of keeping a manuscript or two on hand meant that the novels kept coming for a while, including Mr. Scarborough’s Family (1883) and The Landleaguers, which he had not lived to finish, yet was published incomplete. His major posthumous publication, however, was An Autobiography, an engagingly frank account of his professional life and working habits that has continued to shock and delight his readers in almost equal measure.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Trollope's famous contemporaries include:
Florence Nightingale (1820-1910): Called ''The Lady with the Lamp'' for her habit of caring for patients long into the night, Florence Nightingale became a public figure after her efforts to improve battlefield hospitals during the Crimean War. She was a lifelong advocate for nursing and patient care.
Lewis Carroll (1832-1898): The pen name of Charles Dodgson, Carroll was a master of the genre of literary nonsense, penning the surreal tales of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and the poem "Jabberwocky."
Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881): One of the premier Russian novelists of the nineteenth century, Dostoyevsky focused on troubled psyches and is considered by many to be the father of existentialism.
William Gladstone (1809-1898): A lion of Victorian politics, Gladstone was Liberal prime minister on four occasions, repeatedly butting heads with both Queen Victoria and his Conservative rival, Benjamin Disraeli.
Cetshwayo (1826-1884): The last king of the Zulu nation, from 1872 to 1879, Cetshwayo was the grandnephew of the legendary king Shaka.
Alexander II (1818-1881): From his ascension to the throne as leader of the Russian Empire in 1855 to his assassination in 1881, Alexander II led a program of systematic reforms, most notably the emancipation of the peasant class of serfs.
Works in Literary Context
Critics continue to dispute the nature of Trollope’s achievement, and there is no general agreement on his rank among writers of fiction. Yet commentators universally applaud the quality of his characterizations. Many believe that Trollope was able to paint characters of such consistency, veracity, and depth because of his profound insight into and sympathy for his creations. Trollope himself considered the ability to live with one’s characters essential and defined the main work of the novelist as ‘‘the creation of human beings in whose existence one is forced to believe.’’
Maidens and Women. ‘‘There must be love in a novel,’’ Trollope declared; and he became an acknowledged expert in handling a character’s intricate vacillations between love and social constraints. It was for such portraits as that of Lucy Robarts that Henry James remembered Trollope as an author who celebrated the ‘‘simple maiden in her flower. ...He is evidently always more or less in love with her.’’
There are several comparable features in Trollope’s two major series, the Barset and the Palliser novels. A major character in each is a dominating woman who competes with her husband for power and then dies suddenly toward the end of the series. A noticeable change is in the presentation of the other female characters. Whereas in the Barset novels ‘‘the simple maiden in her flower’’ had predominated—such girls as Mary Thorne, Lucy Robarts, and Grace Crawley—in the Palliser novels the interest shifts from innocent girls to experienced women: Lady Laura Kennedy, who deserts her husband and declares her adulterous passion for another man; Madame Max Goesler, who, having married once for a settlement pursues a handsome young man for love and actually proposes to him; and Lady Glencora herself, who not only is much more sympathetically handled than Mrs. Proudie but also breaks the standard Trollope code by abandoning her first love and devoting herself to a second.
Densely Layered Novels. The Last Chronicle of Barset is typical of Trollope’s copious, variegated kind of novel. Its characters are numerous and diverse, and its world is composed of several plots and different settings. Although he wrote a number of relatively short novels in which a classic unity of action is clearly preserved, his greatest works are those in which the main plot is amplified by subplots and the themes are enlarged and qualified. ‘‘Though [the novelist’s] story should be all one, yet it may have many parts,’’ Trollope explained. ‘‘Though the plot itself may require but few characters, it may be so enlarged as to find its full development in many. There may be subsidiary plots, which shall all tend to the elucidation of the main story, and which will take their places as part of one and the same work.’’
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Trollope made a name for himself with the tales of the residents of an invented county that held recognizable elements from real locations despite its being fictional. Other works featuring famous fictional settings that bear a strong resemblance to real places include:
''The Dunwich Horror'' (1929), a short story by H. P. Lovecraft. This pulp horror writer used Arkham County, a prototypical New England locale, as a setting for many of his stories. This, one of his best-known short stories, prominently features two of Arkham County's most famous locales: Miskatonic University and the town of Dunwich.
Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), a novel by Thomas Hardy. Hardy wrote a series of stories and poems set in the semifictional Wessex County; this was his fourth such story and first major success.
Gulliver's Travels (1726), a novel by Jonathan Swift. In this would-be travelogue, the locations visited by Gulliver— Lilliput, Brobdingnag, Laputa, and so forth—are allegorical countries, each representing a different aspect of human nature.
Works in Critical Context
Trollope’s enormous productivity has had much to do with a patronizing dismissal of his work by some critics and a rather apologetic attitude adopted even by his admirers. In a review of Miss Mackenzie the young Henry James admitted, ‘‘We have long entertained for Mr. Trollope a partiality of which we have yet been somewhat ashamed.’’ It has been a recurring attitude. Even his major biographer, Michael Sadleir, writing in 1927, and his next major critic, Bradford A. Booth, have been tentative and cautious in their praise and have partly adopted the stance of apologists. Critics have found his elusive but undoubted quality difficult to analyze: ‘‘His work resists the kind of formal analysis to which we subject our better fiction,’’ Booth admitted. His unambiguous style has not invited critical interpretation. Compared with George Eliot or George Meredith he has seemed lowbrow, and compared with Charles Dickens and Hardy his unemphatic social commentary has seemed mild.
Some critics, including several of his original reviewers, have found fault with Trollope’s subsidiary plots and have wished them away. Recent criticism, however, has shown Trollope’s impressive art in the orchestration of plot with subplot. In the article entitled ‘‘Trollope at Full Length,’’ Gordon Ray demonstrates how Trollope ‘‘knew exactly how to assign each set of characters its proper part in the story, to time his shifts from one plot to another so as to obtain maximum emphasis, contrast, and change of pace, and to bring the whole to a smooth conclusion within the space allotted. Trollope, in fact, made himselfa great master of the contrapuntal novel long before anyone had thought of the term.’’
The Barset Series. The Barsetshire series elicited several comments that were repeated throughout Trollope’s lifetime. Above all, critics warmed to his characters and praised both Trollope’s lively, readable style and his humorous portrayal of everyday life. They also noted his fidelity to the English character, particularly in his portraits of young girls, although some critics noted that he overused the plot scheme of a heroine vacillating between two suitors.
Trollope’s early critics attributed a number of his faults, including careless construction, grammatical errors, and insubstantial story lines, to the fact that Trollope wrote quickly, and they blamed the exigencies of serial publication for his overly episodic and fragmentary plots. In addition, many commentators found Trollope’s technique of allowing the narrator to constantly comment on the action and characters to be irrelevant and distracting.
Legacy. If it has taken time for critics to claim a place for Trollope among the greatest novelists, the readers have kept buying and reading his books. He has continued to be ‘‘obsessively readable,’’ in C. P. Snow’s phrase. He lost some readers during his lifetime and some more after his death; but after the 1890s reprints of his many novels have proved sound investments for many publishers. During the two world wars, Trollope and Barset were in enormous demand. In the 1970s his second series was adapted by the BBC as a highly successful television serial, The Pallisers. And increasingly in the two decades before the centenary of his death, the critics have ceased to be apologists. Trollope has been recognized as a major novelist.
Responses to Literature
1. Read several of Trollope’s short stories. Discuss how Trollope presents Victorian life. What makes his characters different from those of other Victorian writers? Do you think his stories represent a realistic view? Find textual examples to support your position.
2. Using Trollope’s autobiography as a source, analyze his objectivity in his introspective study of himself as an artist.
3. Contrast two characters from opposite ends of the social spectrum in one of Trollope’s early novels, for example, Barchester Towers.
4. Compare Trollope to Charles Dickens. How did their literary styles differ? How were they similar? Which author do you feel is more emblematic of the Victorian period? Why?
Ap Roberts, Ruth. The Moral Trollope. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1971.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 21: Victorian Novelists Before 1885. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Ed. Ira B. Nadel, University of British Columbia, and William E. Fredeman, University of British Columbia. Detroit: Gale Group, 1983.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 57: Victorian Prose Writers After 1867. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Ed. William B. Thesing, University of South Carolina. Detroit: Gale Group, 1987.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 159: British Short-Fiction Writers, 1800-1880. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Ed. John R. Greenfield, McKendree College. Detroit: Gale Group, 1996.
Halperin, John. Trollope and Politics: A Study of the Pallisers and Others. New York: Macmillan, 1977.
________. Trollope Centenary Essays. New York: St. Martin’s, 1982.
Herbert, Christopher. Trollope and Comic Pleasure. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Kendrick, Walter M. The Novel-Machine: The Theory and Fiction of Anthony Trollope. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.
McMaster, Juliet. Trollope’s Palliser Novels: Theme and Pattern. New York: Macmillan, 1978.
Morse, Deborah Denenholz. Women in Trollope’s Palliser Novels. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1987.
Mullen, Richard. Anthony Trollope: A Victorian in His World. London: Duckworth, 1990.
Nardin, Jane. He Knew She Was Right: The Independent Woman in the Novels of Anthony Trollope. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989.
Super, Robert H. The Chronicler of Barsetshire: A Life of Anthony Trollope. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988.
The Trollope Critics. Edited by H. John Hall. New York: Macmillan, 1981.
Huntington Library Quarterly, volume 31, 1968. Nineteenth Century Fiction, June 1949; September 1949.