Thursday, December 6, 2012

This Day in Literary History (Trollope, Astonishingly Prolific Victorian Novelist, Dies)

December 6, 1882—One month after suffering a stroke that paralyzed the hand that wrote 47 massive novels, Anthony Trollope died in a London nursing home at age 67. In productivity, he exceeded his Victorian contemporary, Charles Dickens, and in popularity he did not lag behind him.

These days, Trollope’s place in the Victorian fiction canon is more equivocal. In the British Victorian Literature course I took 30 years ago, Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Emily Bronte represented fiction, and I daresay you’d see something like the same thing across the country now (albeit with Charlotte Bronte subbing for her younger sister). That position reflects the decades of neglect experienced by Trollope until the 1960s, as well as, perhaps, some academic distaste for his Tory sympathies.

That’s part of it, but I don’t think it’s all. From youth to early middle age, Dickens, with the simultaneous need to feed his growing family and to maintain his high style of living, had put out his work, but he had the showman’s sense not to let his audience see how he performed his magic. For Trollope, a longtime civil servant in the British Post Office, writing was work, not entertainment, and he didn’t care who knew how he went about his business.

And so, in his Autobiography, published a year after his death, Trollope related that he wrote quickly—very quickly. It wasn’t only that he maximized his time while traveling by sea or train; no, his self-discipline seemed almost—well, a fetish:

“When I have commenced a new book, I have always prepared a diary, divided into weeks, and carried it on for the period which I have allowed myself for the completion of the work. In this I have entered, day by day, the number of pages I have written, so that if at any time I have slipped into idleness for a day or two, the record of that idleness has been there, staring me in the face, and demanding of me increased labour, so that the deficiency might be supplied. According to the circumstances of the time,–whether my other business might be then heavy or light, or whether the book which I was writing was or was not wanted with speed,–I have allotted myself so many pages a week. The average number has been about 40. It has been placed as low as 20, and has risen to 112. And as a page is an ambiguous term, my page has been made to contain 250 words; and as words, if not watched, will have a tendency to straggle, I have had every word counted as I went. In the bargains I have made with publishers I have,–not, of course, with their knowledge, but in my own mind,–undertaken always to supply them with so many words, and I have never put a book out of hand short of the number by a single word. I may also say that the excess has been very small. I have prided myself on completing my work exactly within the proposed dimensions. But I have prided myself especially in completing it within the proposed time,–and I have always done so. There has ever been the record before me, and a week passed with an insufficient number of pages has been a blister to my eye, and a month so disgraced would have been a sorrow to my heart.”

This didn’t even go over with proper, bourgeois British Victorians, and you can imagine the reaction by Americans of the 20th century, who liked their writers to slave over words till they got them just right, the kind of mania for style claimed by Truman Capote, who noted how he and others of his ilk could become “notoriously obsessed with the placing of a comma, the weight of a semicolon.” That, of course, would take years to produce.

It would take years before Trollope would recover from that self-inflicted blow. In the 1960s, a Trollope revival began to occur. Today, an active Trollope Society (including an American branch) exists, and interest in his work has also been helped by the occasional PBS miniseries such as Barchester Towers

Trollope depicted Dickens as “Mr. Popular Sentiment,” author of a bestseller called The Almhouse, in his book The Warden, but he shared with the target of his satire an almost boundless energy that manifested itself in herculean productivity. Dickens churned out 15 baggy novels, assorted shorter tales, journalistic pieces, A Child’s History of England, American Notes, not to mention amateur theatricals in collaboration with friend Willkie Collins. Trollope turned out three times as many novels, along with his autobiography.

As for short fiction: Well, even that represented a doorstopper, I’ve just found out. A volume containing his Complete Shorter Fiction, edited by Julian Thompson, contains 42 stories, coming in at nearly 960 pages. This being Christmas, I searched for –and found—a few yuletide tales in the bunch. To my blessed relief, I found one, “Not If I Know It,” that not only was a mere six pages, but that, from a biographical point of view, was really interesting, as it was his last completed work of fiction.

If you want to know how the poor, the downtrodden—the common man and woman—of the 19th century lived, Dickens is your man. But if you want to know about the world of the professionals and the powerful—clergymen, newspaper editors, the aristocracy, financiers—then you’ll want to look at Trollope. I read his 1873 masterpiece, The Way We Live Now, about a decade ago, around the time that the Enron scandal broke. Four years after virtually the entire American financial system almost came down, it’s even more pertinent.

(Among his other literary motifs: politics and Ireland. Trollope was persuaded to run for Parliament, and though he lost the election and his interest in other office, his fascination with the process remained. His work in the Post Office frequently took him to Ireland. A few months before he died, he made another trip there, in preparation for what would have been another novel. Unintentionally, he was closing a circle in his life that had started with publication of his first novel, The Macdermotts of Ballycloran, which was set in the Emerald Isle.)

At his most exasperated, Trollope could be unintentionally funny (despite fairly wide acquaintance with Americans, he wrote a friend that he refused to believe “that in these days there should be a living village called Minneapolis by living men”). But—again like Dickens—his anger and concern for honesty linger. 

Abby Wolf, speculating how the cantankerous Victorian might have treated Rupert Murdoch’s wiretapping imbroglio, got it right in a post for the Daily Beast blog, when she wrote: “Trollope, like Dickens and [George] Eliot…despised duplicity, backstabbing, and ugly dishonor, and one imagines that no one, save the young girl to whose family the Murdochs have repeatedly issued an un-Murdochian apology, would emerge unscathed were Trollope to set pen to paper today.”

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