Caterham & District

Notes on Anthony Trollope

Early Life

Trollope's autobiography, written to be published after his death, describes an unhappy childhood: his father's financial mismanagement led to family poverty, at one point forcing them to avoid arrest for debt by decamping to Belgium. Anthony attended schools as a charity boy where he was treated as an outcast by fellow-pupils. His mother partially restored the family fortunes by writing - her account of the "Domestic Manners of the Americans" being her best-known publication.

At the age of 19 he became a Post Office clerk in London, where he did not thrive, either in work or in private life. A character in an early novel - The Three Clerks - who gets into bad company and falls into the hands of a money-lender, is based on Anthony's own experience. The turning point came when in his late 20s he volunteered for the post of Assistant Surveyor in Ireland.

The General Post Office

From the 1830s onward, the Royal Mail went through a radical transformation from a slow, expensive service which few ordinary people used to one which provided an effective method of communication across the whole country. Most important was the introduction of the flat-rate 'penny post' whereby the cost of sending a letter was calculated by weight rather than number of enclosures, and paid by the sender rather than the recipient, regardless of distance. Trollope worked as a PO Surveyor for 33 years, in Ireland and later England, but also travelled abroad, e.g. to reorganise postal steamer routes for mail deliveries in the West Indies and negotiate postal treaties with other countries.

As a Surveyor he saw it his responsibility to ensure: "that the public in little villages should be enabled to buy postage stamps; that they should have their letters delivered free and at an early hour; that pillar letter-boxes should be put up for them (of which accommodation in the streets and ways of England I was the originator ...); that the letter-carriers and sorters should not be overworked; that they should be adequately paid, and have some hours to themselves ..." All of which frequently generated professional conflicts: "And then there were feuds, such delicious feuds! I was always an anti-Hillite, acknowledging, indeed, the great thing which Sir Rowland Hill had done for the country, but believing him to be entirely unfit to manage men or to arrange labour."

Writing Life

Trollope took up authorship to supplement his Civil Service salary, and combined it with his Post Office work by rising early every day and writing for two or three hours before breakfast. For his survey work in Ireland he travelled on horseback; later he took advantage of time spent in train journeys and sea voyages. "I made 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. I worked with a pencil, and what I wrote my wife copied afterwards."

He had a disciplined approach: "I allotted myself so many pages a week ... the average number about 40. but 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 ... undertaken always to supply them with so many words, and have never put a book out of hand short of the number by a single word."

But not every minute was spent on work:"More than nine-tenths of my literary work has been done in the last twenty years, and during twelve of those years I followed another profession. I have never been a slave to this work, giving due time ... to the amusements I have loved." (Mainly foxhunting and whist - he went out with the hounds three times a week.) "But I have been constant, and constancy in labour will conquer all difficulties."

By the end of his life he had published over 40 books - mostly novels but including accounts of countries visited during his extensive travels. He also edited and contributed articles and short stories to literary periodicals. The rewards were substantial: once he became an established author he sold his novels to publishers outright for a sum of money rather than a share of royalties - typically about £3000 for a three-volume novel. " ...during the last twenty years I have made by literature something near £70,000. I look upon the result as comfortable, but not splendid."

Novels: Settings

Probably the best-known novels are those set in the fictitious county of Barset - a typical 'shire' - centred on the cathedral and clerical life. (e.g. The Warden, Barchester Towers and Last Chronicles of Barset.) But Barset is also the the location for Gatherum Castle, seat of the Duke of Omnium, so there is some overlap with the 'political' novels like Phineas Finn, Phineas Redux and The Prime Minister. Towards the end of his life Trollope stood (unsuccessfully) for parliament and incidents from that experience found their way into the political novels.

Novels not explicitly set in Barset often depict similar provincial societies - there is usually a squire and a country house somewhere! London-based novels include scenes in offices and boarding houses, racecourses, gentlemen's clubs and parliamentary meetings. Trollope wasn't a campaigning social reformer and there are no representations of extreme poverty. He operates within a more limited strata of society than Dickens, for example, but within those limits he demonstrates greater familiarity with some aspects of working life.

Novels: Plots

In this context it's more accurate to refer to 'stories' rather than plots: Trollope contrasted his own output with the 'sensational' novels written by authors like Wilkie Collins and Dickens. His novels rarely hinge on mysteries or coincidences, but weave together several overlapping story strands which follow the divergent paths of loosely connected sets of characters. They cover the usual staples of Victorian literature: courtship and marriage (often for money or social advancement), inheritance, wills, forgery and other financial fraud, struggles for power within political, organisational, and ecclesiastical circles. 'Sport', i.e. shooting and foxhunting, figures in many stories. At the time many members of the public still disapproved of novel-reading, but Trollope believed that his own themes had a moral purpose: "I have ever thought of myself as a preacher of sermons, and my pulpit as one which I could make both salutary and agreeable to my audience."

Novels: Characters

In his own estimation, Trollope was better at creating realistic characters than constructing plots. "I have always desired to 'hew out some lump of the earth' and make men and women walk upon it just as they do walk here among us ... so that my readers might recognise human beings like to themselves."

Even fairly minor characters are introduced with extended descriptions of their antecedents and appearance. Over the course of a novel, sometimes several novels covering a number of years, the fate of one principal character is often shown in contrast with that of another who starts off in similar circumstances. "So much of my inner life was passed in their company, that I was continually asking myself how this woman would act when this or that event had passed over her head, or how that man would carry himself when his youth had become manhood, or his manhood declined to old age."

A few memorable characters:
Mrs Proudie - wife of the bishop of Barchester: "a tyrant, a bully, a would-be priestess, a very vulgar woman, and one who would send headlong to the nethermost pit all who disagreed with her. At the same time she was conscientious, by no means a hypocrite, really believing in the brimstone which she threatened, and anxious to save the souls around her from its horrors." ... "It was with many misgivings that I killed my old friend Mrs. Proudie."
Lizzie Eustace - "a cunning little woman of pseudo-fashion, to whom, in her cunning, there came a series of adventures, unpleasant enough in themselves, but pleasant to the reader."
Plantagenet Palliser (later Duke of Omnium) and his wife Lady Glencora, the progress of whose marriage is traced over many years. Trollope was concerned to maintain consistency: "It was my study that these people, as they grew in years, should encounter the changes which come upon us all ... The Duchess of Omnium, when she is playing the part of Prime Minister's wife, is the same woman as that Lady Glencora who longs to go off with Burgo Fitzgerald, but knows that she will never do so; and the Prime Minister Duke, with his wounded pride and sore spirit, is he who, for his wife's sake, left power and place when they were first offered to him."

Novels: Dialogue

Trollope had strong opinions about dialogue: "The dialogue is generally the most agreeable part of a novel ... The writer may tell much of his story in conversations, but only by putting such words into the mouths of his personages as persons so situated would probably use. The ordinary talk of ordinary people is carried on in short sharp expressive sentences, which very frequently are never completed. The novel-writer in constructing his dialogue must steer between absolute accuracy of language ... and the slovenly inaccuracy of ordinary talkers ... No character should utter much above a dozen words at a breath,—unless the writer can justify to himself a longer flood of speech by the speciality of the occasion."

The attached extract exemplifies his own practice. It's a three-way 'conversation' with a few descriptive interpolations, which advances the story and expresses the personalities of the participants.

The Way We Live Now

... is a late novel, resulting from Trollope's perception that: "a certain class of dishonesty, magnificent in its proportions, and climbing into high places, has become at the same time so rampant and so splendid that ... men and women will be taught to feel that dishonesty, if it can become splendid, will cease to be abominable. ... And as I had ventured to take the whip of the satirist into my hand, I went beyond the iniquities of the great speculator who robs everybody, and made an onslaught also on other vices,—on the intrigues of girls who want to get married, on the luxury of young men who prefer to remain single, and on the puffing propensities of authors who desire to cheat the public into buying their volumes." Although not generally recognised as such by Trollope's own reading public, it is now considered one of his most significant achievements.

NB All Trollope's books, including the Autobiography, can be downloaded in various formats from