Studies of a Biographer/Anthony Trollope
Long ago, when Trollope was becoming known as the historian of Barsetshire, I was one of his devoted readers. Some time later I happened to find myself alone at an inn where the literature consisted of waifs and strays from the Tauchnitz reprints. Among them was one of Trollope's novels, and I rejoiced at the prospect of a pleasant evening. To my grievous disappointment I suddenly broke down. My old favourite had lost all charms. The book was as insipid as yesterday's newspaper. Of course I explained the phenomenon by my own improvement in good taste, and for a long time I held complacently that Trollope should be left to the vulgar herd. Lately I have begun to doubt this plausible explanation. An excellent critic of Victorian novelists (Mr. Herbert Paul) told us, it is true, the other day that Trollope was not only dead, but dead beyond all hopes of resurrection. There are symptoms, however, which may point rather to a case of suspended vitality. Mr. Frederic Harrison, in a very appreciative article upon Trollope, regards his temporary obscurity as illustrating an ordinary phenomenon. As literary fashions change, the rising generation throws aside too contemptuously the books which pleased its immediate predecessors, and which will again interest its successors. Trollope, he thinks, may have for our children the interest at least of a singularly faithful portrait of the society of fifty years ago. Such of our unfortunate descendants as have a historical turn will be overwhelmed by the masses of material provided for them; and no doubt it will be a relief to them when weary of official despatches and blue-books, and solemn historical dissertations, to clothe the statistical skeleton in the concrete flesh and blood of realistic fiction. They may learn what the British squire or archdeacon of the period looked like, besides ascertaining the amount of his income and his constitutional position. In course of such reading, they may discover that such personages, if taken in the right spirit, are really attractive. Nobody can claim for Trollope any of the first-rate qualities which strain the powers of subtle and philosophical criticism; but perhaps it would be well if readers would sometimes make a little effort to blunt their critical faculty. May not an author beg to be judged by his peers? 'I know that I am stupid and commonplace,' I am often disposed to say; 'but if you would condescend to be a little less clever for once, you might still find something in me.' Nobody will listen to such an appeal; and yet if we could learn the art of enjoying dull books, it is startling to think what vast fields of innocent enjoyment would be thrown open to us. Macaulay, we are told, found pleasure in reading and re-reading the most vapid and rubbishy novels. Trollope's novels are far above that level; and though the rising generation is so brilliant that it can hardly enjoy them without a certain condescension, the condescension might be repaid.
If any one is disposed to cultivate the frame of mind appropriate for Trollope he should begin by reading the Autobiography. That will put his mind in the proper key. Trollope indeed gives fair notice that he does not mean to give us a 'record of his inner life.' He is not about to turn himself inside out in the manner of Rousseau. He must, no doubt, like all of us, have had an 'inner life,' though one can hardly suppose that it presented any of the strange phenomena which delight the student of morbid psychology. He professes to tell us only such facts as might have been seen by an outside observer. He tells us, however, enough to suggest matter for speculation to persons interested in education. Nobody ever met the adult Trollope in the flesh without receiving one impression. Henry VIII., we are told—and it is one of the few statements which make that monarch attractive—'loved a man.' If so, he would clearly have loved Trollope. In person, Trollope resembled the ideal beefeater; square and sturdy, and as downright as a box on the ear. The simple, masculine character revealed itself in every lineament and gesture. His talk was as hearty and boisterous as a gust of a north-easter—a Kingsley north-easter, that is; not blighting, but bracing and genial. The first time I met him was in a low room, where he was talking with a friend almost as square and sturdy as himself. It seemed as if the roof was in danger of being blown off by the vigour of the conversational blasts. And yet, if I remember rightly, they were not disputing, but simply competing in the utterance of a perfectly harmless sentiment in which they cordially agreed. A talker of feeble lungs might be unable to get his fair share in the discussion; but not because Trollope was intentionally overbearing, or even rough. His kindliness and cordiality were as unmistakable as his sincerity; and if he happened to impinge upon his hearers' sore points, it was from clumsiness, not malignity. He was incapable of shyness or diffidence, and would go at any subject as gallantly as he rode at a stiff fence in the hunting-field. His audacity sprang not from conceit, but from a little over-confidence in the power of downright common-sense.
Here is the problem to which I referred. If we inquired how such a character had been developed, the last hypothesis which we should make would be that it was due to such surroundings as are described in the Autobiography. If one wished to bring up a lad to be a sneak, a cynic, and a humbug, one would deal with him as Trollope was dealt with in his childhood. Many distinguished men have preserved painful impressions of their school-days. Thackeray has sufficiently indicated what he thought of the morality of a public school in his day. Dickens felt bitterly to the end of his life the neglect from which he suffered during part of his childhood. Trollope had a more painful and prolonged experience than either. His father was a man of such oddity and perversity that it must have required all the son's filial duty in later years not to introduce him in a novel. He would have been more interesting as a model than the gentleman who stood for Micawber, though certainly without Micawber's peculiar claims to be attractive. He was a man of ability and learning, who had ruined good prospects at the bar by a singular facility for quarrelling with his bread and butter. By way of retrieving his position, he had taken to farming, of which he was absolutely ignorant; and when he got into the inevitable difficulties, he set about compiling a gigantic Encyclopædia Ecclesiastica, for which he was equally incompetent, and which would have ruined a publisher had any such person been forthcoming. He was most anxious, his son assures us, to do his duty to his family, but equally misguided in his plans for their welfare. Anthony's chief recollections at least were of standing in a convenient position while his amiable parent was shaving, so that his hair might be pulled at any slip in Latin grammar, and of being knocked down for stupidity by a folio Bible. It was all meant in kindness, but only produced obstinate idleness. The child was sent as a day boy to Harrow, where the headmaster could only express his horror that so dirty a little wretch should belong to the school; and his comrades unanimously excluded him from their society. Then he was sent to a private school, where the master treated him as a degraded being for faults committed by others, and had not the manliness to confess when he discovered his mistake. His next experience was at Winchester, where his elder brother thrashed him daily with a thick stick. Being big, awkward, ugly, ill-dressed, and dirty, he was generally despised and 'suffered horribly.' Then he returned to Harrow, and was at the same time employed occasionally as a labourer on his father's farm. He was universally despised, excluded from all games, and, though he 'gravitated upwards' to near the top of the school, by force of seniority, represented at the age of nineteen the densest ignorance of his lessons attainable even by a boy at an English public school. The one pleasant thing that he could remember was that he once turned against an oppressor. The bully was so well thrashed that he had to be sent home for repairs.
The spirit in which Trollope took this cruelty is characteristic. Less painful experience of the life at a public school helped to convince Cowper that human nature was radically corrupt, and Shelley that the existence of a merciful Providence was doubtful, and Thackeray that there was something radically wrong in the social order. Trollope, who hated tyranny as earnestly as any one, seems only to have drawn the modest inference that the discipline at Winchester and Harrow was imperfect; and, for the time, he did not even go so far. He was always, as he says, 'craving for love,' even for the love of the young bullies who made his life a burthen. He was miserable in his school-days, because he 'envied the popularity of popular boys.' They lived in a social paradise from which he was excluded. But he apparently did not think that his exclusion was wrong. It was simply natural—part of the inevitable and providential order of nature. He accepted the code under which he suffered as if it had been the obvious embodiment of right reason. It was quite proper that poverty and clumsiness should be despised and bullied; that was implied in the essential idea of a public school, and his comrades naturally treated him as a herd of wild animals may trample upon an intruder of an inferior species. It 'was their nature to,' and there was no more to be said about it. It is pathetic to observe the average child accepting its misery as part of a sacred tradition; but in Trollope's case it had one advantage: he bore no malice to anybody. The brother who had thrashed him every day became, as he testifies, the best of brothers, and Trollope cherished no resentment against individuals or to the system. The toughness looked like stupidity, but, at any rate, was an admirable preservative against the temptations, to which a more sensitive and reflective nature would have been liable, of revolting against morality in general or meeting tyranny by hypocrisy and trickery.
His start in life was equally unpromising. As he knew no languages, ancient or modern, he became classical usher at a school in Brussels, with the promise of a commission in the Austrian army. Then he was suddenly transferred to a clerkship in the London Post Office. He was disqualified for the new position by general ignorance and special incapacity for the simplest arithmetic. A vague threat that he must pass an examination was forgotten before it was put in execution, and Trollope characteristically takes occasion to denounce the system of competitive examination by which he would have been excluded. Meanwhile he was turned loose in London, and attempted to live like a gentleman on £90 a year. The results are indicated by a couple of anecdotes. A money-lender once advanced him £4, for which, first and last, he paid £200. This person, he says, became so much attached to him as to pay a daily visit at his office and exhort him to be punctual. 'These visits were very terrible, and can hardly have been of service to me in the office.' This mild remark applies also to the visits from the mother of a young woman in the country who had fallen in love with him, and to whom he 'lacked the pluck to give a decided negative.' The mother used to appear with a basket on her arm and an immense bonnet upon her head, and inquire in a loud voice, before all his companions, 'Anthony Trollope, when are you going to marry my daughter?' No wonder that he was miserable; he was hopelessly in debt, and often unable to pay for a dinner; he hated his work, he says, and he hated his idleness; he quarrelled with his superiors, who thought him hopelessly incapable, and felt that he was sinking 'to the lowest pits.' At last he heard of a place in the Irish Post Office, which everybody despised, and was successful on applying for it, because his masters were so glad to get rid of him. At the same time they informed his new superior that he would probably have to be dismissed on the first opportunity.
If the Autobiography had been a novel, instead of a true story, the continuation must have been pronounced utterly improbable. No sooner does Trollope get to Ireland than the story changes; he sets his hand to the plough and wins the respect of his superiors; he at once begins hunting, and though very heavy and very blind and 'not a good horseman,' rides straight and boldly and steadily for the next thirty years, letting neither official nor literary duties interfere; he makes a happy marriage at an early period; he rides up and down over Ireland and England setting things straight; and is sent on missions to Egypt and the West Indies and the United States and Australia; and turns out his daily tale of copy at home or abroad, travelling or resting; and rises in his office, and withstands Sir Rowland Hill, and has 'delicious feuds' with his colleagues; and retires with a sense that he has both done his duty and thoroughly enjoyed his life. Of all this, which may be read in the Autobiography nothing more need be said, or it needs only to be said that so prosperous a consummation was never tacked to so dismal a beginning. It seems to suggest the immoral inference that we need take no thought for our sons' education. The innate good qualities will come out and the superficial stupidity is only a safeguard against over-sensibility; the wasted and unhappy youth and boyhood may be the stepping-stone to a thoroughly honourable and prosperous career. I am here only concerned with the light which the story may throw upon the novel-writing. Trollope himself dwells chiefly upon that subject and sets forth his views with the most engaging candour and simplicity. He propounds some theories which may scandalise the author who takes a lofty view of his vocation; but they are worth notice, if only because they are more frequently adopted than avowed by his rivals.
It seems, in the first place, that in one respect his early life had been propitious in spite of all probability. His mother had supplied the one bright influence. One of his father's most preposterous schemes had turned out well by sheer accident. He had sent his wife, Heaven knows why, to open a bazaar in Cincinnati. She was to make a fortune by selling pin-cushions and pepper-boxes to the natives of that remote region, whom he must apparently have supposed to be in the state of savages ready to barter valuables for beads. The Yankee was not quite so innocent. She, of course, lost all her money, but came home to describe the 'domestic manners' of her customers with a sharpness which for a time set England and America by the ears. She discovered that she had a pure vein of rather vulgar satire, and worked it to such effect that, though she was over fifty when she began to write, she published one hundred and fourteen volumes before her death. She managed to keep her family afloat, and Trollope, in his darkest days, saw that one possible road to success lay in following her footsteps. He perceived that he had not genius to be a poet, nor the erudition necessary for a historian. But he had a certain taste for reading. He had, even in his boyhood, indulged during the intervals of bullying in occasional rambles through such literature as came in his way, and had decided that Pride and Prejudice was the best novel in the language. At the Post Office he had learnt French and brushed up his Latin sufficiently to enjoy Horace. Then he had been given to what he calls the 'dangerous mental practice' of castle-building. He solaced his loneliness by carrying on imaginary stories, of which he was himself the hero, and which he characteristically kept within the limits of possibility. He could not fancy himself handsome, or a philosopher by any stretch of mind, but he could imagine himself to be clever and chivalrous enough to be attractive to beautiful young women. This suggested that in his mind, as in his mother's, there was a mine of literary material, and he resolved that novel-writing was the one career open to him. Accordingly he set to work in a thoroughly business-like spirit, and slowly and doggedly forced himself upon publishers.
'Nobody but a fool,' says the great Johnson, 'ever wrote except for money.' Trollope holds at least that the love of money is a perfectly honourable and sufficient reason for writing. 'We know,' he says, 'that the more a man earns the more useful he is to his fellowmen'—a fine sweeping maxim, which certainly has its convenience. It is true, he declares, of lawyers and doctors, and would be true of clergymen if (which is a rather large assumption) the best men were always made bishops. It is equally true of authors. Shakespeare wrote for money, and Byron, Scott, Tennyson, Dickens, Macaulay, and Carlyle were not above being paid. 'Take away from English authors their copyrights, and you would very soon take away from England her authors.' He wrote, therefore, as he avows, for the very same reasons which prompt the barrister to go to the bar, or the baker to set up his oven. I have certain qualms about the theory of copyright—though I don't mention them to my publishers. It is not that I would deprive authors of their reward. In the ideal state of things, I fancy, the promising author will be infallibly recognised by the scientific critic; a parental government will pay him a handsome salary and trust to his honour to do his best and take his time; and his works, if any, will then be circulated gratis. That scheme would avoid the objection which occurs to Trollope's theory. We can hardly assume that the author's usefulness to his fellow-creatures is precisely proportioned to his earnings. On the contrary, the great evil of to-day is that an author has constantly to choose whether he will do the best, or whether he will do the most profitable work in his power. Tennyson and Carlyle, to take Trollope's examples, would never have reached their excellence had they not dared to be poor till middle age. Had they accepted Trollope's maxim, we should have had masses of newspaper articles and keepsake rhyming instead of Sartor Resartus and In Memoriam.
The temptation of the present system to sacrifice quality to quantity, and to work exhausted brains instead of accumulating thought, is too obvious to be insisted upon. When we look at Trollope's turnout, we are tempted to take him for an example of the consequences. George Eliot, as Mr. Harrison tells us—and we can well believe it—was horror-struck when she heard of Trollope's methods. When he began a new book, he allowed a fixed time for its completion, and day by day entered in a diary the number of pages written. A page meant two hundred and fifty words. He had every word counted, and never failed to deliver his tale of words at the time prefixed. 'Such appliances,' people told him, 'were beneath the notice of a man of genius.' He never fancied himself, he replied, to be a man of genius, but 'had I been so, I think I might well have subjected myself to these trammels.' He could hardly 'repress his scorn' when he was told that an imaginative writer should wait for 'inspiration.' The tallow candle, he declares, might as well wait 'for the divine moment of melting.' Nay, he recommends youthful aspirants to' avoid enthusiastic rushes with their pen.' They should sit down at their desks like lawyers' clerks and work till their tasks are done. Then they may rival Trollope, at any rate in quantity. During a period of twelve years (1859 to 1871) he did his official duties so as to leave no pretext for faultfinding; he hunted twice a week, he played whist daily, went freely into society, took his holidays, and yet turned out more work, including articles of all kinds in periodicals, than any contemporary author. He was up every morning at 5.30; spent half an hour in reading the previous day's work; and then wrote two hundred and fifty words every quarter of an hour for two hours and a half. He wrote when he was travelling on a railway, or on shipboard, and in the course of his career turned out some fifty novels, besides other work, including a Life of Cicero, which showed at least his daring. He lamented, I remember, at one time that Mrs. Gore (who wrote seventy novels and two hundred volumes) was still ahead of him; but perhaps, counting all his writing, he had equalled her before his death.
It would be absurd to argue gravely against Trollope's simple-minded views; to appeal to the demigods of literature who have thought, like George Eliot, that there was a difference between 'tallow chandling' and bookwriting; and that, if inspiration be a daring word, some time must at least be allowed for ideas to ripen and harmonise, and that it may be well to await some overmastering mood that will not come regularly when an old groom calls you at 5.30 a.m. It is more to the purpose to admit frankly that some great writers have been almost equally productive. Scott took almost as businesslike a view as Trollope. Lockhart tells us how an idle youth was irritated by the shadow of a hand behind a window-blind; and by noting the provoking pertinacity with which it added sheet to sheet with the regularity of a copying machine, and how it afterwards appeared that the sheets were those of Waverley. Scott, it may be replied, was only pouring out the stores of imagery which had been accumulating for many years, when as yet he had no thought of bringing them to market. Moreover, in some twelve years of excessive production even Scott's vein was pretty nearly exhausted. What stores, one may ask, had Trollope to draw upon? The answer suggests that Trollope was not quite so black as he painted himself. When he comes to lay down rules for the art—or trade—he shows that three hours a day did not include the whole of his labours. A novelist, he declares, must write 'because he has a story to tell, not because he has to tell a story.' To do so, he must 'live with his characters.' They must be with him when he wakes and when he lies down to sleep. He must know them as he knows his best friends. Trollope says that he knew the actors in his own stories—'the tone of the voice, the colour of the hair, every flame of the eye, and the very clothes they wear.' He knew precisely what each of them would say on any given occasion. He declares, in answer to the complaint of over-rapidity, that he wrote best when he wrote quickest. That was, he says, when he was away from hunting and whist, in 'some quiet spot among the mountains' where he could be absorbed among his characters. 'I have wandered about among the rocks and woods, crying at their grief, laughing at their absurdities, and thoroughly enjoying their joy. I have been impregnated with my own creations till it has been my only excitement to sit with my pen in my hand and drive them before me at as quick a pace as I could make them travel.'
This surely is sound doctrine: but Trollope is justifying one set of critics in order to answer another. He wrote best, he admits, when his mind was fullest, and freest from distraction; that is, when he had the 'inspiration' or 'rush of enthusiasm,' against which he warns his disciples. No doubt a man may write quickly at such moments. The great Goethe—if one may introduce such an august example—tells us that he was at times so eager to get his thoughts upon paper that he could not even wait to put the sheet straight, and dashed down his verses diagonally. George Eliot—to come a bit nearer to Trollope—wrote her finest part of Adam Bede without a pause or a correction. That you should write quickly when you are 'inspired' is natural; but that does not prove that all previous inspiration is superfluous. These unconscious admissions must qualify the statement about the two hundred and fifty words every quarter of an hour. Trollope's genuine gift showed itself in that practice of 'castle building' which, as he tells us, he always kept up. His ideal architecture, it is true, was of a humble and prosaic kind. He did not venture into regions of old romance; nor discover ideal excellence in Utopias of the future; or even observe that the most commonplace houses may be the background for great passions or tragedies. He always kept, as he says, to the probable. His imaginary world was conterminous with that in which he lived. As he tramped along the high road he saw wayside cottages or vicarages, or perhaps convenient hunting-boxes, and provided them with a charming girl to flirt with, and one or two good fellows for after-dinner talk; and made himself an ideal home such as might be provided by the most ordinary course of events. This meant such day-dreaming as just repeats the events of the day—only supplying the touch of simple sentimentalism. A good many men of business, I fancy, are sentimentalists in secret, and after a day of stockbroking or law conveyancing enjoy in strict privacy a little whimpering over a novel. Trollope had abundant tenderness of nature and his sentimentalism is perfectly genuine, though he did find it convenient to bring it to market. That was a main source of his popularity. There were—as the public held—such nice girls in his stories. Once, he tells us, he tried to write a novel without love. He took for his heroine an unattractive old maid in money difficulties; but he had to wind up by allowing her to make a romantic marriage. It is this quaint contrast between the burly, vigorous man of the world and the author's young ladies, who provide him with such sentiment as he can appreciate, that somehow attracts us even by force of commonplace.
Trollope claims another merit—not to the modern taste. 'I have ever thought of myself,' he says, 'as a preacher of sermons, and my pulpit as one which I could make both salutary and agreeable to my audience.' Young people, he thinks, receive a large part of their education from novels, and a good novelist should inculcate sound morality. Beatrix Esmond, for example, with her beauty and heartlessness, might seem to be a dangerous example to set before girls. But as she is so treated that every girl will pray to be unlike her, and every youth to avoid the wiles of which she was a mistress, a sermon is preached which no clergyman could rival. Let us hope so—though I must confess to a weakness both for Beatrix and Becky Sharp which may imply some injury to my morals. One point, at least, may be granted. 'I do believe,' says Trollope, 'that no girl has risen from the reading of my pages less modest than she was before, and that some may have learnt from them that modesty is a charm worth possessing.' The phrase reminds me of my favourite critic, who declared that there was not a word in Dr. Watts's sermons 'which could call a blush to the cheek of modesty.' Trollope certainly deserves that negative but by no means worthless praise. When a novelist courts popularity by appealing to a perverted taste for the morally repulsive, I consider him to be a blackguard—even though he may be an 'artist'; and, at the day of judgment, he will hardly, I suppose, be divided into two.
Trollope's moral purpose, however, led him into difficulty. The 'regions of absolute evil,' he says, 'are foul and odious'; but there is a 'border-land,' where flowers are mixed with weeds and where the novelist is tempted to enter. The 'border-land,' one would rather say, is conterminous with the world; and the novelist who will not speak of it will have to abandon any dealings with human nature. Trollope was confined within narrow limits. One of his novels was refused by a religious periodical because it spoke of dancing without reprobation. A dignitary of the Church of England remonstrated with him because one of his heroines was tempted to leave her husband for a lover. Trollope replied forcibly enough by asking him whether he ever denounced adultery from his pulpit. If so, why should not the same denunciation be uttered from the pulpit of the novelist? The dignitary judiciously invited him to spend a week in the country and talk over the subject. The visit never came off, and, if that dignitary be now alive, he probably looks back with some regret to the Trollope standard. In one novel Trollope ventured upon a bolder step, and described the career of a female outcast, but the difficulty imposed a good many limitations. If a novelist is to be a preacher, he cannot simply overlook what he ought to denounce. Trollope was, in principle, a thorough 'realist,' but he had to write in popular magazines and submit to their conventions. It may be a difficult question whether a 'realistic' description of vice makes vice more disgusting or stimulates a morbid interest. Trollope, at any rate, was in the awkward position of a realist bound to ignore realities. He had to leave gaps in his pictures of life, and gaps—according to some tastes—in the only really interesting places.
We can see plainly enough what we must renounce in order to enjoy Trollope. We must cease to bother ourselves about art. We must not ask for exquisite polish of style. We must be content with good homespun phrases which give up all their meaning on the first reading. We must not desire brilliant epigrams suggesting familiarity with æsthetic doctrines or theories of the universe. A brilliant modern novelist is not only clever, but writes for clever readers. He expects us to understand oblique references to esoteric theories, and to grasp a situation from a delicate hint. We are not to be bothered with matter-of-fact details, but to have facts sufficiently adumbrated to enable us to accept the æsthetic impression. Trollope writes like a thorough man of business or a lawyer stating a case. We must know exactly the birth, parentage, and circumstances of all the people concerned, and have a precise statement of what afterwards happens to everybody mentioned in the course of the story. We must not care for artistic unity. Trollope admits that he could never construct an intricate plot to be gradually unravelled. That, in fact, takes time and thought. He got hold of some leading incident, set his characters to work, and followed out any series of events which happened to be involved. In one of his stories, if I remember rightly, the love affairs of four different couples get mixed up, and each of them has to be followed out to a conclusion. He simply looks on, and only takes care to make his report consistent and intelligible. To accept such writing in the corresponding spirit implies, no doubt, the confession that you are a bit of a Philistine, able to put up with the plainest of bread and butter and dispense with all the finer literary essences. I think, however, that at times one's state is the more gracious for accepting the position. There is something so friendly and simple and shrewd about one's temporary guide that one is the better for taking a stroll with him and listening to gossiping family stories, even though they be rather rambling and never scandalous. One difficulty is suggested, indeed, by Trollope's sacrifice of all other aims to the duty of fidelity. We begin to ask whether it can be worth while to read a novel which is a mere reflection of the commonplace. Would it not be better to read genuine biographies and narratives of real events? One answer might be suggested by Walpole's famous remark about history, which, as he said, must be false. When we read the lives of people we have known and observe the singular transformations which take place, we are sometimes tempted to think that biography is an organised attempt to misrepresent the past. Trollope is at least conscientiously labouring to avoid that error with a zeal which few Boswells can rival. His fiction is in that respect even truer than history. Hawthorne said at an early period that Trollope's novels precisely suited his taste. They are 'solid, substantial, written on the strength of beef and through the inspiration of ale, and just as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting that they were being made a show of.' Trollope was delighted, as he well might be, with such praise from so different a writer, and declares that this passage defined the aim of his novels 'with wonderful accuracy.' They represent, that is, the average English society of the time more faithfully even than memoirs of real persons, because there is no motive for colouring the motives of an imaginary person.
Is this really the case? Will our descendants get an accurate conception of England in the middle of the nineteenth century? Or if some 'medium' could call us up for cross-examination, should we have to warn posterity not to trust too implicitly to the portraiture? Trollope's best achievement, I take it, was the series of Barsetshire novels. They certainly passed at the time for a marvel of fidelity. Trollope tells us that he was often asked when he had lived in a cathedral close and become intimate with archdeacons; and had been able to answer that he had never lived in a close and had never spoken to an archdeacon. He had evolved the character, he declares, 'out of his moral consciousness,' and is pleasantly complacent over his creation. Though one would not like to disparage the merits of the performance, the wonder seems to be pretty simple. Trollope had been to Harrow and Winchester; the headmaster of one had become a dean, and the headmaster of the other a bishop. He afterwards spent two years riding through English country, and a visit, during this period, to Salisbury close, had suggested the first Barchester novel. It is not wonderful that, after such experience, he should have been equal to the costume of archdeacons; and, apart from their costumes, archdeacons are not essentially different, I fancy, from bishops or headmasters, or from the average adult male of the upper classes. Archdeacon Grantly is certainly an excellent and lifelike person: an honourable, narrow-minded English gentleman with just the necessary tinge of ecclesiastical dignity. Still, if our hypothetical descendants asked us, Were English archdeacons like that? we should be a little puzzled. If Miss Yonge could be called as a witness to character, she would certainly remonstrate. Archdeacons, she would say, in her time, high-church archdeacons at least, were generally saints. They could be spiritual guides; they had listened to Newman or been misled by Essays and Reviews; but they had, at least, been interested in the religious movements of the day. Trollope's archdeacon is as indifferent to all such matters as were the much-reviled dignitaries of an older generation. He is supposed to do his official duties, and he carefully says, 'Good Heavens!' where a layman would use another phrase; but he never gives the slightest indication of having any religious views whatever beyond a dislike to dissenters. He has a landed estate, and is as zealous as any squire to keep up the breed of foxes, and he threatens to disinherit his son for making an unworldly marriage as if he were the great Barchester magnate—the Duke of Omnium himself.
I do not presume to inquire how far such a man represents the prevalent type more accurately than the more ethereal divine of pious lady novelists. The Trollope theory of the archdeacons might be held to confirm Matthew Arnold's description of the Church as an 'appendage of the barbarian'; and the philosophical historian might infer that in the nineteenth century the normal country parson was a very slightly modified squire. Perhaps Trollope's view may be a useful corrective to the study of the ordinary lives in which the saintliness of respectable clergymen tends to be a little over-emphasised; still, it omits or attenuates one element—the religious, namely—which must have had some importance in the character of contemporary divines. And what can we say for the young women who charmed his readers so thoroughly? Vulgar satire in those days was denouncing the 'girl of the period'—the young lady who was chafing against established conventions of all kinds. The young women of Barchester seem to have been entirely innocent of such extravagance. Trollope's heroines are as domestic as Clarissa Harlowe. They haven't a thought beyond housekeeping or making a respectable marriage. We could hardly expect such delineations of the fair feminine qualities as could be given by feminine novelists alone. We could not ask him for a Jane Eyre or still less for a Maggie Tulliver. But were the average girls of forty years back made of such very solid flesh and blood with so small an allowance of the romantic? His are so good-natured, sensible, and commonplace that he has the greatest difficulty in preventing them from at once marrying their lovers. He has to make them excessively punctilious on some point of their little code of propriety. One is loved by a lord, whose mother objects to a mésalliance; another is of doubtful legitimacy, and a third is the daughter of an excellent man whose character is for a moment under a cloud. They have to hold out till their lovers and their lovers' families have got over such scruples, or the cause has been removed. The most popular of all was Miss Lily Dale, whom Trollope himself unkindly describes as somewhat of a feminine prig. She will not marry the man whom she loves because she has been cruelly jilted by a thorough snob, and makes it a point of honour not to accept consolation or admit that she can love twice. Readers, it seems, fell in love with her, and used to write to Trollope entreating him to reconcile her to making her lover happy. Posterity, I think, will make a mistake if it infers that English girls were generally of this type; but it must admit, though with a certain wonder, that the type commended itself to a sturdy, sensible Briton of the period, as the very ideal of Womanhood, and delighted a large circle of readers.
The prosaic person, it must remember, has a faculty for ignoring all the elements of life and character which are not prosaic, and if Trollope's picture is accurate it is not exhaustive. The weakness comes from misapplying a good principle. Trollope made it a first principle to keep rigorously to the realities of life. He inferred that nothing strange or improbable should ever be admitted. That is not the way to be lifelike. Life, as we all find out, is full of the strange and improbable. Every character has its idiosyncrasies: its points of divergence from the ordinary. If the average man whose qualities are just at the mean between the extremes, who is half-way between genius and idiot, villain and saint, must be allowed to exist, it may be doubted whether he is not, on the whole, more exceptional than the so-called exceptions. Trollope inclines to make everybody an average specimen, and in his desire to avoid exaggeration inevitably exaggerates the commonplaceness of life. He is afraid of admitting any one into his world who will startle us by exhibiting any strength of character. His lovers, for example, have to win the heroine by showing superiority to the worldly scruples of their relations. The archdeacon's son proposes to marry a beautiful and specially virtuous and clever girl, although her father had been accused of stealing. He thus endangers his prospects of inheriting an estate, though he had, in any case, enough to live upon. Surely some men would be up to such heroism, even though the girl herself hesitates to accept the sacrifice. But, to make things probable, we are carefully told that the hero has great difficulty in rising to the occasion; he has to be screwed up to the effort by the advice of a sensible lady; and even her encouragement would scarcely carry the point, had not the father's guilt been disproved. In this, and other cases, the heroes have all the vigour taken out of them that they may not shock us by diverging from the most commonplace standard. When a hero does something energetic, gives a thrashing, for example, to the man who has jilted a girl, we are carefully informed that he does it in a blundering and unsatisfactory way.
By the excision of all that is energetic, or eccentric, or impulsive, or romantic, you do not really become more lifelike; you only limit yourself to the common and uninteresting. That misconception injures Trollope's work, and accounts, I suspect, for the decline of our interest. An artist who systematically excludes all lurid colours or strong lights, shows a dingy, whitey-brown universe, and is not therefore more true to nature. Barsetshire surely had its heroes and its villains, its tragedy and its farce, as well as its archdeacons and young ladies bound hand and foot by the narrowest rules of contemporary propriety. Yet, after all, Trollope's desire to be faithful had its good result in spite of this misconception. There are, in the first place, a good many commonplace people in the world; and, moreover, there were certain types into which he could throw himself with real vigour. He can appreciate energy when it does not take a strain of too obvious romance. His best novel, he thinks, and his readers must agree with him, was the Last Chronicle of Barset. The poor parson, Mr. Crawley, is at once the most lifelike and (in his sense) the most improbable of his characters. He is the embodiment of Trollope's own 'doggedness.' One fancies that Trollope's memory of his sufferings under the 'three hundred tyrants' of his school-days, and of his father's flounderings in money matters, entered into sympathy with his hero. Anyhow, the man with his strange wrong-headed conscientiousness, his honourable independence, blended with bitter resentment against the more successful, and the strong domestic affections, which yet make him a despot in his family, is a real triumph of which more ambitious novelists might be proud. Such men, he might have observed, though exceptional, are far more real than the average persons with whom he is generally content. Another triumph, of which he speaks with justifiable complacency, is the famous Mrs. Proudie. He knew, he declares, 'all the little shades of her character.' She was bigoted, bullying, and vulgar, but really conscientious, no hypocrite, and at last dies in bitter regret for the consequences of her misrule. He killed her because he heard two clergymen in the Athenæum complaining of her too frequent reappearances. But he thoroughly enjoyed her, and continued, as he declares, to 'live much in company with her ghost.' I should guess, though I cannot speak from a wide personal observation of the class, that no British bishop was ever so thoroughly henpecked as Dr. Proudie. The case was at any rate exceptional, and yet, or therefore, is thoroughly lifelike. Mrs. Proudie, that is, is one genuine type, albeit a very rare one, of the Englishwoman of the period, and Trollope draws her vigorously, because her qualities are only an excessive development of very commonplace failings. In such cases Trollope can deal with his characters vigorously and freely, and we do not feel that their vitality has been lowered from a mistaken desire to avoid a strain upon our powers of belief. He can really understand people on a certain plane of intelligence. His pompous officials at public offices, and dull members of Parliament, and here and there such disreputable persons as he ventures to sketch, as, for example, the shrewd contractor in Dr. Thorne, who is ruined by his love of gin, are solid and undeniable realities. We see the world as it was, only in a dark mirror which is incapable of reflecting the fairer shades of thought and custom.
Hawthorne's appreciation of Trollope's strain was perhaps due in part to his conviction that John Bull was a huge mass of solid flesh incapable of entering the more ethereal regions of subtle fancy of which he was himself a native. Trollope was to him a John Bull convicting himself out of his own mouth, and yet a good fellow in his place. When our posterity sits in judgment, it will discover, I hope, that the conventional John Bull is only an embodiment of one set of the national qualities, and by no means an exhaustive portrait of the original. But taking Trollope to represent the point of view from which there is a certain truthfulness in the picture—and no novelist can really do more than give one set of impressions—posterity may after all consider his novels as a very instructive document. Perhaps, though it would be idle to prophesy confidently, one remark will be suggested. The middle of the nineteenth century—our descendants may possibly say—was really a time in which a great intellectual, political, and social revolution was beginning to make itself perceptible. The vast changes now (that is, in the twenty-first century) so familiar to everybody could then have been foretold by any intelligent observer. And yet in this ancient novelist we see the society of the time, the squires and parsons and officials, and the women whom they courted, entirely unconscious of any approaching convulsions; imagining that their little social arrangements were to endure for ever; that their social conventions were the only ones conceivable; and, on the whole, mainly occupied in carrying on business in a humdrum way and sweetening life by flirtation with healthy and pretty young women without two ideas in their heads. Then they will look back to the early days of Queen Victoria as a delightful time, when it was possible to take things quietly, and a good, sound, sensible optimism was the prevalent state of mind. How far the estimate would be true is another question; but Trollope, as representing such an epoch, will supply a soothing if rather mild stimulant for the imagination, and it will be admitted that if he was not among the highest intellects of his benighted time, he was as sturdy, wholesome, and kindly a human being as could be desired.