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When Westminster needed a novelist Unlike many successful politicians, Anthony Trollope understood hard work

The novelist we need (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images)

The novelist we need (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images)


April 5, 2021   6 mins

Anthony Trollope — novelist and civil servant — was never a member of parliament. In 1868, when he was 53, he stood as a Liberal for the Yorkshire seat of Beverley. The constituents were notoriously venal. The Tory candidates’ agents bullied and intimidated those whose votes they couldn’t buy. Trollope spent ÂŁ400 on his campaign (40 times what he got paid for an early novel). He lost, and afterwards said his time on the hustings was “the most wretched fortnight of my manhood”. He never stood again.

It was his country’s loss. Trollope would have made a fine parliamentarian. Unimpressed by precedent or convention, he would have asked the right questions. Far-sighted and sympathetic, he would have supported the right motions. Human foibles amused him. Vice seemed to him pitiful. He would not have been a ranter or a self-righteous denouncer (he detested that type), but rather someone who tried to set things straight. He would have been very good at it. Perhaps, given the chance, he might have made it to the very top. He would have been an eminently well-qualified prime minister.

The sequence of books that he wrote after his disappointment at Beverley, set among the ruling classes and featuring the Palliser family and the ambitious young Irish MP Phineas Finn, are generally known as his ‘political’ novels. But he had already been writing about politics for years. The great novels of his Barchester series, dealing with goings-on among the clergy of an imagined rural diocese, are equally fascinated by influence and its workings, and by the way the would-be powerful manoeuvre themselves into positions of authority.

He was not a polemicist. When Phineas Finn takes up the cause of Irish tenants’ rights Trollope’s other characters act as though jeopardising your career for a matter of principle is eccentric, if not downright irresponsible. Plantagenet Palliser’s interest in currency reform is treated as a joke. But though Trollope didn’t get embroiled in debates about policy, he went deep into politics, and more especially into politicking.

He would have played the Westminster game adroitly. He writes brilliantly about the parasites it attracts: the toadies and the gossips; the schemers who fancy themselves as king-makers; the money-grubbers who make fortunes by promising access, or influence, or favourable press-coverage. He saw how his well-intentioned characters’ good manners and self-delusion made them easy to manipulate, and he was fascinated by the sharper-minded string-pullers who exploited them. I don’t think he would have made a visionary reforming prime minister — he was too alive to the absurdity of human aspiration for that. But I see him presiding at a cabinet meeting — jocular, unruffled, never confrontational — patiently nudging his ministers the way he wants them to go, rather as Mrs Grantly, wife of the Archdeacon of Barchester, defers cheerfully to her irascible husband while he blusters on, sure that he will come round to her way of thinking in the end.

A good proportion of those cabinet ministers — if Trollope could have had his way, and if 19th century law had allowed it — would have been female. Trollope was the child of an ineffectual father and a formidably energetic mother. Thomas Trollope was a not very successful barrister and an even less successful farmer, who never got over the fact that his uncle had failed to leave him a fortune. Fanny Trollope, by contrast, after giving birth to six children, and spending four years living on an experimental commune in America, supported her family by writing over 40 books while travelling around Europe, enjoying the respect of the literary contacts (the Brownings, Dickens) her reputation brought her. In her son Anthony’s fiction Mrs Grantly is one of numerous women, (Lady Glencora Palliser is another) who are subtler-minded and sharper-witted than husbands hide-bound by conventionality and masculine pride. Trollope wasn’t one of those early feminists who believed all women were kindly, peaceable creatures: his Mrs Proudie, the Bishop of Barchester’s sabbatarian bigot of a wife, is a battler. But he certainly knew that men had no monopoly on cleverness.

He was a great communicator. He would have had a warm rapport with the electorate. In his novels he repeatedly drops the authorial mask to address the readers directly. He understood the press. The Warden tells the story of a self-righteous young journalist who takes it upon himself to expose what he sees as the misappropriation of charitable funds. The journalist has got it all wrong, and is sorry for it eventually, but his story allows Trollope to give a penetratingly satirical insider-view of the Victorian media, including a dig at ‘Mr Popular Sentiment’, a thinly disguised caricature of Charles Dickens. Plantagenet Palliser, who is heir to a dukedom, doesn’t bother about comms, but Phineas Finn, making his way, has to repeatedly consider how things will play in the gentlemen’s clubs where reputations are chewed up, and in the scandal-sheets that snap up what the clubs spit out.

Trollope knew the value of money, and the misery of not having enough. His father had sent him to posh schools — Harrow and Winchester — but as a dayboy, which was cheaper. He was bullied and jeered at. Being the poorest boy among a group of rich ones is not the same thing as experiencing real poverty, but it has its own peculiar humiliations. Later, as an ill-paid civil servant, he couldn’t pay his tailor: the bill was bought by a money-lender and Trollope was mortified by duns who barged into his office, nearly losing him his job. His fiction is full of upper-class characters brought low by debt, and of middle-class ones kept down by the exhausting struggle to earn a living. His marriages are always — whatever else they may be —  financial arrangements. His great stand-alone novel The Way We Live Now transforms the grey mechanisms of economics into a dazzlingly colourful assemblage of interlocking plots all driven by financial greed or financial need. Had Trollope made it to Downing Street he would never have made the mistake of neglecting the fiscal side of government.

At the age of 19 he started work in the General Post Office, hating the tedium of his clerking duties (clerks were effectively human photocopiers) but seeing no likely escape. He stayed with the post office for 32 years. There are very few novelists who have given proper attention to the daily grind of work — so many, both in Trollope’s time and ours, preferring to focus on love or adventure. He writes mordantly about office hierarchies, about idle, pompous bosses and the frustration of answering to pettifogging bureaucrats. If he’d been running the country he would surely have brought in enlightened employment legislation. He would also have instigated an overhaul of the civil service that eventually lost his loyalty by insultingly passing him over for a promotion.

He was prodigiously industrious. He got up every morning to start writing at 5am, so as to get his daily target of 2,500 words done before he went to work. In his happier times, when he got free of the office and was travelling around Ireland or the west of England as a post office surveyor, he wrote on horseback or in trains. A prime minister’s packed schedule wouldn’t have daunted him. When he finished a novel he didn’t give himself time off. He didn’t even wait until the next day. He reached for a clean page and started the next one there and then.

Writing brought him money (very little to start with, but eventually a good income). He said that that was why he did it, although the exuberance of his fictional inventions suggests he enjoyed creating his novels as much as we love to read them. The autobiography in which he revealed his routine triggered a dip in his reputation. Victorian readers were repelled by Trollope’s self-discipline. Romantically, they wanted their great writers wandering lonely as a cloud, waiting for inspiration to strike. Snobbishly, they couldn’t value work done for pay. One can only deduce those ungrateful readers had large private incomes, and small imaginations.

Trollope’s imagination, by contrast, was capacious. Worldly-wise, phenomenally energetic, an innovator and an acutely perceptive observer of the society around him, he would have run the country with care and consideration. And best of all, he would have done it with kindness. There is a brief passage in The Last Chronicle of Barset that says more about the sadness and precarious dignity of old age than any other piece of writing I know. Mr Harding, a meek-mannered old clergyman whose story has been woven through six novels, is in his daughter’s house. She and her husband are away. Harding is dying. Precisely, without overt pathos, Trollope describes his state of mind. When he wrote that passage Trollope was in his prime. He had a wife and two sons, a full-time administrative job and a popular series of books on the go, but he had the imaginative power to put himself in the mind of a lonely old man facing death. He does it with a degree of empathy that demonstrates what a wise statesman he might have made.


Lucy Hughes-Hallett is the prize-winning author of  The Pike and Peculiar Ground.

LucyHH

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Alison Houston
Alison Houston
3 years ago

Yes, Trollope for PM! Although perhaps we have that already in the form of Ms Symmonds.

My children were obsessed with the Pallisers when they were little. It was serialised on BBC 7 or Radio 4 Extra, as it is now, when I taught them at home. I bought the DVDs of the old television dramatisation, with Susan Hampshire as Lady Glencora, for my middle daughter’s tenth birthday. I don’t know why they all got so into it. I don’t think they were interested in the politics. My eldest, now married and expecting her first baby had decided to call it Glencora if it were female.

Last edited 3 years ago by Alison Houston
George Bruce
George Bruce
3 years ago

I would highly recommend the Barchester novels. A series about 19th century churchmen? It did not sound promising to me – but the Warden enthralled me and I read the whole series.
I kept thinking “yes, that is exactly how people behave in real life”. And full of subtle humour.
The only other one I have read by Trollope is The Way We Live Now, also very different but very good.
It is interesting who gets highly rated and remembered among writers of the past. Dickens is the first name that comes to mind from the 19th century, yet to me Trollope seems far superior.
Another I enjoyed from the late 19th / early 20th century is Arnold Bennett, who seems very much a forgotten author. The Card is great for humour. Anna of the Five Towns makes you realise how much life there was and how much was happening in towns outside London there was in those days.

mark taha
mark taha
3 years ago
Reply to  George Bruce

Remember the TV serial. Wondered if Archdeacon Grantley was one of Sir Humphrey’s ancestors?

Simon Baseley
Simon Baseley
3 years ago

Great article. Trollope is too often overlooked. In my opinion the Barchester books are unrivalled in 19th century literature and in Obadiah Slope he produces a villain who is easily more believable and more sharply drawn than anything by his contemporary, Dickens. And Trollope may well have been blessed with second sight, given that in creating Augustus Melmotte, a middle European con man who becomes an MP and buys a stately home, he predicted the coming of Robert Maxwell some hundred years or so early.

J Bryant
J Bryant
3 years ago

An interesting insight into the life and potential of Anthony Trollope. I’d never imagined him as a politician.
I would like to think a person like him would make a great PM–tolerant, wise, kindly. But I’m reminded of the scene in Lord of the Rings when the elf queen, Galadriel, is offered the ring of power. She declines because she understands that at first she’d wield its power for good, but gradually she’d become the Dark Queen, autocratic and increasingly intolerant of everyone who opposed her. Power corrupts even the kindliest souls.

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Trouble is the hard work made him a bit of a hack. Even his best novels The Barset Chronicles contain wholesale theft of characters and plots from other people’s novels. His political characters never seem very happy-so he was probably lucky to have lost at the election.Also a politician is prey to skeletons in his closet-in his case a rather dodgy father-in-law and a few over-enthusiastic female fans . While working in Ireland as Postmaster General he seems to have invented the modern postal system so probably a greater achievement than anything political.

Giles Chance
Giles Chance
3 years ago
Reply to  kathleen carr

I don’t agree that his political characters were unhappy. He makes the point, more than once, that politics is a drug which once taken, is hard to give up. Neither do I agree that he was a hack. Many of his characters were drawn faithfully from life. Look, for example, at Mr Daubeny (Disraeli) and Mr Gresham (Gladstone) – detailed, faithful portraits of the men themselves, and not stolen. His 2 500 words/ day did make him repeat himself occasionally and perhaps use 2 or 3 words when one would do, but these are small criticisms.

Last edited 3 years ago by Giles Chance
kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago
Reply to  Giles Chance

Its a matter of choice and opinion isn’t it-personally I just don’t find him as first league as Dickens. Oddly enough the two novelists were linked. Trollopes brother Tom lived in Italy and was a widower with children who needed a governess. He chose the sister of Ellen Ternen ( Dicken’s young muse and possible mistress) who he eventually married.

Giles Chance
Giles Chance
3 years ago

I am re-reading Trollope right now – all of it – having only discovered the Master three or four years ago. He has a much lighter touch than Dickens or Eliot, the two novelists of around his era who compete, with Trollope, for the prize of Best English Victorian Novelist. It’s interesting that when I was taking English A-level in the 1960’s, Trollope wasn’t considered as worthy of study. He draws wonderful pictures of the people in English society, and covers pretty much the whole gamut when you take all his work into account, from honest do-gooders to down-and-out bad eggs and crooks, from bullying wives to ladies of true virtue. Even his little sketches, say of Mr Spooner, with his 4,000 pounds/ year and his estate – free from mortgage, and “not many men can say that”. Trollope captures the England of the 1860’s and 1870’s perfectly, and we can see Mr Spooner’s descendants today all over Middle England. They were the ones who supported Brexit. I think he understood feminine psychology much, much better than Dickens, for whom women were no more than a foil to his male characters. He also drew very telling portraits of Gladstone and Disraeli, disguised as Mr Gresham and Mr Daubeny, and Trollope was there, with them, so we learn much. Overall, a total delight, absolutely not to be missed, although I am not sure that being a good novelist equips a man for high office. It did Disraeli. but was he a one-off?

Last edited 3 years ago by Giles Chance
Pierre Pendre
Pierre Pendre
3 years ago

Trollope’s fictional heroines were interesting and decisive characters and he liked the feistiness of real life Americans girls compared to their pale English equivalents. Phineas Finn owed his career to women who acted as mothers to him – Lady Laura who regretted not marrying him but was always loyal on his behalf; Lady Violet who did him a favour by refusing his purely egotistical offer of marriage but stayed a friend; and Madame Max who renounced the opportunity to be a duchess in order to give him wealth and security. His career never did match their devotion. The redoubtable Mrs Hurdle also put maternal generosity ahead of personal desire for the man she loved and who reneged on his promise of marriage. Lady Glen was a different matter, forced to marry a dry stick instead of the rascal she really loved and infallibly inept in her well-meaning efforts to help his career. But she always tried to do her duty. Trollope had notions of manliness and womanliness that would make him gape in nowadays. What would he have made of Meghan?

Graham Thorpe
Graham Thorpe
3 years ago

A great appreciation of a wonderfully life-enriching author. I have always thought he was one of the (many) artists whose output was essentially driven by inner urgings to avenge failure of various kinds (in his case parental/financial/political). On that basis, might politics’ gain have led to literature’s loss ?

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

I am a great admirer of Trollope as a novelist, and I should have read more of his books. However, I cannot imagine that a mind as subtle as his would have been suitable for politics.

Gary Greenbaum
Gary Greenbaum
3 years ago

I’ve read the Palliser books and enjoyed them, but the “B” stories interwoven within the Pallisers, of the Vavasours and Lopez and others that go on for many chapters, not as much.

jfarrell730
jfarrell730
3 years ago

Love his ability to get human nature so astutely. We need a Trollope for the Brexit era, he would have loved the political machinations of the referendum and the aftermath. Also love his non political work such as Rachel Ray and little House at Allington and the brilliant Linda Tressell.