BOOK REIVEW / Quiet man too noisy for a lord: 'Trollope' - Victoria Glendinning: Hutchinson, 20 pounds

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Yet another fat life of Anthony Trollope. It follows full-length biographies by Robert Super (1988), Richard Mullen (1990), and N John Hall (1991). Never mind. Victoria Glendinning is a more engaging writer than her predecessors; she has a firmer and more instinctive grasp of the social fabric of Victorian Britain, is more alert to the nuances and injuries of class, and has found a fresh focus on Trollope by concentrating on his relationships with women, in life and in fiction.

That said, her book, like the others, is hampered by two enormous obstacles that Trollope put in the way of his future biographers. The first is his Autobiography, which deals with disabling frankness with his miserable childhood, his career in the Post Office and his rows with Rowland Hill, the labour and finances of his writing life, his passion for foxhunting, his socialising at the Garrick, and much more. He was enough of a spoilsport even to write of the Other Woman - the American Kate Field, 23 years his junior and 'one of the chief pleasures which has graced my later years . . . She is a ray of light to me, from which I can always strike a spark by thinking of her.'

All biographies of Trollope are condemned to spend much of their time dotting the i's and crossing the t's of the Autobiography. In the preface to his Trollope: a Biography, N John Hall nicely conveys the excitements of Trollope scholarship when he compliments his colleagues Mullen and Super, who, respectively, first established Rose Trollope's exact birthdate and 'first 'cracked' the difficult Post Office archives'. In such a climate, you could cause a sensation with the discovery that the novelist had once been late with a payment for his water rates.

The second, related, obstacle is Trollope's gruff taciturnity about his marriage and his inner mental life. He baffled his friends and his biographers alike by hiding behind a facade of roaring bonhomie and bombast. He was considered for a peerage, but rejected on the grounds that he was too noisy to make a lord. People who met Trollope found it impossible to reconcile his beefy, Jorrocks-like manners with the extreme, almost allergic, sensitivity of his novels. People who met Rose Trollope were equally nonplussed: typical is the chilly remark of the Rev William Lucas Collins: 'What I like best about Mrs T is her honest and hearty appreciation of her husband.' When Trollope disappeared behind the front door of his Queen Anne house in Waltham Cross, he entered a world that was a mystery to his friends (even though they dined and stayed there) and of which precious little documentation remains.

Nevertheless, Victoria Glendinning has taken on the job of writing an intimate biography of this strangely candid yet inaccessible man. She calls him Anthony throughout, an appellation that seems a little over-bold. With no secret diaries, no cache of hitherto unknown letters at her disposal, she sets out to recreate the private man from the same published sources used by Super, Mullen, Hall & Co, of which the most important are Trollope's novels.

It is a dubious method. Glendinning goes along with Hall and others when she asserts that the halting and ungainly proposal of marriage, made on the beach in Doctor Thorne, is a verbatim transcript of Anthony's proposal to Rose on the beach at Dun Laoghaire. After all, does not Trollope himself say so? Certainly his narrator says (of marriage proposals in general): 'the absolute words and acts of one such scene did once come to the author's knowledge' - and then gives those words and acts. But this is to underestimate Trollope's capacity for deviousness. The sagacious old party who occupies the editorial chair in his fiction is himself a skilfully constructed character who is often proved wrong by the behaviour of the other characters in the novel. Glendinning, though, has a vested interest in his veracity; she needs him to 'be' Anthony. For her purposes, the less imagination Trollope uses, the better - a principle exemplified in her footnoting of the short story, 'Christmas at Thompson Hall':

. . . about a dutiful wife who, confused by the room-numbers in a Paris hotel at night, returned to the wrong room and, in the dark, ministered to the wrong 'husband' in the bed. It was very much Rose's story - Anthony gave her the manuscript - and must reflect some near-adventure on one of their holidays.

Must reflect? This demotes the novelist to being his biographer's research assistant. The tactic would be patently absurd if the biography in question were of, say, Martin Amis, but Trollope's patient, artful simulation of reality lets him in for being treated as an artless anecdotalist.

Trollope is a more inventive and mischievous writer than Glendinning allows. This, though, is not a 'critical' biography so much as a study of Trollope the man, Frances Trollope's undervalued son, the Victorian husband and father, literature's most conspicuous workaholic, and here Glendinning succeeds, as no biographer has done before, in bringing him to life on the page with an adroit mixture of empathy and (sometimes stern) detachment.

Trollope was 16-going-on-17 when, in March 1832, the publication of Domestic Manners of the Americans made his mother famous and a scandal (she travelled through Europe and the United States with a bewhiskered young French sketcher called Auguste Hervieu, known to the Trollope children as 'Heirview'). He was 29 when, in June 1844, he married Rose Heseltine, daughter of a Rotherham bank manager. Fanny and Rose, the clever, independent woman and the seemingly submissive and dim one, are the twin poles of Glendinning's book, in which Trollope is seen in a state of constant, anxious oscillation between women who frightened him and women who flattered him into feeling manly and protective. He grew up on the insecure margin of genteel society, and married - fractionally but importantly - beneath him. Fanny considered Rose no catch, and the Irish sporting gentry, who had taken Trollope up between 1841 and 1844, dropped him after his wedding. In his life as in his fiction, sex was deeply coloured with class, and class with sex.

As novelist, he was the creator of some of the most memorably real and independent women characters of all time; but in life he was a fierce (and scared) male supremacist. He preached - or rather roared - the duty of wifely obedience. Fascinated by confident and powerful women, he crudely guyed Victorian feminists in his books, giving them names like Lady Selina Protest and Dr Olivia Q Fleabody. Torn between the need to dominate (Glendinning finds several passages in his novels that suggest a lurking interest in wife-beating) and his involuntary enthralment to women as tough and clever as his mother, he married the two aspects of himself and brought into the world such triumphs of characterisation as Lizzie Eustace and Lady Glencora.

With little to go on in the way of facts, Glendinning coaxes Rose Trollope (whom she likens to 'a nice heifer') into prominence, stressing her common sense, her uncertainty of taste in dress and interior decoration, her commercial shrewdness, her fortitude and her bursts of hard Yorkshire morality. By making Rose real, however speculatively so, she succeeds in making credible Anthony's profound dependence on his wife - and suddenly the inside of Waltham House ceases to be the shadowy space that it has been in every previous book about Trollope since the Autobiography. Cluttered with furniture and children, alive with marital disagreements (about, for instance, George Eliot's set-up with G H Lewes) as well as marital comforts (of which there were many), the novelist's household has now become as solidly imaginable a part of his life as the Post Office, the Garrick Club and the hunting field.

So Glendinning liberates Trollope from the carapace of bluffness in which he chose to encase himself, and which no biographer has penetrated with such acuity. The method by which she winkles him out of his shell has a lot to be said against it: page by page, she subtly, if unintentionally, debases the achievement of his fiction. Yet the effect is startlingly impressive. Here, at last, is an Anthony Trollope whom one can know as a man - weaker, more awkwardly self-protective than he has seemed up till now, but altogether more rounded and more likeable. We're left with the job of having to put his burgled novels back together again.