BOOK REVIEW / Pariah who nearly became a gentleman: Trollope - Victoria Glendinning: Hutchinson, pounds 20

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HOLIDAYING near St Andrews in the summer of 1868, a Presbyterian minister watched Anthony Trollope playing golf for the first time. Pretending to faint with grief at a particularly rotten shot, the novelist keeled over onto the green, forgetting he had a golf ball in his pocket, and 'started up again with a yell of agony, quite unfeigned'. The silence of the links was shattered. At dinner that evening Trollope was untidily dressed, used bad language, and belittled the novels of Walter Scott; in short, he appeared to the minister a bumptious, loud-mouthed boor.

Time and again in Victoria Glendinning's shrewd and useful biography we hear that Trollope was considered 'not at all like his books', which hymned the virtues of order, decorum and probity. What Glendinning argues very nicely is that the Trollope as perceived by that minister was not at all like his books because it was not really at all like him. His bluff, brash, clubbable persona was a mannered revenge on the profound insecurity and neediness that overshadowed his early life.

As V S Pritchett has pointed out, Trollope 'might excusably have become a neurotic - and without talent'. His boyhood was a model of perfect wretchedness. His lively, gregarious mother was too busy travelling and pursuing her literary career to take much notice of him, and in any case favoured her eldest son, Tom. His father was difficult, moody and ineffectual, failing both as barrister and then farmer; with Anthony's help he eventually fled to Belgium, leaving behind a vapour trail of debts. Anthony returned to find bailiffs ransacking the Trollope house.

Schooldays at Harrow as a 'charity boy' were almost comical in their misery. He recalled in An Autobiography (1883): 'I had not only no friends, but was despised by all my companions . . . The indignities I endured are not to be described.' If Harrow was harrowing, Winchester was worse.

Perhaps the most appalling feature of this period concerns the behaviour of his older brother, Tom. Despite the petitions of his mother to look after 'Tony', Tom was 'of all my foes, the worst', thrashing him daily with 'a big stick'. On discovering that his younger brother had been keeping a journal - an early signpost to the future - Tom visited a special beating on him with a cricket stump.

This stretch of his life fascinates as much as it horrifies. It seems like the breeding ground not of a neurotic, but of a serial killer. That he survived at all was astonishing; that he went on to be one of the most prolific and engaging writers of the 19th century is pretty close to miraculous. How did he do it? The transformation may have to be ascribed to sheer force of character: Trollope never forgot the wounds of his youth, but he nursed them in private.

What he presented to the world was a brilliant impersonation of boisterous good humour, first as a responsible pillar of the Post Office hierarchy, later as a Garrick Club rowdy. Even the granny spectacles and the enormous grey beard seem to have been donned as a disguise. Victoria Glendinning accords proper attention to Trollope's inner and outer selves, to the man who lived, thought and wrote on the line between private and public: 'He achieved popularity and fame by exposing what had been, originally, his most secret life - his adolescent castles in the air about popularity and fame - to the public view.'

The single time he tried to meld his fictional world with the real one ended disastrously. At the age of 53 he stood as Liberal candidate for the borough of Beverley, keen to duplicate the success of his fledgeling Irish hero, Phineas Finn.

The realities of campaigning, however, were not at all to his taste: he preferred hunting to hustings, and even sneaked off for a day during the election run-up to ride to hounds. His soapbox savvy was minimal, his oratory was unarresting, and the reception he got may well have raised before his eyes the spectre of schooldays: 'I felt myself to be a kind of pariah in the borough, to whom was opposed all that was pretty, and all that was nice, and all that was - ostensibly - good.' He slid to the bottom of the poll, and his fond ambitions of a parliamentary career were finished.

So he remained an outsider, which in terms of his fiction proved an invaluable asset. As Glendinning notes, he had a passion for politics but no political passion, an observer rather than a participant. That distance lent his gossipy narratives a bracingly sceptical air as his outsiders - ingenus, adventurers, parvenus, foreigners - tiptoed across the perilously thin crust that separated society from the common ruck.

Trollope knew all too well how the rewards of that society were apportioned. Phineas Finn arrives in London as a penniless Irishman, and survives scandal and disgrace before triumphantly taking his room at the top. Ferdinand Lopez in The Prime Minister (1876) is similarly ambitious and makes the 'right' connections, but even before he resorts to embezzlement and blackmail he is doomed: he is not a gentleman. Nobody in Trollope seems able to define what a 'gentleman' is, but everybody can recognise one. The Tenway Junction - scene of Lopez's suicide - is a nicely judged symbol of the confusion that plagued Victorian social standing. Recognition of a gentleman, by whatever means, was absolutely vital. The alternative was exclusion.

The largest and most intriguing class of outsiders, of course, was women, on which subject Glendinning feels an advantage over Trollope's three most recent biographers (all American, all male). Despite his immersion in a narrowly masculine milieu, Trollope knew a variety of strong, outspoken women throughout his life: from his resourceful mother, Frances, to the independent and unconventional types he met in middle life, such as George Eliot and the American Kate Field.

His wife, Rose, comes under special scrutiny in these pages - compensation for the shadowy presence she has remained to previous inquisitors. We are usually told of her solid but unexciting virtues - loyalty, discretion, decorousness - and while Glendinning has truffled out some telling details (for instance, Rose's refusal to receive George Eliot at home because of her irregular menage with George Lewes), the omissions resound with more significance. The only known photograph of her is slightly terrifying, though Glendinning casts around for something inoffensive to say about her heavy-jawed fierceness - she settles for 'a nice heifer' (and that's being kind).

Trollope liked women generally, but he preferred the sort who knew the drill on clean shirts and dinner on time. In his novels he was acutely sympathetic towards feisty, intelligent women - Glencora Palliser is one of the most finely-drawn characters in Victorian fiction - and understood their frustration as outsiders in the public arena. Yet in a letter written near the end of his life he cleaved to the conventions of the day: 'The necessity of the supremacy of man (over woman) is as certain to me as the eternity of the soul.' In this, as in much else, he reveals a deep-rooted ambivalence: while he is often unable to see beyond his own privileged horizons, we cannot call him an entirely typical Victorian. His abhorrence of imperialism, for instance, is quite out of step with his generation: common sense keeps on breaking through.

Trollope is fashionable once again, so hurrah for that. What he will never be, one suspects, is glamorous. His famous energies and torrential prolificacy somehow encourage the impression of a donkey rather than a racehorse. His writing is firmly earthed in the sober satisfactions of normality. As Henry James wrote: 'His great, his inestimable merit was a complete appreciation of the usual.' If Glendinning has little to say about his style, then that is because the style has little to say for itself. A fanatical account-keeper, it was banknotes rather than grace notes which Trollope put a value on. What one chiefly admires in Trollope is the biographer's willingness to celebrate the man's strengths without soft-pedalling his shortcomings. It is properly affectionate, and eloquently critical - quite Trollopian, in fact.

(Photograph omitted)