Long before Barchester, Anthony Trollope's mother was a literary star, writing novels, travelling incessantly and raising a family

AT THE mid-19th century height of her fame, Fanny Trollope sat next to a crusty old poet at lunch. He (not recognising her): "They told me Mrs Trollope was to be here. She has written a very great deal of rubbish, hasn't she?" She: "Well, she has made it answer!" She certainly had. An obituary that called her "a woman of stout heart, perseverance and ability" understated the case. Before Barchester was a gleam in Anthony Trollope's eye, his mother was a superstar.

In a writing career that didn't begin until she was 53, Fanny Trollope produced some 40 hugely popular books. She was also an intrepid tourist who crossed America, lived in half-a-dozen European cities, explored salt mines, catacombs and cotton mills, espoused good causes, dined with princes, supported six children with little help from their father and saw four of them (and four grandchildren) die of consumption. She was clever, funny, gregarious, indomitable and - her friends and detractors agreed - hopelessly vulgar.

Teresa Ransom's new biography (Alan Sutton Publishing pounds 17.99) makes only limited claims for Fanny's literary merit. From the outset, she did it for the money. The plain, loquacious daughter of a West Country clergyman, Fanny Milton was 29 before she married Thomas Anthony Trollope, a London barrister. She had pointed out that her financial expectations were modest, her father's Treatise on the Danger of Travelling in Stage Coaches and a Remedy Proposed not having made him rich. He had insisted that it did not matter. But ten years into the marriage, living in Harrow with a large family and a lifestyle to maintain, the Trollopes were in trouble. Trollope pere's law practice and investments had not prospered and the mercury- derived drug he took for his chronic sick headaches had turned him into a foul-tempered bully.

Under the delusion that living abroad would be cheap, and anxious to put a distance between her offspring and their terrifying father, Fanny left for America with three children (the others were away at school) and their drawing-master. The "Utopian" colony in Tennessee that she had heard about - she was always prey to enthusiasms - was a disaster. The three years it took her to find the fare home gave her time to cement her view that America was a terrible place and its citizens Yahoos.

When she did get back to England, she promptly published Domestic Manners of the Americans, the book that was to make her name. It was sly, observant, deeply patronising and very funny, and it established the pattern of her life for the next 25 years: go broke, travel, write a book, pay debts, go broke, travel, write another book. There were 115 volumes altogether, including many three-part novels; exposes of the Poor Law and child labour, Gothic romances, social comedies, detective stories, melodramas, satires against Evangelicals and Papists, pleas for women's rights. Her books drew so ruthlessly on real people that strangers grew wary of meeting her. Few who did were spared. Even Mr T, once he was safely dead, appeared in One Fault, a cautionary tale about marriage to a bad-tempered man.

Fanny's production rate is the more impressive given that there was hardly a time when she was not nursing a sick family member, paying all the bills and on the move: to Bruges with her husband to save him from debtors' prison; to Austria or Paris to research a travel book, to Italy or Switzerland in the hope that the climate might save whichever son or daughter was dying at the time. The pace seemed to suit her. When she had a house built in the Lake District to be near her married daughter, she was back in London within the year, bored rigid by the country. She settled finally in Florence, in the deliciously named Villa Trollope, where she lapsed into senility and died at 84.

Though related to the Trollope family, Teresa Ransom has not been blessed with the writerly gene. Her style, spelling and punctuation are erratic and her habit of summarising Fanny's eventful novels in the past tense - "Lucy called in the apothecary, and declaring her mother to be mad, had her committed to the Asylum" - sometimes makes the facts of her subject's life and the fiction bleed surreally into one another.

Though conscientious about supplying political background, she makes little attempt to place Fanny's word in any literary context. Thackeray appears only as vituperative reviewer, Dickens' fiction is mentioned rarely (Fanny's Factory Boy came hot on the heels of Oliver Twist) and Mrs Gaskell, whose own "social issue" novels appeared soon after Fanny's, is not mentioned at all. Whether Fanny's propaganda novels were pioneering or merely opportunistic is never clearly established.

Even so, the author's energetic research into all things Trollopean has yielded many gems: Fanny's father having special dinner plates made with a silver insert to spare his ears the disagreeable sound of knife on porcelain; her husband struggling Casaubon-style to write a great Encyclopaedia Ecclesiastica and dying before he got past I; Fanny at a seance, seeing a table move and shouting, 'Damn it, let it go!' More significantly, Ransom's heroic reading of Fanny's oeuvre has uncovered the striking debt, in terms of theme, setting and character, that some of Anthony's still-admired novels owe to some of his mother's forgotten ones.

Best of all is the quality of the lavishly quoted sources. Anthony's memoirs are as shrewd and exact as you'd expect, those of his brother Tom (also a writer) a pleasant discovery. The splendidly windy reviews of Fanny's books - one ran to 47 pages - mingle with the gossipy observations of her letter-writing circle. What an admirer called Fanny's own "perfect ease and freedom of style" are in constant evidence, whether she's remarking of an acquaintance who complained endlessly about the absence of her children that "I should say she compromised her dignity by her lamentations," or recalling that her famous fictional Widow Barnaby's husband "had made her poor heart leap like a porpoise after a storm".

If Fanny Trollope wrote too much too fast for most of her books to be worth resurrecting in their entirety, it's hardly surprising. As the prodigious one herself observed when anxiously awaiting a publisher's response to a manuscript, "Poverty has a mighty lowering effect on ones [sic] sublimities."

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