Literary Notes: Trollope: a Posh Spice of the 19th century

AT THE end of the 20th century, we talk a great deal about our obsession with celebrity culture. Since the death of Princess Diana, however, the public's endless fascination with celebrities has seemed more troubling. Now, although we continue to gawk, we do it with a greater sense of shame.

The British cult of personality is not the recent phenomenon that commentators often suggest. Celebrities, as opposed to the merely famous, have been around since at least the beginning of the 19th century and it was the Victorians who made celebrity worship central to popular culture. Dickens became a Victorian celebrity par excellence, and like no figure before him, "Dickens" and Dickensian trappings were extensively commodified. If anyone was a "star" in the 19th century, it was him.

But the phenomenon of stardom was not universally welcomed. The first issue of Punch in 1841 bemoaned the "star system" in the London theatre world, for example. Mr Punch noted caustically that the system of paying individual actors huge fees meant that others in the company remained underpaid. Such debates about star turns on the London stage are familiar to us today.

The rise of celebrity culture can be documented in other ways. Who's Who was first published in 1849, by which time a cult of personality had already been established in the periodicals, with biographical notices a mainstay in popular reading. Later in the century, the reading public's demand for personality journalism was so strong that entire magazines were devoted exclusively to celebrity culture. Dickens's friend Edmund Yates, often cited as the inventor of personality journalism, published a series of articles called Celebrities at Home in The World in the 1870s, and a decade later, new titles such as Celebrities of the Day and Our Celebrities began to emerge. Posh and Becks would have felt at home.

Anthony Trollope, tremendously popular with circulating library readers, felt the pinch of his own fame. He was one of those whose name appeared more prominently than his titles in fiction advertisements. By the mid- 1860s, with more than a dozen novels behind him, including the most beloved of the Barchester novels, Trollope worried that his readers were continuing to consume his work simply because it was written by the brand name author "Anthony Trollope". A critic in the Illustrated London News suggested that a collection of essays he edited was published only because "they had appended to them the name of Mr Anthony Trollope".

In order to test his own brand name in a culture increasingly hooked on personality, Trollope devised a publishing experiment. He serialised two very short novels, Nina Balatka and Linda Tressel, anonymously in Blackwood's Magazine, a periodical with which he wasn't particularly associated. Unlike the Barsetshire countryside novels, these two novels were set abroad, in Prague and Nuremberg. There was some public speculation as to the identity of the author of Nina Balatka, but neither of the novels was deemed a financial success. Trollope's ventures didn't lead to a second publishing persona, and the experiment suggests that readers had, in fact, been consuming his fiction because it was written by "Anthony Trollope".

There are different reasons why the anonymous Trollope never took off - perhaps the foreign fiction just wasn't as good as his English drawing- room tales. But his experiments point to a challenge for the celebrity author, now and then - how to write something different from what the public demands, and how to determine your own literary merit in a market driven largely by the consumption of brand names. It's perhaps still true that we read a "Trollope novel", rather than a novel by Trollope.

Mark Turner is the author of `Trollope and the Magazines: gendered issues in mid- Victorian Britain', to be published by Macmillan