The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold: Trollope: lost genius

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The Independent Online
NO DOUBT I was out at the ungodly hour at which the literary editor of this youthful newspaper chose to telephone, but he - or she (]]]) - failed to get hold of me to ask me to contribute my list to the annual 'Books of the Year' feature. It is not for me to say, of course, but it seemed to me that my absence left something of a gaping hole in the feature. To my mind one can have a little too much of the book choices of what one might call the Blue Stockings - of both sexes]]] - who comprise today's literati.

Let it be a lesson to the literary editor that a little persistence would have paid dividends. One cannot fail to sigh when one casts one's weary eye over the vast lists of poetic tomes by heavily bearded foreign scriveners blessed with lacklustre middle initials, all recommended for Christmas stockings. For this reason, I have compiled my own cut-out-and-keep 'Arnold Guide to Books of the Year', designed for the bookish general reader replete with pipe and slippers rather than (spare us]) the boot-faced academic.

One of my favourite biographies of this year or any year was Trollope the Animal Lover by Ernst Caulfield (Constable pounds 20), notable for this thorough examination of that consistently underrated novelist's multitude of pets, including his hunting ponies, his hamster and his three dogs. In the same area, Trollope's Hamster by Emily Secombe (Hutchinson pounds 12.95) is a fascinating and detailed study of the role of the hamster in Trollope's narrative.

Why, asks the goodly Miss (Msss]) Secombe, does the hamster pop up nowhere in the novels? By a close examination of the role of the hamster in contemporary society, she concludes that Trollope simply shared in the Victorian distrust of that endearing rodent. Scintillating stuff.

Trollope's Hamster serves as an excellent hors d'oeuvre to Trollope: The Bearded Novelist (OUP pounds 35), a useful introduction to Trollope's beard, written by Arthur Maynard, an ex-Professor of Trichology at Harvard University. To some, Professor Maynard's theory that Trollope's beard was detachable, and that beneath it he led a secret double life as Gladstone, may seem far-fetched. But to my mind it goes a long way towards explaining his almost obsessive interest in, and knowledge of, the political process.

If Trollope: The Bearded Novelist is a marvellous main course, then Trollope: The Authorised Biography by N T Morgan (Heinemann, pounds 19.50) makes the perfect savoury. It is a copious and brilliantly researched account of the life of Herbert Trollope, the great-nephew of the novelist, who lived an uneventful life of no visible achievement, but who will long be remembered as one of the few men ever to have had Trollope as a great-uncle. I am reliably informed that Morgan is now researching a full life of Maisie Trollope, Herbert's splendidly straightforward wife, for publication in early 1998, a work earnestly to be looked forward to.

In the arena of essays and appreciations, no book meant more to me this year than My Trollope edited by John Mortimer (John Murray, pounds 12.95), in which luminaries from the world of literature, Roy Hattersley and Godfrey Smith among them, choose a favourite Trollope they would take to bed with them. The essays in this marvellously civilised tome are all deliciously erudite and tempered with their scriveners' customary wit, and one reads them one after another, reaching the end satiated - yes - but also richly satisfied, rather as if one had just tackled a brand new box of After Eights. The perfect accompaniment to this tome - the coffee to the mints, as it were - would undoubtedly be my old friend and quiffing partner Kenneth Baker's collection of Great Trollope Anecdotes (Faber pounds 17.50), in which many of the great novelist's friends and contemporaries testify to his general reliability and dedication to his work. To finish, with a glass of Beaumes de Venise, might I recommend Trollope's Provence by Peter Mayle (pounds 22.95, fully illustrated), the first in a sumptuous series, each concentrating on a different region that Trollope might have enjoyed had he visited it. All in all, a timely tome about a sorely neglected novelist.