Trumpeting Trollope

December 6: On this day in 1882 Anthony Trollope died. Inscribed upon Trollope's commemorative plaque in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey is the last sentence from his Autobiography, published the year after his death: "Now I stretch out my hand, and from the further shore I bid adieu to all who have cared to read any among the many words that I have written." Those words amount to forty-seven novels, ten more than the other literary giants of his time—Dickens, Thackeray, George Eliot, the Brontës—combined. And virtually all of them are currently in print, bought in unrivalled quantities "not by students, forced to do so, but by people who read them because they enjoy them," says biographer N. John Hall.

 

If Trollope is not on the university curriculum, he is praised by those who are. "His great, his inestimable merit," said Henry James, "was a complete appreciation of the usual." This is Nathaniel Hawthorne, in a letter from 1860:

Have you ever read the novels of Anthony Trollope? They precisely suit my taste; solid, substantial, written on strength of beef and through inspiration of ale, and just as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting that they were made a show of.

Some see Trollope's talent for the ordinary as his limitation, making him no more than a "chronicler par excellence of storms in teacups." The implied comparison is with Dickens, whether as writer, social crusader, or large personality. Dickens would compose in a fever of excitement, walking all night through the London streets in the grip of his characters, places, and reform agenda. Trollope wrote every day starting at 5:30—typically with his watch before him and a goal of 250 words every quarter-hour. He also worked for the Post Office for thirty-three years; his unrealized, lifelong aspiration was to be a member of the House of Commons, and his most concrete social improvement was the invention of the red, street-corner letter-box.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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