I’d enjoyed my recent re-read of The Warden and Barchester Towers so I got another free download, of Trollope’s autobiography. He made it clear it was to be published only after his death but it contains no startling revelations. I admit I found it hard going. The early part of the book is almost a misery memoir about the hardships of his early life and his dissolute habits as a young man. Just what these bad habits were, apart from getting into debt, he doesn’t say. His lucky break was of course landing a job in the Post Office; very lowly at first then rising to considerable responsibility. This perhaps explains his otherwise bizarre opposition to the introduction of civil service entry exams. From the start he intended to be a writer and set about it in a very businesslike way. It’s this page and penny counting which has in the past brought scorn upon him from those who prefer artists to starve. As he says, he couldn’t have lived off his pen alone, so needed to find a way of writing while working. And did he! He wrote on coaches, on trains, on ships, he wrote every spare minute he had in order to keep up the daily word count he’d set himself.
When I have commenced a new book, I have always prepared a diary, divided into weeks, and carried it on for the period which I have allowed myself for the completion of the work. In this I have entered, day by day, the number of pages I have written, so that if at any time I have slipped into idleness for a day or two, the record of that idleness has been there, staring me in the face, and demanding of me increased labour, so that the deficiency might be supplied.
I had long since convinced myself that in such work as mine the great secret consisted in acknowledging myself to be bound to rules of labour similar to those which an artisan or a mechanic is forced to obey.
I think other prolific and successful writers such as PG Wodehouse would have agreed with that.
Trollope was realistic about getting published and resolved not to be upset by criticism.
I had dealt already with publishers on my mother's behalf, and knew that many a tyro who could fill a manuscript lacked the power to put his matter before the public;—and I knew, too, that when the matter was printed, how little had then been done towards the winning of the battle! …
I made up my mind then that, should I continue this trade of authorship, I would have no dealings with any critic on my own behalf. I would neither ask for nor deplore criticism, nor would I ever thank a critic for praise, or quarrel with him, even in my own heart, for censure.
He had a high minded view of the author’s duty: How shall he teach lessons of virtue and at the same time make himself a delight to his readers? In the Trollope world the good would be rewarded and the bad punished: such was the operation of the novels of Miss Edgeworth, Miss Austen, and Walter Scott. Coming down to my own times, I find such to have been the teaching of Thackeray,
Thackeray was the author of his own times whom he admired above all others. George Eliot only comes second. At the present moment George Eliot is the first of English novelists, and I am disposed to place her second of those of my time. Her later books failed to please him though, because one feels oneself to be in company with some philosopher rather than with a novelist. I doubt whether any young person can read with pleasure either Felix Holt, Middlemarch, or Daniel Deronda. I know that they are very difficult to many that are not young. As for Charles Dickens, the greatest of them all, Trollope finds him very faulty. Describing the outburst of public grief on Dickens’ death he writes,
There is no withstanding such testimony as this. Such evidence of popular appreciation should go for very much, almost for everything, in criticism on the work of a novelist. The primary object of a novelist is to please; and this man's novels have been found more pleasant than those of any other writer.
That’s pleasant as in pleasing the public, of course, but Trollope found his characters quite unbelievable and so dismisses him. Wilkie Collins is criticised for being a kind of plot machine who planned each book down to the last detail. Trollope was more the ‘my characters take over’ type of writer. When it comes to his own work, his judgement is different from the modern one. Although he is fond of his Barchester characters he obviously doesn’t consider that set of books his best. He often mentions The Three Clerks and seems irked that it didn’t achieve the success he thought it deserved. The Way We Live Now gets only a brief mention.
What an extraordinary man he was. He combined full time work for the Post Office with family life, travel (he visited the United States and Australia and wrote books about each) and hunting regularly in season. Hunting seems to have been his passion; the expense he didn’t see as extravagance, the last thing he wanted to give up as he grew older. The autobiography is a kind of Apologia and as such interesting for his readers.