David's Reviews > Autobiography

Autobiography by Anthony Trollope
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May 29, 07

bookshelves: trollope
Read in January, 1989

Why is Trollope considered by many (not by me) to be a notch below other Victorian novelists? I think this book, his autobiography, is at least partly responsible. For in it Trollope demythologizes the profession of novelist. He talks about his businesslike approach to his writing. He regularly wrote 250 words every 15 minutes, and he wrote on schedule. When he was still at the post office (and he stayed there some time even after it became apparent that he would be able to live off his writing), he had a servant wake him up very early every morning so that he could get his writing done before he left for the office. If he finished a novel during a writing session, he began the next without putting down his pen. He did not permit his extensive travel to interfere with this routine; he wrote on trains and on ships.

What about inspiration? Bah, says Trollope. Does the cobbler go to his last and await inspiration before making his shoe? No, he makes shoes, because that is what a cobbler does. And a novelist writes novels, because that is what a novelist does. It is this shoemaker analogy that those who dislike Trollope (usually without having read him) cite. Most readers have a more romantic notion of what it means to be a novelist.

Trollope discusses the business side of writing, too. He invariably sold his copyrights outright to his publishers, never taking a participation in the profits, reasoning that the publisher would flog his novels more determinedly if the publisher received 100 percent of all the sales. And he systematically lists the amount for which he sold each of his novels. Again, not very romantic. But fascinating, if you ask me.

Trollope runs through all the novels he had written, telling his readers what he thought was good and bad about each of them. (Roughly fifteen of his novels are not discussed, because he wrote them after the autobiography.) This is interesting in its own right, but it was also interesting to see how often I disagreed with Trollope about the merits of his work.

He had an interesting life even aside from his writing. His father was a complete failure at the bar, and much of his childhood was miserable because of that -- unpaid tuition bills at his schools, hiding from creditors, even fleeing from them to Belgium for several years. It was his mother, Fanny, who saved the family financially, and with her pen, writing Domestic Manners of the Americans and several (now forgotten) novels.

But Trollope is matter-of-fact, sometimes even funny, about his miserable childhood. And then he begins to blossom at the post office, where he steadily rises in importance, eventually traveling throughout the world to negotiate postal treaties on behalf of England. (I had never thought about how a letter made it from England to, say, Vienna in the days before airplanes. Obviously, though, you need postal treaties with all the countries through which that letter must pass, and those treaties have to allocate the costs of delivery.)

Those travels enabled him to set his novels in places throughout the world. He also wrote several non-fiction books about those travels.

And he writes in his autobiography about his desire to serve his country in Parliament. He tells the story of his attempt to win election from the borough of Beverley. His defeat, and the corruption of electoral politics, obviously took a lot out of him; the pain was perhaps partially alleviated by the subsequent disenfranchisement of the borough because of its corruption.

Trollope left the manuscript of his autobiography in a desk drawer with instructions for his son Henry on publishing it after his death.

The autobiography is immensely fun to read. It would be best if you could hold off until you've read the 30-some-odd novels he had written before he wrote the autobiography. But who can wait that long?
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Marge David, I have often heard people say that Trollope's business-like approach to writing has hurt his standing in the world of Victorian writers. I don't understand why this would matter. If the writing is great, it is great. I'm sorry that I found Trollope so late in life, and I am reading my third novel by him (The Eustace Diamonds). I plan to read his autobiography next. I hope to read all his novels! They aren't easy to find, but I work at UCSD and the library has a great number of his books.


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