ANTHONY TROLLOPE was born in 1815. His father was a barrister, learned in law, but of difficult temper and unpractical in the management of his affairs. The first twenty years of his son's life were overshadowed by the gradual failure of the legal practice, and by a series of ill planned and worse executed manoeuvres to make money in other ways.
The ruin of the family was delayed, and at the last made less ruinous, by Anthony's mother, Frances Trollope. One of her husband's weirdest schemes was to set up a great bazaar in Cincinnati, and he despatched his wife to America to supervise its building, in a striking medley of classical and oriental styles. Funds were exhausted before it could be stocked with goods, and Mrs Trollope found herself in penury. She learned from this crisis not only that she must herself take on a great part of the task of supporting her family, but also a possible means of performing it. On her return to England, she wrote her first book, a racy and rather acid study of the American way of life. It was successful, and she went on at once to write novels and other travelogues. When her husband finally became bankrupt in 1834, she took the family to Belgium, and supported them by her pen, never laying it aside for long, even while she saw to the housekeeping, and tended the deathbeds of her favourite son, her husband, and her youngest daughter. Her later days were happier and more prosperous, but she went on writing indefatigably when the financial need had passed. When she died, at the age of eighty-three, she had written forty-one books, and her annual rate of production had not been far below that achieved by Anthony himself. They were both late starters in literature: he was forty when his first book was published, and she fifty-two. For both of them, the first conscious aim in writing was to make money; but once started, they both found that it satisfied in them needs much deeper than that of money.
Possibly Trollope inherited from his mother some qualities of mind and spirit that favoured quick and copious writing, and certainly he had before him her example of what might be made of these qualities. But the deeper needs which writing came to satisfy were the unhappy by-product of his father's misfortunes. When he was seven, he went to Harrow as a day-boy. At twelve, he was moved to his father's old school, Winchester, but taken away three years later because the bills had not been paid, and could not be paid. Long before his departure, the other boys had known of the unpaid bills, and had made use of their knowledge. 'It is the nature of boys to be cruel,' he mildly observed of their doings when he wrote of them in later life. But worse was to follow, for he went back to Harrow again as a day-boy. By this time, his mother was in America, and he was living with his father, unkempt and uncouth, in a gloomy tumbledown farm-house, from which he tramped twice a day through muddy lanes to sit among the well fed and smartly dressed boarders. 'The indignities I endured are not to be described,' he wrote later.
"I was never able to over come—or even attempt to overcome—the absolute isolation of my school position. Of the cricket-ground or racket-court I was allowed to know nothing. And yet I longed for these things with an exceeding great longing. I coveted popularity with a coveting which was almost mean. It seemed to me that there would be an Elysium in the intimacy of those very boys I was bound to hate because they hated me. Something of the disgrace of my school-days has clung to me all through life."
He was removed from Harrow at last by the bankruptcy of his father, and went with the rest of the family to Belgium, a useless and aimless witness of their successive deaths. At the age of nineteen, however, he was wangled by family friends into the Post Office as a junior clerk; competitive examinations to the Civil Service being still to come. In later life, he wrote and spoke vehemency against Chat mode of recruitment, on the ground that it would certainly have excluded him, and that the Service would have lost a good official by his exclusion. Probably he was right on both points, yet it would not have been easy for any department to function with more than one or two Anthony Trollopes on its strength. He was unpunctual and insubordinate, and he got into 'scrapes'. Once, in an argument with the secretary, he banged a table so hard that it catapulted an inkwell into his chief's face: since the Post Office was at that time ruled by a retired Colonel, he was lucky to have escaped dismissal or something worse. And one day the office was invaded by a lady under a vast bonnet, with a basket on her arm, crying loudly, "Anthony Trollope, when are you going to marry my daughter?" He did not have to marry the young lady, but he admitted that "these little incidents were all against me in the office".
This period of his life lasted for seven years, and it is the one period of which he has told us very little. He lived in poor lodgings, spent much time in bars, got into debt and made his one and only acquaintance with a money-lender. He began, however, to make friends and, after the disgrace of his schooldays, it was much to him that men of his own age were willing to like him, to talk with him, and to spend their week-ends walking with him. In the office, he kept his place, largely because he turned out to be very good at writing letters, and in the end even his 'scrapes' did him a backhanded service, for the ink-stained Colonel recommended him for a job in Ireland, as the best way to be rid of him.
It was a very great service, however backhanded. Ireland accomplished a transformation in him hardly less dramatic than that which characterizes the life cycles of insects. Hitherto, his state had been dark and larval, or chrysalid at best, and his days had been spent in obscurity and lonely poverty. 'From the day on which I set foot in Ireland,' he wrote, 'all these evils fell away from me. Since that time who has had a happier life than mine is' The essence of the Irish magic was that for the first time he found himself among people who liked him, who did not regard him as a shameful and useless encumbrance. The work was not in an office under superiors, but in the open air on his own, riding up and down, making arrangements or putting disarrangements to rights. He became good at the work itself, and passionately fond of riding. He took to hunting, and found a hobby that was his only major addiction to the end of his life. After three years of this new life, he married, was promoted, and soon began to write his first novel.
He spent most of his time in Ireland until 1859, and remained in the Post Office until 1867. He rose from being an ill-reputed and difficult clerk to being an efficient but still rather difficult public servant, with a flair for negotiating with all kinds of people, of many nations. He had a fine eye for the practical—he was the inventor of the English pillar-box. Above all, he made himself useful to his department in ways which meant that he was kept on his travels, rather than in an office. He came to know many parts of Britain itself, and visited Egypt, America and the West Indies on postal business. He hunted two days a week, and became a haunter of London clubs, partly for the sake of whist, partly because his acquaintance was now reaching up into higher circles of society and letters. And on top of all this, he wrote books at the average rate of 17 per annum, and made money by them.
So, in middle life, he found all that he had missed as a boy—respect, friendship and worldly success. And he enjoyed it all, hugely and noisily. He banged about the world, rode about Essex and other hunting counties, fell off his horse and lost his spectacles and laughed: dined at the club and laughed: dined at home or with his friends and laughed. In 1882, he was laughing at a comic book read aloud with his family after dinner when he had a stroke, from which he died a month later.
He had been successful, and had valued his success all the more because of his early failures. 'To be known as somebody,' he wrote, 'to be Anthony Trollope—if it be no more —is to me much.' But to understand both the man and his work, it is needful to set this beside that other verdict — 'Something of the disgrace of my schooldays has clung to me all through life.'
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