'Something of the disgrace of my schooldays has clung to me all through life.'
The above quotation is from Trollope's Autobiography, written in 1875-6, but not published until 1883, a year after his death. Its reputation has kept pace with the recent revival of respect for his novels, and it is now probably one of the most widely read of English autobiographies. This modest popularity it well deserves. As an account of his life, it is so complete and so just that his biographers have added little to its detail, and less to its broad outline. It is in no sense a work of intimate self-revelation, and was not intended to be. It is rather a tour de force of self-description by a man who, sitting for his own portrait, brought to it precisely the same technique of direct solidity which he had developed in painting scores of portraits in his novels. He did not even spare himself the slightly ironic distance from which he usually observed his male characters. And what it describes is not merely an attitude taken up for the occasion, but one which served him constantly for the more serious purposes of self-regard.
Yet the self-portrait is a little uneven, clearly delineated where his habitual perceptions were strong, but fainter and more confused where they were weak. His strength lay in describing the manners and morals of the world in which he was so anxious to bear—and even more anxious to deserve—a good name; and in his account of his dealings with this world, he has a natural rightness and honesty which enabled him to behave well, and to describe clearly. His moral standards were not, perhaps, very profound or very subtle, but they were worthy and workable, and they made his conduct better than that of many men who were his superiors in moral perception. His weakness lay rather in his attitude to his own writing, and to literature in general. Here he fell into confusions and distortions which have harmed his reputation and—what is worse—damaged his work.
The problem for him lay in a simple contradiction. On the one hand, he was trying to rise in the world by writing novels; on the other hand, the world into which he wished to rise did not have a high regard for novels, or for those who wrote them. 'Thinking much', he said, 'of my own daily labour and of its nature, I felt myself at first to be much afflicted and then to be deeply grieved by the opinion expressed by wise and thinking men as to the work done by novelists.' To this problem, he found two possible answers. Very early in his career as a novelist he proposed to write a history of English prose fiction, which was to have 'vindicated my own profession as a novelist' by demonstrating in the work of his predecessors and con-temporaries 'that high character which they may claim to have earned by their grace, their honesty, and good teaching'. But this history was never written, though a few of its leading ideas are suggested briefly in Chapters 12 and 13 of the Autobiography. The other possible answer, on the contrary, was made fully, loudly and insistently, through-out the book. It was that novel-writing should be regarded as a profession like any other, and that the object of the novelist, like that of every other professional man, was to make money for himself and his defendants. Nor was this object an unworthy or base one. 'It is a mistake,' he wrote, 'to suppose that a man is a better man because he despises money. Few do so, and those few in doing so suffer a defect. Who does not desire to be hospitable to his friends, generous to the poor, liberal to all, munificent to his children, and to be himself free from the carking fears which poverty creates?' This was the answer to which he committed him-self, and it was elaborated in almost every account he gave of his dealings with publishers, up to the last page of the Autobiography, with its detailed financial statement of his earnings from each of his books, meticulously totalled to £68,939 17s 5d.
It was, perhaps, the answer most likely to impress the world which he sought to impress. The men he met in the hunting field, or over the card table at his club, were more likely to accept it than that other argument about the good done by novelists in the moral education of their readers; and they were more likely to welcome among them a professional man just such as they were themselves—barristers, clergymen, engineers—who made no claim to be doing more than earn a good living. But though it was perhaps well fitted for this purpose, it was wrong, even perversely wrong. The novelist is not, of course, exempt from the common necessity of earning a living. But he earns it as a novelist, rather than as a barrister, a clergyman, an engineer, a politician or a confidence-trickster, because his tastes and abilities carry him to the novel rather than to any of these other lucrative activities. Yet although Trollope could not, or would not see this, it is typical of him that he gave a faithful report of the manner in which his own tastes and abilities were turned in this direction. Writing of those disgraced schooldays, and of the hardly less disgraced years as a clerk in the Post Office, he said this:
I was always going about with some castles in the air finely built within my mind. Nor were these efforts at architecture spasmodic or subject to constant change from day to day. For weeks, for months, if I remember rightly, from year to year, I would carry on the same tale, binding myself down to certain laws, to certain proportions. Nothing impossible was ever introduced,—nor anything which, from outward circumstances, would seem to be violently improbable. This had been the occupation of my life for six or seven years before I went to the Post Office, and was by no means abandoned when I commenced my world. There can, I imagine, hardly be a more dangerous mental practice; but I have often doubted whether, had it not been my practice, I should ever have written a novel. I learned in this way to maintain an interest in a fictitious story, to dwell on a work created by my own imagination, and to live in a world altogether outside the world of my own material life.
It is here, and not in the passages on money-making, that Trollope describes his real impulse to write novels. He became a writer, not because of his need for money, but because of his talent for imaginative day-dreams. It was natural that he should have confused the need with the talent, for both drew their strength from the same source. The former was a conscious passion, almost an obsession, because it was the outward symbol of his desire to rise above those early outward troubles, and the latter also was passionate, but more obscurely, because it had been his hidden inner resource against them. The confusion was natural, but none the less unfortunate. At first it prevented him from discovering where his true gift lay, and even after this discovery, he under-rated its value in himself. In deference to the standards of the hunting-field and the club, he abused and exploited it by writing too much and too quickly, without waiting for his imagination to gather weight and depth. Like some of the more enterprising bankers of his time, he possessed genuine gold, but made it serve to support a recklessly diffuse paper circulation.
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