Trollope: A Biography. By N. John Hall. Oxford. $35. 00.
In the ongoing debate over the extent to which subjects—or, to use the old-fashioned term, individuals—are constructed by their cultures, there is a corollary that invites little dispute: the subject of a biography is more or less obviously reconstructed according to his or her creator’s position in that debate. A biography, through the shape it gives to its subject’s life, reflects the biographer’s conception of much larger issues such as the relation between cause and effect or between public and private in an individual’s experience. N. John Hall’s Trollope: A Biography is a clear instance of this rule. As the editor of The Letters of Anthony Trollope (1983) and the author of such earlier works as Trollope and His Illustrators (1980), Hall is particularly well qualified to reconfigure the experiences of one of the most prolific of the Victorian novelists, and he does so by emphasizing Trollope’s public life and his public persona. Hall concentrates on the “facts” of Trollope’s career by presenting the effects of the novelist’s great creative energy and by recording the results of his multiple vocations and avocations. The Trollope who emerges from Hall’s account is very much a “man’s man”—sportsman, clubman, traveler, civil servant, an author doing business with his publishers—and even in the supposedly private realm of familial relations, Trollope is seen more often as the son of his father than as the son of his mother, more often as a father to his sons than as a husband to his wife.
Trollope the novelist is, of course, the most prominent of the public figures treated here. Of each book published and of many other uncollected shorter pieces, Hall offers an account; even the slightest novels receive a page or two of commentary. But it is typical of Hall’s emphasis on results rather than causes that he gives his accounts of Trollope’s writings at the point in the story when they were published, not when they were written; and one of the most useful features of this biography, the account it gives of the reactions of Trollope’s readers and reviewers of his many works, increases this emphasis on effects.
From other, less easily documented material, Hall tends to keep his distance, and he speculates on any given topic only gingerly. Thus, when commenting on the “comparative pessimism” of Phineas Redux, he does mention Trollope’s unsuccessful attempt to win a seat in Parliament and the failure of Saint Pauls Magazine, but Hall only tentatively concludes that their contribution to the pessimism of the novel is “likely but impossible to demonstrate.” Although Hall’s emphasis on facts and effects may seem simply to validate a positivistic sense of the importance of remaining within well-documented certainties, this biography does adhere to a traditional conception of subjectivity: Anthony Trollope emerges here as an autonomous individual with a quite distinct personality, but there is little explanation for either his creativity or his personality. The novelist himself is, in Hall’s depiction of him, an effect largely without a cause.
The one mystery about Trollope that does receive attention here is the disjunction between his public manner—gruff, aggressive, even belligerent on many occasions—and the delicacy and gentleness of the narrative manner of his fiction. In the final section of the penultimate chapter of the biography, Hall discusses this question directly and speculates that Trollope “protected his inner vulnerable self” with his blustery manner and that this “act, or stance, or public persona” allowed the “other Trollope” to write his novels. Hall also develops in bits and pieces throughout the biography other evidence that might help explain this mystery. One of the points that he makes most effectively as he carefully treats each of Trollope’s works is the way in which so many of his characters, both fictional and historical, are self-portraits of their creator. Such a point has been made before by others in discussions of the title characters of Mr. Scarborough’s Family or The Vicar of Bullhampton, but Trollope’s nonfiction, as Hall demonstrates, turns its subjects—Thackeray and Palmerston and even Cicero—into “very Trollopian” figures indeed. More sustained examination of the reasons why Trollope so frequently indulged this insistent autobiographical impulse in his writings might shed a good deal of light on the sources of his creative energy.
Although one can readily sympathize with Hall on the paucity of material that might illuminate Trollope’s emotional life and his relations with his family—even the Autobiography is most revealing in what it chooses not to reveal—one might ask for more analysis and even for more information on such issues as Trollope’s long and apparently peaceful marriage to Rose Heseltine Trollope and his relation to his adopted daughter Florence Bland, both of whose lives after Trollope’s death appear only in the footnotes here. Hall is right to say that Rose Trollope was the “great unknown in Trollope’s life,” but even such an unknown must have left more evidence behind. Similarly, Hall presents a convincing account of the difficulties of Trollope’s relation to his father— Chapter Four even offers evidence from the novels to establish Trollope’s interest in the contentions that divide fathers and sons—but Hall has much less to say about Trollope’s relation to his mother, the person who offered him the model of successful authorship to which he aspired. Hall plays down Trollope’s sense of abandonment when his mother decamped with his siblings to the United States when he has just 12—of a second maternal absence, Hall even remarks, “the terrible loneliness suggested in An Autobiography is exaggerated.” Similarly, Hall never speculates that the “mysterious and nearly fetal” but apparently psychosomatic illness that Trollope suffered in 1840 was the young man’s way of keeping his mother in London when she was planning to leave for Cumberland, where she wanted to build a house near her daughter Cecilia’s home. At times, Hall’s restraint in dealing with such issues is itself very effective: he simply quotes Frances Trollope’s letter of praise for the early novel The Warden, then comments that Trollope, “never given to keeping letters, kept this one,” and lets the reader draw his or her own conclusions on how important such long-awaited praise must have been to a son who always knew that his siblings had more prominent places than he in his mother’s affections.
By treating the reviews of Trollope’s work as carefully as he does, Hall himself raises the possibility that his subject needs to be seen as both a “man’s man” and a “woman’s man”: while the obituary notice in The Saturday Review noted that Trollope was “in the best sense of the word a masculine man and writer,” the Times had declared earlier in 1863 that he was, “of all our novelists, the ladies’ man of our time.” Although Hall cites contemporaries who commented on Trollope’s “feminine sensibility,” although Hall explains that in his writing Trollope often “detachfed] himself from his opinions” so that his depiction of women was more sympathetic than his extra-fictional pronouncements would have suggested, this biography gives little attention to the personal experience that justifies Trollope’s status as a “ladies’ man”—an excellent husband, a devoted father to the “daughters” he adopted in the absence of his own, and, most importantly, the understanding creator, novel for novel, of perhaps more strong and likeable female characters than any other Victorian novelist, the women novelists included.
As N. John Hall notes in his acknowledgments, the Trollope industry has lately been enjoying something of a publishing boom in biographies: three have been published between 1988 and 1991—Robert Super’s The Chronicler of Barset (1988), Richard Mullen’s Anthony Trollope: A Victorian in His World (1990), as well as Hall’s work in 1991—and Victoria Glendinning’s biography appeared this past winter. One need not, therefore, demand that Hall’s contribution cover every facet of Trollope’s experience, and events have proved him justified in asserting, “Trollope is a huge and complex subject, and I am confident that the books will all be quite different.” Yet this array of biographies devoted to one novelist makes it impossible not to recognize that each quite differently reflects the preoccupations of its writer. The qualities that distinguish N. John Hall’s Trollope from its competitors in the field are obvious: its detailed and often illuminating treatments of Trollope’s negotiations with his publishers, its generous information on the responses of his readers and reviewers, and its focus on the self-portraits sketched in a wide range of fictional and historical characters. Yet its limitations are nowhere more clear than in the fact that this biography provides as much sustained commentary on Trollope’s fondness for cigars as it does on his relation to his adopted daughter and amanuensis, Florence Bland. For other aspects of Trollope’s experience—indeed, for other conceptions of subjectivity—Richard Mullen’s Anthony Trollope is the obvious resource. As Mullen declares in his preface, “there were two central figures in Trollope’s life: his mother. . .and his wife, Rose, whom I have tried—I hope successfully—to rescue from the shadows.” The subject of N. John Hall’s biography is much less significantly influenced by these two women than Mullen claims, and to the extent that Trollope’s life is presented as one lived independently of theirs, he is a less credible and engaging figure.