Sunday, 16 January 2011

Self-Promotion of the Highest Order

In the introduction to virtually all the Anthony Trollope books I've read (and there have been a few), there has been one constant, one recurring fact mentioned time and time again: the damage to his reputation done by the publication of his autobiography.  It's something which has been teasing away at me for years, so I finally bit the bullet and had a look at it for myself.  Does it explain this loss of face?  Yes, very much so.  Is it worth reading?  Again, the answer is a resounding yes.

Trollope had a reputation as a hard-working, hard-living, jovial and cantankerous fellow, and An Autobiography did nothing to dispel that image (which may, of course, have been Trollope's intention in writing it and ordering its posthumous publication).  Stories of his hunting, his rides around the countryside in the service of the Post Office - his employer for decades, even after he had earned fame - and his behaviour at literary parties, alternating between belligerence and snoozing are present throughout the book.  The London he describes is a fascinating one, populated with literary giants such as Thackeray, Eliot, and Carlyle, and Tony Trollope was one of the leading lights, if we are to believe his account.

While most of this was known to the public though, the chapters on his early life revealed information that most had never suspected.  Owing to the disastrous business decisions of his father, Trollope's family was plunged into poverty, leaving him in the unenviable position of one born to affluence and forced to live amongst the affluent whilst possessing nothing himself.  His dreams of university dashed, things got worse when both his father and his sister and brother died while in financial exile in Belgium.  His mother Francis (who could be - and probably is - the subject of her own biography) took up writing in her fifties, and through her literary pursuits managed to revive the family's fortunes and set an example for the the young Post Office clerk.

Apart from the fascinating account of his personal life, Trollope talks about several areas he was interested in, focusing on writing in general and his works in particular.  He  is a notoriously bad judge of his own work, dismissing the epic He Knew He Was Right as a failure while praising himself for having produced minor works which are virtually unknown today.  He ponders the attempt he made to portray the development of the character of Plantagenet Palliser, before lamenting:
"Who will read (the Palliser books) consecutively, in order that he may understand the characters of the Duke of Omnium, of Plantagenet Palliser, and Lady Glencora?  Who will even know that they should be so read?" An Autobiography, Oxford World's Classics edition (2008), p.184
Erm, pretty much everyone who enjoys his work...

His musings on the wider literary world are also interesting and, for the most part, still valid today.  He believes the vocation of writer to be the best occupation available - provided that you are successful.  With the chances of that being as low then as now, and as
"many a good book is born to blush unseen..." p.70,
Trollope claims he would always advise aspiring writers against throwing themselves into a writing career.  He also discusses critics, deploring the waste of time and energy spent by many writers in trying to obtain, by fair means or foul, favourable reviews in popular publications (something which may sound familiar to many bloggers...).

Of course, publishing itself is another topic of interest, and his pages on the problematic issue of American pirating of English literature make for an eye-opening, if familiar, topic.  I, for one, was not aware that American publishers used to simply take an English copy, use it to make their own edition and then sell thousands of copies in The States at great profit...

Trollope also had issues with getting his own work published, but he was more than capable of fighting his own battles.  When a publisher attempted to beat him down on an advance price, claiming that it was worth the lower price to have the publisher's name on the cover, Trollope wryly stated:
"I did think much of Messrs. Longman's name, but I liked it best at the bottom of a cheque." p.109
It is, of course, Trollope's attitude to money, along with his tradesman-like attitude to writing, which so disgusted critics.  Rather than pretending to be writing simply for the sake of art, he makes it quite clear that he regarded it as a second occupation and appears just as concerned with the amount of money he made from each novel as with its literary merits.  This unsuppressed sense of glee at the piles of filthy lucre earned through his fiction offended the sensitivities of the Victorian literary police and damaged his reputation for decades.

His method of work also put many people's noses out of joint, with his assertion of words-per-hour as a sensible technique confounding many.  Each morning, he was woken at 5.30, wherever he was in the world, and he wrote for three hours at the rate of 250 words (or one page) every quarter of an hour.  Once a book was finished, he simply moved onto another, the ultimate book-churning machine, always ahead with his serialisations, always with a novel or two ready to unload onto unsuspecting publishers.  Trollope didn't think much of talk of muses and inspiration...

What Trollope perhaps failed to realise is that it was not so much the fact of his money obsession and work ethic which scared the horses, but rather his lack of restraint in discussing it.  While he may (rightly) accuse those who disagree with him of hypocrisy, what he fails to see is that it is the act of discussing these things which leaves a disagreeable taste in the mouth.  For someone so obsessed with the idea of a gentleman, he seems to have made some serious misjudgements about what gentlemen would consider acceptable (I realise that he probably wasn't too concerned with the backlash, what with being dead and all, but this was his attempt to enshrine his reputation, and, to a certain extent, he blew it).

Still, time has healed the wounds, and Trollope is again one of the more successful, and popular, Victorian writers, his fame outstripping many contemporaries whom he considered his equal (or superior).  An Autobiography is an extremely interesting insight into a great author and a fascinating man, one whose faults are far outweighed by his many talents.  Trollope seems satisfied with his life and ends by saying:
"... if now and again I have somewhat recklessly fluttered a 5-pound note over a card-table; -of what matter is that to any reader?  I have betrayed no woman.  Wine has brought to me no sorrow." p.366
Truly a life less ordinary.

Thanks to Betty from Oxford University Press (Australia & New Zealand) for sending me this review copy :)