Pillar boxes, persnicketyness, and perspicacity

Dear Reader:

I finished # 137) Victoria Glendinning’s glorious biography of Anthony Trollope last weekend. All 551 pages! And since then, I’ve procrastinated a bit on writing it up because I wanted to do it justice. Here’s hoping I do!

There he is, on the cover, looking persnickety: 1. overparticular; fussy. (Source: Dictionary.com). Which he was. A bit of a pill. Loud. Large (very). Ambitious. Grasping. But also known for his perspicacity: 1.keenness of mental perception and understanding; discernment; penetration. (Source: Dictionary.com) as seen in his 47 novels of quality varying from absolutely brilliant to utterly dull.

Trollope lived from 1815 to 1882 and came from a distinguished family of scholars, clergy, and a lord or two. Unfortunately, his father, Thomas Anthony, a barrister educated at Oxford, was ambitious, but not particularly good at planning or holding onto money. As a result, he sent his sons to elite schools (including Harrow – for non-British readers, this is the famous school where the term “Harrovian” comes from) where they struggled to finish due to a lack of financial and emotional support. As a youngster, he had five siblings (three brothers, two sisters) but sickness reduced their numbers greatly by the time he was an adult.

As a result of his father’s financial and professional failures, his mother Frances, a go-getter who ended up associating with radicals, abolitionists, and artists, had to move into the primary breadwinner spot and she did this by becoming a very famous British author of her time, known primarily for her travelogues. Most of the Trollopes who lived to adulthood made at least some attempt at writing books.

Coming from this background, Anthony, or Tony, as he was known, lived through horrible public school (for us Americans, private school) experiences (the worst of which came from his brother Tom who tormented him endlessly at Harrow) and came into his early adulthood very much at sea. Frances was off in America. Thomas was an unhelpful mix of a father with extremely high expectations and zero ability to show Tony how to get there. Tony was somewhat depressive and took refuge in eating and drinking and mediocrity.

He began his career with the British Royal Mail where he stayed into middle age. However, he was an utterly awful employee until the Mail sent him to Ireland, partly to get him out of his office where he achieved nothing and partly because he wanted to leave. Somehow, freed of the mixture of factors that had been dragging him down, it was at this point that Tony started to pull his life together and become a respected postal manager. One of the anecdotes that frequently comes up in discussions of Trollope is the assertion that he created the pillar box.

British Royal Mail Pillar Box (Source: Royalmail.com).

In truth, he didn’t. He simply recommended that it be established as the Royal Mail’s primary mechanism for distributed postal collection. He also pushed successfully for the penny post, allowing Britons of all income classes to afford to send frequent letters all over the country to their friends and family. Ultimately, Tony ended up in the role of the fairly high level manager who goes into under-performing regions and rehabilitates them.

In his late 20’s his married Rose Heseltine to whom he remained married throughout the rest of life (through at least emotional, if not sexual, infidelity on his part). In general, they were very happily married and coupling himself to Rose was another factor in his movement forward away from the discouraging first decades of his life. By his late 20s he had started attempts on novel writing and at this time he published a couple less than high quality novels which sold very poorly. But then he moved into writing and publishing The Warden which I reviewed here followed by the second in the Barsetshire series Barchester Towers reviewed here. These books set him on the path to success. Barchester Towers remains one of his best known books.

Tony very much drew on his life in writing his books – the clergy and their foibles, tensions between high and low church (huge issues in the first half of 19th Century Britain), political issues (such as the Corn Law reform), and tensions surrounding societal shifts from agriculture to industry and concommitant moral changes are frequent themes in his books. Tony was mercurial and needy with huge appetites of all kinds, attaching himself to women with unrequited passion and working hard to become the highly recognized figure that he was. But ultimately, his talent for character and plot, combined with his intelligence and humor, allowed him to draw upon the people and events he saw around him and craft some of the most popular novels and stories of his day.

Glendinning brings Tony and Rose to life in a manner that makes the reader feel as if they were familiar contemporaries. She moves beyond the dry, obscure material of masses of letters and writings to show the Trollopes as a real couple sometimes frustrating each other deeply, but always remaining committed to each other. Her ability to put herself in their shoes and then to allow the reader to walk in them is amazing. I was also enthralled by her command of his (47!) novels. I don’t know how many years she spent preparing this book, but I am certain it took multiple years. She synthesizes materials from his masses of letters with diaries (Trollope was a committed journal writer) and his novels, so that we can see how his beliefs and values were acted out within his relationships and reflected into patterns within his books.

I’ve said many times how much I’m enjoying combining biography with novel reading and reading this biography was an experience I don’t expect to see surpassed by any other biographer (but maybe I’ll be wrong). Glendinning has written biographies of a number of different figures: Elizabeth Bowen, Vita Sackville West, Leonard Woolf, etc. If any of these figures interest you, I urge you to get your hands on one of her biographies – they are excellent.

Happy Reading, Ruby

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