BORN in 1815, the midpoint of the decade that also saw the births of William Makepeace Thackeray, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Anthony Trollope produced 47 novels - including the 12 books of the Barsetshire and Palliser series - along with stories, travel writing, and a posthumously published autobiography.
Popular during his own lifetime, Trollope's novels enjoyed a great resurgence in Britain during World War II, when readers found comfort in the calmer, certainly more comic, Trollopian world of country parsons, city clerks, rising politicians, and spirited young women in search of Mr. Right. And Trollope is still going strong: "Never before, even in his lifetime," notes biographer Victoria Glendinning, "have Trollope's books been so well published, so readily available, or so much in demand."
The secret of Trollope's continuing appeal lies not in escapism but in his solid realism. His novels, as Nathaniel Hawthorne famously observed, are "just as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going about their daily business and not suspecting that they were being made a show of."
"His great, his inestimable merit was a complete appreciation of the usual," wrote Henry James shortly after Trollope's death in 1882. This was high praise, coming in the first instance to a beefy British realist from an American Romantic, and, in the case of Henry James, from the esoteric apostle of the novel as Art to a robust professional wordsmith who boasted of his ability to churn out a certain number of pages per day, whether or not he felt "inspired."
Yet, as Glendinning observes in "Anthony Trollope," the brilliantly lifelike world created in his fiction had its roots in his real-life habit of daydreaming: "building castles in the air," as he called it. The boisterous, hearty exterior concealed the soul of a shy, ill-dressed youth, shunned at school, who found refuge in making up elaborate - though always probable (rather than fantastic) - stories of which he was the admirable hero.
Trollope was the son of an unsuccessful barrister with aristocratic family connections and an energetic, enterprising mother, Frances Trollope, who gained fame - and a much-needed income - as a popular author. Despite this heritage, however, he made little headway as a novelist until the publication of his fourth novel, "The Warden," in 1855.
He earned his living working for the post office, a demanding job that involved a good deal of travel, establishing routes for mail delivery. He rose to a position of responsibility and is generally credited with establishing the pillar boxes that allow people to deposit letters privately and conveniently. Only well into his literary career did he earn more money from his books than from his postal salary.
Trollope appears to have been happily married. He and his wife, Rose Heseltine, wed in 1844 and had two sons. "My marriage," he wrote in his amusing, but not very revealing autobiography, "was like the marriage of other people, and of no special interest to any one except my wife and me."
Glendinning's avowed aim in writing Trollope's life is to portray both the "inner self" responsible for creating the novels and the more visible "social self" that would have been presented to friends and acquaintances. Even though it may be the hidden, inner self that produces great art, both selves, she believes, are equally real. Since Trollope left few clues about the workings of his inner self, Glendinning relies chiefly on passages from his fiction to provide glimpses of the interior.
This can be a legitimate approach, but her juxtapositions of fact and fiction are not always convincing. She quotes, for instance, a passage from his novel "The Claverings" about a young woman nervously awaiting scrutiny by her fiancs snobbish family, but then goes on to note, "If meeting her famous mother-in-law [Frances Trollope] ... for the first time was an ordeal for [Anthony's fiancee] Rose, she never acknowledged it."
Later, discussing Trollope's quasi-romantic, quasi-avuncular friendship with a young American, Kate Field, Glendinning declares: "Rose knew about her husband's infatuation, and was upset, then had her ample say about it in the privacy of the bedroom, in her deflationary north-country way."
"I cannot prove that he told her," Glendinning adds in a footnote, "nor that she reacted as I say, but I am sure of it. The reader is free to disagree."
"I have never been so happy researching and writing any book so much as this one," confides Glendinning in her sprightly introduction. "If 20 professors had declared themselves to be writing lives of Trollope I would not and could not have given mine up...." she says, alluding to recent scholarly biographies by N. John Hall, Richard Mullen, and R.H. Super.
Coming from the author of well-received biographies of Edith Sitwell, Elizabeth Bowen, Vita Sackville-West, and Rebecca West, Glendinning's life of Trollope is calculated to appeal most to the general reader looking for a biography with some of the wit, warmth, and geniality that abound in his novels. Yet N. John Hall's "Trollope" (Oxford University Press, 1991) is a more solid piece of research and quite as engaging in its way.
Glendinning's enthusiasm for her subject is matched by the soundness of her assessment of Trollope's life and achievements. Her book is also full of charming little touches, like a disquisition on Victorian hairdos (Trollope abhorred artificial chignons with a passion verging on hysteria).
But there are times when one wonders if the biographer has not been carried away on the tide of her own enthusiasm, as in her overconfidence in her ability to intuit what Trollope - or his wife - "must have" said or thought.
She succeeds in covering many bases, giving due attention to Trollope's literary output, his political views, his post office work, his family and friendships, and the social and cultural milieu in which his life story unfolds. But her narration is oddly scrappy, jumping from one topic to another, then back again, failing to mold the diverse materials into a flowing and cohesive whole.
Still, Glendinning's eye for detail, her abiding sense of humor and fun, make for an inviting and appropriate introduction to this great - and delectably funny - Victorian novelist.