Trollope’s great work

The Victorians aged faster, and most of those we care to remember died earlier, than most of us do. In Anthony Trollope’s late novella An Old Man’s Love, William Whittlestaff, the “old man” of the title, is fifty years old. (What could Charles Dickens, who went to his reward at the age of fifty-eight, not have done with Philip Roth’s eighty-two years and counting? Or William Makepeace Thackeray, who died at fifty-two, or Charlotte Brontë, who died at thirty-eight?) Trollope thought much about oncoming death in his last years. He wrote a witty work of science fiction called The Fixed Period about the ideal age for euthanasia. Sixty-seven, the rulers of “Britannula” ordain, and Trollope himself died at exactly that, in 1882. (The 200th anniversary of his birth falls on April 24.)

It was with difficulty that he reached even that unadvanced age. Physically his last years were wretched. His eyes were poor, his hearing poorer. He was grossly overweight (sixteen stone on a medium frame) and was obliged to wear a rupture truss. He could, of course, hunt no more. He was increasingly afflicted by asthma and writer’s cramp. The Duke’s Children, written five years before his death, from stroke and cardiac failure, is the last major work he could write without the aid of an amanuensis. His heart, he told a friend, a year before his death, was “worn out, having worked too hard”. But not to work too hard was beyond him, however stiffened his writing hand, decayed his organs, disapproving his physicians, and fearful his family.

He did not fear death. If he were wise, he told his friend, the poet Alfred Austin, a man could face his end bravely enough. But what he did fear, to the pitch of sheer terror, was idleness. He confided to his son Henry, in 1880, five months after The Duke’s Children was (belatedly) published, “I finished on Thursday the novel I was writing and on Friday I began another. Nothing really frightens me but the idea of enforced idleness. As long as I can write books, even though they be not published, I think that I can be happy”. The happiness, one deduces, of the galley slave.

Trollope’s last years resemble a literary Totentanz. This sick, prematurely aged, enfeebled man wrote, in the six years that remained to him after he finished The Duke’s Children, thirty-three volumes of fiction, eight volumes of non-fiction, and numerous short stories and articles. A rough count puts that at not far off 3 million words. They were not called for. His price had shrunk to a third of what it had been at the height of his popularity. That he could glut the market was only because he was, via Henry, a major shareholder in Chapman and Hall, who published most of the bulk of his later work.

This final Trollopian eruption was not vanity publishing (no man was less vain) but creative mania. Whatever psychic disorder produced it, the wonderful late phase has left us much that lovers of Trollope can be grateful for. Not least The Duke’s Children, the coping stone to the massive Palliser parliamentary novel structure. Trollope wrote it in six months, from May to October 1876. It was originally designed to plump out four volumes. He was, clearly enough, inspired by George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1874) and Daniel Deronda (1876). There was a signal difference. Eliot was out-earning him ten to one, and her reputation was rising, not sinking. Her serialization of Middlemarch in eight “half books” (at 5 shillings each), followed by a four-volume “library” edition, was her partner G. H. Lewes’s bright idea. He was probably inspired by French livraisons. In fact the four-volume format had been tried before, never very profitably (Charles Reade’s The Cloister and the Hearth was probably the most successful stab at it). Edward Bulwer-Lytton had made a couple of experiments which confirmed its unattractiveness.

The British reading public loved their three-deckers. They drew the line at four. Not even Middlemarch was a sales success for Blackwoods, ideal as its octagon narrative architecture proved for its author. Trollope’s previous foray into four-deckerdom, The Prime Minister (the most politically thoughtful of the Palliser series), had received scathing reviews and dismal sales when it came out in June 1876. So dammed up was his flow of unpublished fiction at this stage that Trollope was in a position to take on board The Prime Minister’s failure while its immediate successor (first entitled “The Ex-Prime Minister”) was still in alterable manuscript form. It would be between three and four years before the The Duke’s Children saw the light of print, first in serial and then multi-volume form.

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