Friday, 29 August 2014

Giants of Academia & the Arts

… but, then again, nobody is perfect

Anthony Trollope (24 April 1815 – 6 December 1882)

Trollope was one of the most successful, prolific and respected English novelists of the Victorian era, penning no less than forty seven novels, numerous short stories, several travel books and an autobiography but, despite all that, and like many another Giant before and yet to come, posterity often pushes a lifetime’s achievement to one side to remember him for something else altogether: in this case, as the man who invented the pillar box. Which he didn’t even do.

The slightly unfortunate name of Trollope, butt of many a snicker and chortle down the years, actually derives from the place-name of Troughburn in Northumberland, originally Trolhop, a Norse name meaning valley of trolls, those mythological cave-dwelling beings of folklore. So, Trollope has nothing whatsoever to do with ladies of ill-repute (their troll being in the sense of to wallow or roll about), meaning that we certainly shan’t be repeating, or even so much as mentioning, Prime Minister (and Trollope devotee) Harold MacMillan’s infamous remark that he liked nothing better than “to go to bed early with a Trollope.” SuperMac, as he was known, and not because of the size of his raincoat, was clearly a man who loved a good laugh, seeing he also came up with “You’ve never had it so good” (what he actually said was, “Most Britons have never had it so good”) and also organised something called the Night of the Long Knives (on Friday the Thirteenth, as it goes, 1962), sacking from Cabinet anyone who didn’t completely agree with him, about which another upcoming wit, young Liberal MP, Jeremy Thorpe, remarked that, “greater love hath no man than this, than to lay down his friends for his life.”

Anthony Trollope was born close to the present Birkbeck site, at 6 Keppel Street, to Thomas Anthony Trollope and Frances Milton. The father, like many another unwitting sire of greatness, decided to name no less than two of his sons after himself, possibly in the vain hope that he might achieve success vicariously, which was about the only way he ever would, seeing that, though he was an intelligent, well-educated man and a barrister, he was (quite literally) a miserable loser, being of an especially gloomy disposition and someone who blundered from one failure to the next almost effortlessly. Thanks to his notorious bad temper, his law practice dwindled into terminal decline as fewer and fewer clients were prepared to put up with his abuse; his radical (and entirely unqualified) shift into the world of farming also proved unsurprisingly unprofitable; and, just to put the proverbial tin lid on matters, an inheritance he had been banking on from an elderly and childless uncle went belly up when the dastardly fiend decided to get married and have children after all. Young Tony, rather like his contemporary, Dickens, found his childhood blighted to misery by a decline into hard times.

At the age of one, the infant Trollope was taken to a house called Julians near Harrow, ostensibly for farming reasons but actually so he could attend Harrow School as a free day pupil, beginning his attendance in 1822 as a dirty and badly dressed outcast, quickly attaining the status of class dunce, taking regular floggings and getting bullied into the bargain. In 1825, he was transferred to Arthur Drury’s private school at Sunbury, where he achieved yet more disgrace and notoriety, before finally following in his father’s footsteps by going to Winchester in 1827 to continue in much the same vein, with no money and no friends. To make matters slightly less bearable, his brother, Thomas, was already a prefect there and, as his tutor and a “student of Draco,” was happy to furnish him with a regime of daily beatings with a “big stick.” Finally, in 1830, it was back to Harrow once more in a cost-cutting exercise and to complete the most miserable education that even his already elaborately imaginative mind might possibly have come up with.

So far, then, he had achieved nothing in his education, had been bullied, disgraced and an outcast, and had even flirted with the idea of suicide. In terms of becoming a literary giant, almost the perfect credentials.

Meanwhile, his mother, unimpressed enough by 1827 with the father’s catalogue of disasters, had taken off for America with the three younger Trollope siblings, a bluestocking and a French painter, firstly to the Nashoba Commune (which failed) and then to set up a bazaar in Cincinnati (which failed horribly and precipitated the final ruin of the family), proving that anything he could do, she could do just as abysmally at too. At which the Trollopes fled to Bruges. To be fair to Frances, her income supported the entire tribe of them as, by 1832, she had taken up the pen and begun writing, novels mostly, though beginning with a number entitled Domestic Manners of the Americans. Which the Americans themselves didn’t care for one little bit.

In Belgium, Anthony was offered a commission in the Austrian cavalry but, instead, he took the next logical step towards a career in penmanship: he got a job with the Post Office. And, just as tradition demands, he was neither good at it nor at all conscientious, adding the other prerequisites of insubordination and unpunctuality while he was about it. Once again, as a budding author, he was ticking all the right boxes. Though he hated every minute, saying that, "the first seven years of my official life were neither creditable to myself nor useful to the public service." Faulkner himself would have recognised the potential and been proud of him. Except that Trollope did it all first. When a rather undesirable opportunity arose in Ireland (ironically, to replace someone incompetent), Trollope leapt at the chance of escape and his boss, William Maberly (longtime soldier and later to be parodied by Trollope as Sir Boreas Bodkin in Marion Fay), keen to be rid, didn’t stand in his way.

In Ireland, he did well, something of a blow to his literary aspirations, perhaps, though he did set the trend for writers by indulging in foxhunting, pursuing that pastime enthusiastically for the next three decades. There, at Kingstown, he met Rose Heseltine, “the daughter of a Rotherham bank manager,” (it says, meaning history recalls two things about her dad but nothing of her), though they could not marry until 1844, because of Trollope’s debts and “her lack of a fortune” (it also says). It was now that he started to write, setting himself the specific goals of producing a certain amount of work each day that he would later be so roundly criticised for, working from five until eight each morning and paying a servant £5 a year to wake him with a cup of coffee. Presumably first thing, while he was still in bed, rather than when he’d dozed off over the Vicar of Bullhampton. The main carp over this method of his was that it seemed focussed on quantity more than actual quality. He would spend half an hour correcting what he had written the day before and then would dip his pen, managing about a thousand words an hour and filling ten pages before ever setting off for the Post Office. And this every day, mind, week in week out. Loads of it.

By 1851, he was back in England, having taken the post of Surveyor General (and a cool £800 a year) and spent the next two years travelling around, mostly on horseback, a time he described as, "two of the happiest years of my life.” Posterity doesn’t record what his wife thought about his “happiest years” being in the saddle and far away from her. Nor, for that matter, does it tell of what the horse made of it, seeing that Trollope was a strapping big lad, after all (“For so large a man, he could sit a horse, if not with elegance at least with monumental certainty”). It was during these peregrinations that happened to find himself one day in Salisbury, a happy chance that would inspire the plot of the Warden, for which he would receive, in the first year of its publication a princely £9 8s. 8d. (almost a tenner) and, in the second, a further £10 15s. 1d. Undeterred, he plunged straight into Barchester Towers, which did equally as well, and then the Three Clerks: rather than wait for the money to come trickling in this time, he sold it for a lump sum of £250.

Early spring of 1852 and our man finds himself being sent to the Channel Islands to find out what the problem is there with the post. Which turns out to be the irregular sailings of the mailboats (thanks to choppy seas and all that), so Trollope comes up with the solution of having an octagonal box in the shape of a pillar (a “pillar box”), an idea he almost certainly nicked off the French when he saw their version whilst in Paris. How this solves the rough seas situation is never adequately explained, though it writes Trollope down as the Man Who Invented the Pillar Box: slightly better, though only just, than being the Man Who Pinched the Idea. Trollope decided to paint his olive green, so they’d be unobtrusive, which certainly worked, seeing people kept walking straight into them, though it wasn’t until as late as 1874 (the Post Office: just as speedy then as today) that they got round to painting them red and, even then, it took another ten years to do the whole lot.

The big literary break finally comes in 1859, when the Cornhill Magazine appears, edited by William Makepeace Thackeray (who couldn’t have been as miserable or as snooty as he looked) and Trollope decides he wants a slice of the action, extending his services as a penman, for which he is offered a towering £1,000 if he can come up with a novel to be serialised. The catch being that it has to be ready in six weeks. No bother, thinks Trollope, and he comes up with Framley Parsonage, thereby shortcutting the entire process by reusing the characters from Barchester Towers and creating yet more from the same wood. It is an enormous success, securing his reputation.

Miffed by being passed over for promotion in 1864, Anthony flounces out of the Post Office in high dudgeon, though not until 1867 when he’s saved up enough cash to cover the pension he will lose by leaving before he is sixty. Instead of going writing full-blast, however, he decides to have a crack at politics by standing for election as an MP in Beverley, this being a longstanding dream of his. The outcome perhaps wasn’t, though, as he spent £400 on his campaign, which he described as "the most wretched fortnight of my manhood" (he meant his adult life, of course – nothing unseemly about Trollope) and, of the four candidates standing, he came fourth. Parliament’s loss was literature’s gain because in 1871 he headed off to Australia to see his sheepfarming son. On the way out, he wrote Lady Anna; on the way back, Australia and New Zealand, in which he calls the Australians “braggarts.” The Australians don’t care for this one little bit and never forgive him, though it does keep up the family tradition, started by his mother, of visiting the colonies and then insulting the natives. Undaunted, Anthony has the nerve to go back there in 1875, to keep up another family tradition - helping close down the son’s failed farming enterprise. The Australians still hadn’t forgiven him.

“His voice was bass and resonant.... His laugh was, at its healthiest, a bellow.” At Garland’s Hotel, Pall Mall, on 3 November 1882, whilst laughing at a family reading of F. Anstey's Vice Versa, he was struck down by a paralytic stroke, dying on 6 December. Which is about as close as you will ever get to the old saying, “You’ll die laughing.” In the end, Trollope, who unashamedly wrote for money and said of inspiration, “it would not be more absurd if the shoemaker were to wait for inspiration,” really did have the last laugh.

"Harold Macmillan number 10 official" by Vivienne (Florence Mellish Entwistle) (Active 1940, died 1982) - Via Wikimedia Commons -

"Picture of Anthony Trollope" by Napoleon Sarony - The New York Public Library: Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

"Orley Farm frontispiece illustration" by John Everett Millais - Internet Archive. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

"Victorian post box Guernsey" by Man vyi - Own work. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

"William Makepeace Thackeray by Jesse Harrison Whitehurst-crop" by Jesse Harrison Whitehurst (1819-1875), scanned by BPL - William Makepeace ThackerayUploaded by Trycatch. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

"Anthony Trollope Vanity Fair 5 April 1873" by Leslie Ward - Published in Vanity Fair, 5 April 1873.Downloaded from Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - 

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