In July 1883, eight months after Anthony Trollope’s death, Henry James wrote a long, appreciative, although not uncritical, essay about him. Recalling their meeting on a trans-Atlantic voyage in 1875, when Trollope shut himself up in his cabin every morning to write, James went on to evaluate the work of one of England’s pre-eminent and most prolific novelists. Trollope, he judged, was not on a level with Dickens, Thackeray or George Eliot, but he was “in the same family.” “If he was in any degree a man of genius (and I hold that he was), it was in virtue of this happy, instinctive perception of human varieties.” His great merit was his appreciation of reality and of the behavior of men and women. James concluded (with his typical qualifying note): “Trollope will remain one of the most trustworthy, though not one of the most eloquent, of the writers who have helped the heart of man to know itself.”
Three months later, Trollope’s “Autobiography” (which he had been writing on that memorable voyage) was published, eliciting quite a different response from James. It was, he told a friend, “one of the most curious and amazing books in all literature, for its density, blockishness and general thickness and soddenness.” James was echoing a charge that other critics were beginning to make, that Trollope wrote too much, too quickly, about too many subjects—and for money—to be taken seriously as a novelist.
The “Autobiography” has just been republished in a compact edition by Oxford University Press that includes a small selection of Trollope’s other writings about novelists. It is indeed a curious book, although not in James’s derogatory sense. Many autobiographers make a show of modesty, but Trollope did so more than most, shying away from even dignifying his book as an autobiography. “In writing these pages, which, for want of a better name, I shall be fain to call the autobiography of so insignificant a person as myself, it will not be so much my intention to speak of the little details of my private life, as of what I, and perhaps others round me, have done in literature.”
His opening chapter is replete with the agonizing events of his childhood—a Dickensian saga of the thrashings, cruelties and indignities he suffered at two of England’s famed “public” (which is to say, private) schools, Harrow and Winchester. He was taught nothing and learned nothing, he said, except Latin and Greek. Nor was life at home much better. His mother had left for America when he was 12, with one of his brothers and his two sisters, leaving him alone with his ill-tempered father, a failed barrister. Her return three years later made for somewhat happier days, partly because the earnings from her books (most notably “The Domestic Manners of the Americans” in 1832) contributed much needed funds to the family income. That respite was brief, however. After a little more than two years, financial disaster obliged first the father and then the whole family to flee England and take refuge in Brussels.