Trollope's literary reputation dipped somewhat during the last years of his life, but he had regained the esteem of critics by the mid-20th century.
Thomas Anthony Trollope, Anthony's father, was a barrister. Though a clever and well-educated man and a Fellow of New College, Oxford, he failed at the bar due to his bad temper. In addition, his ventures into farming proved unprofitable, and he lost an expected inheritance when an elderly childless uncle remarried and had children. As a son of landed gentry, he wanted his sons to be raised as gentlemen and to attend Oxford or Cambridge. Anthony Trollope suffered much misery in his boyhood owing to the disparity between the privileged background of his parents and their comparatively small means.
Born in London, Anthony attended Harrow School as a free day pupil for three years from the age of seven because his father's farm, acquired for that reason, lay in that neighbourhood. After a spell at a private school at Sunbury, he followed his father and two older brothers to Winchester College, where he remained for three years. He returned to Harrow as a day-boy to reduce the cost of his education. Trollope had some very miserable experiences at these two public schools. They ranked as two of the most élite schools in England, but Trollope had no money and no friends, and was bullied a great deal. At the age of twelve, he fantasised about suicide. However, he also daydreamed, constructing elaborate imaginary worlds.
In 1827, his mother Frances Trollope moved to America with Trollope's three younger siblings, to Nashoba Commune. After that failed, she opened a bazaar in Cincinnati, which proved unsuccessful. Thomas Trollope joined them for a short time before returning to the farm at Harrow, but Anthony stayed in England throughout. His mother returned in 1831 and rapidly made a name for herself as a writer, soon earning a good income. His father's affairs, however, went from bad to worse. He gave up his legal practice entirely and failed to make enough income from farming to pay rents to his landlord, Lord Northwick. In 1834, he fled to Belgium to avoid arrest for debt. The whole family moved to a house near Bruges, where they lived entirely on Frances's earnings.
In Belgium, Anthony was offered a commission in an Austrian cavalry regiment. To accept it, he needed to learn French and German; he had a year in which to acquire these languages. To learn them without expense to himself and his family, he took a position as an usher (assistant master) in a school in Brussels, which position made him the tutor of thirty boys. After six weeks of this, however, he received an offer of a clerkship in the General Post Office, obtained through a family friend. He returned to London in the autumn of 1834 to take up this post. Thomas Trollope died the following year.
According to Trollope, "the first seven years of my official life were neither creditable to myself nor useful to the public service." At the Post Office, he acquired a reputation for unpunctuality and insubordination. A debt of £12 to a tailor fell into the hands of a moneylender and grew to over £200; the lender regularly visited Trollope at his work to demand payments. Trollope hated his work, but saw no alternative and lived in constant fear of dismissal.
In 1841, an opportunity to escape offered itself. A postal surveyor's clerk in central Ireland was reported as being incompetent and in need of replacement. The position was not regarded as a desirable one at all; but Trollope, in debt and in trouble at his office, volunteered for it; and his supervisor, William Maberly, eager to be rid of him, appointed him to the position.
Trollope based himself in Banagher, King's County, with his work consisting largely of inspection tours in Connaught. Although he had arrived with a bad reference from London, his new supervisor resolved to judge him on his merits; by Trollope's account, within a year he had the reputation of a valuable public servant. His salary and travel allowance went much further in Ireland than they had in London, and he found himself enjoying a measure of prosperity. He took up fox hunting, which he pursued enthusiastically for the next three decades. His professional role as a post-office surveyor brought him into contact with Irish people, and he found them pleasant company: "The Irish people did not murder me, nor did they even break my head. I soon found them to be good-humoured, clever—the working classes very much more intelligent than those of England—economical and hospitable."
At the watering place of Kingstown, Trollope met Rose Heseltine, the daughter of a Rotherham bank manager. They became engaged when he had been in Ireland for a year; because of Trollope's debts and her lack of a fortune, they were unable to marry until 1844. Soon after their marriage, Trollope transferred to another postal district in the south of Ireland, and the family moved to Clonmel.
Though Trollope had decided to become a novelist, he had accomplished very little writing during his first three years in Ireland. At the time of his marriage, he had only written the first of three volumes of his first novel, The Macdermots of Ballycloran. Within a year of his marriage, he finished that work.
Trollope began writing on the numerous long train trips around Ireland he had to take to carry out his postal duties. Setting very firm goals about how much he would write each day, he eventually became one of the most prolific writers of all time. He wrote his earliest novels while working as a Post Office inspector, occasionally dipping into the "lost-letter" box for ideas.
Significantly, many of his earliest novels have Ireland as their setting—natural enough given his background, but unlikely to enjoy warm critical reception, given the contemporary English attitude towards Ireland. Critics have pointed out that Trollope's view of Ireland separates him from many of the other Victorian novelists. Some critics claim that Ireland did not influence Trollope as much as his experience in England, and that the society in Ireland harmed him as a writer, especially since Ireland was experiencing the Great Famine during his time there. Such critics were dismissed as holding bigoted opinions against Ireland and failing to recognise Trollope's true attachment to the country.
Trollope wrote four novels about Ireland. Two were written during the Great Famine, while the third deals with the famine as a theme (The Macdermots of Ballycloran, The Kellys and the O'Kellys, and Castle Richmond, respectively). The Macdermots of Ballycloran was written while he was staying in the village of Drumsna, County Leitrim. The Kellys and the O'Kellys (1848) is a humorous comparison of the romantic pursuits of the landed gentry (Francis O'Kelly, Lord Ballindine) and his Catholic tenant (Martin Kelly). Two short stories deal with Ireland ("The O'Conors of Castle Conor, County Mayo" and "Father Giles of Ballymoy"). Some critics argue that these works seek to unify an Irish and British identity, instead of viewing the two as distinct. Even as an Englishman in Ireland, Trollope was still able to attain what he saw as essential to being an "Irish writer": possessed, obsessed, and "mauled" by Ireland.
The reception of the Irish works left much to be desired. Henry Colburn wrote to Trollope, "It is evident that readers do not like novels on Irish subjects as well as on others." In particular, magazines such as The New Monthly Magazine, which included reviews that attacked the Irish for their actions during the famine, were representative of the dismissal by English readers of any work written about the Irish.
Success as an author
In 1851, Trollope was sent to England, charged with investigating and reorganising rural mail delivery in south-western England and south Wales. The two-year mission took him over much of Great Britain, often on horseback. Trollope describes this time as "two of the happiest years of my life".
In the course of it, he visited Salisbury Cathedral; and there, according to his autobiography, he conceived the plot of The Warden, which became the first of the six Barsetshire novels. His postal work delayed the beginning of writing for a year; the novel was published in 1855, in an edition of 1000 copies, with Trollope receiving half of the profits: £9 8s. 8d. in 1855, and £10 15s. 1d. in 1856. Although the profits were not large, the book received notices in the press, and brought Trollope to the attention of the novel-reading public.
He immediately began work on Barchester Towers, the second Barsetshire novel; upon its publication in 1857, he received an advance payment of £100 (about £9,100 in 2016 consumer pounds) against his share of the profits. Like The Warden, Barchester Towers did not obtain large sales, but it helped to establish Trollope's reputation. In his autobiography, Trollope writes, "It achieved no great reputation, but it was one of the novels which novel readers were called upon to read." For the following novel, The Three Clerks, he was able to sell the copyright for a lump sum of £250; he preferred this to waiting for a share of future profits.
Although Trollope had been happy and comfortable in Ireland, he felt that as an author, he should live within easy reach of London. In 1859, he sought and obtained a position in the Post Office as Surveyor to the Eastern District, comprising Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, and most of Hertfordshire. Later in that year he moved to Waltham Cross, about 12 miles (19 km) from London in Hertfordshire, where he lived until 1871.
In late 1859, Trollope learned of preparations for the release of the Cornhill Magazine, to be published by George Murray Smith and edited by William Makepeace Thackeray. He wrote to the latter, offering to provide short stories for the new magazine. Thackeray and Smith both responded: the former urging Trollope to contribute, the latter offering £1000 for a novel, provided that a substantial part of it could be available to the printer within six weeks. Trollope offered Smith Castle Richmond, which he was then writing; but Smith declined to accept an Irish story, and suggested a novel dealing with English clerical life as had Barchester Towers. Trollope then devised the plot of Framley Parsonage, setting it near Barchester so that he could make use of characters from the Barsetshire novels.
Framley Parsonage proved enormously popular, establishing Trollope's reputation with the novel-reading public and amply justifying the high price that Smith had paid for it. The early connection to Cornhill also brought Trollope into the London circle of artists, writers, and intellectuals, not least among whom were Smith and Thackeray.
By the mid-1860s, Trollope had reached a fairly senior position within the Post Office hierarchy, despite ongoing differences with Rowland Hill, who was at that time Chief Secretary to the Postmaster General. Postal history credits Trollope with introducing the pillar box (the ubiquitous mail-box) in the United Kingdom. He was earning a substantial income from his novels. He had overcome the awkwardness of his youth, made good friends in literary circles, and hunted enthusiastically.
When Hill left the Post Office in 1864, Trollope's brother-in-law, John Tilley, who was then Under-Secretary to the Postmaster General, was appointed to the vacant position. Trollope applied for Tilley's old post, but was passed over in favour of a subordinate, Frank Ives Scudamore. In the autumn of 1867, he resigned his position at the Post Office, having by that time saved enough to generate an income equal to the pension he would lose by leaving before the age of 60.
Trollope had long dreamt of taking a seat in the House of Commons. As a civil servant, however, he was ineligible for such a position. His resignation from the Post Office removed this disability, and he almost immediately began seeking a seat for which he might stand. In 1868, he agreed to stand as a Liberal candidate in the borough of Beverley, in the East Riding of Yorkshire.
Party leaders apparently took advantage of Trollope's eagerness to stand, and of his willingness to spend money on a campaign. Beverley had a long history of vote-buying and of intimidation by employers and others. Every election since 1857 had been followed by a petition alleging corruption, and it was estimated that 300 of the 1100 voters in 1868 would sell their votes. The task of a Liberal candidate was not to win the election, but to give the Conservative candidates an opportunity to display overt corruption, which could then be used to disqualify them.
Trollope described his period of campaigning in Beverley as "the most wretched fortnight of my manhood". He spent a total of £400 on his campaign. The election was held on 17 November 1868; the novelist finished last of four candidates, with the victory going to the two Conservatives. A petition was filed, and a Royal Commission investigated the circumstances of the election; its findings of extensive and widespread corruption drew nationwide attention, and led to the disfranchisement of the borough in 1870. The fictional Percycross election in Ralph the Heir is closely based on the Beverley campaign.
After the defeat at Beverley, Trollope concentrated entirely on his literary career. While continuing to produce novels rapidly, he also edited the St Paul's Magazine, which published several of his novels in serial form.
In 1871, Trollope made his first trip to Australia, arriving in Melbourne in July, with his wife and their cook. The trip was made to visit their younger son, Frederic, who was a sheep farmer near Grenfell, New South Wales. He wrote his novel Lady Anna during the voyage. In Australia, he spent a year and two days "descending mines, mixing with shearers and rouseabouts, riding his horse into the loneliness of the bush, touring lunatic asylums, and exploring coast and plain by steamer and stagecoach". Despite this, the Australian press was uneasy, fearing he would misrepresent Australia in his writings. This fear was based on rather negative writings about America by his mother, Fanny, and by Charles Dickens. On his return, Trollope published a book, Australia and New Zealand (1873). It contained both positive and negative comments. On the positive side, it found a comparative absence of class consciousness, and praised aspects of Perth, Melbourne, Hobart and Sydney. However, he was negative about Adelaide's river, the towns of Bendigo and Ballarat, and the Aboriginal people. What most angered the Australian papers, though, were his comments "accusing Australians of being braggarts".
Trollope returned to Australia in 1875 to help his son close down his failed farming business. He found that the resentment created by his accusations of bragging remained. Even when he died in 1882, Australian papers still "smouldered", referring yet again to these accusations, and refusing to fully praise or recognise his achievements.
In 1880, Trollope moved to the village of South Harting in West Sussex. He spent some time in Ireland in the early 1880s researching his last, unfinished, novel, The Landleaguers. It is said that he was extremely distressed by the violence of the Land War.
Trollope died in Marylebone, London in 1882 and is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery, near the grave of his contemporary, Wilkie Collins.
Trollope's first major success came with The Warden (1855)—the first of six novels set in the fictional county of "Barsetshire" (often collectively referred to as the Chronicles of Barsetshire), dealing primarily with the clergy and landed gentry. Barchester Towers (1857) has probably become the best-known of these. Trollope's other major series, the Palliser novels, which overlap with the Barsetshire novels, concerned itself with politics, with the wealthy, industrious Plantagenet Palliser (later Duke of Omnium) and his delightfully spontaneous, even richer wife Lady Glencora featured prominently, though, as with the Barsetshire series, many other well-developed characters populated each novel and in one, The Eustace Diamonds, the Pallisers play only a small role.
Trollope's popularity and critical success diminished in his later years, but he continued to write prolifically, and some of his later novels have acquired a good reputation. In particular, critics who concur that the book was not popular when published, generally acknowledge the sweeping satire The Way We Live Now (1875) as his masterpiece. In all, Trollope wrote forty-seven novels, as well as dozens of short stories and a few books on travel.
After his death, Trollope's Autobiography appeared and was a best-seller in London. Trollope's downfall in the eyes of the critics stemmed largely from this volume. Even during his writing career, reviewers tended increasingly to shake their heads over his prodigious output, but when Trollope revealed that he strictly adhered to a daily writing quota, he confirmed his critics' worst fears. The Muse, in their view, might prove immensely prolific, but she would never ever follow a schedule. Furthermore, Trollope admitted that he wrote for money; at the same time he called the disdain of money false and foolish. The Muse, claimed the critics, should not be aware of money.
Julian Hawthorne, an American writer, critic and friend of Trollope, while praising him as a man, calling him "a credit to England and to human nature, and ...[deserving] to be numbered among the darlings of mankind", also says that "he has done great harm to English fictitious literature by his novels".
Henry James also expressed mixed opinions of Trollope. The young James wrote some scathing reviews of Trollope's novels (The Belton Estate, for instance, he called "a stupid book, without a single thought or idea in it ... a sort of mental pabulum"). He also made it clear that he disliked Trollope's narrative method; Trollope's cheerful interpolations into his novels about how his storylines could take any twist their author wanted did not appeal to James's sense of artistic integrity. However, James thoroughly appreciated Trollope's attention to realistic detail, as he wrote in an essay shortly after the novelist's death:
His [Trollope's] great, his inestimable merit was a complete appreciation of the usual. ... [H]e felt all daily and immediate things as well as saw them; felt them in a simple, direct, salubrious way, with their sadness, their gladness, their charm, their comicality, all their obvious and measurable meanings. ... 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. ... A race is fortunate when it has a good deal of the sort of imagination—of imaginative feeling—that had fallen to the share of Anthony Trollope; and in this possession our English race is not poor.
Writers such as William Thackeray, George Eliot and Wilkie Collins admired and befriended Trollope, and Eliot noted that she could not have embarked on so ambitious a project as Middlemarch without the precedent set by Trollope in his own novels of the fictional—yet thoroughly alive—county of Barsetshire. Other contemporaries of Trollope praised his understanding of the quotidian world of institutions, official life, and daily business; he is one of the few novelists who find the office a creative environment. W. H. Auden wrote of Trollope as follows: "Of all novelists in any country, Trollope best understands the role of money. Compared with him, even Balzac is too romantic."
As trends in the world of the novel moved increasingly towards subjectivity and artistic experimentation, Trollope's standing with critics suffered. But Lord David Cecil noted in 1934 that "Trollope is still very much alive... and among fastidious readers." He noted that Trollope was "conspicuously free from the most characteristic Victorian faults". In the 1940s, Trollopians made further attempts to resurrect his reputation; he enjoyed a critical renaissance in the 1960s, and again in the 1990s. Some critics today have a particular interest in Trollope's portrayal of women—he caused remark even in his own day for his deep insight and sensitivity to the inner conflicts caused by the position of women in Victorian society.
Recently, interest in Trollope has increased. A Trollope Society flourishes in the United Kingdom, as does its sister society in the United States. In 2011, the University of Kansas' Department of English, in collaboration with the Hall Center for the Humanities and in partnership with The Fortnightly Review, began awarding an annual Trollope Prize. The Prize was established to focus attention on Trollope's work and career.
Notable fans have included Alec Guinness, who never travelled without a Trollope novel; the former British Prime Ministers Harold Macmillan and John Major; the first Canadian Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald; the economist John Kenneth Galbraith; the English judge Lord Denning; the American novelists Sue Grafton, Dominick Dunne and Timothy Hallinan; the poet Edward Fitzgerald; the artist Edward Gorey, who kept a complete set of his books; the American author Robert Caro; the playwright David Mamet and the soap opera writer Harding Lemay."The Irish Church," Fortnightly Review, Vol. II, 1865, pp. 82–90.
"Public Schools," Fortnightly Review, Vol. II, 1865, pp. 476–87.
"The Civil Service," Fortnightly Review, Vol. II, 1865, pp. 613–26.
The Letters of Anthony Trollope, ed. by B. A. Booth (1951)
The Letters of Anthony Trollope, ed. by N. John Hall (1983)