More on the Trollope/Dickens affair, or, why I’m more dubious than ever about biography

In the interests of following up on my entirely non-rhetorical question about what Trollope meant to Dickens, I’ve been doing a little reading. I’ve consulted Victoria Glendinning’s 1992 biography Anthony Trollope and ended up with a little bit of new information and a whole lot of new frustration. I’ll explain the latter shortly. But here’s what she had to say about the two great authors’ relationship to one another; the gist of these three snippets seems to be that Trollope both kind of liked Dickens and kind of didn’t:

In 1867, Trollope worked at setting up a pension for the widow of one Robert Bell, a fellow author and editor. Wilkie Collins and Dickens supported the effort:

‘Poor Bell worked hard at letters for over 50 years,’ Anthony wrote to Wilkie Collins, asking him to sign a ‘memorial’, a petition for a pension for Bell’s widow, to be presented to Lord Derby the Prime Minister. Charles Dickens signed as well, writing to Anthony: ‘I had heard with much satisfaction that poor Mrs. Bell had found a friend in you, for I knew she could have no stauncher or truer friend.’ (343)

Nice and cordial, what? Trollope makes friendly in return a year or so later when they bumped into each other in the US. Dickens was on a reading tour, Trollope was negotiating copyright issues for the Post Office; it’s summer, 1868:

When his ship reached New York, Charles Dickens was in the harbor on board another one, about to sail home after his reading tour. Anthony got himself carried between the two ships on a mail tender just to say hello to Dickens: ‘It was most heartily done,’ wrote Dickens to Tom Trollope. ‘He is a perfect cordial to me, whenever and wherever I see him, as the heartiest and best of fellows.’ (373)

This is 11 years after Trollope’s skewering of poor Dickens in The Warden and Barchester Towers; it seems likely, given Trollope’s success by this point, that Dickens knew of those satirical moments. Maybe narrative satire didn’t have much to do with personal relationships for these two. I like to imagine that they were both rivals and friendly, but Glendinning anyway doesn’t provide enough information to make that anything but an unproven hypothesis. All we know for sure: the two men had some friendly exchanges.

And then there’s this snippet from a letter Trollope wrote to George Eliot and G.H. Lewes in 1872, two years after Dickens’s death:

‘Dickens was no hero; he was a powerful, clever, humorous, and, in many respects, wise man; — very ignorant, and thick-skinned, who had taught himself to be his own God, and to believe himself to be a sufficient God for all who came near him; — not a hero at all.’ But then, Anthony knew about Ellen. (405)

FYI: Ellen Ternan was the 18-year-old actress Dickens met when he was 45 and for whom he left his wife of 22 years. Trollope’s brother, Tom, was married to Ternan’s sister, Fanny.

I hate how lazy and gossipy her brief commentary on this letter is. Nothing in the passage suggests it would make sense to draw such a conclusion; nothing in the text following this supports it either. Given how much research she apparently did on Trollope, you’d think she’d have some other idea, such as: Trollope was able to hold simultaneously complimentary and uncomplimentary views of people. His analyses of his contemporary authors in his Autobiography seem to embody this, in fact; for example, he appears to have had a friendly relationship with Eliot and Lewes but that didn’t stop him from criticizing Eliot’s writing style!

Trollope didn’t feel the need to hold back on his own apparent contradictions. He made fun of Dickens in print and was nice to him in public. Why? Maybe Trollope liked to vent his real feelings in print and was an ass-kiss in person. Or maybe he was taking on a particular narrative identity and expressing his real feelings in person. Or maybe Dickens was just not an entirely pleasant person and Trollope didn’t feel it necessary to pretend he thought he was, even after the former’s death. Without a suggestion of motive, it seems to me totally irresponsible for Glendinning to drop that snarky opinion like it’s fact.

I honestly don’t know what irritates me more here–the laziness or the textual approximation of rumour-mongering. Neither belong in a work that one wants to be taken at all seriously. When I found this passage with the help of the trusty index, I decided I wouldn’t actually read Glendinning’s book in its entirety as I had planned. But I retreated from this resolution in the interests of fairness and read the introduction in the hopes of finding something that would either suggest this was simply one unfortunate lapse, or that everything else about the book would compensate for it. No. No. Not only am I not reading this book, I will never even consider any of Victoria Glendinning’s books again. Two things:

First. As she was completing her research for Anthony Trollope, Glendinning discovered that several others were working on biographies of the man at the same time.

It may well be imagined…that my confidence was shaken as news of the threefold wave of new Trollope biographies broke over me. But my book turned out to be unlike the others. Sex, or at any rate gender, may account for the difference. Women critics have written about Trollope’s work, but no woman had written his biography. (xviii)

Alright. I understand that would be exceedingly frustrating. I also understand, having worked on women’s writing myself, that in the 90s, the mere fact of a woman writing was understood to make her work worthy of critical attention. (You may think I’m being hyperbolic, but I invite you to read some gender criticism about Renaissance literature from the early to mid-90s; you’ll see how terribly neutral I’m being.)

But you know what? It’s still disturbing. That anyone has ever believed that women have an inherently different perspective than men, and that even if they do (which I deny) such a perspective isn’t inflected in complicated ways by race, age, education, class, etc makes me want to scream. But really–imagining that women have an essentially different from men’s but homogenous (across all other differences) viewpoint and way of thinking is the basis of so much misogynist behaviour and policy both past and present that when people wave that flag without reflection, I want to go and punch them dead in the face. Am I crazy? Is it wrong to think that being seen, as seeing both myself and all other women, as nothing less than individuals is simply respectful? Being faced with similar challenges as women doesn’t make all women the same. Dammit!

Also, “woman” and “women” are fucking well not adjectives!

Second, and much worse, is her dramatic conclusion to the introduction:

Some of Trollope’s attitudes, though conventional in his time, are to the modern mind quite outrageous. But do not for that reason hurl this book across the room. Through understanding the complex social and psychological forces that made a man like Trollope what he was, we can better analyse the historical process which has produced our own society, with all its conflicts, paradoxes and hypocrisies. Everything has changed and nothing has changed. Without some insight into other mentalities and into the historical process, we operate in a sterile vacuum. Rebecca West once said that to understand is not to forgive, it is simply to understand. It’s not an end but a beginning. Knowledge is power. (xxiii)

If this were an undergraduate essay, I would give it a B- at best. My comments might look something like this, if I’d just read a pile of other bad essays:

Dear Victoria,

Your piece shows a strong grasp of grammatical principles and is not without argumentative unity. However, your use of multiple clichés to stand in for thoughtful exposition (“Everything has changed…”, “not an end”, “Knowledge is power”) greatly diminishes any force this writing might have had. What is the significance of everything being both somehow the same in 1992 as it was in the mid- to late 1800s? Do you mean, literally, everything? If so, how are you going to address this? How does Anthony Trollope in particular help explain or represent this paradox? But doesn’t this claim actually contradict your differentiation in the first sentence between the “modern mind” and his apparently “outrageous” ideas? What are you trying to establish by invoking West’s notion of understanding and non-forgiveness? Where is your citation of this West reference? Is setting Trollope up as someone perhaps in need of the forgiveness of modern readers so impatient that they might be tempted to toss your book away, hinting at undue bias towards your subject matter, i.e. Anthony Trollope, about whom one might expect you to at least attempt the appearance of neutrality? A beginning of what? How is knowledge power? What kind of power? How should that power be used? How precisely is knowledge about the details of the life of one novelist to be perceived and used as such? Giving yourself more time for editing, re-writing, and re-shaping your work will ensure you don’t simply fill up space with unsupported personal biases and empty clichés.

Now, the fault in this horrid paragraph is at least partly that of Glendinning’s editor. Any editor who had any self-respect would not have allowed this to go to print. A good editor would have sent it back with gentle perhaps, but absolutely firm, instructions on the non-use of the overused phraseology of the slouching and unimaginative.

Now, rant over. It is likely not going to come as a surprise that Glendinning’s book didn’t satisfy my curiosity about Trollope and Dickens’s relationship. I’ve got Claire Tomalin’s new bio of Dickens on hold at the library but there are 135 people ahead of me so it’ll be a little while. In the meantime…I won’t be reading any biography.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. trapunto says:

    You’re not crazy. It gets my goat too.

    Your post came up while I was in the middle of The Warden, which had been on my reading list thanks to you. If I’d known how good it would be I’d have got to it sooner! (I was scarred by trying to plough through Vanity Fair when I was 13, and somehow muddled Thackeray up with Trollope, and then never paid more attention to either–just stayed away from all the 19th century T’s to be safe.)

    With the Warden fresh in my mind, I can completely believe Trollope might hold multifaceted or even contradictory views of people, even though my jaw dropped at the Dickens skewering–so mean, and yet so kinda meanly true.

    1. Colleen says:

      Oh I’m so glad you like The Warden so much! The next in the series, Barchester Towers, is even better. I’m so looking forward to book three, Doctor Thorne.

      I urge you to, someday, give Vanity Fair another shot. I read it last year, and it was really excellent. But first, loll about in Thackeray with me. 🙂

      And yes, what he says about Dickens is kinda meanly true…I still love Dickens though.

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