We’ve discussed Victorian author Anthony Trollope on this blog a number of times before. He is (in)famous here for writing the most dithering, pointless books I’ve ever had the misfortune to read. I’ve summed up his Can You Forgive Her, Barchester Towers, and Phineas Finn, all of which made the rage-haze descend.
Then I discovered a couple more stories about him in Kate Thomas’s Postal Pleasures: Sex, Scandal, and Victorian Letters (2012) that only reaffirm my dislike. I know I’ve been quoting Thomas for a great number of entries now, but this is the last one, I swear.
“[I]f there’s something Trollope admired, and to which he turned himself, it was speed. [Not amphetamines, in case that wasn’t clear]
“Trollope developed stratagems of efficiency and speed for literary production. He realized that if he traveled by rail instead of by horse, he could use the hours on a train to write, and he had a writing tablet designed that fundcitoned as a portable desk for railway carriage production. In later years, he applied the same principle to ocean travel and had carpenters fit writing desks in his cabins.
“Not only did he write while traveling, but he also (in)famously wrote to a strict quota, timing his production in tandem with the travel. Many reviled Trollope for such ‘mechanical processes’ [a phrase used by Henry James in his 1888 biographical work on Anthony Trollope], but Trollope himself reveled in what he called his ‘mechanical genius’ […] and the idea that he transcribed and delivered industriously, rather than authored through inspiration.
“In his Autobiography, published posthumously in 1883, Trollope merrily described how he would allot himself not only a word quota for each work session, but also a precise word quota for each novel that he would neither under-, nor overshoot. Brushing aside critiques that his methods, which he calls ‘appliances,’ are ‘beneath the notice of a man of genius’ […], he rejects the very term ‘genius’ and advises young men who want to be authors ‘to seat themselves at their desks day by day as though they were lawyers’ clerks; — and so let them sit until the allotted task shall be accomplished‘” (76).
Of course, there have been hundreds of authors, ‘genius’ and otherwise, who agree with Trollope’s discipline: writers write. It’s a job. They have to do it every day. Joyce Carol Oates and Truman Capote are just two authors off the top of my head who had/have highly regulated writing schedules.
However, I remember hearing at a conference once that Henry James actually accompanied Trollope on one of his transatlantic sea voyages and was absolutely disgusted with how perfunctory Trollope was in his creation of literature. There was seemingly no joy in it: he could nail down his passages to the exact word count he wanted, and then just stop. He could write until his ‘shift’ was over, and then stop mid-sentence and just walk away. Writing didn’t seem to be something he loved, but merely something he was good at.
It was like manufacturing parts in a factory. Except it was great literature.
Another story about Trollope in Thomas’s book just warms my heart-cockles. Trollope was undeniably a huge celebrity. And yet there were other celebrities who had never heard of him. It’s like when you hear about some diva movie star being refused entry to a club, and him or her shouting, “DON’T YOU KNOW WHO I AM?!?!?!” And the bouncer goes, “. . . nope.”
“Trollope was given the brush-off by the most famous of polygamists when returning from an 1872 trip to Australia that he’d made in order to see his son. He returned via America and attempted to see Brigham Young:
“‘I came home across America from San Francisco to New York, visiting Utah and Brigham Young on the way. I did not achieve great intimacy with the great polygamist of the Salt Lake City’.
“Young had kept Trollope in the doorway, refused to invite him in, and clearly had no idea who Trollope was [….] It is a charmingly queer joke: the author of plots about infidelity is curious to meet the great father of polygamous living, but Trollope’s own (embarrassing) obscurity prevents him enjoying ‘intimacy’ with him” (p. 86, footnote 31).