English Delight: Sad Life and Sparky Fiction from the Man Who Made the Mail

By Billen, Andrew | New Statesman (1996), May 10, 2004 | Go to article overview

English Delight: Sad Life and Sparky Fiction from the Man Who Made the Mail


Billen, Andrew, New Statesman (1996)


The Two Loves of Anthony Trollope (BBC1)

Trollope family legend has it that the great novelist died laughing. This, The Two Loves of Anthony Trollope (7pm, 2 May) discreetly pointed out, was an exaggeration. He died a month after suffering a fatal stroke. It was true, however, that the last sound that issued from his beard-infested mouth was a laugh. His niece had been reading to him from a comic novel and, as she reached the end of a passage, there came from her uncle a huge laugh, and then silence.

The documentary, shown to whet the appetite for the third leg of the channel's spirited four-part adaptation of He Knew He Was Right, was infected by the drama's tone, and seemed to agree that Trollope's death, like his life, was a laughing matter. Narrated between ornate inverted commas by Stephen Fry, it seemed wholly unable, despite super-serious contributions of lady scholars from the Trollope Society, to take its subject seriously.

Laughter point number one was that he had held down a real job. Given the current amateurish state of the Royal Mail as revealed in Dispatches: third-class post (29 April, Channel 4), you would have thought a bit of respect might have been due the man who invented the reliable British pillar box. Instead, the programme gave the distinct impression that it was a bit below the salt for a major literary figure to earn a living as a civil servant.

Giggle two was that he treated his writing as a near-industrial process. Believing in "the virtue of the early hours", he began work at 6am and for the next three hours would produce 250 words every 15 minutes. To extend productivity, he designed for himself a portable writing desk, which he would plonk on his knees during his daily commute to town. Joke three was, naturally, his big fuzzy beard, a false version of which was applied to Clive Merrison's chops for his impersonations in the dramatised scenes. This, however, was surpassed by the joke-of-jokes that was Trollope's blameless love life.

When he was 29, he married Rose, a devoted wife in the Victorian mode who cooked, proofread and sublimated herself. The highest praise she received from third parties was for her "honest and hearty appreciation of her husband". Aged 45, however, with two teenaged sons, he fell in love with a vivacious 22-year-old Bostonian named Kate Field. Torn between a wife in whom beauty had faded and Kate, whose feminism challenged him almost as much as did her allure, he did what a good Victorian man should and wrote her slightly overfamiliar letters, while keeping his hands to himself. I fear that if only he had done as modern novelists do, and dumped the missus, the documentary would have taken him a bit more seriously.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

A surfeit of people behaving reasonably accounted for the dangerous facetiousness of the early stages of Andrew Davies's adaptation of He Knew He Was Right, the novel Trollope published to general non-acclaim in 1868-69, eight years after first meeting Kate. …

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