Anthony Trollope at Christmas

Article excerpt

|Asirloin of beef a foot and a half broad, a turkey as big as an ostrich, a plum-pudding bigger than the turkey and two or three dozen mince-pies' -- that was Anthony Trollope's menu for a perfect Christmas dinner. This rousing evocation of a truly English feast helps to explain Trollope's ever-increasing popularity with the Prime Minister as his best known reader. Contemporary Review takes some pride in seeing Trollope's advancement to his proper place in English literature; after all he was the principal founder of The Fortnightly, which is now incorporated into the Contemporary Review. Several publishers are producing reprints of almost all his 47 novels and the Trollope Society is bringing out a complete edition. In March, a plaque to Trollope's memory will be dedicated in Westminster Abbey.

Christmas is an appropriate time to read Trollope. The Victorian novelists popularised most of our Christmas customs. Everyone knows about Dickens and Christmas. But what about his contemporary, Trollope, who now bids fair to overtake him in the popularity stakes? Settle down with a Trollope novel in front of a good Christmas fire and the cares, confusions and absurdities of the twentieth century vanish into the flames. Cold and damp dissolve as you drift into a Barsetshire rectory or perhaps leap across a fence on a fictional fox hunt.

Trollope's literary success came slowly. Because he was both an author and an important official at the Post Office he had to follow a careful schedule which required a set number of pages each day. By this method he was able to write over 60 books. In the 1860s his wealth from writing provided a pleasant country house in Hertfordshire, Waltham House, which was well stocked with food, wine and servants. Success also gave full rein to his love of hospitality, particularly at Christmas. Every bedroom was full of guests, |young folk and folk who are not so very young'. They often stayed for a week.

Christmas began like any other day for Trollope. At dawn guests could hear the footsteps of Barney, the old Irish servant, who came up the stairs with a cup of coffee to awaken his master. If Trollope failed to heed this call, Barney was entitled to an extra five shillings in wages. After dressing and lighting a fire Trollope settled down to his current novel. Sometimes Christmas could delay even his rigid schedule. On 25 December, 1865 he only managed to write three pages of his novel Nina Balatka, a novel set in Prague with the rather un-Trollopian plot, the love of a Catholic girl for a Jewish merchant. His schedule called for four pages each day, but he made it up in the next few days and finished the book on New Year's Eve less than two months after starting it. Once he had put aside his current fiction, he was still not finished with his daily writing. Even on Christmas day, there were letters to publishers or to people who had complained about the postal service. On his first Christmas at Waltham House, he wrote to one publisher saying that he had been over-paid by 3 [pounds]. It is unlikely that any other writer in history ever wrote such a letter on Christmas!

Part of Trollope's Christmas morning would be spent at church. Because he did not shout about his deep Christian faith, many people have failed to see that it underpinned his whole life. Those who knew Trollope well, such as his vicar or his friend George Eliot knew that he was a devout Anglican with moderately high church views. In his last Christmas tale Not if I Know it, published a few weeks after his death, he described his attitude towards the Communion Service: it was, he wrote, |more powerful with its thoughts than its words'.

When he came back from church, he could entertain his guests. Like most people, his Christmas celebrations were based on his recollections of his youth. Thus he had little interest in Christmas trees, which were only popularised when he was in his thirties. From his mother, who was also a successful novelist, Trollope inherited the idea that roast beef and Christmas pudding were the essential ingredients of the holiday meal. …