Cold Print: Professing Authorship in Anthony Trollope's an Autobiography.(Critical Essay)

By Aguirre, Robert D. | Biography, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Cold Print: Professing Authorship in Anthony Trollope's an Autobiography.(Critical Essay)


Aguirre, Robert D., Biography


Trollope's An Autobiography is an anomaly, a work of self-representation best known for its frank view of the literary marketplace: "Brains that are unbought will never serve the public much" (107). (1) Such disquieting candor has led critics to posit not one autobiography but two-the real thing and a poor relation. The first tells a familiar Victorian story of a sensitive and self-conscious child's journey through poverty and social exclusion. Like Dickens, whose biography he had read (Trollope, Letters 2: 557), Trollope here succumbs to the "famous Victorian novelist hysteria syndrome," in which authors "rewrite the past with themselves as lonely victims" (Sutherland, "Unhappy" 20). The second turns to the idols of the marketplace: profits, markets, and relations with publishers. At points, the narrative yields to mere calculation: pages per day, novels per year, and profits per novel.2 Famously, this autobiography includes a table listing all Trollope's works and their profits down to the pence, a wry turn on publishers' advertisements that featured the prices for each novel in an author's oeuvre. (3) (Such an advertisement and the table are reproduced on page 614-15.) Early reviewers were appalled. One complained that in the author's "needless crudity of phrase" the "literary ideal is brutalized indeed" ("Anthony" 47), and Henry James wrote that Trollope, lacking an aesthetic system, "never troubled his head . . . with theories about the nature of his business" (1332). More recently, Mary Hamer remarks that "the scrupulous arithmetical detail in which his output is planned and recorded owes something to a foible of personality" (189), and Peter Allen observes that Trollope seems "obsessed with the issue of his own social advancement, and delighted to describe the mechanical stratagems he has employed to obtain it" (4). (4)

Trollope's accounting, however, does not signal the failure of autobiography, but a recognition of its inseparability from the material conditions of authorship itself. For Victorian writers, these conditions included the system of copyright, beginning with the Copyright Amendment Act of 1842, which extended the period of protection to forty-two years from publication or seven years from the death of the author, whichever was longer; the development of a "star-system" guaranteeing certain writers a commanding market share; (5) and the formation of literary societies that helped authors establish a collective identity as literary professionals. An Autobiography explores these and other issues to demystify the economic milieu in which authors lived and moved as professionals. Moreover, the text's focus on the self as a figure of writing and the owner of writing constitutes an important revision of dominant Victorian middle-class autobiographical practice, with its emphasis on autonomy, interiority, and conversi on tropes--as much as, though in a different key, the working-class autobiographies examined by critics such as Regenia Gagnier. The critique focuses on the dilemma of newly professionalized authors--free to create fictional worlds, yet also contingent, forced to submit to economic forces beyond their control. Its embodiment in a work of autobiography also raises important questions about the genre's status as a record of the writer's life, questions that go to the heart of the author's relation to the work. (6)

Post-structuralist work on the status of the author has its origin in two now famous essays: Roland Barthes's "The Death of the Author" (1968) and Michel Foucault's "What is an Author?" (1969). In a flash of bravado, Barthes declares writing to be "the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin . . . that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing" (142). Questioning the author's status as an autonomous genius, Barthes overturns a series of hierarchical oppositions, privileging "writing" over "voice," "text" over "work,'' "destination" over "origin," "scriptor" over "author. …

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