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Study in Contradictions : ANTHONY TROLLOPE, By Victoria Glendinning (Alfred A. Knopf: $30; 50 photographs, 551 pp.)

June 27, 1993|James Wilcox | Wilcox's sixth novel, "Guest of a Sinner," has just been published by HarperCollins

At first glance it might seem odd that Victoria Glendinning chose Anthony Trollope to be the subject of her first biography of a man. After writing about Elizabeth Bowen, Edith Sitwell, Vita Sackville-West and Rebecca West, Glendinning now offers us what is essentially a sympathetic portrait of the gentleman who wrote, in 1879, " 'The necessity of the supremacy of man (over woman) is as certain to me as the eternity of the soul.' "

Anyone acquainted with Trollope's work, though, will not be unduly alarmed by this bombast. Trollope, after all, created some of the most memorable female characters in English literature, many of them challenging this theoretical male supremacy in novel after novel. If this suggests a certain split between Trollope's beliefs and actual practice, it is only one of many contradictions that make this icon of the Victorian Age such a fascinating subject for a biography.

By no means uncritical of this patriarch, Glendinning nevertheless refrains from indulging in the prickly wit that Lytton Strachey used to deflate Trollope's schoolfellow, Cardinal Manning, in his vastly entertaining, but perhaps not altogether fair, "Eminent Victorians" (1918). Though deploring the shocking sexism and racism of the times, Glendinning also finds something to admire about the age, not least of which is the prodigious industry of its authors. In addition to 47 novels and five volumes of short stories, Trollope managed to write several travel books on places as remote as South Africa and New Zealand, a version of Caesar's Commentaries, lives of Thackeray, Cicero, and Lord Palmerston, as well as numerous sketches and articles--and a Carlyle-like diatribe on British institutions. What is even more astonishing is that the bulk of this work was accomplished while Trollope held down a full-time job in the Post Office. Indeed, Trollope insisted that " 'I had thought very much more about the Post Office than I had of my literary work.' "

Glendinning's portrait is really something of a group portrait, with the women in Trollope's life given due prominence. "The nature of marriage," she writes in her introduction, "and the balance of power between the sexes, a central question in much of Trollope's fiction, is central to this book too." Yet the woman who stands out most vividly is not Rose, Trollope's loyal, forbearing wife, but his mother. The story of how Mrs. Frances Trollope rescued her husband and children from certain destitution makes one wonder even more about the necessity of male superiority. "The mother was left to nurse three terminally ill people (her husband and two of her children) and to support the family by her nonstop writing." This meant getting up at four in the morning to get the writing done before her household duties began.

Though Frances Trollope was truly heroic, starting her career at the age of 51 and going on to write 40 books, Glendinning's portrait leaves out none of the warts. Robert Browning referred to her as " 'that coarse, vulgar Mrs. Trollope' " and told his wife " 'if you don't want to give me the greatest pain . . . you won't receive that vulgar pushing woman who is not fit to speak to you.' " Even Trollope himself shaded his own view of his mother when he wrote in his autobiography, " ' . . . she was neither clear-sighted nor accurate; and in her attempts to describe morals, manners, and even facts, was unable to avoid the pitfalls of exaggeration.' "

Glendinning clearly charts how Trollope--or Anthony, as she refers to him throughout--arrived at this sober assessment of his mother when he was 60. Tom, his oldest brother, enjoyed an unusually close relationship to their mother, whose frank, outspoken manner made her more of a Georgian, as Glendinning points out, than a Victorian. When Mrs. Trollope asked Tom to look after his younger brother at Winchester, Tom complied by giving Anthony daily beatings. Later in life, while Anthony chafed and sulked as a bored young junior clerk in the Post Office, his mother rescued Tom from a tedious job in Birmingham, making him not only her business manager and agent, but also " 'her companion and squire.' " A year before Anthony nearly succumbed to a mysterious illness that was quite possibly related to his chronic depression, Mrs. Trollope and Tom were in Paris, " 'overwhelmed with invitations and social attentions of all sorts.' " She was even presented to King Louis Philippe.

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