Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 3, 2017

Sensational Snippets: An Autobiography and Other Writings (1883), by Anthony Trollope

an-autobiography-and-other-writings-trollopeI am reading the autobiography of one of my favourite Victorian novelists, Anthony Trollope, and it is an absolute delight.  Amongst other things, it offers advice to novelists, and in Chapter 12 it includes his thoughts about the value of the novel per se

At one stage he had had a novel rejected by a magazine called Good Words because *shock, horror!* it had dancing in it, and while we today might smile at such Victorian prudery, Trollope had, by the time he came to write this autobiography in his sixties, lived through the period when novel-reading had transitioned from being a clandestine affair because novels were thought to be frivolous and harmful, to widespread acceptance:

Novels are read right and left, above stairs and below, in town houses and country parsonages, by young countesses and farmer’s daughters, by old lawyers and young students.  (p. 127-8)

His being an era of didacticism, Trollope does not dismiss the possibilities of the novelist’s influence:

If such be the case – if the extension of novel-reading be so wide as I have described it – then very much good or harm must be done by novels. The amusement of the time can hardly be the only result of any book that is read, and certainly not so with a novel, which appeals especially to the imagination, and solicits the sympathy of the young. (p. 138)

And he stakes a claim for his profession which is, I think, worth quoting.  He wants his work to be appreciated – not just as an entertainment, but as something more.

He notes that there is still some prejudice – not against novels

…as is proved by their acceptance among us.  But it exists strongly in reference to the appreciation in which they are professed to be held; and it robs them of much of that high character which they may claim to have earned by their grace, their honesty, and good teaching.

No man can work long at any trade without being brought to consider whether that which he is daily doing tends to evil or good.  I have written many novels, and have known many writers of novels, and I can assert that such thoughts have been strong with them and with myself.  But in acknowledging that these writers have received from the public a full measure of credit for such genius, ingenuity, or perseverance as each may have displayed, I feel that there is still wanting to them a just appreciation of the excellence of their calling, and a general understanding of the high nature of the work which they perform.

By the common consent of all mankind who have read, poetry takes the highest place in literature.  That nobility of expression, and all but the divine grace of words, which she is bound to attain before she can make her footing good, is not comparable with prose.  Indeed it is that which turns prose into poetry.  When that has been in truth achieved, the reader knows that the writer has soared above the earth, and can teach his lessons somewhat as a god might teach.  He who sits down to write his tale in prose makes no such attempt, nor does he dream that the poet’s honour is within his reach, – but his teaching is of the same nature, and his lessons all tend to the same end.  By either, false sentiments may be fostered; false notions of humanity may be engendered; false honour, false love, false worship may be created; by either, vice instead of virtue may be taught.  But by each, equally, may true honour, true love, true worship, and true humanity be inculcated; and that will be the greatest teacher who will spread such truth the widest.  But at present, much as novels, as novels, are bought and read, there exists still an idea, a feeling which is very prevalent, that novels at their best are but innocent.  Young men and women, – and old men and women too, – read more of them than poetry, because such reading is easier than the reading of poetry, but they read them, as men eat pastry after dinner, – not without some inward conviction that the taste is vain if not vicious.  I take it upon myself to say that it is neither vicious nor vain.  (p.137)

From An Autobiography: And Other Writings (Oxford World’s Classics), by Anthony Trollope, 2016, (first published 1883), ISBN 9780199675296, review copy courtesy of Oxford University Press.

He goes on to say that young people form their ideas about what is expected of them as men and women from novels, that novels explore all kinds of human dilemmas such as the tension between the ambition to be honest and the ambition to be great, and that novelists who depict the successes of the unworthy as heroic ought to be ashamed of themselves.  He admits that it’s tempting to make a novel interesting – not *heaven forbid!* by drawing on the alluring regions of vice – but by the outskirts of these regions, on which sweet-smelling flowers seem to grow, and grass to be green.  It is in these border-lands that the danger lies.  The novelist may not be dull. He goes on to talk about the careful craft of making virtue alluring and vice ugly so that without being a sermon, the entertaining novel teaches a lesson.

Trollope was writing in a different era, when there was consensus about ideas of right and wrong, and (though it would have startled him to hear this) when what was expected was less tolerant, less inclusive, and often exploitative of others.  (Actually, always exploitative if you remember the impact of colonialism, but I am also thinking of class and gender distinctions and labour exploitation in the industrial era). Yet – apropos a recent reader’s comment here on this blog about the sordid realism of a YA novel chosen for secondary school study – there is still something appealing about the innocence of Trollope’s conception of 19th century literature, and how young people might absorb an aspiration to be become good and worthy people from the pages of an entertaining novel.

Trollope has much else to say about the craft of writing, much of which is still – well over a century later – surprisingly relevant to aspiring writers and debut authors.   But I can’t quote the entire book!




  1. One of the first thing I noticed as a young truck driver – and most truck drivers were young back then – was that the drivers would stand around telling stories, and it quickly became apparent that the purpose of the stories was to teach (yes, also to brag) so that there was a consensus about what was the right way to behave. When I started studying literature it was soon clear that that has always been the purpose of story telling – to let the listener/reader know what behaviour was ‘normal’ or expected. Every novel describes behaviour and offers some judgement on that behaviour, and I think that is what Trollope is saying too. And I think there was more variety in Victorian times than you imply – with regards to women, to slavery, to militarism and to the treatment of the poor and the colonized.


    • Too true about storytelling: ever since Aesop! But I think Trollope is claiming the moral high ground by distinguishing the novel as an ‘entertainment’ distinct from the fictional morality tales which were read for (or inflicted for) moral improvement and predated it (and persisted for children until into the 20th century).

      However, although the Victoria era had its heroes, (Dickens on the poor, Galsworthy on the morality of marriage, Gaskell on class distinctions etc) I can’t think of any Victorian novels that tackled single-sex relationships or came straight out and said that the British owed its standard of living to its colonial possessions. I’m happy to be corrected on this of course.
      One thing I learned from this autobiography, though, is that Trollope’s mother wrote the first anti-slavery novel, said to have influenced the work of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Wikipedia also says she wrote the first industrial novel but their page for that doesn’t mention her. If her ‘Factory Boy’ novel (1840) is the one they recognise as her industrial novel, it predates Sybil, or The Two Nations by Benjamin Disraeli in 1845….


      • Interesting. I’ll think about it while I work on other things. The early Australians were of course Victorian, and as I’ve been at pains to point out, anti marriage, the women anyway.
        Ruth Gaskell wrote about a single mother, but same sex? Not Wilde or Beardsley?


        • The earliest example I know of about same sex relationships was Maurice by E.M Forster but that wasn’t published posthumously and he wasn’t Victorian anyway. OTOH I read most of these classics when I was a teenager and I wouldn’t have noticed anything that wasn’t overt anyway. And I’ve never made a study of gaylit, I’m just working from what I know and welcome examples that show I’ve got it wrong.
          Thomas Hardy (Tess) was a literary hero too…
          Oscar Wilde, I don’t think so, though WP mentions a piece of short fiction (
          I’ve never read Beardsley…


          • Beardsley’s an artist, a drawer, I was just free associating really. Maybe we should ask your extensive fan-base. I reckon we could come up with novels containing situations where same sex was at least implied, like the Getting of Wisdom (which is unfortunately Edwardian)


  2. As always most interesting Lisa and food for thought. Have never read a Trollope novel but another for the increasing list of books to read.


  3. […] that exposed the foibles and minor corruption of the clergy and landed gentry.  As I indicated in the Sensational Snippet I posted a day or so ago, his forty-seven novels explored political, social, and gender issues in realistic […]


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