Elizabeth Mitchell argues that one of the most prolific writers of all time deserves the same reputation as his overexposed contemporary, Dickens
On the surface, there appear to be many similarities between Anthony Trollope and Charles Dickens: they were both born in the mid-1810s; both had a troubled childhood, marred by their fathers’ sudden decent into debt, and both became respected chroniclers of life in the Victorian era. But one big difference: whilst Dickens’ works remain household names – regardless of whether you’ve read them, Trollope seems to be becoming increasingly less well known. This seems particularly odd when you consider that Trollope’s output consisted of 47 novels, dozens of short stories, several pieces of non-fiction, two plays and his own autobiography. So why is this important writer not better known? Not as respected as Dickens?
Well, one reason is for his damning examination of the Irish situation. Trollope worked in Ireland for the Post Office between 1841-51, and his early novels depict Catholic/Protestant tensions and harshly examine the way England responded to the Great Famine. Perhaps it is not surprising that these initial novels did not give Trollope immediate success; the English public clearly did not want to be reminded of their appalling behaviour towards their fellow countrymen when reading fictional books. Yet the brilliance of Trollope’s writing was recognised by his peers: Thackeray, George Eliot and Wilkie Collins all admired his work and count him as an inspiration.
Due to Trollope’s early lack of popularity, money became an issue for him in a way that Dickens never felt. Whereas Dickens could afford to be paid on an instalment basis by magazines and newspapers, Trollope found himself having to accept lump sums in advance from editors. Given that newspapers were more accessible to the average member of the public, Trollope’s audience was defined as the ‘novel reading’ classes, a much smaller market than the available to Dickens. However, this did have its literary advantages; Trollope could truly develop a character throughout a book, making them far more believable than Dickens’, who would change their outcomes on public demand. Trollope’s work can seem like the broadsheet press, compared to Dickens’ tabloid. Trollope’s own economic hardship further lent him a uniquely realist portrayal of money. To quote W.H. Auden, “Of all novelists in any country, Trollope best understands the role of money. Compared with him, even Balzac is too romantic”.
In 1868, Trollope was persuaded to stand as a Liberal candidate for Beverley, deemed the most corrupt constituency in the country. He came last, following votes being bought by the two Conservative candidates, and spent £400 on his election campaign. This experience gave him great insight into the Victorian political world, accurately translated into his work in books such as The Palliser Chronicles and his 1875 masterpiece The Way We Live Now. All of Trollope’s works had a deep satirical depth, with detailed examinations of society and its flaws. However, unlike Dickens, Trollope never seems to be preaching from on high, thereby endearing himself and his characters to the reader.
In more recent years, Dickens has been promoted to modern day readers through countless television adaptations, films and even a stage musical. Trollope has not been ignored in this respect , though. The 1982 BBC adaptation The Barchester Chronicles featured a stellar cast, with a young Alan Rickman stealing the limelight as slimy Obadiah Slope. The Way We Live Now was given the Andrew Davis treatment in 2001, to great critical acclaim and several Baftas. Maybe all that is needed is a West End production of Trollope’s autobiography, featuring several songs about his championing the pillar box, and the world will finally acknowledge the true genius of Anthony Trollope’s literary work.