An Autobiography, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter XX

“The Way We Live Now” And “The Prime Minister”— Conclusion

In what I have said at the end of the last chapter about my hunting, I have been carried a little in advance of the date at which I had arrived. We returned from Australia in the winter of 1872, and early in 1873 I took a house in Montagu Square — in which I hope to live and hope to die. Our first work in settling there was to place upon new shelves the books which I had collected round myself at Waltham. And this work, which was in itself great, entailed also the labour of a new catalogue. As all who use libraries know, a catalogue is nothing unless it show the spot on which every book is to be found — information which every volume also ought to give as to itself. Only those who have done it know how great is the labour of moving and arranging a few thousand volumes. At the present moment I own about 5000 volumes, and they are dearer to me even than the horses which are going, or than the wine in the cellar, which is very apt to go, and upon which I also pride myself.

When this was done, and the new furniture had got into its place, and my little book-room was settled sufficiently for work, I began a novel, to the writing of which I was instigated by what I conceived to be the commercial profligacy of the age. Whether the world does or does not become more wicked as years go on, is a question which probably has disturbed the minds of thinkers since the world began to think. That men have become less cruel, less violent, less selfish, less brutal, there can be no doubt — but have they become less honest? If so, can a world, retrograding from day to day in honesty, be considered to be in a state of progress? We know the opinion on this subject of our philosopher Mr. Carlyle. If he be right, we are all going straight away to darkness and the dogs. But then we do not put very much faith in Mr. Carlyle — nor in Mr. Ruskin and his other followers. The loudness and extravagance of their lamentations, the wailing and gnashing of teeth which comes from them, over a world which is supposed to have gone altogether shoddy-wards, are so contrary to the convictions of men who cannot but see how comfort has been increased, how health has been improved, and education extended — that the general effect of their teaching is the opposite of what they have intended. It is regarded simply as Carlylism to say that the English-speaking world is growing worse from day to day. And it is Carlylism to opine that the general grand result of increased intelligence is a tendency to deterioration.

Nevertheless a certain class of dishonesty, dishonesty magnificent in its proportions, and climbing into high places, has become at the same time so rampant and so splendid that there seems to be reason for fearing that men and women will be taught to feel that dishonesty, if it can become splendid, will cease to be abominable. If dishonesty can live in a gorgeous palace with pictures on all its walls, and gems in all its cupboards, with marble and ivory in all its corners, and can give Apician dinners, and get into Parliament, and deal in millions, then dishonesty is not disgraceful, and the man dishonest after such a fashion is not a low scoundrel. Instigated, I say, by some such reflections as these, I sat down in my new house to write The Way We Live Now. And as I had ventured to take the whip of the satirist into my hand, I went beyond the iniquities of the great speculator who robs everybody, and made an onslaught also on other vices — on the intrigues of girls who want to get married, on the luxury of young men who prefer to remain single, and on the puffing propensities of authors who desire to cheat the public into buying their volumes.

The book has the fault which is to be attributed to almost all satires, whether in prose or verse. The accusations are exaggerated. The vices are coloured, so as to make effect rather than to represent truth. Who, when the lash of objurgation is in his hands, can so moderate his arm as never to strike harder than justice would require? The spirit which produces the satire is honest enough, but the very desire which moves the satirist to do his work energetically makes him dishonest. In other respects The Way We Live Now was, as a satire, powerful and good. The character of Melmotte is well maintained. The Beargarden is amusing — and not untrue. The Longestaffe girls and their friend, Lady Monogram, are amusing — but exaggerated. Dolly Longestaffe, is, I think, very good. And Lady Carbury’s literary efforts are, I am sorry to say, such as are too frequently made. But here again the young lady with her two lovers is weak and vapid. I almost doubt whether it be not impossible to have two absolutely distinct parts in a novel, and to imbue them both with interest. If they be distinct, the one will seem to be no more than padding to the other. And so it was in The Way We Live Now. The interest of the story lies among the wicked and foolish people — with Melmotte and his daughter, with Dolly and his family, with the American woman, Mrs. Hurtle, and with John Crumb and the girl of his heart. But Roger Carbury, Paul Montague, and Henrietta Carbury are uninteresting. Upon the whole, I by no means look upon the book as one of my failures; nor was it taken as a failure by the public or the press.

While I was writing The Way We Live Now, I was called upon by the proprietors of the Graphic for a Christmas story. I feel, with regard to literature, somewhat as I suppose an upholsterer and undertaker feels when he is called upon to supply a funeral. He has to supply it, however distasteful it may be. It is his business, and he will starve if he neglects it. So have I felt that, when anything in the shape of a novel was required, I was bound to produce it. Nothing can be more distasteful to me than to have to give a relish of Christmas to what I write. I feel the humbug implied by the nature of the order. A Christmas story, in the proper sense, should be the ebullition of some mind anxious to instil others with a desire for Christmas religious thought, or Christmas festivities — or, better still, with Christmas charity. Such was the case with Dickens when he wrote his two first Christmas stories. But since that the things written annually — all of which have been fixed to Christmas like children’s toys to a Christmas tree — have had no real savour of Christmas about them. I had done two or three before. Alas! at this very moment I have one to write, which I have promised to supply within three weeks of this time — the picture-makers always require a long interval — as to which I have in vain been cudgelling my brain for the last month. I can’t send away the order to another shop, but I do not know how I shall ever get the coffin made.

For the Graphic, in 1873, I wrote a little story about Australia. Christmas at the antipodes is of course midsummer, and I was not loth to describe the troubles to which my own son had been subjected, by the mingled accidents of heat and bad neighbours, on his station in the bush. So I wrote Harry Heathcote of Gangoil, and was well through my labour on that occasion. I only wish I may have no worse success in that which now hangs over my head.

When Harry Heathcote was over, I returned with a full heart to Lady Glencora and her husband. I had never yet drawn the completed picture of such a statesman as my imagination had conceived. The personages with whose names my pages had been familiar, and perhaps even the minds of some of my readers — the Brocks, De Terriers, Monks, Greshams, and Daubeneys — had been more or less portraits, not of living men, but of living political characters. The strong-minded, thick-skinned, useful, ordinary member, either of the Government or of the Opposition, had been very easy to describe, and had required no imagination to conceive. The character reproduces itself from generation to generation; and as it does so, becomes shorn in a wonderful way of those little touches of humanity which would be destructive of its purposes. Now and again there comes a burst of human nature, as in the quarrel between Burke and Fox; but, as a rule, the men submit themselves to be shaped and fashioned, and to be formed into tools, which are used either for building up or pulling down, and can generally bear to be changed from this box into the other, without, at any rate, the appearance of much personal suffering. Four-and-twenty gentlemen will amalgamate themselves into one whole, and work for one purpose, having each of them to set aside his own idiosyncrasy, and to endure the close personal contact of men who must often be personally disagreeable, having been thoroughly taught that in no other way can they serve either their country or their own ambition. These are the men who are publicly useful, and whom the necessities of the age supply — as to whom I have never ceased to wonder that stones of such strong calibre should be so quickly worn down to the shape and smoothness of rounded pebbles.

Such have been to me the Brocks and the Mildmays, about whom I have written with great pleasure, having had my mind much exercised in watching them. But had I also conceived the character of a statesman of a different nature — of a man who should be in something perhaps superior, but in very much inferior, to these men — of one who could not become a pebble, having too strong an identity of his own. To rid one’s self of fine scruples — to fall into the traditions of a party — to feel the need of subservience, not only in acting but also even in thinking — to be able to be a bit, and at first only a very little bit — these are the necessities of the growing statesman. The time may come, the glorious time when some great self action shall be possible, and shall be even demanded, as when Peel gave up the Corn Laws; but the rising man, as he puts on his harness, should not allow himself to dream of this. To become a good, round, smooth, hard, useful pebble is his duty, and to achieve this he must harden his skin and swallow his scruples. But every now and again we see the attempt, made by men who cannot get their skins to be hard — who after a little while generally fall out of the ranks. The statesman of whom I was thinking — of whom I had long thought — was one who did not fall out of the ranks, even though his skin would not become hard. He should have rank, and intellect, and parliamentary habits, by which to bind him to the service of his country; and he should also have unblemished, unextinguishable, inexhaustible love of country. That virtue I attribute to our statesmen generally. They who are without it are, I think, mean indeed. This man should have it as the ruling principle of his life; and it should so rule him that all other things should be made to give way to it. But he should be scrupulous, and, being scrupulous, weak. When called to the highest place in the council of his Sovereign, he should feel with true modesty his own insufficiency; but not the less should the greed of power grow upon him when he had once allowed himself to taste and enjoy it. Such was the character I endeavoured to depict in describing the triumph, the troubles, and the failure of my Prime Minister. And I think that I have succeeded. What the public may think, or what the press may say, I do not yet know, the work having as yet run but half its course. 14

14 Writing this note in 1878, after a lapse of nearly three years, I am obliged to say that, as regards the public, The Prime Minister was a failure. It was worse spoken of by the press than any novel I had written. I was specially hurt by a criticism on it in the Spectator. The critic who wrote the article I know to be a good critic, inclined to be more than fair to me; but in this case I could not agree with him, so much do I love the man whose character I had endeavoured to portray.

That the man’s character should be understood as I understand it — or that of his wife’s, the delineation of which has also been a matter of much happy care to me — I have no right to expect, seeing that the operation of describing has not been confined to one novel, which might perhaps be read through by the majority of those who commenced it. It has been carried on through three or four, each of which will be forgotten even by the most zealous reader almost as soon as read. In The Prime Minister, my Prime Minister will not allow his wife to take office among, or even over, those ladies who are attached by office to the Queen’s court. “I should not choose,” he says to her, “that my wife should have any duties unconnected with our joint family and home.” Who will remember in reading those words that, in a former story, published some years before, he tells his wife, when she has twitted him with his willingness to clean the Premier’s shoes, that he would even allow her to clean them if it were for the good of the country? And yet it is by such details as these that I have, for many years past, been manufacturing within my own mind the characters of the man and his wife.

I think that Plantagenet Palliser, Duke of Omnium, is a perfect gentleman. If he be not, then am I unable to describe a gentleman. She is by no means a perfect lady; but if she be not all over a woman, then am I not able to describe a woman. I do not think it probable that my name will remain among those who in the next century will be known as the writers of English prose fiction — but if it does, that permanence of success will probably rest on the character of Plantagenet Palliser, Lady Glencora, and the Rev. Mr. Crawley.

I have now come to the end of that long series of books written by myself with which the public is already acquainted. Of those which I may hereafter be able to add to them I cannot speak; though I have an idea that I shall even yet once more have recourse to my political hero as the mainstay of another story. When The Prime Minister was finished, I at once began another novel, which is now completed in three volumes, and which is called Is He Popenjoy? There are two Popenjoys in the book, one succeeding to the title held by the other; but as they are both babies, and do not in the course of the story progress beyond babyhood, the future readers, should the tale ever be published, will not be much interested in them. Nevertheless the story, as a story, is not, I think, amiss. Since that I have written still another three-volume novel, to which, very much in opposition to my publisher, I have given the name of The American Senator. 15 It is to appear in Temple Bar, and is to commence its appearance on the first of next month. Such being its circumstances, I do not know that I can say anything else about it here.

15 The American Senator and Popenjoy have appeared, each with fair success. Neither of them has encountered that reproach which, in regard to The Prime Minister, seemed to tell me that my work as a novelist should be brought to a close. And yet I feel assured that they are very inferior to The Prime Minister.

And so I end the record of my literary performances — which I think are more in amount than the works of any other living English author. If any English authors not living have written more — as may probably have been the case — I do not know who they are. I find that, taking the books which have appeared under our names, I have published much more than twice as much as Carlyle. I have also published considerably more than Voltaire, even including his letters. We are told that Varro, at the age of eighty, had written 480 volumes, and that he went on writing for eight years longer. I wish I knew what was the length of Varro’s volumes; I comfort myself by reflecting that the amount of manuscript described as a book in Varro’s time was not much. Varro, too, is dead, and Voltaire; whereas I am still living, and may add to the pile.

The following is a list of the books I have written, with the dates of publication and the sums I have received for them. The dates given are the years in which the works were published as a whole, most of them having appeared before in some serial form.

Names of Works. Date of Publication. Total Sums Received.
The Macdermots of Ballycloran, 1847 £48 6 9
The Kellys and the O'Kellys, 1848 123 19 5
La Vendee, 1850 20 0 0
The Warden, 1855 \ 727 11 3
Barchester Towers, 1857 /
The Three Clerks, 1858 250 0 0
Doctor Thorne, 1858 400 0 0
The West Indies and the Spanish Main, 1859 250 0 0
The Bertrams, 1859 400 0 0
Castle Richmond, 1860 600 0 0
Framley Parsonage, 1861 1000 0 0
Tales of All Countries--1st Series, 1861 \ 1830 0 0
Tales of All Countries--2d 1863
Tales of All Countries--3d 1870 /
Orley Farm, 1862 3135 0 0
North America, 1862 1250 0 0
Rachel Ray, 1863 1645 0 0
The Small House at Allington, 1864 3000 0 0
Can You Forgive Her? 1864 3525 0 0
Miss Mackenzie, 1865 1300 0 0
The Belton Estate, 1866 1757 0 0
The Claverings, 1867 2800 0 0
The Last Chronicle of Barset, 1867 3000 0 0
Nina Balatka, 1867 450 0 0
Linda Tressel, 1868 450 0 0
Phineas Finn, 1869 3200 0 0
He Knew He Was Right, 1869 3200 0 0
Brown, Jones, and Robinson, 1870 600 0 0
The Vicar of Bullhampton, 1870 2500 0 0
An Editor's Tales, 1870 378 0 0
Caesar (Ancient Classics), 16 1870 0 0 0
Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite, 1871 750 0 0
Ralph the Heir, 1871 2500 0 0
The Golden Lion of Granpere, 1872 550 0 0
The Eustace Diamonds, 1873 2500 0 0
Australia and New Zealand, 1873 1300 0 0
Phineas Redux, 1874 2500 0 0
Harry Heathcote of Gangoil, 1874 450 0 0
Lady Anna, 1874 1200 0 0
The Way We Live Now, 1875 3000 0 0
The Prime Minister, 1876 2500 0 0
The American Senator, 1877 1800 0 0
Is He Popenjoy? 1878 1600 0 0
South Africa, 1878 850 0 0
John Caldigate, 1879 1800 0 0
Sundries, 7800 0 0
£68,939 17 5

It will not, I am sure, be thought that, in making my boast as to the quantity, I have endeavoured to lay claim to any literary excellence. That, in the writing of books, quantity without quality is a vice and a misfortune, has been too manifestly settled to leave a doubt on such a matter. But I do lay claim to whatever merit should be accorded to me for persevering diligence in my profession. And I make the claim, not with a view to my own glory, but for the benefit of those who may read these pages, and when young may intend to follow the same career. Nulla dies sine linea. Let that be their motto. And let their work be to them as is his common work to the common labourer. No gigantic efforts will then be necessary. He need tie no wet towels round his brow, nor sit for thirty hours at his desk without moving — as men have sat, or said that they have sat. More than nine-tenths of my literary work has been done in the last twenty years, and during twelve of those years I followed another profession. I have never been a slave to this work, giving due time, if not more than due time, to the amusements I have loved. But I have been constant — and constancy in labour will conquer all difficulties. Gutta cavat lapidem non vi, sed saepe cadendo.

16 This was given by me as a present to my friend John Blackwood

It may interest some if I state that during the last twenty years I have made by literature something near £70,000. As I have said before in these pages, I look upon the result as comfortable, but not splendid.

It will not, I trust, be supposed by any reader that I have intended in this so-called autobiography to give a record of my inner life. No man ever did so truly — and no man ever will. Rousseau probably attempted it, but who doubts but that Rousseau has confessed in much the thoughts and convictions rather than the facts of his life? If the rustle of a woman’s petticoat has ever stirred my blood; if a cup of wine has been a joy to me; if I have thought tobacco at midnight in pleasant company to be one of the elements of an earthly paradise; if now and again I have somewhat recklessly fluttered a £5 note over a card-table — of what matter is that to any reader? I have betrayed no woman. Wine has brought me to no sorrow. It has been the companionship of smoking that I have loved, rather than the habit. I have never desired to win money, and I have lost none. To enjoy the excitement of pleasure, but to be free from its vices and ill effects — to have the sweet, and leave the bitter untasted — that has been my study. The preachers tell us that this is impossible. It seems to me that hitherto I have succeeded fairly well. I will not say that I have never scorched a finger — but I carry no ugly wounds.

For what remains to me of life I trust for my happiness still chiefly to my work — hoping that when the power of work be over with me, God may be pleased to take me from a world in which, according to my view, there can be no joy; secondly, to the love of those who love me; and then to my books. That I can read and be happy while I am reading, is a great blessing. Could I remember, as some men do, what I read, I should have been able to call myself an educated man. But that power I have never possessed. Something is always left — something dim and inaccurate — but still something sufficient to preserve the taste for more. I am inclined to think that it is so with most readers.

Of late years, putting aside the Latin classics, I have found my greatest pleasure in our old English dramatists — not from any excessive love of their work, which often irritates me by its want of truth to nature, even while it shames me by its language — but from curiosity in searching their plots and examining their character. If I live a few years longer, I shall, I think, leave in my copies of these dramatists, down to the close of James I., written criticisms on every play. No one who has not looked closely into it knows how many there are.

Now I stretch out my hand, and from the further shore I bid adieu to all who have cared to read any among the many words that I have written.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:43