English and Drama blog

04 March 2015

On novels and the art of writing them: the rules according to Anthony Trollope

Anthony Trollope by Lock and Whitfield, British Library

This year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of the novelist Anthony Trollope (1815-82). The British Library have marked the birth of this prolific 19th century author by mounting a display in our Treasures Gallery, centred around the manuscript of Trollope’s An Autobiography, which the Library is lucky enough to hold.

The display looks at the author’s ‘rules’ for novel writing, as laid down in his autobiography. Trollope outlines the essential qualities required of any aspiring writer, which include the ability to write honestly, naturally, intelligibly, rhythmically and pleasantly; to create sympathetic characters and primarily a willingness to submit to severe toil. He describes in detail the ‘self-imposed laws’, under which he operated. When he began a book he prepared a diary, decided upon a deadline and assigned himself so many words per week. He attributed his entire success to the virtue of his early hours; he would rise at 5am each day and undertake his literary work for three hours before starting for the Post Office (his parallel career). He wrote with his watch before him, aiming to write 250 words every 15 minutes. Trollope was a hugely prolific writer, producing 47 novels, an autobiography, two plays, short stories, travel books, articles, reviews and lectures.  Proud of his achievements, he boasted that he always had a pen in hand and was bound to the rules of labour in the same way as a mechanic or a shoemaker. The autobiography also contains a very frank account of the monetary rewards he received for each novel, which he freely admits is part of his motivation for writing; it remains a testament to the value of hard work and self-motivation.


Dr wortle yellowback cover
Trollope, Anthony. Doctor Wortle's School. (London: Ward, Lock & Co., 1881)

Though critical opinion has fluctuated over time, Trollope’s readers have remained constant. He’s never been out of print, and he has attracted admiration from many other members of his profession, such as Virgina Woolf . Most are in agreement that his genius lies in his characterisation and his attention to detail when talking about the details of life itself. Nathanial Hawthorne famously described Trollope as ‘dealing with the solid, substantial, written on strength of beef and through inspiration of ale, and just as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting that they were made a show of.” 


Other highlights of the display include his letter of appointment to the General Post Office; a watch given by Trollope to his nephew; a selection of Trollope’s novels in various forms – in parts, triple deckers, periodicals, as yellow backs (with wonderfully dramatic cover illustrations); caricatures; letters to the Royal Literary Fund and even one to the Prime Minister, William Gladstone, apologising for causing offence.

There is so much to write about Anthony Trollope that I find I’ve hardly scratched the surface. If you want to know more about him then please come along to our display (which is up until 7 June) – or indeed the event we’re holding on 23 April ‘A celebration of Anthony Trollope’ with an esteemed and eclectic panel of special guest speakers and a reception generously sponsored by the Trollope Society (who are particularly active in this bicentenary year, extolling the virtues of the great author). In addition the British Library’s Discovering Literature site has added an Anthony Trollope section in honour of the occasion. Alternatively there are several very wonderful books about this man who wrote so many wonderful books that anyone interested might turn to – or you could read his autobiography, of course.

Bibliography and links

Trollope, Anthony. An autobiography. (Edinburgh; London: Blackwood & Sons, 1883)

Glendinning, Victoria. Trollope (London: Hutchinson, 1992)

Sadleir, Michael. Trollope: a commentary (London: Constable & Co., 1927)

On novels and the art of writing them http://www.bl.uk/events/treasures-of-the-british-library

A Celebration of Anthony Trollope http://www.bl.uk/events/a-celebration-of-anthony-trollope

Anthony Trollope on Discovering Literature http://www.bl.uk/people/anthony-trollope

The Trollope Society http://www.trollopesociety.org/ and http://www.anthonytrollope.com/




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