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Great Minds on Reading Trollope

Anthony Trollope’s popularity has waxed and waned in the 130 years since his death, but he has always had his admirers. Drawn from a broad swath of humanity and eras, here are but a few of Trollope’s noted fans.

Sir Alec Guinness wrote in The Daily Telegraph Magazine, “A wise man told me I would learn more about life from a great novelist than from any other source. I did not believe him. Now I wouldn’t dream of going on holiday without a Trollope. He has enlarged my world.”

Leo Tolstoy remarked, upon reading The Bertrams in a Russian translation in 1865, “Trollope kills me, kills me with his excellence” (the last word sometimes translated as “virtuosity”). In January 1877, Tolstoy wrote his brother that The Prime Minister was “splendid.”

Then-sitting U.K. Prime Minister John Major appeared on the BBC Radio program Desert Island Discs on January 31, 1992, and selected The Small House at Allington as his favourite book and Lily Dale his favourite character in fiction.

Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote of Trollope’s work in a letter to his own publisher in 1860: “Have you ever read the novels of Anthony Trollope? They precisely suit my taste; 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.” (Later, in the September 1879 issue of the North American Review, some 15 years after Hawthorne’s death, Trollope wrote an admiring essay entitled “The Genius of Nathaniel Hawthorne.”)

Antonia Fraser wrote the Introduction to the 1996 Trollope Society reissue of Framley Parsonage, describing the book as being “told with a tremendous exuberance.”

In the 2006 collection The Book That Changed My Life: 71 Remarkable Writers Celebrate the Books That Matter Most to ThemDominick Dunne recounts how, after reading The Way We Live Now for the third time, that he decided to write his own version of the book, published as People Like Us. “Anthony Trollope….became my favorite writer,” Dunne wrote. “I have learned so much from him.”

Economist John Kenneth Galbraith was a great fan of Trollope and contributed a preface in 1983 to a reissue of Barchester Towers, writing that “You have before you one of the delights of life.”

Virginia Woolf described Trollope as being one of the “truth-tellers” of English fiction, writing that “We believe in Barsetshire as we believe in our weekly bills.”

“Of all novelists in any country,” the poet W. H. Auden wrote, ” Trollope best understands the role of money. Compared with him even Balzac is a romantic.”

Mystery writer Sue Grafton wrote that “I’m a fan of Anthony Trollope in part because we share a birthday, though his, I feel compelled to report, came well before mine.  I admire his work ethic, his industry, and the easy style with which he writes…. His treatment of women is lovely and I’ve learned a great deal about story-telling from reading his many novels.”

George Eliot, who was friends with Trollope, credited the author’s example with helping her to finish writing Middlemarch, and wrote in a letter that his books “are filled with belief in goodness without the slightest tinge of maudlin.” Trollope returned the admiration.

P.D. James wrote praisingly that “Doctor Thorne remains indisputably one of Trollope’s greatest achievements.”

Harold Macmillan, U.K. prime minister from 1957 to 1963, called Trollope “readable and relaxing,” and said that he always had a Trollope novel on his bedside table. He claimed The Last Chronicle of Barset as his personal favourite. In 1951, he noted in his diary that he had “read all the clerical and all the political works again in the last few months, even weeks. This must stop. Trollope is a drug.”

In January 2013, biographer Robert Caro told The Financial Times that Anthony Trollope was his favourite author and that he was then rereading Can You Forgive Her? for the third time.

Henry James traveled on board the same ship from New York to London as Trollope in 1875 and was impressed by Trollope’s discipline. “The season was unpropitious,” James wrote, “the vessel overcrowded, the voyage detestable; but Trollope shut himself up in his cabin every morning for a purpose which, on the part of a distinguished writer who was also an invulnerable sailor, could only be communion with the muse. He drove his pen as steadily on the tumbling ocean as in Montagu Square.” Trollope was working on his An Autobiography at the time. Though James was often critical of Trollope’s works, in the end he placed the author in the same family as Dickens, Eliot, and Thackeray. After Trollope’s death, James wrote “His great, his inestimable merit was a complete appreciation of the usual.”

Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes lists “the complete works of Anthony Trollope” as one of his “favourite things” in a 2011 interview in The Telegraph. It was Fellowes’ screenplay of The Eustace Diamonds (as yet unproduced) that brought him to the attention of the producers of the film Gosford Park, the script of which subsequently earned Fellowes an Academy Award for Best Screenplay.

Louis Auchincloss, often compared to Trollope, wrote Introductions to The Warden and the American Senator. He also remarked that “Trollope, whose important position in the post office carried him to all parts of the empire, was certainly one of the great reporters of his day. In his numberless novels he invariably defines the exact social class of every character, supplies his income and the origin of his family, and even lets us know if he is content with his position in life or hankers to improve it. Class is never neglected.” Auchincloss devoted a chapter to Trollope in Writers And Personality.

Maeve Binchy wrote the Introduction for the 1993 Trollope Society reissue of An Eye for an Eye.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote to Trollope’s sister-in-law (the wife of his brother Thomas Adolphus): “I return The Three Clerks with our true thanks and appreciation. We both quite agree with you in considering it the best of the three clever novels (most likely The Warden and Barchester Towers) before the public. My husband, who can seldom get a novel to hold him, has been held by all three, and by this the strongest. Also, it has qualities which the others gave no sign of. For instance, I was wrung to tears by the third volume. What a thoroughly man’s book it is.”