George Saintsbury on Anthony Trollope

George SaintsburyGeorge Saintsbury (1845–1933), was an English writer, literary historian, scholar, and critic. He was professor of rhetoric and English literature at the University of Edinburgh from 1895 to 1915. Saintsbury was also a wine connoisseur, as evidenced by his 1920 Notes on a Cellar-Book, a classic testimonial to the enjoyment of wine.

Saintbury’s Corrected Impressions: Essays on Victorian Writers was published in 1898 and includes a collection of his essays and lectures in which the critic revisits some major Victorian authors with a fresh eye. His assessment on Trollope, coming 15 years after Trollope’s death in 1882, is a mixed bag; he concludes his commentary with a comparison to Jane Austen:

“The fault of the Trollopian novel is in the quality of the Trollopian art. It is shrewd, competent, not insufficiently supported by observation, not deficient in more than respectable expressive power, careful, industrious, active enough. But it never has the last exalting touch of genius, it is every-day, commonplace, and even not infrequently vulgar. These are the three things that great art never is; though it may busy itself with far humbler persons and objects than Mr. Trollope does, may confine itself even more strictly than he does to purely ordinary occurrences, may shun the exceptional, the bizarre, the outré, as rigidly as Miss Austen herself. Indeed, there is a very short road to vulgarity by affecting these last three things; and I think since Mr. Trollope’s time it has been pretty frequently trodden by those who are hastening to the same goal of comparative oblivion which, I fear, he has already reached.”

Interestingly, Saintsbury is credited with coining the term “Janeite” to describe a fan of Jane Austen, first seen in his introduction to an 1894 edition of Pride and Prejudice. In the section on Trollope in Corrected Impressions, Saintsbury’s use of “Trollopian” is an early useage of this term to describe the essence of Trollope’s work. The term”Trollopian” is frequently used today as a noun to describe fans of Anthony Trollope.

ANTHONY TROLLOPE

by George Saintsbury

The vicissitudes of Mr. Anthony Trollope’s reputation are less striking and perhaps less instructive than those of George Eliot’s, for there can be very little doubt that Miss Evans had genius, and I never met more than one competent critic (a personal friend, by the way, of the author of The Warden) who thought that Mr. Trollope had. But he had immense fertility, and if not immense, very great talent; and his career is in consequence something of a warning. Unless I mistake very greatly, no novelist towards the end of the sixties was in greater demand at the circulating libraries, and by the editors and publishers of magazines which published serial novels, than Mr. Trollope; and certainly no one ever set himself to satisfy that demand with greater energy or in a more business-like spirit. He probably did himself no good with the public or the critics by the quaint frankness of his avowals in his Autobiography as to the strictly professional fashion—so many hours per day, and so many words per hour—in which he did his “chores.” And certainly there was a time when the public altogether failed to respond to his endeavours to please them. His last half-dozen, if not his last dozen novels, were I believe indifferent pecuniary successes; and I remember very well the difficulties under which I found myself when I had to criticise more than one of them. For it is, I think, a law of the Medes and Persians, “Never speak evil of man or woman who has given you pleasure,” and I admit that in the days of the Chronicles of Barset, Mr. Trollope gave me a very great deal of pleasure. But it is also a law of honest criticism never to say what you do not think, though it is by no means necessary to say all that you do think, and it was not easy to reconcile these two laws in the late seventies and early eighties with regard to Mr. Anthony Trollope.

He seems indeed to me to be the most remarkable example we have yet seen of a kind of writer who I suppose is destined to multiply as long as the fancy for novel-reading lasts. Only a few months ago it fell to my lot to read through the work of a famous amuseur of this kind in the generation before Mr. Trollope’s, a man as famous as himself in his own day, and of gifts certainly more varied and perhaps not less considerable. And the resemblance between Theodore Hook and Anthony Trollope struck me, I own, forcibly and rather terribly. Hook is of course at a much greater disadvantage with a reader of the present day—at least with a reader of my standing—than is Trollope. Much of him is positively obsolete, while in Trollope’s case the mere outward framework, the ways and language of society, the institutions, customs, and atmosphere of daily life, have not had time to alter very strikingly, if at all. Trollope too, did not attempt the purely comic vein, as did Hook; and the purely comic vein, unless it be absolutely transcendent, and of the first class, is that which dries soonest.

But still they are of the same general kind, and their motto, the motto of their kind, is Mene, Tekel. I do not even think that any one is ever again likely to attain even so high a rank in it as Mr. Trollope’s. Most have got the seed, and the flower has become common accordingly. I do not know that I myself ever took Mr. Trollope for one of the immortals; but really between 1860 and 1870 it might have been excusable so to take him. In Barchester Towers, especially, there are characters and scenes which go uncommonly near the characters and scenes that do not die. Years later the figure of Mr. Crawley and the scene of the final vanquishing of Mrs. Proudie simulate, if they do not possess, immortal quality. And in the enormous range of the other books earlier and later it would not be difficult to single out a number—a very considerable number—of passages not greatly inferior to these. From almost the beginning until quite the end, Mr. Trollope—whether by diligent contemplation of models, by dexterous study from the life, or by the mere persistent craftsman’s practice which turns out pots till it turns them out flawlessly—showed the faculty of constructing a thoroughly readable story. You might not be extraordinarily enamoured of it; you might not care to read it again; you could certainly feel no enthusiastic reverence for or gratitude to its author. But it was eminently satisfactory; it was exactly what it held itself out to be; it was just what men and women had sent to Mudie’s to get. Perhaps there is never likely to be very much, and still less likely to be too much, of such work about the world.

And yet even such work is doomed to pass,—with everything that is of the day and the craftsman, not of eternity and art. It was not because Mr. Trollope had, as I believe he had in private life, a good deal of the genial Philistine about him, that his work lacks the certain vital signs. We have record of too many artists, up to the very greatest, who took no romantic or sacerdotal view of their art, and who met the demand of the moment as regularly and peaceably as might be. You will no more avoid failure by systematic unbusiness-likeness, than you will secure success by strict attention to business. The fault of the Trollopian novel is in the quality of the Trollopian art. It is shrewd, competent, not insufficiently supported by observation, not deficient in more than respectable expressive power, careful, industrious, active enough. But it never has the last exalting touch of genius, it is every-day, commonplace, and even not infrequently vulgar. These are the three things that great art never is; though it may busy itself with far humbler persons and objects than Mr. Trollope does, may confine itself even more strictly than he does to purely ordinary occurrences, may shun the exceptional, the bizarre, the outré, as rigidly as Miss Austen herself. Indeed, there is a very short road to vulgarity by affecting these last three things; and I think since Mr. Trollope’s time it has been pretty frequently trodden by those who are hastening to the same goal of comparative oblivion which, I fear, he has already reached.


From Chapter XVIII, “Three Mid-Century Novelists (concluded)” in Corrected Impressions: Essays on Victorian Writers by George Saintsbury, published 1898 by Dodd, Mead and Company, New York.