Francesca Simon

Anthony & Me ~ 33rd AGM Annual Lecture with Francesca Simon

Francesca Simon is the author of the Horrid Henry series of children’s books and an avid fan of Anthony Trollope, whose work ethic inspired her to achieve her literary goals.

In the ongoing global health crisis, the Trollope Society took its AGM online for the first time and, in another innovation, featured not a lecture but a conversation between author Francesca Simon and Society Chair Dominic Edwardes.

Dominic: Welcome Francesca. You have a very personal relationship with Trollope. How has he influenced you as a person?

Francesca: I do. I love Trollope. In fact, I always have his picture at my desk as I find him a very inspiring and warm presence in my life. We are on first name terms, as I’m sure he’s on first name terms with many of you. I met Anthony in the late 70s when I came to Oxford to do a second degree in Old and Middle English and I was staying with some family friends. They mentioned that they thought their house had inspired The Small House at Allington. I’d never heard of Trollope or this house but I thought, “Well I must try to read this guy”, and it was a total revelation to me because I found Trollope to be like my spirit guide to the perplexing place where I now found myself because I found Britain incredibly confusing and Trollope clarified a lot of things for me.
I couldn’t understand the class system. It made no sense to me.
I also couldn’t understand, for example, that as my family were immigrants to America, it was a kind of point of pride that my grandmother left school at 12 and my uncles worked in a factory and their children were teachers and writers. Yet when I told people this, I could just see them slightly tense up. I couldn’t understand that normally in Britain, for a lot of people, if you have family who worked in factories and have a very working-class background that this would be something they would want to hush up.
Trollope really clarified, for example, the status of doctors and lawyers, who have very high status in America, but in Trollope they are treated as upper-servants. They would come and dine with you once a year because they were effectively at your beck and call. I found Trollope a guide to navigating how to function in Britain.
There was also the whole attitude towards Commerce which, again, was confusing to me and with Trollope everything is very crystal clear except that the Commerce that people engage in is the buying and selling of their children – arranging marriages – as opposed to the buying and selling of material goods.
Given that I ended up staying in this country, which I hadn’t expected to do, Trollope really helped in that sense, helping me to make historical sense of this society of which I seemed to be part and yet couldn’t really understand what was going on. Even though his novels were written 150 years ago, those sort of traits in British society were still very much in evidence.
I think one reason I’ve never connected to a writer in the way that I’ve connected to Trollope is that I’ve never felt that kind of intimate warm connection to someone like that whom I was just grabbing as my husband from another century – as long as I could deal with the hunting problem! I very much responded to the fact that he was such an outsider even though he was kind of in and out in terms of his family and to the strangeness that he must have felt having his mother be the support of the family.
Another connection was that when I first came to England, I really had no money. A friend of mine at Oxford took me aside and asked me if I could please stop talking all the time about how much things cost. I hadn’t realised it but I was so obsessed with the fact that I had so little money and was trying to stretch it out. Trollope is, of course, very interested in money and I felt that kind of kinship with him – that there was this real understanding of how I was living and what I was going through: noting every single thing I spent and just how tight money was.
Another aspect of Trollope is that he often lets us in on his characters’ internal thinking. There are both the “inside characters” (the real person) and the “outside characters” (the public persona) with a divide between the two parts. Letting us inside, making the reader party to the characters’ decision-making process, enabling you to identify with them, I think is one of Trollope’s massive strengths. He’s very alert to how hard it is to make a decision – the way people go back and forth and I think that’s very true to life except it’s quite hard to capture. I always think of the scene in The American Senator where Lord Rufford, who is adamant that there’s no way he’s going to be tricked into marriage with Arabella Trefoil and then he has these moments where he is thinking, “Well, maybe I should marry her. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. She’d let me smoke my cigar. I could go hunting. I’ve got to marry someone. Would it be so terrible?” That is the kind of indecisiveness that I mean. The only other person I think who captures it as well is Tolstoy, who was a big fan of Trollope.
Indeed, I think a lot of Trollope’s novels aren’t plot driven so much as character driven but the decision making – how people actually decide what it is they’re going to do and not do – is just extraordinary. The way he lets his characters live and breathe. He allows them this three-dimensional life. Even his comedy characters you feel that at any moment they could breakout from whatever restraint that they had. So I think he’s a marvel about decisions and how decisions are made. Personally, I’m quite indecisive and married to someone who is very decisive and I’ve never really understood that decisiveness because I find it very hard to make decisions then, when I make them, I always go back on them and regret them and re-examine them. I feel Trollope captures that sense of it being hard sometimes to make big decisions and not be aware of all the different pathways. We often talk of Trollope’s rich characterization and about how Trollope understands people’s motivations but it’s that decision making, before the action, that is actually key.

Dominic: Think about making the decisions many characters face about marriage. Trollope is a master of the marriage market so do you think that Trollope’s portrayal of the marriage market is relevant to us today?

Francesca: I think it could not be more relevant because it’s laid out there for you about who you can marry, what’s the best you can do. He’s got real clarity on it and one of the things I realised with Trollope, bearing in mind that when I started reading him I was in my early 20s and carrying on reading him as I get older, was this stunning revelation that your choices don’t necessarily get better as you get older. They actually can get worse. I think people often feel that, “I’ve got to wait. There’s someone better. I’m not going to settle for that when there must be the right person down the line.” Again, in The American Senator, Arabella Trefoil has turned down this guy and that guy, one after another, always trying to hit the jackpot, marriage wise, and then her choices start getting worse and I think Trollope captures that sense of almost panic that women can feel. It’s not obviously as bad now as it was in Victorian times but it still strips away a lot of things and Trollope’s very sensitive to that: about how hard it is if you don’t marry but also how hard it is to marry. There is that worry about is someone out of your league? Who am I worthy of? In Trollope’s terms it’s all about money or it is people trading status for money which, again, I found fascinating. For example, you’ve got loads of money but you’ve come from a manufacturing background whereas I’m an impoverished aristocrat. Okay, I think I think we can make a bargain here.
People still to this day measure up each other. I remember when I was an undergraduate at Yale and people were definitely looked down upon if they were found to be dating someone who wasn’t also at an Ivy League college. There was a sense of “What’s wrong with you? What am I missing here?” And people just don’t say yet it’s very explicit. I think Trollope is really great at helping people make sense of the world that we live in today because people do measure up other people. They may not be judging how much money they have because it wouldn’t be known but in other ways.
More importantly, perhaps, Trollope’s kind to these women and what they have to do, in what they’re trying to do. I think that that’s something which Julian Fellowes mentions in his choice of excerpt for the Pick Up A Trollope campaign when he talks about Mabel Grex in The Duke’s Children. Trollope understands why she has to act the way she does. With all those women, even if he describes them as “she’s an adventuress” or she’s after money, there are always moments where you know, whatever he thinks of Arabella Trefoil, there’s no question that he has tremendous sympathy for this horrible position that she is in through no fault of her own. You know her fear of being out on the street which, if she failed to find a husband, she would be. So his description of the marriage market really does transcend time – it’s just we don’t call it the marriage market now – but if you consider the things going on now, it is still a marriage market. People swipe left and swipe right but you know they’re making those judgments about people they don’t know but you can see how people do evaluate each other, and maybe the criteria are different, but you know people trade money for status, of course they do.

Dominic: Thinking about the campaign which you were kind enough to take part in, you selected the final paragraph of The last Chronicle of Barset for your Pick Up a Trollope excerpt. Can you tell us why that was?

Francesca: I spent a summer reading all the Barsetshire novels and then all the Palliser novels, that’s 12 big hunky novels, and I was sitting on holiday in France getting to the end of The Last Chronicle of Barset and starting to feel very emotional about it. Anthony and I had been together now quite a long time and it was like our time together was drawing to an end and then finally to be on the last page and to actually see this phrase which I will read which says:
“And now, if the reader will allow me to seize him affectionately by the arm, we will together take our last farewell of Barset and of the towers of Barchester.”
And I burst into tears because I really felt somehow that I was being spoken to from the grave. It was probably the most powerful moment I’ve ever had as a reader. It was exactly like my thoughts had been read. “Gosh I’m feeling really emotional about leaving these books, leaving Barsetshire, leaving this world that I’ve been in and then to have him from the page sort of take me by the arm. I was really bowled over by that. Also the boldness of the narrator – thinking about it less emotionally – the boldness of the narrator reaching a hand out from the book and speaking directly to me. It was quite an amazing moment. So I had to choose that excerpt, even though I wouldn’t say it’s my favourite novel of his, but it is absolutely my most Trollopian moment.

Dominic: Moving from reading Trollope to his influence on you as a writer. What does Trollope mean to you a writer and has he influenced your writing or writing technique?

Francesca: Trollope often talks about the process of writing and in the Autobiography he focuses on that but he also talks using his authorial voice. I think it is in Barchester Towers that he says “I’m cudgelling my brain for the last few chapters” and those sorts of things. His most profound influence on me is probably his attitude to writing. To explain, my father is a screenwriter and playwright and I grew up in a household in California where, basically, my father’s work was sacrosanct. You couldn’t bother him. My father had zero responsibilities other than to write and so I thought that’s what writing was. You were in this little Citadel and you waited for inspiration and it was this hard process. Then, when I discovered that Trollope, far from waiting for some kind of muse to come down, could not have been more down to earth or practical. He wrote while he had a full-time job for over 30 years in the Post Office. He got up early. He put his watch down. He wrote to a word count. I found that miraculous and inspiring because I have a very similar attitude to writing.
I also loved that he had a full-time job because most writers today have to do other things. I taught English as a foreign language. I was a journalist. My husband and I shared childcare. I was fitting in writing around all these other things exactly as Trollope did. He just made it so matter of fact. I know that people have sneered at Trollope for that but to me it was completely the reverse. I couldn’t have idolised him more for writing 250 words every 15 minutes (which is a ton of words). I don’t know how he did that.
I also love that he could write anywhere. I know that Jacqueline Wilson can write on trains but Trollope wrote everywhere. He was very matter of fact. This is a job. He said it would not seem more absurd if the Shoemaker were to wait for inspiration and I thought, “Yes. Writing, it’s like making shoes. You just sit down and do it. I’ve never believed in writer’s block. Sometimes you have trouble. Sometimes it’s difficult but there’s always a solution eventually if you just sit down and do it. I found that fantastic and it was a revelation to me. If I hadn’t encountered Trollope, I’d probably have thought my father’s example was the only way that you could be a writer. It had to be this dedicated calling to be creative and I’m really not about that at all.
I also loved that he cared about money because I think for a lot of writers there’s an expectation that somehow they’re just going to do things for free and the work isn’t valued. Their time isn’t valued. For example, practically every day I get a notification that someone has ripped off my books. They download them illegally. It’s terrible. But Trollope was very fierce about this issue, that his work had value and that, not as an artist but actually as someone who worked, he deserved to be paid for his work. I think that’s a really, really important thing and all writers should take that to heart. Otherwise writing becomes a very privileged thing that you can only do if you have a private income. Writers should be paid and Trollope was again ferocious about that and, again, I admire him even more as opposed to thinking “Oh gosh, that’s really not quite right, is it?” I’m totally the reverse so I love everything about his attitude to writing and how he wrote.

Dominic: Absolutely. I think Trollope also had a love of work itself beyond writing and I can recall Plantagenet Palliser talking about the value of work and what people will pay is the value so this is something obviously which is better ran right through Trollope. I want to turn now to the narrative voice, which is something which many people reading Trollope, and who don’t like Trollope, find intrusive. I wondered what you think it contributes to his writing and is it a technique that you that you use?

Francesca: I’d love to say that I had a narrative technique. I think that Trollope’s narrator is quite funny and I’ve explored the idea of a narrator as a character. In terms of my Horrid Henry books, I discovered almost by accident that Horrid Henry wasn’t funny at all, that it was the narrative voice that was funny. I only realised this when someone once asked me to write a diary of Horrid Henry – a day in the life of Horrid Henry. So I wrote it and it couldn’t have been flatter. It was just boring and banal. Then I realised that so much of the humour is his internal voice and the narrator isn’t a separate character in the way that he is in Trollope.
Thinking about what kind of a warm relationship a narrator can have with the reader was really very interesting to me – and impishness because I’m quite an impish person – so I liked the way Trollope had this very confident voice and this warmth. He can be quite subversive as well so, altogether, it was like being with the most fun friend and him taking you through this story.
I will add that my own limit is that I try to write 500 words a day – so much, much less controlled than Trollope. I have a much lower limit and it’s not so much a limit but my goal, so that I always know I can exceed it, but that I will always sit down and write. Trollope, on the other hand, is so disciplined. I think he did 2500 words a day. I do not know how he managed that number but I think that you can always sit down and write. Knowing what is a manageable amount is a great insight. I looked at that quote that seems absolutely apposite here. Trollope says, “A daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.”
It’s quite daunting. I’ve lost count of how many books I’ve written but it’s over 60. It’s probably 70 now. And if you think about writing a book, it is quite daunting but if you have a modest goal every day, it means you will always do it because it doesn’t take that long and you always have enough time to do that small thing. It’s so easy to say, “Oh well I’ve got to do this. I’ve got that phone call at two and, gosh, I really need to clean the kitchen.” You can make up all kinds of excuses, whereas, if you have a small word count you think, “Okay I can fit that in.” Then the pages really do pile up as opposed to thinking “This task is overwhelming.” A lot of people who want to write can start something and they never finish. They get overwhelmed by the task and it’s much easier to write if you don’t think about that – if you just start like Trollope and say, “Yeah, I’m just going to sit down and do it.” Even if it’s terrible. You just sit down. You just write it. Put it in a big box. I have boxes by my desk and I just throw the pages in and it’s fun to see them mount up.

Dominic: Trollope is also interested in the small details – the minutiae of life. How do you feel about this? With his intimate knowledge of his characters does that help make the characters in his work more relevant to us today even through the 150 years since they were written?

Francesca: One of the things that– that I think is a big mistake is to try to be universal. I actually think it’s much more interesting to be very specific. Trollope is unbelievably alert to what people are wearing and describing them. One of my favourites is in Miss Mackenzie. She is this dried up spinster of 35 who gets some money and decides that she wants to live it up so she goes to Bath where she then gets 3 suitors. But one of her suitors has bright yellow kid gloves, which I’ve always thought was the most fantastic detail because it tells her that he’s not quite right, class-wise. No gentleman would really wear bright yellow kid gloves so it’s a fantastic detail. Trollope has an eye for clothes and for hair and teeth. Victoria Glendinning, in her wonderful biography, talks about this in the preface – about why Trollope was so obsessed with teeth – he was letting you know if someone had false teeth or not. I would have missed that. He’s really good on that kind of detail which again is a clue for you about the characters.
I don’t think I’m that great at description. I think I’m better than I think I am but I tend to like doing dialogue more than describing people. I describe people very lightly and partly, as I write for children who get bored with long descriptions, it would have to be for a very specific reason if I did so, but I admire Trollope’s precision.
It’s an odd thing, almost counter intuitive, but anyone who’s familiar with Horrid Henry will see that in Tony Ross’s drawings there’s always a lot of tech. Henry loves watching TV but all Tony’s drawings are a bit like emojis – it’s like a symbol – so he does these big, fat, chunky old televisions. And telephones are old fashioned telephones because nothing dates a book more than tech. If he tried to do an iPhone it would be out of date the next year whereas doing something that almost symbolises a phone keeps it very fresh. We’ve never changed that. Henry’s been going for 26 years and we have never ever changed any of the drawings that show things. For example, his car, again, would have an emoji feel to it – and this is pre- emoji era, so I think that we can extrapolate from the particular to the general. When we were talking earlier about marriage: obviously marriage is different now than it was in Trollope’s time but the issues are the same and by being very, very specific about exactly what was happening, it clarifies things for us in our own lives. So I’m a big fan of not trying to be everything to everybody. Horrid Henry is really popular all over the world, with people of the most diverse backgrounds but I have never hidden the fact that Horrid Henry is a middle-class, British kid. That is what he is. He’s got a traditional family but there’s something very universal about that: fight to the death with your brother, and sibling rivalry, and parents wanting you to do things. Someone described it as like Cain and Abel but you know you’ve hit on these universal aspects and it doesn’t actually matter where someone is from or what their background is, people can relate to those really fundamental issues in the way that we can relate to Trollope and his characters even if we’re not bishops.
I think that it’s wonderful we can relate to his characters. He often provides a guide to living. He also had a lot to teach about behaviour and choices. Choosing to be good. Choosing to do the right or the wrong thing. So there’s a moral dimension running through which in many writers there isn’t. He’s very aware of how hard it is to live and the struggles that people have. The financial struggles that people have to live. A lot of books or television programmes gloss over that. Remember in Friends when people had these vague jobs but lived in enormous apartments in Manhattan. You have to ask: “How are they living? Their lives would not be like that.” Trollope would be right there with everybody struggling. I think he is very aware of the struggles that people have both to maintain their position in society but also just how to survive. You feel it coming from his books because he really experienced that – about how hard it is to live. if you want your life to be in any way aspirational, but even also just day to day survival, he’s very aware of those pressures.

Dominic: Thank you, Francesca, for those fascinating insights, for giving us a writer’s perspective on Trollope.

Main photo: Francesca Simon © Helen Giles

First published in Trollopiana Issue 118, January 2021