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Introduction by John Sutherland
Frontispiece – Photograph of Anthony Trollope by Julia Margaret Cameron in 1864
First published: Blackwood, Edinburgh and London, 1883, 2v
That I, or any man, should tell everything of himself I hold to be impossible … [but] nothing I shall say shall be untrue.
The early chapters of Trollope’s version of his life resound with the miseries of his childhood. Everything his father Thomas touched resulted in disaster: his law practice having failed he turned to farming in Harrow, but that too was doomed. The family moved constantly, a few steps ahead of the bailiffs, and Thomas descended into a pathological depression which left the burden of keeping the family afloat increasingly upon Trollope’s mother Fanny. Several of her children were sickly, and the more physically robust Anthony perceived himself as all but ignored. The resentment he felt burns strongly in these early pages.
When the family briefly decamped to America, the teenaged Anthony was left alone with his father in London, and the author says school bills went unpaid, that he became a pariah at school.
In 1834 Trollope secured a post as a junior clerk in the Post Office. He skilfully glosses over this period, but it was probably the lowest ebb in his life: he had little money, he ran up debts, and probably had unsuitable liaisons with several women. All Trollope will tell us is that ‘dirt’ attached to him, that he was a ‘hobbledehoy’.
As a last gamble, Trollope applied for a job as Postal Surveyor in Ireland, (an unpopular posting) and his life was magically transformed: ‘all these evils went away from me.’ He began, tentatively at first, to write fiction; he applied himself to his job; he met and married his wife Rose, about whom he refuses to say anything. He is anxious to show how he turned his life around, and his tone changes, becomes more authoritative. He tells us his theories on the writing of fiction; his working methods – his meticulous time-sheets, his plot break-downs, the amounts of money he is so obviously proud to have earned; and we get his candid – mostly wrong-headed – opinions about his own novels.
But the proud author of these chapters inadvertently shows us another picture of himself, a man who is laceratingly sensitive and insecure. Here he is on some minor incident of humiliation at school: ‘All that was fifty years ago, and it burns me now as though it were yesterday.’
An Autobiography reveals, directly and indirectly, the author’s intense vulnerability, doubtless deriving from the neglect he perceived in his childhood. R.H. Super’s 1988 biography of Trollope dismisses An Autobiography as untrustworthy, yet The Rev. W. Lucas Collins, a close family friend, wrote to Trollope’s son Henry after reading the manuscript which Trollope had left for posthumous publication. Collins wrote: ‘Every word reveals to me the man himself, his warm heart, sterling honesty, abhorrence of meanness and injustice and even his prejudices.’