Writing habits: Anthony Trollope

Dec 5, 2009 | Fiction/Lit/Movies, Workflow

I started a post comparing the writing habits of Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens, and Ernest Hemingway, but I found that for each writer the most interesting theme about their writing was unique to them. Trollope is a machine. Dickens is concerned primarily with his medium. Hemingway is–well, he’s Hemingway. So I split it into three posts. This one is on Trollope.

When my Victorian Realism seminar got to the topic of Trollope’s crazy writing habits, I was reminded of comments I have often read from writers about what it’s like to write. It seems to me that if you ask an amateur writer, they’ll say something along the lines of how a writer can’t help but write; they are compelled to sit down at a computer (or a typewriter, a pad of paper, a pile of napkins, or whatever) and write for hours each day, because they just can’t help themselves. It’s like a drug fix. This has always seemed to me to be a silly myth. From what I’ve read about working, successful writers, they admit that it is, in fact, pretty difficult to soldier on through the drudgery of putting thousands of words to a page, again and again, until finally those thousands of words add up to a completed draft of a novel.

So, with that said, what I have here are a few writing habits that I’ve found to be pretty interesting. However, I suppose what I have here is not what would normally be considered the wildest or most unique set of writing habits (e.g., Michael Ondaatje’s literally cutting and pasting his stuff with scissors and tape) so much as habits about the grind of producing a completed, coherent text.

Anthony Trollope

Just a note that I’m getting a good deal of my info from a book called The Novel Machine: The Theory and Fiction of Anthony Trollope by Walter Kendrick and from Trollope’s Autobiography.

Over the course of his life Anthony “the machine” Trollope wrote 47 novels and 16 other books. For about the first 20 years after the publication of his first novel in 1847, while he continued working as a novelist, he also maintained a full-time job with the Civil Service in the Post Office, a job he actually took a great deal of pride in. Here’s how he did it: Trollope paid a servant an extra ¬£5 a year to wake him up at 5:30 am every morning and get him a cup of coffee. Trollope would then work on a novel for three hours. The first half hour was spent reading over what he had already written, and after that he wrote at a pace of 250 words per 15 minutes. So, over three hours, he would write approximately 2,500 words. According to him, it “allowed me to produce over ten pages of an ordinary novel volume a day, and if kept up through ten months, would have given as its results three novels of three volumes each in the year” (An Autobiography 272). He admits that he never did write more than three novels in any one year, but, like, c’mon man, give him some slack. He was pretty darn prolific.

Like other novelists of his time, Trollope’s works have been associated with attempts to convey “the real.” (A lot of this part now is sort of an off-shoot from class discussion.) To do this, he tried to reduce the significance of the physical text (the signifier) as much as possible. He “lived” with his characters (the signified) in his imagination all day, every day. Then he would put his characters to paper as fast as he could, over the span of a few hours every morning, as if doing so reduced the obtrusiveness of the text. To Trollope, a text should just be a clear window to its characters. He was very pleased by a comment of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, who said Trollope’s novels were 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 being made a show of” (qtd. in An Autobiography 145). Trollope seemed to enjoy living with his characters in his imagination, but considered the physical act of writing to be a job to be done as quickly and efficiently as possible.

This is kind of funny when you actually read his books and notice the way his narrators often directly address the reader and reveal the very artificial and constructed aspects of the novel. My favourite are his narratorial intrusions that completely break a novel’s flow: “How easily would she have forgiven and forgotten the archdeacon’s suspicions had she but heard the whole truth from Mr. Arabin. But then where would have been my novel?” (Barchester Towers II.32). Or, in the conclusion of the same novel, he says “The end of a novel, like the end of a children’s dinner-party, must be filled with sweet meats and sugar plums” (II.266). Addresses like these blatantly show the reader that the plot is unfolding the way it is purely for the sake of art and fulfilling the rules of the genre, and not for the sake of being “real.”[1] (I was also amused to learn just how much this drove Henry James bonkers.) I should add, though, that Trollope wasn’t big on plot; it is a common criticism against him, and he openly admits to using plot purely as a vehicle for his characters.

This is my own interpretation, now, but it seems to me that “plot” was too caught up in literary conventions for Trollope’s taste. We all know the novel is going to end in a marriage, and that the ambitious, scheming chaplain won’t get the girl, so why bother pretending otherwise? Let’s just admit that the heroine isn’t going to fall for the bad guy and move on (Trollope does exactly this in Barchester Towers). Let’s focus on the characters, because that’s where there is actually some freedom to represent something “real.” The plot is too pre-determined by the traditions of the novel. Most of the interruptions from the narrator that highlight the story’s fabricated aspect focus on its plot. The characters, however, are completely “real,” and it’s not a coincidence that it his characters whom Trollope purports to have lived with everyday in his imagination.


[1] Compare that to the Chapter 17 digression in Adam Bede, where George Eliot breaks the flow of the narrative to do the exact opposite; defending the actions of her characters because, though their actions may not create a thrilling, romantic narrative, they supposedly create a more “real” one.

Some Stuff I Cited:

Kendrick, Walter M. The Novel Machine: The Theory and Fiction of Anthony Trollope. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1980. Print.

Trollope, Anthony. An Autobiography. Ed. Michael Sadleir and Frederick Page. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.

– – – . Barchester Towers. Ed. Michael Sadleir and Frederick Page. 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.