Volume XV · Winter 1960 · Number 2
Thomas A. Trollope: Victorian Man of Letters
--JOHN L. MAHONEY
In the manuscript collection of the University of Rochester Library is an original letter by Thomas Adolphus Trollope, brother of the famous novelist of Victorian England. Written to his friend Richard Bingham, Vicar of Queensborough, Isle of Sheppey, the letter is important and interesting for many reasons, chiefly because it enables one to develop a fuller understanding of the many sides of this extremely versatile man of letters. In this one letter he reveals himself as an intelligent, rather well-rounded critic with sound opinions on art, politics, religion, history, and, of course, literature.
The letter was written on February 25, 1860, from Florence, Italy, a land where he spent a great part of his life. After the usual greetings to his parson friend Bingham, we find him discussing the subject represented in Raphael's "La Fornarina" portrait. He denies the contention that it may have been a portrait of the famous Vittoria Colonna, and suggests as a reference Le Monnier's celebrated edition of Giorgio Vasari's Le vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori e architetti which appeared in Florence between 1846 and 1870. The problem of the identity of La Fornarina, the mistress of Raphael, was a popular one, and Trollope reveals a knowledge not only of the problem, but of the best source books on painting at the time.1
From painting he goes on to discuss religion, the subject having been occasioned by a comment by Bingham concerning "the discovery of the celebrated treatise on the benefits of Christ's death." The reference is specifically to The Benefits of Christ's Death, a treatise published about 1540 and very influential in rendering the doctrine of justification popular in Italy. According to the decree of inquisition, it "treated in an insinuating manner of justification, depreciated works and meritorious acts, ascribed all merit to faith alone, and, as this was the very point which was at that time a stumbling-block to many prelates and monks, obtained extraordinary circulation." Although the question of authorship was always a doubtful one, the decree states that it was written by a monk of Severino, a pupil of the Spaniard Juan Valdez, secretary to the viceroy of Naples. Trollope, very aware of the problem, challenges the opinion of the historian Leopold Ranke concerning the writer of the treatise.2 "Religion," writes Trollope, "and its kindred subjects make a large part of my habitual thoughts."
From professional matters he turns to what he calls "domesticities," referring to his marriage to Theodosia Garrow, a popular authoress of the day whose contributions to magazines like the Athenaeum were many. He gives 1849 as the date of his marriage, whereas it actually occurred April 3, 1848. Trollope speaks also of his own literary career, specifically of his writings in Charles Dickens' All the Year Round.3
The letter closes with his statement, in answer to Bingham's query, that his brother Anthony is the author of The West Indies and the Spanish Main and of a good many novels, and with an admiring tribute, that he is "a fellow worth a couple of me."
This letter, then, provides several interesting insights into this important figure of Victorian England. Thomas Adoiphus Trollope was born in Bloomsbury on April 29, 1810, the eldest son of Thomas Anthony and Frances Trollope.4 Having attended Harrow and Winchester in the early stages of his education, he began his literary career as a contributor to the Hampshire and West of England Magazine.
In September of 1828 he visited New York with his father, returning the next year to enter St. Alban Hall at Oxford. He took his A.B. degree from Magdalen Hall, Oxford, in 1835. After lengthy negotiations and considerable travel he obtained a mastership at King Edward's Grammar School in Birmingham early in 1837. Due largely to his dissatisfaction with his teaching situation and to his mother's proposals for forming a literary partnership, he left the school at Birmingham in 1838 and travelled with his mother, who was the real motive force behind his literary career. During this time he worked for newspapers and magazines, and he published his first book under the editorship of his mother in 1840. In 1844 he became acquainted with Charles Dickens and later contributed to the great novelist's Household Words.
Trollope settled in Florence with his mother in 1843, and, taking Tuscan subjects as his major object of attention, he quickly became one of the most prolific writers of the day. At the same time he maintained an ardent interest in politics, aiding the Italian revolutionary movement by enabling its leaders to maintain contact with friends in England. His marriage to Theodosia Garrow in the spring of 1848 brought him additional income; with it he was able to buy and rebuild a house on the Piazza Maria Antonia at Florence, and the Villino Trollope became the great gathering place for the Brownings, Dickens, George Eliot, and for many other English and foreign authors in Italy. His own literary work was singularly honored by Italy when King Victor Emmanuel bestowed upon him the Order of St. Maurice and St. Lazarus.
After the death of his wife in 1865, Trollope moved to the Villa Ricorboli; he married Frances Eleanor Ternan on October 29, 1866. At this time he was serving as correspondent for The Daily News, and, after leaving Florence finally in 1873, he went to Rome to act in a similar capacity for The Standard. His home in the Via Nazionale became another great resort for English travellers. In 1890, after over forty years away from his native land, he returned to settle in Devonshire. He died at Clifton on November 11, 1892.
Thomas Trollope's literary output is indeed prodigious; his methodical habits of work and the rapidity with which he wrote were familiar to all his contemporaries. Perhaps the sheer amount of his work accounts to some extent for the fact that so much of it has been forgotten. Between 1840 and 1890 he produced some sixty volumes in addition to a very large amount of periodical and journalistic work.
The major work, particularly for the modern reader, is the autobiographical What I Remember, published in three volumes between 1887 and 1889, and presenting in the form of memoirs a sweeping survey of Victorian life.
Actually Trollope's works fall into three major divisions. The first includes his remarkably sensitive travel works like A Summer in Brittany (1840) and Impressions of a Wanderer in Italy, Switzerland, France, and Spain(1850). The second includes his works on history and politics in which, despite certain inaccuracies, he reveals himself as a keen critic of past and present history. His Tuscany in 1849 and 1859 (1859), for example, shows a fairly accurate knowledge of contemporary provincial politics in Italy. Likewise his Filippo Strozzi: A History of the Last Days of the Old Italian Liberty (1860), although weak in certain areas, became a pioneer work in arousing interest in the subject. His novels form a third category. They include La Beata (1861), Marietta(1862), a work highly praised by the London Times, and Durnton Abbey (1871).
And so Trollope's letter to Bingham sheds new and important light on a significant writer in Victorian literature.
- See Joseph Pijoan, History of Art (London: B. T. Batsford Ltd., 1933), III, 189.
- For much of the information on this treatise I am indebted to Leopold Ranke's The Ecclesiastical and Political History of the Popes of Rome (London: John Murray, 1840) I, 140-142.
- See R. C. Lehmann, Charles Dickens as Editor (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1912).
- There is no standard biography of Trollope, although several sources provide important materials concerning the man, his life, and his writings. There is, of course, the brief life in the Dictionary of National Biography, ed. Sidney Lee (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1899), LVII, 249-252. An excellent treatment of the entire Trollope family is Lucy Poate Stebbins' and Richard Poate Stebbins' The Trollopes(New York: Columbia University Press, 1945). Indispensable for anyone seriously interested in Trollope and in the Trollope family history is Thomas Adoiphus Trollope's What I Remember (3 vols., London, 1887-1889).