My Lords, Ladies and Gentleman. It is a very great honour for me to be here tonight to propose the toast to the Trollope Society. I am not sure that it is an honour that I deserve. Many of you will have read and loved Trollope from childhood. I stand before you in the penitential sheet of a late convert who learnt to value him only in middle age.
I read my first Trollope novel, 'The Warden', in adolescence and thought it an enjoyable story, but not to be compared with the delicate irony and more subtle nuances of my favourite novelist Jane Austen. And then about twenty-five years ago I began again with, 'Can You Forgive Her?' and realised with a shock of amazed discovery that I had been unaccountably neglecting a major novelist, and that there lay before me, all undeserving, fascinating and long vistas of delight. I have been exploring them ever since with increasing admiration and pleasure.
But first, as a crime writer, may I add an equally personal, but perhaps irreverent note. Like many Victorians, including Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, Anthony Trollope was interested in crime. Indeed, I would place 'The Eustace Diamonds' and 'Phineas Redux' amongst the most accomplished crime novels of his, or any, age. Trollope could walk as confidently through literature's dark alleys of violence, horror and murder as he could on its sunny and peaceable uplands. Novels which we today call crime novels or thrillers were referred to by Victorians as novels of sensation as opposed to novels of realism. Trollope had little sympathy with this arbitrary allocation of books to categories. In his biography, dealing with this artificial division, he writes, "A novel should be both realistic and sensational and both in the higher degree. Truth let there be. Truth of description, truth of character, truth as to men and women." It is for that essential human truth that the writer even of today's sensational novels must strive if he or she is to have any claim to be regarded as a serious novelist.
But if we can see Trollope as in some sense a crime novelist, he would certainly have had little sympathy with the convention of a classical detective story. He sets out the reasons very convincingly in 'Barchester Towers', "But let the gentle hearted reader be under no apprehension whatsoever. It is not destined that Eleanor will marry Mr Slope or Bertie Stanhope. Perhaps it may be allowed the novelist to explain his views on a very important point on the right of telling tales. He ventures to reprobate that system which goes so far to violate all proper confidence between the author and his reader by maintaining nearly to he end of the first volume a mystery as to the end of their favourite personage." He adds, "Our doctrine is that the author and reader should move along together in full confidence with each other." Alas, in detective fiction that is certainly not the author's doctrine. Far from moving along together in full confidence, the author's intention is to deceive the reader. To make truth seem falsehood, falsehood truth; and to insert with deception cunning if essential facts, information deliberately designed to mislead. The Trollopian method would have been fatal to my last effort. "Gentle reader, do not fear that Lady Ursula Berowne will be arrested for her son's murder. She is in this and other matters, totally innocent." Or, "My reader must not suppose that this sudden gush of blood soaked water from the drainpipe will lead to Father Barnes being unjustly accused of Berowne's murder." No, I do not think that Trollope would have made a detective novelist!.
But, I hope nonetheless that looking down on this dinner from the celestial equivalent of the Garrick Club, he doesn't disapprove too violently of my appearance amongst this distinguished company tonight.
If it is true, as one psychiatrist has told us, that ideally a creative writer should have as much trauma in childhood that he can take without breaking, then Anthony Trollope's early life was an ideal preparation for the profession of letters. He was a child in desperate need of love and encouragement who received very little of either. His proud and sensitive spirit suffered the humiliations and agonies of genteel poverty. He was bullied, beaten and despised at school and undervalued by his family. Physically, he must have felt himself to be unattractive with his shortsight and clumsy body, and he was a man particularly sensitive to beauty in others. No novelist has been better able to convey male beauty and the scene in 'Can You Forgive Her?' when Burgo Fitzgerald befriends a prostitute and looking up into his face, she says, "How beautiful you are. Such as you are never poor," is one of great subtlety and compassion. One of his contemporaries at Harrow has left us with a vivid, and surely accurate, cameo. "I avoided him because I thought he was rude and uncouth. But I thought him an honest, brave fellow. His faults were external, and the rest of him was right enough." He was indeed 'an honest, brave fellow' all his life and that bluff, irascible exterior was a carapace protecting both the scars of early hurt and a peculiarly vulnerable and sensitive heart. The external man was certainly uncompromising. He was never subservient to his superiors nor indulgent to his supporters. We are told that when he became deputy to the Post Office surveyor for the West of Ireland, his visits to village postmasters to investigate individual complaints were greatly dreaded. I would only say we could certainly do with a modern Trollope in the Post Office today.
He is not, of course, without his literary foibles, some of which we deplore - if only with the indulgent smile with which we recognise the minor failings of our friends. The too intrusive authorial voice, the risible names - Doctors Fillgrave and Rerechild, Mr Quiverful -, the occasionally boring sub-plots (which some of us - at least on our first reading - are adept at skipping), and we have to admit that he sometimes wrote too quickly, and he wrote too much. For him, writing was a compulsion. In a letter to his eldest son dated 21st December 1880, he says, "I finished on Thursday the novel I was writing and on Friday I began another. Nothing really frightens me but the idea of enforced idleness. As long as I can write books even if they are not published - I think that I can be happy." As a writer, I am a little sceptical about that, ,,even if they are not published"! But how unimportant are those minor defects set against the magnitude of his achievement as a novelist and seen in the light of what is truly his outstanding virtue, his extraordinary percipience about men and women. In the words of Henry James, "If he was to any degree a man of genius, and I hold that he was, it was in virtue of his happy and instinctive perception of human variety; his knowledge of the stuff we are made of."
And no Victorian novelist - I would dare to say, no other writer of any age - has portrayed his women characters with more sympathy, more understanding, more delicacy, more truth to life. His genius covers women of all ages and across the whole social spectrum. How on earth did he do it? He cannot surely have spent much time with duchesses and aristocracy. but he is as much at home in Gatherum Castle and Matching Priory as he is at Mrs Roper's lodging house, at Barton Crescent, in Mrs Robart's drawing room, at Framley Parsonage or picnicking on the Yarmouth beach with Mrs Greenow and her odd suitors. We are told that Jane Austen never wrote a scene in which men were talking together without women present, because, recognising the limits of her craft, she would not venture into areas of human experience which were alien to her. Anthony Trollope has no such inhibitions, nor has he need of them. When we sit with Lady Glencora Palliser and Alice Vavasor in Lady Glencora's sitting room at Matching Priory and she confides the truth about her marriage with Plantagenet Palliser, we know that every single word is right - character, emotion and art beautifully voiced by a writer whose ear was immaculate. The books abound with similar passages of dialogue between women and there is never a false note.
And all the minor women characters are fully realised human beings.Trollope knew well the humiliations suffered daily by Victorian spinsters of gentle birth but no money. How perceptively he deals with those two companions, Miss Cassewary, the companion to Lady Mabel Grex and the unfortunate Miss MacNulty who has the more onerous job of companion to Lizzie Eustace. They might be forced to live in servitude, but they are not entirely servile. They have to sell their time and their company, but they retain sufficient self-respect to live by and all their courage.
And this mention of Miss Cassewary, leads me to say a word in favour of Lady Mabel Grex, truly with Lady Glencora Palliser among the most successful women characters - not only in Trollope, but in all Victorian fiction. I have never quite forgiven Lord Silverbridge for not marrying Lady Mab. Admittedly, I do not expect much sympathy for this view from this overwhelmingly masculine company. All men readers seem to be enchanted by the vivacious and attractive Isabel Boncassen and I accept that the Palliser blood probably benefited by the infusion of that American vitality and intelligence. Both girls were too good for Lord Silverbridge, but Lady Mab knew it. She had a self-knowledge, an honesty, and intelligence, a wit, which places her among my favourite women characters in fiction. She is certainly among the most tragic.
There is one interesting aspect of Trollope's treatment of women which has always intrigued me. He seems to have agreed with Lily Dale that once a girl has given her love, she is irrevocably committed. We know that Lily can be perversely masochistic - although I think she was perfectly right not to marry John Eames - but I am not sure that the author didn't, in fact, sympathise with her insistence on absolute fidelity even to a faithless lover. And he sometimes shows too a curious ambivalence about marriage, born, I am sure, of those early humiliating experiences of poverty. What he seems to have valued is the period of courtship, and his romantic ideal of maidenly first love. marriage is sometimes seen, less as a fulfilment of that love than as its destruction. More than once in 'The Small House at Allington 'Trollope uses the metaphor of the calf ready for the knife with blue ribbons round his horns and neck, led, helpless, to the altar. He knew of course that Augustus Crosby in his betrayal of Lily Dale acted like a cad. But he makes us understand the man's temptation. "He must give up his clubs and his fashion and all that he had hitherto gained, be content to live a plain , humdrum, domestic life with £800 a year and a small house full of babies." Trollope never overlooked the reality of marriage for the poor Victorian man - 'a small house full of babies' on the wrong side of the Park; and if he is realistic about Victorian marriage, he is also one of the few novelists of the age to make us feel the reality of his women characters' sexual needs.
He could not of course write about sex with today's uninhibited frankness (which some of us find depressingly unerotic), but we have no doubt of the reality of the physical love which Lady Mabel Grex and Lady Mary Palliser feel for Frank Tregear, Lucy Robarts for Lord Lufton, Lady Glencora for Burgo Fitzgerald. And if he can convey with subtlety the reality of physical passion, so he can show us also the frightening face of sexual repulsion, most notably in that remarkable scene in 'Can You Forgive Her?' when George Vavasor visits his cousin Alice after she has renewed their engagement and tries to force her into accepting his kiss.
The Palliser and Barchester series of novels alone surely confirm Anthony Trollope as one of the finest natural psychologists - perhaps the finest -who has ever written in the English language. And no novelist has given us a clearer picture of his age. He was neither a clergyman, nor a son of the church, Yet if we wish to understand 19th century churchmen, their daily lives and preoccupations (if not perhaps their theological or spiritual uncertainties) then we go to the country rectories and vicarages of Barset, to the Close and the Deanery of Barchester. Trollope's only personal experience of politics was his unsuccessful bid for the Beverley constituency in the Liberal cause, yet no novelist- not even Disraeli - has shown us more clearly the parliamentary life of his age, or has described with a truer touch the men, great, small, noble and ignoble who made that world the focus of their earthly ambitions. And those detractors who see Trollope as the comfortable delineator of Victorian orthodoxies, creating for us the nostalgic, secure and ordered world in which to escape from our present problems and uncertainties, have not read 'The Way We Live Now', or that brilliant study of possessive jealousy, 'He Knew He Was Right', or Trollope's description - at times almost too painful to read - of the Rev. Josiah Crawley's bitter poverty and near madness in 'The Last Chronicle of Barset'.
I asked earlier, "How did he do it?" Few writers have been as frank about their craft as Trollope, and he himself has given us a hint of an answer. "He the novelist desires to make his readers so intimately acquainted with his characters that the creatures of his brain should be to them speaking, moving, living human creatures. This he can never do unless he knows these fictitious personages himself and he can never know them unless he can live with them in the full reality of established intimacy. They must be with him as he lies down to sleep and as he wakes from his dreams. The length and the breadth and the narrowness and shallowness of each should be clear to him. And, as here in our outer world, we know that men and women change become worse or better as temptation or conscience may guide them, so should these creatures of his change and every change should be noted by him." But this, of course, is only part of the answer. The question is by what mysterious empathy was he able to know them so intimately? Particularly his women. And here I think we look for the truest answer to E M Forster's 'The Raison d'Etre of Criticism in the Arts'. He writes: "What about the creative state? In it a man is taken out of himself. He lets down, as it were, a bucket into his subconscious. He draws up something which is normally beyond his reach. He mixes this in with his normal experiences, and out of this mixture he makes a work of art. And when the process is over, when the picture or symphony or lyric or novel or whatever it is, is complete, the artist looking back on it, will wonder how on earth he did it. And, indeed, he did not do it on earth." The shortsighted eyes behind the heavy spectacles looked into the hearts of men and women without sentimentality, without self deception, and saw them as they were. He is not a reformer and not a crusader. He says to us, "This is what the world is like and this is how men and women make the best and the worst. " He shows us ourselves as we were in his time and as we arc today, in all our infinite variety. Our aspirations after decency and goodness, our pride and worldy ambition, our mixed motives and self deceptions, our occasional acts of humility and grace. He knew that the Archdeacon who stood by his father's bedside while the minutes ticked away his chance of succeeding him as Bishop of Barchester was the same man who sank to his knees and prayed that he might be forgiven for willing his father's death. Trollope provides, as do all great novelists, that moral dimension which both justifies and glorifies the art of fiction. His novels will endure as long as men and women have an interest in that stuff of which we are made and the social world in which we play out our tragicomedy. Again, in the words of Henry James, "He remains one of the most trustworthy, although not the most eloquent, of the writers who have helped the heart of man to know itself." My Lords, Ladies and Gentleman, it has been a very great privilege for me as a writer to take part tonight in this celebration of a great novelist and a stout-hearted and courageous Englishman. The toast is, 'The Trollope Society!'