The Life and Times of Anthony Trollope through the Obsessive Focus of a Collector

The 28th Annual Lecture of The Trollope Society was given by Geordie Greig following the AGM at the National Liberal Club on 29th October. Geordie is the editor of The Mail on Sunday and, as he confessed at the outset of his lecture, an obsessive collector of all things Trollope.

Geordie reminded everyone that 1815 marked the bicentenary of a smokey battle somewhere in Belgium that was allegedly won on the playing fields of Eton but that he was more concerned with the bicentenary of the busiest man of Victorian letters whose supreme powers of observation, compassion and strong moral compass were evident in all his writing. This he accomplished while holding down a day job and in these two roles he successfully changed the landscape of England: primarily by adding the fictional county of Barsetshire to England’s geography, and secondly by populating it with pillar boxes.

Trollope was also ahead of, and perhaps inspired, the current fashion for beards, as he sported arguably the most recognisable beard of the nineteenth century.

It is appropriate that the lecture should be delivered at the National Liberal Club in view of Trollope’s third, and least successful career, as a would be Liberal politician, although his hopes in that direction were dashed at the Beverley by-election.

Geordie admitted that he was sure others in the audience would be far better read in the Trollopian canon and so thought he must answer the question “why me?” to explain his presence. Imagine, he said, a meeting somewhat akin to those of Alcoholics Anonymous. Geordie would stand up and introduce himself to such a meeting. ‘My name is Geordie and I am an Addict.’ He is addicted to collecting Trollope. First editions. Letters. Editions of magazines in which Trollope is serialised.  Part-works.

Geordie blamed his father, who started reading Trollope in the 1960s. He, like his father subscribes to the view put forward by Graham Greene, that Trollope is for the discerning reader in middle age. He therefore did not start to read Trollope’s novels himself until nearly twenty years later.  At this point he began to share in his father’s obssessive collecting. The upshot of this lifetime’s devotions was that he was able to lend items to the British Library for their exhibition to commemorate the bicentenary.  Indeed, he thinks of himself as a custodian of such artefacts rather than an owner. He argued that collectors, far from hoarding things away, are much more emotionally connected with the things they collect. In this, collectors are as unlike libraries or museums, which have a cold academic interest, as can be.

HOwever, collecting can get out of hand. Take Kept in the Dark as an example. Geordie has a copy of the novel in its serialised form in the magazine Good Words.  This comes complete with the outer advertising and suffers from minor foxing (the appearance of small brownish spots and blemishes on older paper) and a few small tears on a number of pages. He also has a US first edition which was published before the completion of the serialisation in Good Words in the UK. But the gold standard for this novel is the Harpers Weekly edition in which it was serialised, which recreates the world of Anthony Trollope through both sight and feel. Few copies of this survive and all are in the hands of obsessives like himself: Trollope Collecting Addicts (“TCAs”) who are an intense little group.

The bible for such collectors is Michael Sadleir’s  1928 Bibliogaphy of Trollope. It is masterly and authoratative, and largely responsible for resurrecting Trollope’s reputation from the doldrums in which it had languished since the publication of Trollope’s own Autobiography in which he described himself and his approach to writing as that of a journeyman craftsman rather than conform to the heroic artist model. The Bibliography is an essential tool for collectors.  Through it, one may trace editions of Nina Balatka  and Linda Tressel, both of which were first published anonymously “to see if I could succeed” a second time as Trollope notes in his Autobiography. He couldn’t, it transpired and sales were dire until the books were repackaged with Trollope’s name featuring prominently on the cover. Copies of these originals were last seen at auction some 25 years ago and were bought by an anonymous collector.

The Holy Grails of Trollope, for collectors, are first editions of the three earliest novels (The Macdermots of BallycloranThe Kellys and the O’Kellys and La Vendee, which were printed in small quantities and failed to sell. Another is the part-work version of Ralph the Heir published in St Pauls magazine, copies of which are “vanishingly rare”. There is also a small private limited edition of How the Mastiffs Went To Iceland published in 1878 of which there is only a single known copy with the original plain eggshell blue dust jacket and bright blue cloth binding. To give some idea of the importance of the dust jacket, copies without the dust jacket might be worth £600 but with the dust jacket it is worth perhaps £10,000. (By way of comparison, a first edition of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale would be worth £700 without the dust jacket but at auction a copy with the original dust jacket might fetch between £30,000 and £40,000.)

Geordie recounted how, when he can’t get to sleep, instead of counting sheep he runs through the alphabet using Trollope titles. The American Senator, Barchester Towers, Can You Forgive Her? and so on. All goes well till he gets to “U”.  There is no U!

He also has expanded his range of interests to encompass other family members who were authors: Fanny Trollope – Anthony’s mother, Frances Trollope – his sister-in-law, Thomas Adolphus Trollope – his brother. Thomas Anthony Trollope – his father (who, amongst other items wrote a history of the Port of Bristol, which as a resident of Bristol I will have to track down). Anthony’s grandfather Rhys William Milton also got in on the act with his patents on carriage wheels.

Geordie then tried to address why he collects Trollope. He says it affords him glimpses into Trollope’s life. There is an undoubted frisson at feeling closer to the man and sharing in fractions of his life. He feels that the items in his collection are like archaeological treasures that tell him more about the storyteller.  He has a sense of holding the keys to a time long past that made the man. From them you can reconstruct what Trollope was doing at specific times.

For example, on 20 March 1834 Trollope returned home to find the bailiffs seizing the family’s possessions. He joined in the efforts to frustrate the bailiffs by carrying stuff away out of the back door as the bailiffs did the same out of the front. Geordie has a copy of a book signed by the young Anthony Trollope entitled The Lives of English Pirates and Highwaymen. That this book has survived and is now in the hands of collectors is probably because it was sold by the bailiffs and was missed by Trollope when, on 18 April 1834, he and other family members raided the home to try to secure back more of their possessions.

Another, poignant, reminder of the tragedies that beset the family in those days is a prayer book which includes an inscription by his mother Fanny saying that the book had been left by her own father on his death to her son Arthur William Trollope, who survived his grandfather by only ten days. This book ended up with Anthony – presumably it was one of those grabbed back in 1834 – as it includes also Anthony’s own bookplate, added after he himself had achieved success as an author.  It therefore records the history of the family through tragedy, poverty and success.

Other books from Anthony’s library include many with the bookplate of his friend Robert Bell, who proposed Trollope for membership of the Garrick Club. When Bel died he left his widow in dire financial straits and Anthony bought more than 4,000 of the books from Bell’s library at way above market price in an effort to aid his widow. Geordie described these as “little leaves floating that show the kindness and generosity in the world”.

Geordie accepts that he may to some appear a miser.  He certainly relishes holding stuff that Trollope himself has held. He loves to look at the proofs of engravings by Millais which Trollope retained after they were used to illustrate his novels; or letters that Anthony wrote to his publishers.  Perhaps pride of place might go to Trollope’s masonic apron and vellum inscribed certificate of membership of the Lodge in Ireland, dating from 1836, which might mark the point at which Trollope began to turn his life around. But Geordie admits it goes further, he has the marriage settlements of Trollope’s grandparents dating from 1767 and copies of bills for the repairs made to Trollope’s house.

John Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors identifies collectors as typically male and secretive and that the habit is not hereditary. Geordie pleads guilty to the above but claims his own case is hereditary.

It is certainly an obsession.  Scarcely a day passes without Geordie visiting a bookshop or searching online for Trollopiana. In these ways he has acquired a letter from Trollope to an unkown woman called Florence Jones dated 8 January 1872.  He also has a copy of Trollope’s Autobiography signed by his son Henry Trollope and dedicated to “J Langford”. Some have speculated that this may be the journalist John Langford but Geordie believes it is more likely to be J M Langford, head of Blackwoods Publishers.

He has a copy of poems by the American Lowell, whom Trollope met on 20 September 1871, inscribed by Trollope to his wife Rose two days later. Lowell described Trollope as “living life at the gallop” and having a “relish for life”.

Geordie’s favourite conversation-stopper was his revalation to Prince Charles in a function at Windsor Castle when the Prince was age 67, that Trollope wrote The Fixed Period, a dystopian vision of a future society where the elderly were subjected to  euthanasia at the age of, you guessed it, 67.

In conclusion, Geordie feels that Trollope’s life was shaped by his father’s bankruptcy, his mother’s decision to abandon him while she tried to make her firtune in the USA and by the death of three of his siblings.

Trollope’s style does not embrace the florid imagination of Dickens or the intellectual rigour of George Eliot but, he believes, Trollope is more loved, and more widely read now than either and he hopes this will remain so for the next 200 years.

Questions from the floor:

Does Geordie have a copy of Jonathan by Trollope’s sister Cecilia? No, he was too late to buy a copy by half an hour when one last came on the market.

Does Geordie think the masonic apron represents a transformation in Trollope? Yes, Trollope always wanted to belong. Becoming part of the masons was part of this. As Victoria Glendinning’s  biography observed, he had inner confidence but humility. This was part of his charm – he was big and loud almost as a front to cover that small boy.

Are collections best held by libraries and universities? Geordie thinks not. Al Gordon, a great donor to the Trollope Society had Henry Trollope’s own copies of Trollope’s first editions, given to him by his father. Geordie recommended that he give them to his won children but in the end they were given to WInchester. Geordie thinks that collectors will care about the collections whereas libraries and scholarly institutions have merely dispassionate academic interest.

How much has Geordie spent on his collection? Don’t know.  At the moment the market is at a low ebb so there are bargains to be had. He recently bought a copy of Castle Richmond on eBay for £52.

Has Geordie anything relating to Thackeray? Not specifically.  He has copies of the Cornhill magazine from the period when Trollope succeeded Thackeray as editor. These are in their original wrappers rather than in the bound form in which they were  subsequently reprinted. He also has a copy of Kate Field’s memoirs – he asked himself “Do I really need that?” and came back the answer “Yes.”

Are Geordie’s children collectors? Only one of them is a collector so there is evidence both for and against the hereditary idea.  The others are only really concerned with the value of the collection. All are still to young to satisfy the “middle aged discerning reader” criterion to read Trollope anyway.

How are items in the collection displayed? If the items are delicate then he will have special boxes made to protect them – for example part-works and letters. But it is not scientific. Most is not displayed at all as few people are sufficiently interested as he is to merit putting them on display.

Thanks to Geordie for the presentation were proposed by David Glass of the Trollope Society.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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