Fact-packed biography is full of life and insight

February 21, 1993|By Karol V. Menzie

ANTHONY TROLLOPE.

Victoria Glendinning.

Knopf.

551 pages. $30.

Biographers face a formidable task, it seems. If they offer too many facts, if the level of detail extends to minutiae, the subject may appear dull and lifeless. If there are too few facts, too many breezy assumptions, the result is merely gossip and resemblance to the subject is purely cosmetic.

There's another problem: Readers always know how the story comes out.

So when a book comes along that portrays a main character so vividly he nearly strides off the pages, and presents the story of a life that ended in 1882 as a page-turner, the author must be doing something resoundingly right.

There is still one little problem, however. The book in question is about Anthony Trollope, the prolific 19th century British writer whose image -- until it was dusted off somewhat by a PBS series a decade ago -- was long considered "irredeemably embedded in the commonplace" (in the words of contemporary Thomas Carlyle).

It's true Trollope has less of the linguistic pyrotechnics of Dickens, doesn't revel in the sarcasm and irony of Thackery, and lacks the lyrical intensity of George Eliot (also all contemporaries and all friends). Those of us who already love him -- for his deft portraits of an age, his shrewd psychological insights of both male and female characters and his droll, quiet humor -- can rejoice in a work that brings our hero vibrantly to life. Will anyone else venture a read? No problem. It is the gift of Victoria Glendinning, the British scholar, biographer and novelist, to present the old workhorse in such a bright contemporary light that almost anyone should be intrigued.

The book is scholarly without being pedantic and the details, if not quite gossip, are nevertheless juicy enough to have real flavor. Take the issue of appearance, for instance. Trollope was a master at describing his characters -- women's lips and hair received particular attention -- so it is fun to know precisely what he looked like and how he sounded. That is, boisterous and unprepossessing; at Harrow School, where Anthony was sent at the age of 8, he endured "brutal bullying," commenting in his autobiography, "No doubt my appearance was against me." Ms. Glendinning writes: "Anthony, in all his life, never learned to wear his clothes well. Anything he put on looked rumpled and too tight."

Much later, when Anthony was finally posted home from Ireland by his long-time employer, the Post Office, he moved his family into a house in Hertfordshire (north of London). His writing was beginning to pay off -- he had just signed up to serialize "Framley Parsonage" for Thackery's Cornhill magazine -- and life was becoming more comfortable altogether.

"So there he is at Waltham House," Ms. Glendinning writes, "with his bushy beard, and his bulky body, and his balding head, straddling the rug as he said all men do when they first come into a room (which means that he did), with his thumbs tucked into the armholes of his waistcoat, talking loudly in his deep voice, laughing his big laugh at his own joke, shouting cheerfully for some hot tea. He is wearing spectacles; he always does."

That mastery of the felicitous semi-colon does much to explain why, among all the works on Trollope, Ms. Glendinning's is the most vivid. It is appealing to read a biographer who explains both the furniture in a man's house and the furniture in his head, BTC the clothing on his body and the politics and passions in which he clothes himself.

She is especially adept at drawing parallels between his life experiences and specific references in his works -- how his "castles in the air" as a young boy walking to and from school were a rehearsal for life as a storyteller, how his father's early expectations and later disappointments weave their way into many stories of disappointed heirs and feckless business failures.

Although he wrote novels, short stories, an autobiography and many travel books, Trollope is probably most noted for his "Barsetshire/Parliamentary" series, 12 books in all, published between 1855 and 1880. Six are stories of village life in which clerics feature prominently; six feature politicians and adventurers. The parts of the story that concern Plantagenet Palliser, M.P. andmuch-maligned advocate of decimal coinage, were made into a PBS miniseries in 1982 called "The Pallisers" that renewed interest in Trollope and returned his works to general availability.

Most critics, however -- and Ms. Glendinning is among them -- prefer another work, "The Way We Live Now" (1875), in which aristocrats, fading gentry, financiers and foolish young men all live feverishly above their means and come to smash in various ways. It is eerily predictive of the 1980s in America, and it was Trollope's ambivalent salute to an era that appalled him.

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