Julian Fellowes: “I always feel I have a great deal in common with Anthony Trollope”

The Downton Abbey creator discusses Trollope's life, his writing style and how he impacted Fellowes' life

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I always feel, rather impertinently you might think, that I have a great deal in common with Anthony Trollope. He is by far the greater writer but, like me, he did not, for the most part, charm the artistic sensibilities of his own generation of intellectuals. He was considered a people-pleasing boor. “Dined the other day with Anthony Trollope,” wrote the American James Russell Lowell, “a big red-faced, rather under-bred Englishman of the bald-with-spectacles type. A good roaring positive fellow who deafened me, ’til I thought of Dante’s Cerberus.”

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He did not in fact lack breeding, as Lowell suggests, but his was a complicated, if interesting, provenance. His father came from an old landed family, but his mother did not. Said father, Thomas Trollope, with his ancestors reaching back into history, with a baronetcy in the family that would eventually pass through Anthony Trollope to his own descendants, was nevertheless entirely hopeless at the business of life. “Everything went wrong with him,” wrote his famous son. “The touch of his hand seemed to create failure.”

The family was, however, rescued from poverty and degradation by his brilliant and dynamic middle-class mother, Fanny. She was the energising half of the couple, a witty and successful satirist, extremely popular in her own day, who inspired her son to write. This mixed provenance meant that Trollope could enter and enjoy the world of Society as an insider familiar with all its details, but at the same time he would always feel something of an outside observer in its embrace. He did not suffer from a sense of insecurity when faced with members of the then all-powerful aristocracy, because he was by birth a member of it, but he did not feel a glowing admiration for their self-regarding prejudices either.

Perhaps reflecting the stigma that his father’s people would always have directed at any career in the arts, Trollope was devoid of self-importance, frequently belittling his achievements, and certainly he would strenuously distance the notion that a writer must wait for inspiration. “To me, it would not be more absurd if the shoe-maker were to wait for inspiration.” And, risking dismissal as a populist, he definitely liked happy endings.

“A novel should give a picture of common life enlivened by humour and sweetened by pathos.” All of which meant he was reviled by the more superior critics. “Life is vulgar,’” said Henry James, “but we know not how vulgar until we see it set down in his pages.”

Above all Trollope wrote too much which, according to the received truth, must lead to a lowering of standards. In short, what enrages his enemies, then or now, is the popularity of his of his productions and the enduring audience that his work still reaches, a century and a half later. In his defence, I would say it is a blind prejudice, often meted out to any artist whose work is unfashionable to the cognoscenti yet loved by the general public. Some are angry at the fact that things should not be so, the books should not be popular, they are so angry in fact they cannot see what is before their eyes.

Trollope’s powers of observation and his truthfulness freed him from Dickens’s slavish need to reflect the moral prejudices of his own period. All Dickens’s heroines are whiter than white, his villains blacker than black, something Trollope entirely avoided.

I came to him in the standard fashion. The Warden was a set book at school. I liked it enough to read the rest of the Barsetshire series, but I cannot pretend they set me on fire. It was not until a friend gave me The Eustace Diamonds, with its wonderful anti-heroine Lizzie Eustace, that I realized what I was dealing with. I always think Lizzie Eustace, Becky Sharp, and Scarlett O’Hara are three explorations of the same woman, and of these Lizzie is perhaps the most satisfying. Later, The Eustace Diamonds would be one of the first feature film scripts that I wrote, and although it was never made (so far at least), it led to my writing Gosford Park. I went on to read the Palliser novels and then progressed to the one-off books, complete in themselves, among them Ralph the Heir, He Knew He Was Right, and The American Senator, and I was hooked. I even took Is He Popinjoy? on honeymoon and sat with my nose in it for far more of the time than my wife appreciated.

Trollope’s view of the world is a merciful one, all-seeing, all-understanding, and by and large the people in it may be flawed but they are mainly decent, trying to do their best, trying to play the cards they have been dealt. This perhaps more than anything else explains his popularity. He always sets out a cast of characters who are generally decent, making every effort to live their lives as well as they can.

There is wonderful comedy in Doctor Thorne – the snobbish Countess De Courcy, the duped fool Augusta Gresham, the angry, awkward Mr Moffatt, the waspish Lady Alexandrina, the archetypal smoothie Mr Gazebee – but there is generosity too. The worldly Miss Dunstable, the ministering Lady Scatcherd and old Mr Gresham are all different incarnations of kindness, and at the centre of them all is Doctor Thorne, probably one of the most uncomplicated heroic figures that Trollope ever wrote. But his heroism, if we may so define it, is of the modest and self-effacing type. As he says himself, “I have not made my mark in public life. I’ve built no railways. I’ve neither fortune nor title. But I have some skill in saving lives.”

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And yet, this straightforward man, intelligent and good, touchy and sometimes bad-tempered, is fearless when it comes to defending the good name of his niece, and more than generous with those in difficulties, whether the desperate village girl with a bastard child, or the unloved widow of a railway magnate who has lost her way in the world. The book is a testament to Trollope’s belief in decency as a guide to living, and I think we are made all the better for reading it.