Monday, February 03, 2014

Trollope tries to let a friend down easy

Part of the fun of reading writers' letters--something I spend a fair amount of time doing--is getting a glimpse of publishing's past. I made discoveries on that front in two collections recently, of letters from Anthonys Trollope and Powell. I'll start with Trollope, and pick up Powell later in the week.

That Trollope's letters offer insight into publishing is no surprise: as Michael Dirda writes in Bound to Please of Trollope's Autobiography,
It reveals, better than almost any other work in English, that a writer is a man (or woman) who sits down at a desk each morning . . . and writes. To Trollope, the creation of fiction may occasionally rise to Art, but there's no nonsense about awaiting inspiration or a timely visit from the Muse. . . . He frankly discusses his contracts, even listing the exact amounts he was paid for each of his works. . . . When An Autobiography was published posthumously (in 1883), as was always intended, readers were said to be horrified at its mercantile tone.
So it's no surprise that many of his letters are addressed to publishers: settling fees, checking on dates, discussing editions. This bit from a note to Frederic Chapman, head of Chapman and Hall, of September 25, 1871 is not atypical:
One of the "Australian" people--Editor, manager, or owner [of the Australian magazine] told me that he had bought from you the rights to republish my book about Australia. What is the meaning of this? I have never spoken a word of an Australian novel to any one.

Write again like a good fellow, and send me all the news about the business & other things.
The most striking series of publishing-related letters that I've come across thus far, however, are a string to Trollope's regular correspondent Mary Holmes, an acquaintance of (and eventual governess for) Thackeray of whom the volume editor, Bradford Allen Booth, says she had "literary and musical enthusiasm, and worked hard, but there was little talent." Late in 1874, she sent Trollope a manuscript of a novel, about which he had been theoretically encouraging and which he promised to forward to Chapman and Hall. On November 9, he wrote to Holmes with bad news:
I have seen Mr Chapman the publisher today and he tells me that his reader has said that your novel in its present form will not do, but that he thinks that, with certain alterations, it might do. I presume the novel has been sent back to you. It will be for you to decide whether you will make the alterations which will have been proposed to you--

I did not look at the MS myself. In such a case I can do no good by my doing so. Should I not like it, it would break my heart (as it has done in similar cases) to have to say so; and should I like it my opinion would go for nothing with a publisher who would regard my opinion simply as that of a friend.
Despite Trollope's combination of forthrightness and delicacy, Holmes's response must not have been particularly accepting or even-tempered, for two weeks later Trollope wrote to her again:
Your letter has made me unhappy; because I feel that you feel that you have been ill-used. I feared that it would be so. It generally is so when some little assistance is wanted by literary aspirants. One cannot give the help that is needed. One can only try, and fail, and suffer in the failure.

You think that Chapman and his reader have illused [sic] you,--but I believe you to be wrong in so thinking. I know them both well and would not have put your MS into their hands had they been unworthy. The firm is existing (you suspect that there is no such firm). It is doing a very lucrative business (you imagine the contrary). Mr Chapman is not deterred by the need of publishing the works of either his friends or his relatives from publishing yours. He has in truth done with your MS as he does with others,--but has done this somewhat quicker than he usually does under my instance. He sent your MS to his reader, and acted on his opinion. . . .

You write,--(and not only you but many others with whom I become acquainted, and who use my services because, being an old stager, I am supposed to be able to give assistance,)--as though it were the publishers business to publish your work and as though he injured you by not doing so.
Trollope goes on to explain the role, and necessity, of the publisher's reader, in the course of which he strips away some of the gentleness of the earlier letter's rejection, noting that the reader said it might be publishable "with very great alterations."

It's hard not to feel for both parties, of course: Holmes's letter must surely have been intemperate, but her ambitions are far from uncommon, and it's hard to deny a Victorian woman of slender means the reed of hope that artistic success could conceivably represent. And Trollope's position is certainly unenviable. The bulk of his correspondence with Holmes reveals that he really did think of her as a friend, and the emotional cost he incurred by trying to do her this favor becomes fully apparent in the final paragraph of the letter:
For myself I may say that the task of dealing with the MS of other persons is so painful,--the necessity of explaining to an aspirant that his or her aspirations must be disappointed is so grievous,--that I have often been tempted to say, that I would never again incur the punishment. I can hardly bring myself to tell a friend that he or she cannot do that which I by chance can do myself--But I remember how often I failed myself before I succeeded,--how Vanity Fair and, as you say, Jane Eyre were carried here and there before they were accepted. I would suggest that you should read your own MS carefully and see if you yourself think it capable of improvement--and,--let me say this in pure friendship, without giving offence,--do not allow yourself to be tempted to think evil because the thing does not go as you wish it.
The fulsome closings of old letters ring hollow to contemporary ears, but when Trollope closes this letter with "Yours very sincerely and with true friendship," we believe him.


  1. I was surprised by Trollope's delicacy and sensitivity. The masterful use of parenthetical phrases to show that her pain isn't particular or unique: (as it has done in similar cases) (and not only you but many others); and his centering responsibility on himself, again to share and dilute the emotion: "Your letter has made me unhappy; because I feel that you feel that you have been ill-used." It's magnanimous and rather moving. Thank you for sharing it.

  2. I'm glad you appreciated it, Julian. You've picked up on what struck me, too: Trollope is really trying his best to be gentle, kind, understanding, and sincere. I really do think his attempt at encouragement at the end, and his mention of his own failures, is genuine, and that it must have made him heartsick to have to write this letter in the first place.

    It's funny: my appreciation for Trollope grows continually these days, but I tend to think of him nonetheless as a bit cold and businesslike. It seems I may have to reassess.

  3. Andrea M.12:09 PM

    This got me to remembering Trollope's portrayal of aspiring novelist Lady Carbury, which opens his novel The Way We Live Now (1873). "She had no ambition to write a good book, but was painfully anxious to write a book that the critics should say was good." (Ch. 2)

  4. Oh, you're right, Andrea--and I can't believe I didn't draw the connection, as I just read that novel last month. His portrayal of Lady Carbury's ambitions is wonderful: sympathetic yet unyielding in its estimation of her work, and absolutely cutting about the workings of the literary world. Thanks for the reminder!