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John Jenkins April 10


The April column from the former editor of Writers' Forum

John JenkinsAs a publisher and editor I have been answering queries from writers for something like 20 years and as a result I have recently published a book FAQs and the Answers for Ambitious Writers.


Two great lessons from Trollope

By John Jenkins

I have been reading Trollope. No, not the elegant, sophisticated Joanna, although that would be no bad thing, but her be-whiskered forbear, Anthony.

One of my class lent me – and I know he means lent as he carefully stuck his name and address label inside the front cover before I took it away - Anthony Trollope’s autobiography.

It was written towards the end of his life and published in 1883, the year following his death.

As a fan of Barchester Towers I knew I was in for a treat.

Also, I am in good company because there are Anthony Trollope Societies in England and the United States, and his fans included Alec Guinness, Harold Macmillan, J K Galbraith, Thackeray, George Eliot and others.

His critics comprised – and still do - the expected coterie of literary luvvies who scorned his massive output, his popular success and his desire to follow the supreme dictum of Dr Johnson that ‘no man but a blockhead ever wrote anything except for money’.

His success is an inspiration to those who feel they have failed early in life and fear failure more than failure itself.

This was in part due to his father, who followed distinguished academic achievement, becoming a Fellow of New College Oxford, by dismal failure as a barrister and businessman. The family was forced to flee to Belgium to escape creditors and then to the United States and an unprofitable enterprise in Cincinnati. This impacted on Anthony who found himself bullied and friendless first at Harrow and then Winchester. He loathed his school days and failed to make Oxbridge.

Even the army, and moreover even the Austrian army, seemed beyond his reach. Then, through the influence of his mother’s family, he gained an interview for a job in the post office. That, too, he failed, but he returned for a second try and was hired. At this time his mother had begun writing novels and was supporting the family.

He made little progress until sent to Ireland with a brief to open up Royal Mail routes and post offices. There he began to enjoy life. He loved hunting, which was much cheaper in Ireland, was virtually his own boss, married and began to write.

He set himself a punishing schedule as a writer. I smile when today I hear would-be writers say they just haven’t had time to complete a story or a chapter. Trollope’s task took him hundreds of miles by train as he spread the Royal Mail service throughout the land. On the train journeys he wrote. In longhand. All the time he was being promoted in the post office, gaining greater responsibility, and watching his income from his writing grow, he would set himself a target of 5,000 words a day – or 28,000 words a week – and keep to it. In this respect he was much like Dickens.

His early words of wisdom to new authors included this pithy comment:
I have felt from the first that the writer, when he sits down to commence his novel, should do so, not because he has to tell a story, but because he has a story to tell.

Trollope suffered more than his share of early reverses, having pieces accepted at low rates and others for which he was promised payment which never arrived. He tried writing a play but that was cruelly rejected by actor manager George Bartley.

John Murray proposed that Trollope should write a handbook on Ireland. He delivered the manuscript, heard nothing for nine months and then it was returned without even a note. Until 1857 his total income from 10 years of writing was a miserly £55. Suddenly, with Barchester Towers and The Warden he received £727. The Three Clerks brought an advance of £250. His next advance grew to £400 from Chapman and Hall. Good times were just around the corner and for the next 20 years the royalties and advances rolled in, totalling nearly £70,000, an impressive sum in those days.

Despite his growing success as a writer Trollope kept his post office job and salary – probably a reaction to his childhood in which penury seemed always just around the corner.

He went to the United States where he was met with acclaim and followed up his visit as a campaigner to stop American publishers pirating British authors and refusing to pay royalties. He included Australia in his travels, where they thought he was something of a toff with his public school demeanour and whiskers like Gladstone. But again he used the visit as background for his books.

On his first voyage to Melbourne he wrote every day for eight weeks – 666 pages with 250 words a page, he recounts.

His books always dealt with political, social or gender issues and his following grew in proportion to the circulation of the magazines which serialised his work. Among them was The Cornhill Magazine which his friend Thackeray edited.

Trollope decided at last to resign from the post office and stood unsuccessfully for Parliament as a Liberal candidate. He founded a magazine, joined several London clubs and continued to hunt. He enjoyed a game of cards, a whisky and good company.

He died in 1882 at the age of 67. It is no surprise that his stories have been successfully adapted for radio and television, in Britain and the United States.

Truly there are matters to be learned and inspiration to be gained from his autobiography. What a pity I will have to return this book.


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The latest book from John Jenkins is FAQs and the Answers for Ambitious Writers

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Publisher: Cooper Johnson Limited
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