‘Orley Farm’: between fiction, art, and memory

Frontispiece to Trollope's 1862 novel, Orley Farm: drawing by John Millais.

Frontispiece to Trollope’s 1862 novel, Orley Farm: drawing by John Millais.

Anthony Trollope’s An Autobiography (1883) introduces space prominently in its first chapter.[i] Treated not only as a context for but also a kind of agent in the human chronicles that follow, spatiality is signalled to be a fundamental rather than an ornamental aspect of lived experience:

I was born in 1815, in Keppel Street, Russell Square; and while a baby, was carried down to Harrow, where my father had built a house on a large farm … That farm was the grave of all my father’s hopes, ambition, and prosperity, the cause of my mother’s sufferings, and of those of her children, and perhaps the director of her destiny

Fixing on the farm as the ‘director’ of the family’s ‘destiny’, the author casts this site as a kind of compensation for his father’s practice as a Chancery barrister in ‘almost suicidal chambers’ in Lincoln’s Inn. At the time of Anthony’s birth, Thomas Trollope is buoyed up enough to feel himself ‘entitled to a country house’ in addition to the Bloomsbury home, but in this exuberant expenditure overreaches himself: things go ‘much against him’, the farm proves ‘ruinous’, and the landlord features in the family’s collective imagination as ‘a cormorant…eating [them] up’: ‘My father’s clients deserted him …Then, as a final crushing blow, an old uncle, whose heir he was to have been, married and had a family!’ This ironic catastrophe reverses the Trollope family’s upward social mobility and provokes a residential move to match, which functions in the autobiography as a kind of traumatic primal scene.

Towards the end of the narration of this passage about the decline in the immediate family fortunes, Trollope exposes the way his fiction had borrowed its geographies from that troubled early period in his life:

The house in London was let; and also the house he built at Harrow, from which we descended to a farmhouse on the land, which I have endeavoured to make known to some readers under the name of Orley Farm. This place, just as it was when we lived there, is to be seen in the frontispiece to the first edition of that novel, having had the good fortune to be delineated by no less a pencil than that of John Millais.

Here the ‘good fortune’ of having secured one of the nation’s greatest painters for Orley Farm’s illustrations stands in for the larger upswing in the writer’s fortunes to which this autobiography attests.[ii] Turning to the frontispiece of the first edition of one of his books reminds us, moreover, that there have been other editions, that the author’s career has been a successful one. In drawing our attention to this space of childhood held in common between fictional and biographical worlds, we witness Trollope inscribing it not only with retrospective longing but also a sense of the boy’s future destiny as a popular writer. The house he renames Orley Farm is implicitly a material determinant for his turn to the literary profession. The farm can be best interpreted as the ‘director’ of his mother Frances’s fate, after all, if we infer that without the social decline it embodied she would have never taken up her pen to earn money. Had the father been successful, and the Trollope family stayed in the big house at Harrow instead of downsizing to the more humble one on its land, we are led to ponder whether Anthony would ever have thought of writing for a living himself.  

Thus space is subtly implicated in the more prominent and controversial project of An Autobiography to expose the materiality of literature, undermining Romantic ideas of authorship by stressing the mechanical realities of serial fiction production and the pecuniary interests of the producer. As George Gissing, author of the similarly demystifying New Grub Street (1891), appreciated, Trollope was unusually frank in detailing his reliance not on poetic inspiration but on routines of work that would appear familiar to readers in other professions, such as the law.[iii] As the title of Mary Hamer’s Writing by Numbers (1987) commemorates, Trollope rigidly timetabled hours of writing that were made to fit around the other social and professional demands of each day.[iv] The autobiography had an unusual interest in the quantitative in more ways than one: a chart resembling a page from an accountant’s ledgers at the back of the book documented precisely how much money the author earned from each novel he wrote.

In Trollope’s posthumously published Autobiography, then, literature is unveiled as a business like any other, in which efficiency and success can be measured objectively. Trollope’s conjunction of domestic space and the failing career betrays, more mutedly, a similar imperative. In his discussion in the Autobiography of ‘Orley Farm’, Trollope blends nostalgia for a lost childhood with the practical matter of professional success, a topic that would prove to be the chief leitmotif of the whole text. In the auto/biographical mythologies attached to Walter Scott’s Abbotsford and Dickens’s Gad’s Hill, the fetishised residential site is made to stand in for and signify the fruits of a successful career in writing sellable books.[v] Trollope’s Autobiography, in pointing backwards to foreground a house that his father had lost through his own stunted career progression, curiously subverts this Scottian or Dickensian idea. Instead of presenting the dream house as the tangible substance and proof of a career made good through the persistent hard-graft of literary endeavour, Trollope returns us to a house from his past that he does not own, but which, through fictional representation he has in some way miraculously redeemed.  

[i] For lucid, comprehensive discussions of the Autobiography, see Andrew Sanders, Anthony Trollope (Northcote Press, Writers and their Work, 1998) and Victoria Glendinning, ‘Trollope as autobiographer and biographer’, in The Cambridge Companion to Anthony Trollope ed. Carolyn Dever and Lisa Niles (Cambridge, 2010), p17-30. 

[ii] ‘Millais probably found Trollope’s written description, for all its apparent clarity, difficult to follow, for in a letter to Chapman Trollope spoke of the possibility of having the building photographed or of Millais’ going out to see it. A photograph, remarkably like Millais’ drawing, may have been the source for the illustration… Of [Trollope’s novelistic description of the farmhouse] Bradforth Booth remarked that writing could scarcely be less precious. Millais, on the other hand, has chosen to idyllicise the scene…in a manner somewhat removed from the realism of most of his drawings for Trollope. Here, for example, Millais has added…a milkmaid and cow, meant no doubt to contribute a bucolic touch – although one would not ordinarily expect to see cows milked in an orchard, and from the wrong side at that. The house seems remote and quiet, but one has it constantly in the mind’s eye as one reads the story of Lady Mason…’ N. John Hall, Trollope and his Illustrators (London: Macmillan, 1980) p53-4.

[iii] See Simon J. James, Unsettled Accounts: Money and Narrative in the Novels of George Gissing (Anthem, 2003) p48. 

[iv] Mary Hamer, Writing By Numbers: Trollope’s Serial Fiction (1987).

[v] See Iain G. Brown (ed.) Abbotsford and Sir Walter Scott: The Image and the Influence (Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 2003). John Forster’s The Life of Charles Dickens (1872-4) emphasises the importance of Gad’s Hill to the author as a symbol of both how far and how little he had travelled in the world, since his imaginative boyhood days to the point at which, as a wealthy and successful novelist, he could fulfil his childhood dreams and purchase the house that had been his object of fantasy.

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