Tales of the Trollope trail

Published in the Daily Telegraph, 29Jul2004

Anthony Trollope, the indefatigable author of 47 novels, was a discerning house-buyer who refused to be parted from his 5,000 books, horses and wine, says his descendant, James Trollope.

As a man who asked so much of himself, it's not surprising that when it came to house-hunting, the novelist Anthony Trollope was equally demanding.

The old boy usually managed to bang out 10 pages before breakfast and it says a lot for his staying power that, although he died more than 120 years ago, he still seems to be supplying television with much of its costume drama.

So what did my prolific ancestor look for in a house and how did his choice of property influence his work?

As well as producing 47 novels, Trollope held down a top job at the Post Office, rode to hounds like a fiend and buzzed around the world when it was by no means easy to do so. Up until the age of 40, his choice of home was, more or less, decided for him; first by his parents, and then by his employers, who sent him to help sort out the postal service in Ireland.

But, in 1859, at the age of 44, having launched the Barchester novels and given British letter writers the pillar box, he and his wife, Rose, with their two sons and five servants, settled into their first English family home.

Trollope demanded a library, a wine cellar, stables for his horses and a garden. He found them all at Waltham House in Waltham Cross, Hertfordshire. The large, red-brick residence had the added advantage of being only a short train ride from London and his beloved Garrick Club.

Trollope blazed a trail for home workers. Not only did he turn his library into a fiction factory, he moved some of his post office staff into the house, thus combining his two sources of income under one roof.

In the 12 years he spent at Waltham, Trollope published some 30 books, including The Last Chronicle of Barset and He Knew He Was Right, the most recent to be televised.

His Irish groom, Barney, had the task of waking him at five every morning with a cup of coffee, and Trollope would be at his desk half an hour later. Barney was paid an extra fiver a year for his trouble. Trollope, in his autobiography, was fully appreciative. "I do not know that I ought not to feel that I owe more to him than to anyone else for the success that I have had. By beginning at that hour I could complete my literary work before I dressed for breakfast."

Although Trollope did make time for play, much of it sounds suspiciously like hard work. When not hunting furiously with the Essex Foxhounds, he was often seen charging around his garden with a heavy roller. "We grew our own cabbages and strawberries, made our own butter and killed our own pigs," he recalled. He also had cows, dogs and chickens as well as four hunters and several acres of grounds, including an asparagus bed of which he was especially proud.

The artist Sir John Millais, who illustrated some of his books, was a regular visitor. Another guest remembers how, in summer after dinner, they would adjourn to the lawn, where "wines and fruits were laid out under the fine, old cedar tree and many a good story was told as cigar smoke went curling up into the soft twilight".

It's a mystery why Trollope decided to leave Waltham House and move to London. Perhaps it was because, at the age of 56, his Post Office career was over and his hunting days were numbered. At any rate, he chose a house in Montagu Square, Marylebone, where the priority was to arrange his library. In his autobiography, he claimed that his 5,000 books were dearer to him than his horses or his wine.

During the seven years he was in the house, he added another 16 books of his own and it's no coincidence that in London his writing took on a more metropolitan tone. It was in Montagu Square that he completed The Way We Live Now, a tale of financial skulduggery reminiscent of recent city scandals.

There were irritations to city life, however, not least the noise. Although Montagu Square was relatively quiet, Trollope had a run-in with the conductor of some German street musicians. "No sooner does the first note of the opening burst reach my ear than I start up, fling down my pen and cast my thoughts disregarded into the abyss of some chaos which is always there to receive them," he writes melodramatically.

It appears Trollope eventually succeeded in getting the police to silence the brass band which, needless to say, upset the leader with whom he had a few awkward encounters.

In 1880, at the age of 65, Trollope returned to the country and moved into what was to be his final house, at South Harting in West Sussex. He described it as "a little cottage just big enough to hold my books with five acres, a cow and a dog and a cock and a hen." In fact, it has nine bedrooms and sold earlier this year for about £1.5 million.

While Trollope busied himself with his wine cellar, produced nine books, sat on the management committee of the local school and was a regular churchgoer, there was no disguising his physical decline. He was increasingly deaf, suffered from asthma and, not surprisingly, writer's cramp. He died in London after a stroke at the age of 67.

Sharing the old boy's surname is a source of pride and occasional embarrassment. When bidding at auction or ordering a meal at a pub, I have often wished I was a Smith or a Brown. Shout "Trollope" in a crowded room and you're almost guaranteed a laugh. "Poor girl," they all said when my two-year-old daughter proudly introduced herself at her first music class.

The Trollope women have the worst of it. Just as well my cousin, Joanna, is bolstering the literary rather than the literal side of the name. Trollope himself was teased and worse at school but, after a miserable childhood, he had a hugely satisfying middle age.

He was perhaps at his happiest at Waltham Cross, then a rural idyll, now an urban sprawl. The multi-purpose house became a convent before being knocked down in 1936. A bingo hall marks the spot. His home in Montagu Square has since been converted into flats. Only the lovely "little cottage" at South Harting remains more or less unchanged.

Stockbroker Tim Wise, his wife Judith, a landscape designer, and their three young children are in the process of moving in. They tell me they enjoyed the recent Trollope TV drama and are now looking forward to reading some of his books.