Virtual Victorians:

​the digital annex

Figure 3. Some Characteristics of Frances Trollope's Siblings. For this analysis of the types of Trollope’s “siblings,” I omit the two post-1940 collections, which favor large lists of names and which group chapters on themes; one of these is organized by geography, so Trollope’s life appears in several chapters.  CBW favors one-subject/one-chapter comparisons of collections.  The rationale for designating persons with more than one type is that collections select a subject for different reasons; a collection of women writers uses Trollope as an example of that type.

Figure 2. How to Make it as a Woman: Biographical History from Victoria to the Present​ (Chicago: U Chicago P, 2004).

Figure 4. An R-Graph of Sister Dora Cousins, Limiting Results by Selecting Persona Types and Collection Types

Figure 1: Frontispiece: “Francis Trollope from a portrait painted by A. Hervieu,” in Frances Eleanor Trollope, Frances Trollope: Her Life and Literary Workfrom George III. to Victoria, 2 vols. (London: Bentley, 1895).  This image, along with a link to Trollope’s biography by Frances Eleanor Trollope, is accessible at Trollope’s Featured Subject page in the Collective Biographies of Women bibliography:  See the Wikipedia article on Frances Trollope for a Creative-Commons reproduction of August Hervieu, Portrait of Frances Trollope, circa 1832, National Portrait Gallery (UK).

Frances Milton Trollope (1779-1863) is not the most celebrated woman writer in the archive of collective biographies of women published in English-language books, according to the Pop Chart of samples of the personae and vocational types that circulated widely in this genre. [1]

Although Trollope is a somewhat dim star, I have found her extraordinarily illuminating amid the constellations formed by the English-language books published 1830–1940 (excluding reference works, monographs, and periodical articles) that collect biographies of women. The example of Trollope helps to draw out the designs and potential of the Collective Biographies of Women project (CBW). I will introduce the project in an illustrated guided tour that samples the essay in the book and that links to visualizations of Trollope among documentary networks of women. 

CBW studies the conventions and variations in a genre of intersecting nonfiction narratives, including implicit and explicit categorization of biographical subjects over time. CBW’s most innovative contribution to digital humanities is a method of mid-range reading: an XML schema to interpret biographical narratives in groups, or prosopography in the print era.

We use the term documentary social networks for the selection and co-occurrence of representations of people, to underline the anachronistic and typological construction of these cohorts.  Such construction is not to be mistaken for adequate commemoration of women of the past, of course.  Trollope is not an obscure, working class subject but one of those in the educated elite who does make it into the records.  Not only is the representation of women’s lives on the Internet a scandal—not my brief here—but the printed records of women’s lives are far more complex and diverse and extensive than many accounts have recognized.

Trollope surfaces in these documentary networks of female personae under three types: as a novelist; as the mother of the writers Anthony Trollope and Thomas Adolphus Trollope; and as a travel writer. She gained international renown with her satiric documentary about the new republic, Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832), and subsequently published novels and travel narratives at an alarming rate that salvaged the family finances. [2] Trollope’s death in 1863 did not have the common effect of inspiring a full-length biography and a quick succession of short versions.  Short biographies of Trollope began to appear only in 1883, a little outburst of five of them in that year, among them Laura Carter Holloway’s The Mothers of Great Men and Women, and Some Wives of Great Men  (a411) with 36 chapters, such as “Abraham Lincoln’s Mother” and “Charles Dickens’s Mother.” Mrs. Trollope most likely crystallized as a subject because of Anthony Trollope’s An Autobiography  (posthumously published in 1883), as well as What I Remember  (1888) by Thomas Adolphus Trollope. Thomas’s widow Frances Eleanor Trollope wrote the first full-length biography of the founder of the family literary dynasty, published in 1895.  It begins: “Forty years ago, any list of Englishwomen of Letters would have been held to be strangely incomplete without the name of Frances Trollope.” [3] Since 1895, many such lists have been incomplete in this respect.  And those short biographies that were collected rarely encompass the birth-to-death scope of Trollope’s active life.  Most omit a portrait, which by the 1850s had become a commonplace of printed life narratives.  Those that do try to give an impression of her prosopon (persona, appearance) usually give a version of one portrait created at the time of her American sojourn and the beginning of her career as a writer (figure 1).

Search for “Trollope” in the CBW database:

You will find links to Frances and two sons: Anthony (1815–1882), because he takes over one of Frances’s chapters in a collective biography (a628.bio25), and Thomas Adolphus (1810–92), both because he was the author of a book in the bibliography, A Decade of Italian Women (1859; a810), and because he contributed a short biography of Vittoria Colonna to another, Lives of Celebrated Women  (1875; a514). Although most encounters with the name Trollope begin with Anthony, this investigation through the lens of female biography has brought Anthony’s older brother, who was a notable nineteenth-century man of letters, out of the shadows. Thomas Adolphus Trollope (at times I refer to him as T. A. T.) lived much of his life in Italy, keeping house with his mother, writing Italian histories and biographies, and participating in the writing projects of his wives: Theodosia Garrow (1816–65) and Frances Eleanor Ternan, sister of Dickens’s mistress Ellen (1835–1913) and author of the first biography of her mother-in-law, as I have said.  The Trollopes in Florence, not unlike the Brownings, contributed to a Victorian revival of the Italian humanist past and the cause of independence.  Thus a family network elicits a geographical network of women associated with what became Italy.  In the book chapter and in future work on the Trollopean network of persons, places, and events, I follow T.A.T.’s tantalizing lead into the history of eminent Italian women of arts and letters, with its themes of nationalism and geography as well as gender in cultural histories. We can reveal such representations in more intersectional and expansive models by studying the representations that were published during the Victorian period.

CBW began as an online bibliography associated with my 2004 book, How to Make It as a Woman: Collective Biographical History from Victoria to the Present(Chicago: U Chicago P, 2004). Documenting more than 1200 English-language books that collect three or more biographies exclusively of women, the bibliography concentrates on the period 1830-1940.  This form of publication for a general audience provided a vast collaborative register of changing perspectives on roles for women in many periods and countries. Since around 2008, we have branched into studies of the 8,600 persons and the 13,400 short narratives in this genre of prosopography, or collective biography. To study the narratives, we developed a unique approach of mid-range reading using a stand-aside XML schema, Biographical Elements and Structure Schema (BESS). BESS is a taxonomy of types of elements that editors identify and tag as occurring in the numbered paragraphs of a narrative.  A team of editors create XML documents in the Oxygen Editor that locate narrative features in each paragraph (not sentence), as if writing an abstract without marking up the text file itself. 

In the following list of the BESS elements, the italicized words are examples of controlled vocabulary to name the types of these elements that might be noted in a specific paragraph or paragraph range.

1. StageofLife: before, beginning, middle, culmination, end, after

 2. EventType: e.g., crime against persona

                  a. AgentType: e.g., male superior, unnamed

                 b. LocationSetting: e.g., village

                 c. LocationStructure: e.g., cottage

                 d. Dates, TimeofDay, Season

3. PersonaDescription: e.g., physically daring ; persistent

4. Discourse: e.g., dialogue ;  prospective or foreshadowing

5. Topos: e.g., influence, emotional effect on working men

While many projects produce digital editions of large archives of printed texts according to the standardized markup of the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), and others algorithmically topic-model even larger corpora, CBW focuses on what I call mid-range reading, where the social norms, textual conventions, and data relating to a person’s life intersect in multiple versions and sets of associated narratives. The texts’ linguistic and bibliographical patterns remain accessible for other kinds of reading, close or distant, for different purposes.  

 Vladimir Propp’s morphology of the Russian folk tale detects the common building blocks from interrelated texts, including multiple versions of the same narrative, based on an oral tradition.  Similarly, CBW studies networks of nonfiction narratives in the print era.  These publications include multiple versions of the same persons and events, more or less verifiable through other documentation, and at the same time compare them to different life stories in the same volume or to collections of the same category (such as British women writers; mothers of great men; women travelers).  Our method models the quantifiable, complex patterns in hundreds of texts, each narrative the outcome of a contest among social conventions, genre conventions, the conceptual framework of the collection that places the selection of women’s lives together in one book, and the ostensible facts about an actual individual’s life.

 As in narratological studies, on the one hand, our analysis seeks a level of broad applicability of common terms.  Unlike many projects in literary digital research, on the other hand, CBW is not focused on comparing authoritative editions. Further, unlike biographical studies of one or more persons, we are not aiming at a single, corroborated version, though we are concerned with interoperable reference to unique data, wherever possible.  We give each person in the database a site where considerable evidence assembles, as for example Frances Trollope’s page (her Persona ID is P09108). 

Find a person through and click on the green ID number in the result field.  This will open a page for that person.  (If you know the person ID number, you can search with it.)  Thus

Here we assemble alternate names and a list of the biographies (chapters) of the persona.  Trollope appears in ten books, but narratives of her life recur in different chapters in the two books p044A and p045A published in 1983 and 2002, respectively.  At the bottom of Trollope’s page, note the list of named events, which we have identified as Key, Common, and Rare.

See for Trollope’s named events, E00079-107, where we use the narratological terms kernel and satellite, according to frequency of these events in different versions of a life (thousands of actions—daily or recurrent events—do not rise to the level of probable inclusion in most or all versions of a unique person’s life). 

Trollope’s “lives” surprised me, after years working with other biographies in this archive. Biographies of Trollope often omit what we would predict would be key or kernel events, for instance, three versions never narrate her birth, three never mention her having children, four never tell of her move to Italy, and two neglect to tell of her death.  Having assigned ID numbers to salient and more or less frequent events in all versions (as we do for nodal personae in our sample corpora, explained below), we check authoritative sources, such as Pamela Neville-Sington’s entry on Frances Trollope in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. We plan to create visualizations of such event patterns, based on our linking the named events with standard date and GIS data. We compare all versions of one persona, trace the frequency and selection of events, and align these with BESS interpretation of all the biographies in a single book or across the interrelated collection types and social categories. This study of networked, multi-version nonfiction should lead to a model of nonfiction narrative quite distinct from existing narratology of plot and discourse in fiction. And in particular, it yields what we would never gain by writing a new biography of Trollope or any one person: measurable deviations over time in the ways this specific biographical narrative coordinates with thousands of other examples in an argument about women’s lives.

To get an idea of the interrelation of a text and BESS analysis, go to, click on TEI/BESS Analysis, select one of the collection titles from the drop-down menu and click Select Collection.  This will produce another menu for the chapters in that collection for which a complete and vetted BESS analysis is available.  (Although I have done BESS analysis of Trollope biographies, her texts are not part of the collection of TEI files already incorporated in the CBW project, so not yet accessible through this visualization tool.)  Select one of the biographical chapters.  This will open the BESS Viewer window.  Play around here!

It’s always an option to click “Show: All” and simply read the narrative along the left of the screen, with the usual capacity to search for words.  But selecting text produces interesting effects.  Try clicking on two or more of the Stage of Life terms. In the upper right, a Selected Text map will show selected sections in red; these sections narrate events within time spans according to the persona’s lifetime (e.g. Before=any event preceding birth).  Try clicking “Selected” instead of “All,” and then click on a paragraph number on the left; the text of that paragraph will appear.  To its right, you may see column titles Events, Topos, Persona, or Discourse (or all of these) if the paragraph has been marked for these elements.  Click on an element’s name, and a text box opens that displays the types of that element that the BESS locates in that paragraph.  In any such box, you can check the terms, which will select that element type throughout the entire biography, with corresponding effect on the red text map.  You can also show (or hide) a word cloud (in the upper right) that gives an impression of the most frequent words in the selected text. 

BESS treatment highlights measurable traits of biographical narratives that can be correlated with our database of the persons and documents.  Obviously, the analysis is labor-intensive, and we lavish it on samples of these prosopographical materials.  A sample corpus consists of page images and TEI files of all the books in our database that include the biography of a certain nodal woman. We began with sample corpora or sets of books that included the saintly nurse Sister Dora (1832–78), and an entirely different set of texts that include the adventuress known as the Spanish dancer Lola Montez (1821–61). Both these Victorian women became famous under a faintly Catholic pseudonym, but their personae occupy opposite ends of the spectrum of feminine types, and they never appear in the same book. Building a set of BESS profiles of all the biographies in the 20 books in the Sister Dora corpus (SD), which we call “Noble Workers,” and the biographies in the 14 books in the Lola Montez corpus (LM), “Women of the World,” we are turning to new sample corpora to extend our comparative study, which brought us to Frances Trollope, a node in the smallest of four new sets.

 In documentary social networks, women who never met or communicated may be virtually associated by their proximity to each other in printed collections or may be associated through other interpretative lenses. Two persons in the same collection are called siblings, in one degree of separation. Two persons who never appear in the same book but share a second book with others who do appear in that first book are called cousins, in two degrees of separation.  Trollope is a versatile figure who never shares a collection in this bibliography with either Sister Dora or Lola Montez. She is included neither among the 141 persons who appear (one to ten times each) in Noble Workers, nor among the 151 more disparate (and less recurring) figures in Women of the World, although these three sets of books were published in overlapping ranges of years: SD, primarily 1880–1913; LM, primarily 1908–1930; FT, 1883–1929. (All three samples include some outlying collections in the later twentieth century.) We plan sample corpora of Caroline Herschel, the astronomer (1750–1848), one of a handful of scientists and sisters of famous men, who is a sibling of SD but not of LM (CH is in 25 books with 268 siblings); Queen Cleopatra (32 books with 817 siblings, including LM); and Charlotte Corday (1768–93; 22 books with 351 siblings). Like Trollope, Corday, the assassin of Marat during the French Revolution, never coincides with Dora or Lola, but she virtually meets Cleopatra, Herschel, and Trollope in various publications. 

These personae can be compared according to their rates of appearance in collections across time. 

To access a bar graph of Collections Published Per Year for Trollope (using her ID number): highlighting a year (in this case, 1883) in the list of books and their publication data.

To compare this to another woman in a different network of biographical types, search Charlotte Corday (ID number P09060):

The French assassin has a high point of four collections published in 1890, and appears in about twice as many collections as Trollope, over a longer period (1804-1948).

From Frances Trollope's page
you can select "Find persons of 1 degree of separation," and discover a list of her 306 siblings.  A persona can be characterized by the company she keeps in these representations.  Thus, the list of siblings has its own tendencies. 

We can take another approach to the degrees of separation in these documentary networks.  On Trollope’s page,

click "Explore Radial Graph."

Or you can go to

and put Trollope's ID P09108 in the appropriate box.

and select Distance: Persons: 1.  The interactive graph is challenged to display all 306 siblings in the ten collections.  You can limit results by Collection Type and Person Type; figure 4 is an adaptation of such a search for visual clarity.

Here is another approach to visualizing networks through the two degrees of separation between Trollope and one of T.A.T.’s Italian exemplars, Vittoria Colonna.  Again, exploring the Find button, where we discovered 1 degree (in the same book), 306 siblings of Trollope.  Choose 2 degrees (never in the same book, but had siblings in common, that is, cousins).  This produces the list of the 4789 persons who are within 2 degrees: they have a biography in a book alongside persons who appear in book(s) with Frances Trollope.  This list does not indicate repeated co-occurrences of these persons.  A simple Command F (“find”) search by name will discover, for example, Vittoria Colonna in this list. 

Click “view” to display a simple visualization of the names that “bridge” these cousins, Trollope and Colonna:

Note: In this visualization, under Level 1 and Level 2 Collections, books are indicated by id number: “a” books are from the bibliography’s main alphabetical list (which is exhaustive); “c” books are from the chronological list of books published before 1830, which may not be complete or only published in an English-speaking context; “p” books are from the post-1940 bibliography, which attempts to be exhaustive only through 1950.

Looking at the chart, another “Italian” woman, Catherine de Medici, appears in the table of contents of at least one book with Trollope and at least one with Vittoria Colonna.  The list of forty women who are siblings of both Trollope and Vittoria Colonna tends to be European, although Dolly Madison, Louisa May Alcott, Mary Baker Eddy, and Anne Hutchinson figure prominently among American women.  On the whole, this documentary network features women prominent in CBW whose reputations are laudable according to the presenters’ interpretative framework.  Some, however, were powerful, undeniably historic, and reprehensible, as the presenters warn readers, e.g. Catherine the Great.  A fair number of these women-in-common of the cousins Trollope and Colonna were executed in political crises: Joan of Arc, Madame Roland, Charlotte Corday, Lady Jane Grey, Marie Antoinette, Mary Queen of Scots.  Eight women on the roster are known primarily as writers; others, whose narratives link more to political history, are remembered because they were effective writers concerning revolutions: Russell and Roland.  Two artists, two performers.  And saints.  One might claim that the common ground is simply recognition.  But volumes of some 3-20 narratives (not exhaustive reference works) show a heavier hand in selection than a random walk through fame.  (Our sample corpora do not yet bring out the genuinely obscure, one-off names in dozens of collections of wives of sectarian ministers or founding mothers of various states in the U.S, for example.)  The assessments of types and the according variations in narratives will offer measurable comparisons that challenge many of our retrospective generalizations about representation of women before second-wave feminism.  Here as elsewhere in digital experimentation, the negatives are revealing—which women of n degree of recognition in this genre/corpus never appear together?        

Digital analysis of people and texts requires an apparently contradictory set of qualities in a researcher: humble, skeptical, curious, tireless, agile.  There’s reason to distrust every single datum of biography, as any biographer or archivist should admit; all the more for women. The names of women, especially women of rank in remote centuries or “foreign” countries, present special challenges. Not only have most married women adopted husbands’ names, but in general women have also been less literate and less likely to leave documented property transactions than their male counterparts. The birth dates of women, including Trollope, are more elusive than men’s, sometimes because of their desire to hide their age. Women who spoke languages other than English, who were named in other alphabets, or who lived in early periods may be referred to by place of origin or family name in ways that don’t match current naming practices, generating duplicate records. Many women in CBW books were associated with noble or royal families, and nothing is more bizarre and confusing than the morphing of names of persons of rank. Italian naming includes variations on the plural, masculine, or feminine versions of the family name as well as several ways to write the article meaning “of the.” Whereas dukes and popes acquire numbers to distinguish them, this is not the custom with women. Disambiguating persons is one of the central tasks of prosopography, and at the same time the challenge is to interlink alternate names and meanings.  Frances Trollope has her own history as Mrs. Trollope or Fanny Trollope, which resembles Elizabeth Gaskell’s imperiled stature in literary history.

I am well aware that treating versions of Trollope as a node in a network of short, derivative redactions published in popular books is hardly the full restitution an individual life deserves (if any life ever receives such restitution). We locate this persona among vocational types and life data, from supposed givens of the accident of birth (Englishwoman) to events that create family relations (mother) to activities that earn a living or renown (writer).  In Trollope’s case, there was nothing particularly ambiguous in the category of gender. “A woman unlike other women,” “braver than any man”—such expressions of the failures of categories are common in these texts. Trollope was de facto head of her household and breadwinner even during her husband Thomas Anthony Trollope’s life. How common was it for a bachelor eldest son to serve as travel companion, agent, and housemate for his mother? All versions concur that Trollope’s writing, however satiric, fully evinced the attitudes of an English lady of her time—an assumption worth challenging in a closer reading of her varied novels and cosmopolitan writings and experiences.  And in a more intersectional, networked assessment of her representations among other personae in the CBW corpora.


[1].   There are at least 118 novelists in the CBW database.  Charlotte Brontë reigns supreme, in 46 collections of short narrative biographies (reference works, omitted from the bibliography, would indicate far more frequent representation).  Like Trollope, Adelaide Procter appears in ten books, including three with Trollope.  No biography of M. E. Braddon enters this database.  Margaret Oliphant appears four times; Elizabeth Gaskell seven; Christina Rossetti seven; Elizabeth Barrett Browning 37.

[2].  Frances Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans (London: Gilbert & Rivington, 1832). “Such literary fecundity is terrifying,” writes Willis J. Abbot in Notable Women in History (London: Greening, 1913), the first book in the bibliography of Collective Biographies of Women. All references to such texts will be cited parenthetically by their identification number, chapter number (e.g., bio70), and paragraph numbers. In the cited passage, Abbot continues: he claims a London obituary (unidentified) compared Trollope’s productivity to “the reckless production of children.” Mrs. Trollope’s 115 volumes call for a “union for the regulation of hours and of output” (a001.bio70 pars. 9-10). 

[3].   Frances Eleanor Trollope, Frances Trollope: Her Life and Literary Work from George III. to Victoria, 2 vols. (London: R. Bently and Son, 1895).  See Juliette Atkinson, “Fin-de-Siècle Female Biographers and the Reconsideration of Popular Women Writers,” in Writing Women of the Fin de Siècle: Authors of Change, ed. Adrienne E. Gavin et al. (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 111–23.



"Frances Trollope in a Network of Victorian Women's Biographies"

by Alison Booth

Supplementary materials