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Archive for January 2nd, 2019


Christmas at Noningsby

Friends and readers,

As is our wont for too many years than I like to count, Christmas week on TrollopeandHisContemporaries@groups.io (we have now resided on five different platforms) we took time out to read a few Christmas or ghost stories and watch a few Christmas or New Year’s movies. I realize I’ve hardly blogged about this, but from our discussion I thought I’d ask the question I posed in my previous blog on two Christmas movies of the 21st century, Is there any general difference between the Christmas story that emerged with the first commercialization of Christmas — in the 19th century, around the time of Dickens’s most famous tale, A Christmas Carol (but not caused by this story), and the type that has dominated the second half of the 20th century and is just dying now.

The simple answer is, Yes. The Victorians were much more into ghosts. Not that we don’t have ghost stories: we do. But I’d say we want our ghosts to be redemptive, to bring hope, cheer, and uplift while the Victorians tended to want generally to mirror as aspects of their society all the year round as seen through the lens of a Christmas ritual. And often as not darkly gothic. We are changing and our new traditional stories are beginning to be less insistent on faery joy and benevolence (It’s a Wonderful Life, engineered by an angel) and more inclined to accept the temporary rescue (as in this year’s Mary Poppins Returns or Love, Actually). I am in the position of having too much material to demonstrate this (from all the years I’ve saved what people wrote over different weeks’ choices, but thought this year’s stories were as able as any to register this. Two by Anton Chekhov, “Frost,” and “A Christmas Time,” and one by Margaret Oliphant, “A Christmas Story,” which I’ll follow up as a kind of coda, Trollope’s depiction of six very different experiences of Christmas in the same year and juxtaposed chapters in Orley Farm.


17th century Dutch: scene on the ice

Chekhov’s “Frost” shows us people attempting to have this joyous time on a vast frozen pond, and what happens is among the upper classes, one man complain how this is false and, far from a cheerful time for all, the winter imposes cold and misery for many, for the poor much deprivation and hard work in the bitter cold. Along comes a man whose appearance and story bears this idea out. The problem (I’d say) is that the complaining has destroyed what cheer there is, and other characters reiterate this idea. But somehow they cannot forget. There is that suffering man.


John Atkinson Grimshaw, Silence (late 19th century, English, probably Yorkshire in winter)

Cheknov’s “A Christmas Time” tells of two very old people who have not heard from their grown daughter for a long time, so long the wife goes to a person who can read and write. He asks her what she wants him to say, and Chekhov says she cannot get herself to say the (I’d call them) vulnerable open longing emotions she has or what has happened for real. She is too inhibited to speak the truth. So the notary produces the usual boilerplate rot of his upper class niche, which flatters him and would say nothing to this daughter. The letter arrives and we learn that there were letters written to the old couple but never delivered. The foolish poor people, the daughter especially trusted to others to deliver them. (Like the southerners who gave their ballots to people coming to the door; I wonder if in the modern case the people were intimidating and that’s not said in public) At any rate when the two grown children read the letters one cries with joy and remembrance. So the letters do serve as a minimum communication. But the pair do nothing about going to the aging couple so they cannot know if they have reached their daughter.

Bleak stories, indeed, but not unusual. And to show this I think I’ll follow up with a few blogs on previous year’s readings. For now have a look at a M.R. James Christmas tale.


John Millais, Christmas (ghost) story-telling

Our last short story for this round, Oliphant’s “Christmas Story:” Oliphant has a man who wants go somewhere Christmas and misses his train. He takes an old-fashioned coach and finds himself by an old broken down landscape where all is desolate and thence to an inn which fits this area. Bare. a dearth of objects. The food offered is bad, and an old gentleman comes and offers to take our narrator to his manor – all the while talking against modern ways. They get there through an uncanny landscape, and the old man tells our narrator that the sullen son he meets is going to replace the old man. According to the family will, each generation must make the oldest son the heir. The family has trouble having sons. A story is told where when the family attempted to get round this harsh treatment, to give the house to a daughter, and they almost lost the house. Our narrator is horrified to think what this means is the son will kill the father somehow or the father kill himself. He tries to stop this, but is somehow ejected from the house, and must return to the inn, deeply disquieted. Next day he goes back indignant determined to overcome the indifference of all around him to what is done in this family each generation but it is too late. And then he wakes up … Was it all a nightmare?

How to take this? The details and experience may leave people reacting very different ways to this gothic — without ghosts so it’s not reprinted in the ghost stories but my hunch is it is a story of the “unseen.” My reading: it’s about Oliphant herself. As Trollope’s Fixed Period is about his fear of death, his aging and misery, his sense the young would like him to die, with the awful Mrs Neverbend a version of Trollope’s wife, Oliphant’s is even more painfully about her. Her sons want to replace her — a number of her novels are metaphors for her painful relationships with her disappointing sons and her neglect of her sweet niece (“Lady Mary’s Story”).

My good friend, Fran, had another take very close to Victorian broad themes:

I found it an intriguing one, despite the unfortunately clichéd, ‘it may have been only a dream’ ending.

As you say, it was probably informed by her own distressing and disappointing experiences with the ne’er-do-well males in her family, who took and took, but didn’t respect,but it seems to go further than that and be an oblique critique of patriarchy, patrilineal inheritance rights and inheritance laws in general. She does it by taking the privileging of male inheritance ad (macabre and possibly murderous) absurdum. It isn’t that the family has difficulty having sons: due to the losses of a wastrel forebear, the family has made a conscious decision to have only one child, a son, in each generation in order to maintain patrilineal succession and prevent their land being cut up even further by multiple heirs or falling to another family if a female should succeed and marry. That son automatically accedes to the title upon marriage whilst the father dies, whether by his own hand or that of his son, remains unclear as you’ve already pointed out – a kind of precursor to the Highlander’s ‘there can be only one’ maxim:) The narrator stumbles upon the present incumbent of the title on the day this will come about and is shocked by his equanimity at the prospect of his loutish son succeeding him in this way. The only thing that seems to bother the father is that his son has insisted on marrying outside the preferred narrow gene pool and into a particularly fecund family, thus presumably increasing the danger of multiple heirs.

Women are of absolutely no importance in this family beyond the obligatory production of a male heir. The lady of the manor is a completely silent, passive and presumably accepting cypher who quite literally blends in with the furniture and her husband is positively gleeful when he recounts that the one time a female child was born first and in danger of inheriting both she and her mother met with an early demise – manner again unspecified – whilst the second wife performed her duty and produced the required son to continue the male line.

This stands in ironic and suggestive contrast to the legendary figure of Godiva referenced at the beginning of the tale, who took action and stood up against her despotic husband and caused harmful laws to be rescinded for the good of the people. The male who disrespected her, the first Peeping Tom, was summarily punished by a higher power. Wishful thinking perhaps…..


Mr Furnival greeting Lady Mason, to the right side sitting Mrs Furnival, to the left Lady Mason’s son, Lucius

And finally Christmas in Trollope’s Orley Farm (mostly contained in 21-24) as simply truthful. The truth is few people can be happy upon command. Some who are already cheerful in life can easily enter into the spirit of a festival; for others it is a form a work which brings its rewards; for still others, the social requirement just makes life harder to bear. We see all these types in the 6 Christmases Trollope shows us. But of course Trollope doesn’t present Christmas in all his books or because Christmas come every year; he presents it here because it fits into his exploration of law, custom, and now ritual in this particular novel.

There are six Christmases. The four obvious ones are: Harley Street, Noningsby, Groby Park, and Great St. Helens.

Christmas at Harley Street. The scene of the aon and accused mother, Lady Mason, late at night matches the scene of Mr and Mrs Furnival. Less is dramatized in the first but we are to understand Lady Mason feels a bitter agony at her son. He is driving his absolute right to a property too far and a court case will be the result. He, she feels, rightly is cruel. Trollope wants us to understand that Lucius cannot bear that his opponents do not answer all insults: his pride is his undoing. But we are shown that pride is necessary to win in the world. All the characters have it, but only the wiser use it with discretion. I feel we are to see Mr Furnival is cruel and mean, cold. We’ve been told enough to know he has women. He never comes home to supper one night in the year and is even out on this Christmas celebration. To those not in groups Christmas is a cruel time because (as Trollope shows) people without friends or celebration who have hearts are made to suffer and feel bitterly ashamed. But Mrs Furnivals handles Mr Furnival badly. Had she been skillful, he still would gone out, never be home. She cannot humble herself and admit to herself or him she speaks out of deep loneliness.

Trollope does “paint” the scenes of Christmas at Noningsby remarkably finely — he has wonderful description and psychological powers. And while showing us the enjoyment he does justice to all the pettty, cross and unsatisfied emotions of the various lovers and children and adults too. Unlike Dickens Trollope shows a variety of how people get through this day, does justice to all. This sequence of chapters is famous as well as the illustration of blind man’s bluff. Ironically appropriate _– the way to get through life is to bluff the blind men.

Christmas at Great St Helens’ shows Mr Moulder bullying everyone into appearing to be cheerful, and somehow they get through sll the insisted upon rituals with heavy food, much drink, and obedience.

But to this we should add Christmas at the cottage of the Greens, the Mason’s tenants in Groby Park, and Christmas at the Cleeves. What unites the Greens’ and Cleeves’s Christmas is they are simply an adorned moment in which all attempt to show good fellowship. Mr and Mrs Green come home from the long ordeal of ugly pretense and parody of hospitality that has been the Groby Park Christmas (everyone an utter miser), and Trollope writes: “‘And now, my dear, we’ll have a bit of bread and cheese and a glass of beer'” (1985 Oxford Classics ed. DSkilton, p. 237).

Christmas at the Cleeves also has a good moment:

“[Lady Mason] made an effort to be serene, and the effort was successful — as such efforts usually are. On the morning of Christmas-day they duly attended church, and Lady Mason was seen by all Hamworth sitting in the Cleeves’ pew. in no way could the baronet’s friendhship have been shown more plainly…”

In the evening Sir Peregrine proposes the toast. They drink to the health of the absent young men, he retires and Lady Mason is able to relieve her heart in conversation with Mrs Orme (p. 247). We may assume they drank something far more expensive than beer.

These 2 Christmases are overlooked because they only get a couple of paragraphs each and are very quiet. They also lack children. Children are what makes Christmas for some so happy, especially when they still believe in the pretty lie of Santa. Children are drunk on life of course. Finally these two seem to me the most modern of all the Christmases we see. Not everyone is near a divorce on Christmas day. But many people nowadays are cut off from large family groups — or single –and spend their day alone, quietly, or with one or two adult friends.

The 6 Christmases are presented in this novel this way too because they fit into what Halperin has identified as something Trollope dislikes wherever he sees it, and is a strong part of his animus towards political life: they avoid the ceremonies of falsifying rituals. I would say that this presentation of the ritual of Christmas as enacted in six places connects to the novel’s exploration of law and custom and what I’ll call the brutal politics of every day life: shall one bully? as Moulder does, or retreat into self-abnegation or controlled repeat or veneer ritual like Lady Mason?

In this connection what Trollope shows us is ritual at home doesn’t hide reality; rather it heightens it. In each of the Christmases we find everyone behaving in ways that epitomize the reality of their lives and natures at this point. The difference is the need to join in the ritual at the same time makes what is true about them more obvious; it turns life into a theater. Thus each of the six moments again reveals to us aspects of each character writ large, and carries the book’s stories and themes along strongly.

And there is a fun illustration by Millais for Christmas at Noningsby (which I used as the frontispiece to this blog) to which I add a picturesque one of companionship between Judge Staveley and his daughter later that spring.

Finishing this old year, let us hope, my friends, we may yet have a peaceful and stable one to come, be well and know and give kindness.

Ellen

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