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Dear friends and readers,

Last night meaning to read a Christmas story by Anthony Trollope, I was deterred by Amazon. Amazon strikes again. On my stoop I found one of their harassed employees had left C.W. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, and, finding the book irresistible, read it through instead of Trollope. And naturally a blog came …


Skating by Moonlight — Ladybird Advent Calendar

Someone — a Latin poet — had defined eternity as no more than this: to hold and possess the whole fullness of life in one moment, here and now, past and present and to come — last chapter of Ross Poldark, where we have just experienced a sequence of Christmas scenes

In a (to Trollopians) a notorious screed against most matter produced for Christmas, Anthony Trollope defined what he thought a work for Christmas should contain:

Nothing can be more distasteful to me than to have to give a relish of Christmas to what I write. I feel the humbug implied by the nature of the order. A Christmas story, in the proper sense, should be the ebullition of some mind anxious to instill others with a desire for Christmas religious thought or Christmas festivities, — , better yet, with Christmas charity” (from An Autobiography)

Should it be that? Trollope’s own “The Widow’s Mite” is the story by him that comes closest to this but not all the others are quite that.  “Christmas at Thompson Hall” the one he produced after writing his frustrated thoughts is a story of comic anguish and strong stress in a woman trying to reach her relatives once a year from abroad on Christmas day.

What I discover is typical is a story usually set around Christmas, but it need not be (not all Trollope’s are, as for example, “Catherine Carmichael,” The Telegraph Girl,” and “Two Generals”), a story where characters are in need of kindness and show kindness, characters who forgive, reconcile or accept themselves with one another or something, but also make sudden philosophic comments appropriate to the story, who reach for some meaning.

I have a few recent Christmas movies and stories as examples, and C.W. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, a meditation on the story behind one of them, for a coda.


The last pair of lovers, the lucky Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Matthew (Dan Steevens) clutching one another wildly in front of enormous house …. (Downton Abbey, 2011)

I’ll begin with the TV “Christmas special” (two hours) I watched tonight:  appropriate to Christmas eve, thought I, a “feature” or coda which ended the second season of Downton Abbey, itself set during World War One and mostly about World War One (much softened). The sequences of events, the stories, what the characters are doing are all shaped by their occurring from a few days before December 25th, until what seems to be Twelfth Night, or January 6th, at any rate some time after the 1st when we’ve just had a “servants ball.”

Has what we have just experienced been Christmasy — well, yes, as the characters have put up and decorated a tree, had two servants’s special lunches and dinners, a Christmas eve party complete with charades, went shooting, exchanged presents. But have the individual stories been imbued “with a desire for … Christmas charity.” Not altogether but there has been much forgiveness of others and the self, some growth in self-acceptance and acceptance of one’s circumstances without blaming someone else, there’s been some real selfless love enacted, and just scenes of feeling good, partly by the characters all making sacrifices (however small) to enable another character to feel better about themselves, and have a good time. There’s been regret at having done a bad deed (but the deliberately lost dog was found), and we’ve even had ghostly doing with a ouija or spirit board.

My favorite line in the two hours is Mrs Hughes’s answer to Daisy’s “Don’t you believe in spirits, then?”: “I don’t believe they play board games.”


Audrey (Carolyn Farina) at Patrick’s Cathedral with her mother (1990 Metropolitan)

Two nights ago I saw a similar effort. The way Whit Stillman appropriated Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park is to set an analogous set of characters and action in Manhattan Christmas week (starting a few days before Christmas and ending just after New Year’s Eve) in the 1990s. Metropolitan is to me a deeply appealing movie because it’s one of the few appropriations which use words from Austen (more from Emma than Mansfield Park) and mirrors some of her central ethical questionings.

We see a group of upper class twenty-year olds from very wealthy families accept among them a young man with far fewer funds (he lives on the West side, not East, takes buses and walks instead of hailing cabs); they discuss what is a good person, reject sexual harassment (and rape), worry the question of success for upper class people like themselves who have too high expectations and have never had to endure boredom, hardship or work hard as yet. The Fanny character (Audrey) rejects Lionel Trilling’s reading of Mansfield Park as egocentric, narrow-minded and domineering. (He does not like Fanny Price and says no one can; well, Audrey loves Fanny.)  The characters squabble, insult, and even fight one another (to the point of toy pistols), but the stories show our favored characters ending up tolerating, understanding, controlling themselves more out of respect for others, getting a wider perspective.

I admit I respond most deeply to the filming of typical NYC scenes during Christmas week at Rockefeller Center, on TV (the burning Yule log on Channel 11), shopping, lonely crowded streets and people going to rituals. Each time I watch I cry when Audrey and her mother sing carols in St Patrick’s cathedral.


Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) reads Goethe to Elizabeth on Christmas Day eve (towards the end of A Christmas Tale)

Last year it became my favorite Christmas movie and still is — why I began with Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale. A family strained for many years by an estrangement between the middle living child, Henri, who facing bankruptcy, took advantage of the father and made him liable for his debts. The family would have lost their beloved ancient spacious house and their cloth dying business gone under, but the oldest girl, Elizabeth, is a money-making playwright and paid off the debt with the proviso Henri must be excluded from the family from now on. But Junon, the mother (played by Catherine Deneuve) has leukemia, is probably dying, so all now must pull together, including a younger son, Ivan, and Sylvia, his wife. It is explicitly a story of attempted reconciliations of all sorts.

What I love about this movie is what I like so about the Downton Abbey piece and Metropolitan, only here this central characteristic is so much stronger, more in play: just about all the characters are so complex in the way of characters in a novel, and (like Rohmer and Bergmann’s movies) you can watch and re-watch and each time learn more about all the characters. A viewer probably tends to focus on Elizabeth who is so bitter and who has a good relationship with Abel, her highly intelligent reading father, but not with Paul, her son who we’d call autistic and whom she wants to put in an asylum; her husband, Claude, has little patience with the boy. Also on Henri who dislikes his mother since she dislikes him, his grief over his dead wife, and restless Jewish girlfriend. It is Henri who helps bring Paul back to himself by paying attention to Paul: Henri identifies with the boy

This time (my fourth through) I noticed Junon, the mother, had self-consciously married a man who was ugly, not of high status, because Abel is kind and competent, a protector, loyal, and that he has enabled her to spend her life keeping at a distance from everyone. Also that Simon, the best friend of Ivan, Junon and Abel’s youngest son, and Sylvia, Simon’s wife’s has been leading a depressive life, until (in this week) he and Sylvia become lovers and Abel takes him into the factory. It seems that he was a rival for Sylvia long ago and she chose (probably not wisely she sees now) Ivan. This time I noticed it is Abel who takes both Simon and Paul into the family home they all find so precious, a kind of sanctuary inside a hard industrial city. Abel is seen quietly cleaning up, always there, the mainstay those who need to, lean on. In other words, the parents as complex people began to emerge in my mind.


The Come From Away cast as puzzled passengers ….

I’ve two more, neither occur around Christmas. Briefly this past Saturday afternoon, Izzy, Laura and I saw at the Kennedy Center the extraordinary (in the depths of feeling it occasionally reached) for an group concept, Canadian musical; and astonishing (in sudden individual moments, separate soliloquies, character sketches), Come from Away. It is the upbeat story of how a large group of American planes were landed in Newfoundland, Canada, because the area had a large unused airport, and how the people living in the towns all about welcomed the people on the planes, took care of them.

It’s a story we are much in need of since the spread of hatred and fear these past few years by Trump and his regime, and others like itaround the world. I’ll content myself with a review in the New York Times. Ben Brantley explains this show and its context better than I could.


Deborah Winger and Anthony Hopkins as Joy and Jack

More at length: last week with a friend I watched Richard Attenborough’s Shadowlands, the story of the slow coming together of C.S.Lewis in his later year as a Don, with Joy Gresham, an American woman with whom he had been corresponding for years. If Christmas is mentioned, that’s because the movie covers a number of years. It does show characters behaving with singular charity and forbearance towards one another. It’s Christmasy, though, because it seeks to put the events of the story, especially a painful death of Joy Gresham (played by Deborah Winger), a relatively young woman, from bone cancer; a framework that makes it meaningful at the same time as the central character, “Jack” Lewis (played by Anthony Hopkins) cries out in anguish over the senselessness, cruel suffering and loss such a death entails. It is shaped by Christian apologetics, so to speak, especially on the existence of pain (as found in Lewis’s own writing). In the film we see Jack giving sermons on this topic.

Shadowlands was a hit the year it came out, gained many prizes. C.S. Lewis is nowadays known widely for his children’s fantasy series, Narnia Chronicles, whose stories may be allegorized as about the life and figure of Christ. I knew Lewis’s work from my 20s in graduate school as a brilliant literary critic (The Allegory of Love springs to mind), but Jim when I met him knew and was still under the spell of Lewis’s religious apologetic polemics ( which years later Jim found abhorrent): The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, and Surprized by Joy, the story of his supposed conversion from atheism to Anglicanism. Maybe this is why the movie was dared and accepted.

The problem is, for some, maybe many, Lewis’s arguments can be seen as ultimately sadistic, a romancing of pain and suffering. The movie is hagiographic, follows an idealizing biography of the Gresham-Lewis relationship (with the same title): by contrast, another by Abigail Santamara tells of how Gresham pursued Lewis consciously, was very ambitious, and how Lewis was at first reluctant, married her yes to provide her with the right to live in London, and gradually fell in love. It’s a popular-oriented film so we get this reductive idea Lewis was simply cold, inhibited, in retreat, not daring risks like the figure in The Roman de la Rose (which he lectures on), and Joy brought him out of this. She is presented probably as she was — slightly obnoxious, rude in her bluntness. But the romance is very well done, the script intelligent, tasteful — the history of Joy’s cancer; the diagnosis, first radiation treatments, the remission, the return and then the decline into death is done realistically (to some extent) and made moving. We watch Lewis by Joy’s side throughout; he is there for her as she goes out — as I was when Jim died. The movie does not stop at her death but carries on, showing Lewis at first in a rage, then slowly calming down, and towards the end still with his brother and now Joy’s boy, his son growing up, if not accepting what happened, able to deal sanely with this unexpected past.

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Helen Dahm Swiff (1878-1986), Silent Night

I’ll end on the book I was prompted to buy after seeing Shadowlands. It arrived today, just in time for Christmas Eve: Lewis’s A Grief Observed, yet another memoir of someone dealing with extreme grief over the loss for him or her of a beloved person, and the death and suffering that person knew. All four of these movies record deaths: in Downton Abbey, it’s the hero’s fiancee, then her father, the scullery maid and cook’s husband, son of a farmer who has lost all his children. A Christmas Tale begins with the death of the first boy of Abel and Junon, age 6; he is never forgotten during the film. In Metropolitan we are told of the death of some of the characters’ parents, the divorce of others, and one of the intelligent young men discusses what he says is everyone’s need to believe in God, and what he regards as the probably that there is a God. How else carry on? These kinds of inference I think come from over-reaching: you can see life as good and enjoy much even if it has no meaning beyond the experience of life itself. Come From Away shows awareness that thousands have just been killed in an engineered disaster.

As I began to read, I found myself remembering immediately what a wonderfully alive writer Lewis is, how eloquent, how daring his use of language. And how brilliant he is, and how persuasive he can be — partly because he tells enough truth, is so perceptive about whatever experiences he is getting down. He spoke home to me, and ranged widely. He kept several notebooks from which this slender book came. Towards the end he talks of the “arrogance in us to call frankness, fairness, and chivalry ‘masculine’ when we see them in a woman; it is arrogance in them to describe a man’s sensitiveness or tact or tenderness as ‘feminine.’ “Poor warped fragments of humanity.”

The first chapter is his own strong anger, and fear. Lewis finds grief feels like fear — yes, I felt profound terror when I first truly had the thought I would have to be alone in the world without Jim. He talks of how “it is hard to have patience with people who say, ‘There is no death’ or ‘Death doesn’t matter.’ In this first state he is an embarrassment to others; he cannot endure to listen to them. It resonated with me when Lewis says he cannot remember Joy’s face (he’s seen too many versions), hear her voice, imagine what she would say or do in this or that situation. She is now an absence. I like how he says Joy remained the other, a self apart, and when she would be with him, he would see how he had distorted her in his mind.

In the second chapter he draws himself up and realizes he has been thinking only of himself: what of her, of the pain she knew, of her loss, what happened as she experienced it. Then the cant: she is in God’s hands. Right. Will fatal disease be diagnosed in his body too? “What does it matter how this grief of mine evolves or what I do with it? what does it matter how I remember her or whether I remember her at all? None of these alternatives will either ease or aggravate her past anguish.”

The third and fourth chapter are much harder to capture. Unlike Julian Barnes’s masterly grief memoir in Levels of Life, Lewis does not move as an argument because in a way there is none: he sees the senselessness and cruelty of what has happened and then refuses to infer there is no God, and so moves in circles around the torturous draining traumatic and gradually therapeutic experiences he is enduring. He questions himself a lot. “If I had really cared, as I thought I did, about the sorrows of the world, I should not have bee so overwhelmed when my own sorrow came.” He explores what love is. We all experience “love cut short; like a dance stopped in mid-career … bereavement is a universal and integral part of our experience of love.” Then what grief: “something new to be chronicled every day. Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.”

There is much more: on God, on human consciousness, on misunderstanding less, on mystic experiences, and how he and Joy their intimacy could only reach so far. He ends with a quotation from Dante where Joy is likened (if I am not mistaken) to either Beatrice or some eternal presence and “Poi si torno all’eterna fontana.”

I hope all who read this manage a contented cheerful Winter Solstice.

Ellen

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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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John Millais, “Christmas Story-Telling,” “Christmas Supplement,” London News, 20 December 1862

In his Autobiography Trollope put himself firmly on record as resisting not just the commercialization of Christmas, but the way a cultural conformity of imposition leads people to pretend to Christmas feeling, resulting in meretricious art: he uses memorably negative images and metaphors to capture his “distaste” over the hypocrisy and artifice of being paid to produce a story filled with “cheer” and other manufactured “good feelings” because the “market” called for it. Since he makes a point over and over that he was never ashamed of writing for money, I assume he didn’t like being hired to pretend to feel what he did not feel, and especially with regard to Christmas where he thought some genuine worthy feelings were being corrupted (hollowed out, destroyed by exploitation):

“While I was writing The Way We Live Now, I was called upon by the proprietors of the Graphic for a Christmas story. I feel, with regard to literature, somewhat as I suppose an uphosterer and undertaker feels when he is called upon to supply a funeral. He has to supply it, however distasteful it may be. It is his business, and he will starve if he neglect it. So have I felt that, when anything in the shape of a novel was required, I was bound to produce it. Nothing can be more distasteful to me than to have to give a relish of Christmas to what I write. I feel the humbug implied by the nature of the order. A Christmas story, in the proper sense, should be the ebullition of some mind anxious to instill others with a desire for Christmas religious thought or Christmas festivities, — , better yet, with Christmas charity. Such was the case with Dickens when he wrote his two first Christmas stories. But since that the things written annually — all of which have been fixed to Christmas like children’s toys to a Christmas tree, have no real savour of Christmas about them. I had done two or three before. Alas! at this very moment I have one to write [said by Julian Thompson to have been Christmas at Thompson Hall], which I have promised to supply within three weeks of this time,– the picture-makers always required a long interval, — as to which I have in vain been cudgelling my brain for the last month. I can’t send away the order to another shop, but I do not know how I shall ever get the coffin made.”

Since he felt thus strongly, I have thus far not written any blog on his Christmas stories, individually or as a group. But time wears the spirit down, we compromise and the reality is quite a number of the stories are superb. One can even find (as with Dickens, or Oliphant or other Victorian authors who wrote a number of Christmas stories) a recurring set of themes, and motifs whether the story takes place in the fierce (fiery) heat of Australia (Harry Heathcote), centers on Christmas or just takes place at that time of year regularly or at a climax (“Catherine Carmichael,” “Two Generals”, “The Telegraph Girl”). He was deeply sceptical (not a mystic element in this man’s mind) and you will not find any ghosts or miracles, no revenants seeking revenge or to awaken the better nature of the person visited,no places haunted by some invisible past. He tends strongly not to focus on Christmas itself (the holiday or even its customs, with Mistlebough an exception) but let the time of year or the setting, the expectations built up around the holiday provide the emotional temperature. Then you find stories exploring the nature of charity, forgiveness, reconciliation, compromise, how the holiday functions as a memory device (it marks time), and brings out what is most characteristic in the nature of dominant characters. He wants his story to be a genuinely felt experience too.

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John Everett Millais, “Christmas at Noningsby” (Orley Farm)

Trollope wrote ten of them in longer and shorter stories, and four comparative chapters inside a remarkable novel, Orley Farm: I picked these out as stories taking place around Christmas time, where Christmas an experience or time-maker figures in the story), and in Orley Farm anthropologically considered. I’ve written (together with others conversational style) analyses, commentaries, summaries of these (linked in).

4 chapters in Orley Farm (Christmas in Harley Street, at Noningsby. at Groby Park, in Great St Helens (Chapters 21-24) (written 1860)
The Widow’s Mite (written 1862)
“The Mistletoe Bough” (written 1861)
“The Widow’s Mite” (written 1862),
Two Generals (written 1863)
Harry Heathcote of Gangoil (written 1863)
“Christmas Day at Kirby Cottage” (written 1870)
“Christmas at Thompson Hall” (written 1876)
“The Telegraph Girl” (written 1877),
“Catherine Carmichael; or Three Years Running” (written 1878)
“Not If I Know It” (1882)

My favorite once was “Christmas at Thompson Hall,” because I saw it as a story of comic anguish, not about the reunion home but the experience of intense pressure when obstacles get in the way of getting there, especially if you have lost status in some ways vis-a-vis against the other members of your family over the years. Mary Brown’s husband has lived a supine drone-like existence, they have no children, and they have rarely returned until now when she feels she must because her sister is marrying. We see how her husband has used a supposed weakness of constitution to control her and in this case almost thwarts her getting there in time. She takes this punishment of her out on the staff and also him, but is herself humiliated. Alas, it’s not the husband who ends up over-medicated – which would provide some poetic justice. (But then life doesn’t). In a way were her dithering trips around a vast freezing cold palace of a French hotel not done empathetically, many would not be amused. The story is edgy.

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But recently I found myself much preferring, enjoying once again, “The Widow’s Mite” for the full sociological and economic context, the character types, and especially Trollope’s revision of the familiar parable. The deeper lesson I glean is that it does not matter if the giver has to give up something, the way to measure how much good you do is how much you gave to the person in need and how much it helped them practically, not you morally (because that is too hard and ambiguous). I concede I may be reading against the grain here.


Newchurch in Pendle, Winter — Lancashire — K. Melling

A summary, in Judy Geater’s words,

“shamelessly pinched from John Sutherland’s introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics Early Short Stories. Sutherland explains that the publisher of evangelical magazine “Good Words”, Alexander Strahan, wrote to Trollope asking for a short Christmas/ New Year tale for the January 1863 edition of the magazine, passing on a suggestion from Scottish minister Norman Macleod that the title should be “Out of Work” and that it should deal with the unemployment in northern textile mills caused by the cotton famine as a result of the American Civil War. Trollope agreed but politely objected to the title. ” ‘Out of Work’ would be a very nice name for a story – But it would be needfull with such a name that the chief character should be an operative. I do not think I could manage this. But the line of the story shall be of the same nature – if possible.”

Sutherland writes: “‘The Widow’s Mite,’… was one of Trollope’s strongest efforts to date. He had visited the United States for six months over 1861-2 and his mind was full of the country and its turbulent condition. The story is narrated in Trollope’s increasingly relaxed comic mode, but the mood is hotly topical – angry, almost… the story, while maintaining its easy tone of social comedy, probes the sorest of middle-class sore points – is it ‘charity’ if you don’t feel the donation as loss? ‘How many of us,’ Trollope asks, ‘when we give, give from our own backs, and from out of our own mouths?’ Walk through the streets of London or New York and it is still a topical question.”

We learn about the Lancashire cotton famine, the cost to the workers of supporting the anti-slavery states. Jenny Uglow in her biography of Elizabeth Gaskell writes:

The mills had no American cotton, but the masters were reluctant to change their machinery to suit Indian supplies if there was hope of the Civil War ending. Elizabeth set up ‘Sewing-schools’ to provide part-time work and corresponded eagerly with Florence Nightingale, hoping that some of the laid-off mill-women might train as nurses… ‘The poor old women’ were her special concern: ‘at present they have only the workhouse allowance; barely enough for the cheapest, poorest food – only just enough to keep life in. They have worked hard all their working years – poor old friendless women, and now crave and sicken after a “taste of bacon” or something different to the perpetual oat-meal.’By late summer the Plymouth Grove household had to check themselves from talking about the distress, ‘which was literally haunting us in our sleep, as well as being the first thoughts on waking and the last at night’. Gaskell’s words, in a letter, but this is very much the feeling you get in Trollope’s story, too, where the family are increasingly feeling guilty about every little luxury while others have nothing.


Pissaro, Chestnut Trees at Louveciennes, Winter (1870)

Judy Geater wrote of the story:

“The story is written with a wonderfully light touch, but still gets its powerful message across, probably as effectively as any preacher. At the start, most readers will be likely to laugh at the argument between Charley and Bob, where Bob tries to prove that if everybody gave up their Christmas dinner the savings would be “two millions and a half” – and Charley brings him down to earth by pointing out that the grocer and butcher would be ruined. However, if as readers we continue to scoff at Nora as she decides to make her own personal sacrifice by doing without wedding finery, I think the laughter soon dies on our lips as we realise that there is indeed a real point in her giving up her two mites.

My idea (Ellen here) is it is the feeling that people ought to have a decent dinner on such a day, some warmth, something to feel hopeful about that gives rise to the action of the story. What shall this middle class family do, if anything, to help the Lancashire cottonworkers of the area? Is it in good taste for the family to have an expensive wedding and the bride a luxurious dress when all around them others starve. Trollope seems to think this talk is phony, the characters don’t really mean it — or he has one of his characters (the American alas) assert that.

As the story opens we are told the American civil war has led to the Lancashire cotton workers losing their jobs and as it has gone on for some time they are now beginning literally to go without food, without warmth, without clothes, and some are nearly starving. They have been laid off as there is no cotton to work upon, but as Trollope develops the story there seems to be little resentment against the war against by the people it’s hurting. (It has been suggested they identified with the slaves.) The heroine, Nora, wants to help her uncle, the Reverend Mr Granger, gather money to feed the workers, but she feels she wants to feel she’s done something. It’s not enough to give out of her superfluity; she wants to give up something she will miss. It may seem odd that she finds this difficult to do — but she is middle class, gentry, genteel — and by the end of the story, has not pulled it off, quite. She is about to be married and the question arises, how much money should they spend in this situation. Will they look bad? to themselves, it seems.


An illustration for a 19th century wedding dress

This ‘problem’ is one that seems to speak to some middle class people as important. To those who starve or are homeless, such a question is egocentric: the concern suggests that the middle class is more interested in its own feelings than in giving to those who are in need. Still this is the way the story is often read; when I assigned it to my classes, one girl gave a long talk about how when she was young, someone forced her to give up an expensive doll she liked to a cousin. She was told that wasn’t charity at all as she didn’t even need it. I’m afraid this little girl wasn’t impressed.

The story is done in Trollope’s usual multi-perspective narrative: we look at the characters as products of their class and type and nationality. Their attitudes reflect their situation in life and what cultural group they grew up in. Nora’s cousin, Bob, suggests all the people in England, Scotland, and Ireland should simply not eat a Christmas dinner, take all the money saved, and hand that out. He is only momentarily non-plussed when he is told the problem is the Irish don’t have a Christmas meal to give away: “They never have any in Ireland, Bob.”

Charley, Nora’s other cousin, takes her to task for not spending money on finery, for in her efforts to help the cottonworkers she will leave those who make clothes without work: “Charley condemned [Nora] altogether, pointing out that it was bad policy to feed the cotton spinners at the expense of the milliners.” He is the one who feels the others are pretending to themselves they feel this regret.

The characters argue explicitly over how the wealthy in their community should go about giving to the poor: should they give charity or does this ruin the independent spirit of the workers? In the situation at hand this is an absurdity. It is said by the Newt Gingrich of the piece, Frederick Frew, Nora’s bethrothed and an American, who we are told “trusts to syllogisms which are often false, instead of to the experience of his life and daily workings of his mind.” Trollope tells us explicitly and through the use of heavy irony that our American Fred is wrong when he scorns charity givers as degrading the poor, that his analogy of “how dogs let other dogs starve and therefore we but follow nature if we do likewise to other people” is wrong, and that his idea “the widow would have done better to have invested her small capital in some useful trade,” is a hilarious bit of anachronistic and here obtuse American capitalism. Trollope was not a Tory in his own time; he ran on the Liberal ticket. Alas, this kind of thinking is running rampant in the US again today — at least among the powerful in Fox and other corporate news media.

Back to the story. How does Nora solve her problem? (Note it’s her problem; the angle is taken focuses on Nora and not the starving people.) Well, what she tries to do is to give the money she was going to use to make herself expensive finery to wear on her wedding day to her uncle for the use of the cotton-mill workers. She is about to be married and decides she will have a plain wedding, and she refuses to allow her American (and Unionist) husband-to-be to pay for the finery which he could do. I would liken Nora to the person with one pair of very fancy boots walking in the snow who sees someone with nothing on his feet. She gives up her boots up so she can feel the snow, although she has a small pair of ordinary shoes in her bag and is close to home where there’s another pair of boots waiting for her.

What Nora discovers is she doesn’t miss her very fancy boots at all, and — and this is what is interesting about the story — she doesn’t get the uplift she had longed for. She thought it would make her feel good to walk through the snow shoeless ( to keep up my metaphor) or with inadequate shoes, but it somehow doesn’t. This is the subtlest level of the story. Trollope suggests such a feeling is fleeting at best because luxurious goods are not what make us happy.

There’s an anti-materialism at the heart of this story and perhaps this is what makes it an idealistic or Christmas story — and it’s why I like it. This anti-materialism is figured forth for us in the closing scene of the wedding — Nora does have a very plain one. Nora finds that she didn’t need the finery. More: its absence is not only unimportant but actually adds to the beauty of the moment. The narrator underlines this moral lest we not pick it up:

“For myself [Trollope speaking as narrator within the story] I think they all looked more comfortable on that cold winter morning without the finery which would have been customary than they could have done without it. It had seemed to them all beforehand that a marriage without veils and wreaths, without white gloves nd new gay dresses, would be but a triste affair; but the idea passed away altogether when the occasion came. [The immediate family heads for church with the bridegroom with them, but said bridegroom], Frederick F Frew had met with a rebuff in the hall of the Parsonage, in being forbidden to take his own bride under his own arm; but when the time for action came, he bore no malice, but went through the work manfully. On the whole, it was a pleasant wedding, homely, affectionate, full of much loving greeeting… this, at any rate, was certain, that the wedding clothes were not missed. When they all went down to their breakfast in the Parsonage dining-room, that little matter had come to be clean forgotten.”

We might read the story as against turning something privately meaningful into an occasional for conspicuous consumption. (Gentle reader, can you tell how I dislike large expensive weddings? — I know of relationships which broke up over the wedding; others where years later the people are still paying for it as well as a divorce.)

In this moment Nora does feel the uplift she longed for. Her uplift is in her actual preference for the simple and for plain emotion, not in having deprived herself of some luxury. Nonetheless, we are left with some decent thought about the parable which Trollope also consciously emphasizes. Through the parable, he asks, Why was it necessary for Nora to “feel” deprived in order to feel her charity was charity? It seems to me that Trollope’s text shows us this parable projects a very selfish kind of charity, one which is egoistic: Nora’s feelings about her charity giving were were more important than the results of the charitable act: feeding hungry people, providing them with warmth and clothes.


A woman fallen on hard times bringing her baby home in a snow-filled landscape

Ellen

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