Christmas is, of course, a time for giving, and my gift to you all this year is another dose of festive cheer from one of my favourite Victorian writers. Now, when it comes to the pointy end of the year, most readers would have a bit of Dickens in their sights, but I’m far more comfortable in the company of one of his contemporaries. So, sit back and enjoy another slice of life with big Tony T. – with a surprise visit to a very familiar county thrown in 🙂
Anthony Trollope: Selected Short Stories, a book I stumbled upon while browsing online and immediately snapped up, is exactly what it sounds like. Trollope is far better known for his novels, but he did pump out a few shorter pieces, too, six of which are included in this Dover Thrift Editions release. First up, though, the bad news – two of these also appear in a book I posted on this time last year (Christmas at Thompson Hall & Other Christmas Stories). ‘The Mistletoe Bough’ is a slightly plodding piece with the inevitable happy ending, and ‘Not If I Know It’ is a rather brief tale about the importance of forgiveness during the festive season. However, the good news far outweighs the bad, with the remaining stories being the strongest choices, and the longest too (these four alone come to around 160 pages, which could have been 200 with a more generous font).
Our first story, ‘The Parson’s Daughter of Oxney Colne’, is a romance set down in Devonshire. The headstrong vicar’s daughter Patience Woolsworthy has grown up in virtual isolation, so it’s unsurprising that the visit of a neighbour’s nephew, Captain John Broughton, brings excitement to the neighbourhood:
Captain Broughton came to Oxney Combe, stayed there a fortnight, – the intended period for his projected visit having been fixed at three or four days – and then went on his way. He went his way back to his London haunts, the time of the year then being the close of the Easter holydays; but as he did so he told his aunt that he should assuredly return to her in the autumn.
“And assuredly I shall be happy to see you, John – if you come with a certain purpose. If you have no such purpose, you had better remain away.”
“I shall assuredly come,” the Captain had replied, and then he had gone on his journey.
p.28 (Dover Thrift Editions, 2017)
I wonder what that purpose could be…
However, there’s many a slip twixt cup and lip, especially in the country (cf. the tragedy of Lily Dale and Adolphus Crosby), and the central premise behind the story is whether the Captain will indeed return, and what he will do if he does. It’s all interesting enough, but the story is marred a little by the insistence on some common Trollopian ideals. Should women have views of their own? Should they be expected to bend? And can they love more than once? All questions the modern reader may well answer rather differently to our hapless author.
Similar themes are to be found in ‘Mary Gresley’. In this piece, a young woman (in the midst of a lengthy engagement) charms a group of elderly editors when she brings in her manuscript. The dazzled men agree to assist with her attempt to make a career for herself in writing, and the ambitious Mary sets herself a target of having a novel published before twelve months have elapsed. With genuine talent (and a fair amount of help from her good-natured admirers), there’s every chance of success – if only, that is, her weak fiancé wasn’t so set against her literary ambitions.
While the setting is the same, ‘The Spotted Dog’ provides some rather different ideas. This time around, the editors receive a letter from a remarkable character, one Mr. Julius Mackenzie, a man of good family brought low by circumstances. The story starts with the letter, and it proves to be a most fascinating missive:
Indeed he had told us his whole life, and what a picture of a life he had drawn! There was something in the letter which compelled attention. It was impossible to throw it, half read, into the waste-paper basket, and to think of it not at all.
‘The Spotted Dog’, p.51
Intrigued by his plea, the editors decide to summon him, with the possibility of offering work of a complex nature to the poor scholar. After several interviews, including one with the writer of the text (and another with the publican who is McKenzie’s referee…), they cross their fingers and decide to trust him.
The second part of the story is a simple case of whether or not he’ll manage to come good. There may be hints of a liking for drink in his appearance, but it’s McKenzie’s wife that is the biggest problem. In a fascinating long tale, with hints of Dickens when we get to The Spotted Dog itself, and the insalubrious quarters of Cucumber Court, Trollope mixes social classes and accents in an attempt to set McKenzie back on his feet. Both this story and ‘Mary Gresley’ are actually from a collection called Mary Gresley and an Editor’s Tales, and with that book available digitally on Project Gutenberg, I’m very tempted to try the rest of the stories too…
However, the main event, and the reason I bought the collection in the first place, is the longest piece in the book – at eight chapters over sixty packed pages, it’s more a novella than a story. Best of all, ‘The Two Heroines of Plumplington’ has a rather familiar setting, taking the happy reader back to Barset for the only time outside the novels.
Marriage is once again at the heart of the story, with the two heroines of the title determined to marry the man of their choice, in both cases against their father’s wishes. While the lively brewer’s daughter Polly Peppercorn is confident in her ability to wear down her brusque but loving father, Emily Greenmantle, the only child of the local bank manager is more doubtful. Still, with the local rector, Doctor Freeborn, on the side of the young ladies, there’s every chance of acceptance and reconciliation before Christmas arrives.
I’m surprised the story isn’t available anywhere else (as far as I’m aware), as it’s guaranteed to appeal to Trollope readers (UPDATE – 26/12/17: As Jonathan has pointed out in his comment, the story is actually available in a recent Oxford World’s Classics edition of The Warden!). This is particularly true because of the familiar Barset setting. There are mentions of Silverbridge, Barchester Towers and the old Duke of Omnium, as well as a minor character called Harry Gresham, who (according to one source) might even be the son of Frank and Mary. There are even allusions to Hiram’s Hospital, another institution well known to Trollopians.
The main interest in the story stems from the contrast between the two heroines. Emily’s task is much the harder owing to a problem Polly doesn’t have to face. While both have to convince their fathers that their suitors aren’t just after their money, the banker’s daughter has another hurdle to clear:
The one great line of demarcation in the world was that which separated gentlemen from non-gentlemen. Mr. Greenmantle assured himself that he was a gentleman, acknowledged to be so by all the county. The old Duke of Omnium had customarily asked him to dine at his annual dinner at Gatherum Castle. He had been in the habit of staying occasionally at Greshambury, Mr. Gresham’s county seat, and Mr. Gresham had been quite willing to forward the match between Emily and his younger son. There could be no doubt that he was on the right side of the line of demarcation. He was therefore quite determined that his daughter should not marry the Cashier in his own bank.
‘The Two Heroines of Plumplington’, p.134
Well, it wouldn’t be Trollope without a trot on his favourite hobby-horse, but it would take a rather naive reader to believe that Mr. Greenmantle’s resolve will stand firm to the very last page…
When it comes to Trollope’s work, I’d still recommend the big novels any day, but Selected Short Stories is certainly worth seeking out, and is probably better value than the Christmas collection. Certain aspects of the stories can be trying at times for modern readers, particularly when the prevailing moral ‘values’ mean that the female characters can be treated harshly (while the men’s weaknesses are excused). However, anyone with a real interest in Trollope will be prepared to work through this, particularly when a visit to Barset is on the cards. I, for one, look forward to making this a new part of my occasional reread of the chronicles, and I hope this discovery has contributed to a pleasant Christmas for all of you, whether you’re Trollope fans or not 🙂