Anthony Trollope's "Christmas Day at Kirby Cottage"

Written 1870 (3 - 10 June)
Published 1870, Routledge's Christmas Annual

To Trollope-L

April 6, 1998

Re: Short Stories: Christmas at Kirby Cottage and Thompson Hall

I'd like to suggest there is an idea or maybe an avoidance that unites the above two stories with several of Trollope's other Christmas stories, e.g., "A Widow's Mite," "Two Generals," "The Telegraph Girl," Catherine Carmichael," and even "The Mistletoe Bough"--it is that a good deal of Christmas is humbug and phony and, therefore, as the young man says in the opening of "Kirby Cottage," a bore. Trollope's dislike of the "job" of writing Christmas stories as meretricious as stated so firmly in his Autobiography is well-known as is his comparison of the writing of these to someone running a funeral--both undertaker and the man paid to get up Christmas cheer are engaged in a good deal of cant. What I didn't know which Victoria Glendinning (and T.H.S. Escott) repeat several times is how Trollope himself had a way of getting sick on Christmas and avoiding the "festivities." As Archer says, he does not dislike that which is involved in the religious observance or those who feel something religious--and this is testified to in the last story Trollope wrote, a Christmas one which takes place on the night before and a morning walk to church. What he dislikes is the working up of the feeling that somehow something specially happy is happening. Isabel herself (we are told) each Christmas "from year to year" is somewhat "disappointed," but still hopes on. But then she's very young.

The way Trollope deals with this is to not dwell on the festivities at all. Five of his stories don't show us the festivities at all; the two that do, "The Mistletoe Bough" and "Christmas at Kirby Cottage" are more about attitudes towards Christmas than a celebration of it. They concentrate on other things happening around or leading up to or after the "happy" time which is not itself much dramatized. Trollope does try for a genuine Christian message of charity but he does not do it through any Dingley Dells, rather it's through a realistic story which happens to occur on Christmas day--or several Christmas days in a row. He also reminds me of the Gawain poet in his use of the bleak wintry landscape in some, and snow on evergreen in others. He has a feel for nature.

Ellen Moody

Re: Short Story: "Christmas at Kirby Cottage" I'd like to agree with Bart that this story has a delicacy and tact. It tells a sweet story of young love. Unfortunately at times the decorating of the church made me remember the poor Vicar's wife in Bed Among Lentils by Alan Bennet where the decorating of the church becomes another outlet for vanity and pride--and bad taste. Not that this story was in bad taste, it was only a bit cloying.

Just a bit because when Isabel falls into her mother's arms we get it in only one half-sentence. It's not dramatized--as it is in "The Courtship of Susan Bell." Trollope has numbers of such scenes. I call them sentimental in James Baldwin's sense: false sentiment which masquerades as real and relieves us of seeing what our feelings really are. Why do I think it false? Well I'm a woman, have been a girl, and lived in a fairly large family at one time. I had aunts and girl cousins. And never once, not once did I ever see any girl cousin of mine fall into her mother's arms, hide her head, and "confess her love" with blushes and sobs. Never. Neither has my older daughter ever come near such a thing. Equally to the point there is no such scene in any of Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell or George Eliot or any of the modern novelists of love and manners who are women. I think it's a man's foolish dream. Trollope imagines these kinds of things go on between women. Nonsense.

But it is delicate and we have to endure but one half-phrase of this stuff. For the rest the story skirts around some hard edges. For example, the opening dialogue between the Vicar and his wife reminded me of the opening dialogue between Mr and Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. It's just reversed; in P&P Mrs Bennet can hardly wait for the young man to come into the neighborhood so she can try to nab him for one of her daughters; Mrs Lownd fears him just a bit. She's not so sure young men in posssession of a reasonable fortune are in want of a wife.

I like the Vicar's hard work all day and how he usually sinks into his chair after his dinner. What is different here is his daughter has become engaged. I like how Maurice Archer does not want to marry a girl who gives herself airs, and how Isabel does not want to marry a man with a chip on his shoulder. The use of misunderstanding and the younger over-eager (and therefore silly) sister to smooth things over is right. I like the narrator's attitude towards these young people as very young. Anything else would have been absurd. The physical description of the West Riding appealed to me as I lived there for 2 years.

I was, finally, struck by the two names: "Isabel" and "Archer." Is it a coincidence or did James pick up this name for his deluded heroine in A Portrait of a Lady? Just a thought.

Ellen Moody

Angela Richardson then wrote:

I quite liked reading this short story. I thought the extremes of thought and feeling revealed - Isobel's through quite long sections and Maurice's through his abrupt and emphatic sentences to Vicar.

What did people make of this sense of triumph Trollope attributes to women on receiving a proposal?

Angela Richardson

John Mize responded to her this way:

Re: "Christmas Day at Kirby Cottage" and "Christmas at Thompson Hall"

At 07:20 AM 4/8/98 +0100, Angela wrote:

"What did people make of this sense of triumph Trollope attributes to women on receiving a proposal?"

To me it seemed part of the idea that the business of a woman is to be married. Even if she doesn't want to marry a particular man, the fact that that man wants to marry her assures her that she will be ultimately successful in marrying someone so she can fulfill her vocation. I personally don't have much sympathy with the notion, but then the women I prefer in the 19th are the independent, troublesome types who annoyed Trollope, although he did find them fascinating. I didn't especially enjoy "Christmas Day at Kirkby Cottage," mainly because it seemed so conventional. There didn't seem to be much in the story that was personal to Trollope. The story was well done and workmanlike, but that was about it. When I read Sutherland's quoting Trollope to the effect that writing Christmas stories on demand was well-paid hackwork, I wondered whether that was the problem. I much preferred "Christmas at Thompson Hall," where Trollope solved the Christmas story problem by essentially omitting Christmas.

John Mize

If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with "Merry Christmas" on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.

Charles Dickens

I responded to Angela also:

Re: "Christmas Day at Kirby Cottage": The Marriage Propsal

In many of Trollope's novels he presents the proposal as a triumph for a woman and a loss of freedom for the man. The woman is delighted and preens; the man is glad to marry but at the same time embarrassed for he has been "caught" by her.

There are a number of paradoxes or inconsistencies in logic in his attitude, but psychologically each taken by itself makes sense. On the one hand Trollope presents women as hemmed in, controlled by their mothers and families, and needing a husband for respect, as a meaning of living, and for personal fulfillment in a home and family. He also seems to suggest that before the marriage the woman will be more submissive to the man--in order to please him to get him to propose. Afterwards the "mistress" in the woman will out. At the same time, he suggests that expectation and a dream of fulfillment are for the man much better than their reality. There is always the implicit idea that the man will be disappointed or after a while bored in bed.

The inconsistency comes in his notion that after marriage women must and do obey their husbands. So after all she is not such a mistress, and her triumph is one partly only of surface. She may be "catching" the one man, but it is rather that she has given into society's demands when she marries. She will now dwindle into a wife and mother and do what is expected of her once again. In a sense the man has no need to be embarrassed. He will now get what he has been after--by which I mean sex. For Trollope sexual attraction and sexual fulfillment are the basis of love; he sees love as the socially acceptable face of sexual longing between two people who are ultimately animals. Again and again he compares a young woman and man courting as two doves or two birds. He looks upon marriage itself as always ultimately a leap in the dark, partly because the couple can know so little of one another, and partly because even when they are able to surmize what the other really is, neither can know how the other will respond to the changes of time and the ravages of chance in life.

The story, "Christmas at Kirby Cottage" is realistic only because Isabel is so young. Again and again Trollope stresses her and Maurice's innocence. They can't even quite tell they are erotically entangled. Only the parents know. Switch Isabel for the more mature Alice Vavasour and we see the distance between Isabel and a woman who can understand what is happening to her. That's why I wondered if James got the name Isabel Archer from this story--or half remembered. Isabel Archer comes to terrible grief because she is so innocent.

Ellen Moody

In 1999 on Trollope-l we read a group of Christmas stories by Trollope, and there were these three responses to "Christmas Day at Kirby Cottage" in the context of the others and in its own right?

From: "Catherine Crean" Thanks for the quote from Trollope's autobiography, Ellen. Trollope's Christmas stories seem forced to me. You can really feel that he's delivering goods to order, with his heart not 100% in the enterprise. The only "Christmas-y" feeling I got while reading Trollope was the part in "A Small House at Allington" where Lily Dale decorates the Church for Christmas. And there, the feeling is bittersweet.

To Trollope-l

December 12, 1999

Re: Trollope and Non-Christmas Christmas Stories

Like Wilkie Collins, Trollope was keenly aware of the meretricious nature of some of the 'celebration'; how it was got up for money and the cheer among most people very thin.

For example, in Chapter 20 of his Autbiography Trollope writes:

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 instil 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 [which were?]. 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.

What Trollope seems to object to is the phoniness of pretending to emotion you do not feel. If you really feel it, he will dramatise this sympathetically, but he only believes people really feel it in quiet moments. I see this in his Christmas stories, 'The Mistletoe Bough' and 'Not If I Know It'.

However, what most people remember about Trollope's depiction of Christmas is the disillusion. InOrley Farm, 3 of the 4 Christmases are not idealized; two are very unpleasant; the imbibing of liquor makes the 3rd palatable (it seems to be to descend from Jorrocks' Jaunts and Jollities, the background for Pickwick Papers); in Can You Forgive Her? Christmas at Westmoreland is a sad affair, and Geroge Vavasour and Scruby do their vile business on Christmas. Yet part of the superb quality of "Christmas at Thompson Hall" comes from the need to go home to Christmas dinner, the use of the cold season, the dark. Trollope sees Christmas as a season, realistically and naturalistically.

Having said all that, he wrote some superb stories, as did the other Victorians. "Christmas at Thompson Hall" is as good as Dickens's A Christmas Carol if at once far less celebratory and bleak. Here is a full list of Christmas stories by Trollope::

The Mistletoe Bough,

The Widow's Mite

The Two Generals,

Christmas Day at Kirkby Cottage

Christmas at Thompson Hall,

The Telegraph Girl

Catherine Carmichael; or Three Years Running

Not If I Know It

What's interesting about the above is only the first four named center on Christmas as such. The others have an ethical moral about charity and kindness which Trollope thought appropriate for Christmas but are not about Christmas except insofar as the next two have scenes in winter, and 'Catherine Carmichael' picks Christmas as the time for the dramatic events of a story which occurs over several years. 'The Telegraph Girl' has a touching close which seems not meretricious at all; 'The Two Heroines of Plumpington' is a very late Barsetshire piece written for a Christmas number in Cheer.

I don't include Harry Heathcote of Gangoil in the above list as it is a short novella also written for Christmas time, but not about Christmas at all -- as far as I can tell.

I recall last year Tyler contributed a list of Christmas stories by Dickens which were similarly not about Christmas, and have a vague memory that Thackeray also wrote such stories. The titles Dagny cited seemed to be stories clearly focused on Christmas. How these non-Christmas Christmas stories were marketed I don't know.

Ellen Moody

From: "Howard Merkin"

I have . . . decided to abandon the Trollope Christmas Stories that I have just started. I am not particularly sorry about this, because they have never grabbed me. They read like bread and butter works, and you cannot imagine Trollope going on long walks in the country while he worked out the plot. What I have read were 'Christmas at Thompson Hall' and 'Christmas Day at Kirkby Cottage'. The first is a contrived story about a woman getting lost in a French hotel, and applying a mustard plaster to the throat of a complete stranger, instead of to her husband's. She rushes away without saying anything, but leaves a telltale handkerchief, with her name sewn on it, so that she is discovered. Her husband has to make an apology, which is only grudgingly accepted. They then set off for the family home at Thompson Hall to celebrate Christmas, and are surprised to find that the stranger appears to be following the same route. They, but not the reader, are astonished to learn that the unfortunate man is engaged to marry the woman's sister, and we are supposed to believe that everyone celebrates Christmas happily.

'Christmas at Kirkby Cottage' is a rehash of Trollope's standard plot about two young people who meet at her home, where he is staying for no apparent reason, since he lives an hour's walk away. They quite like each other, and begin to think that they might be in love. He remarks that 'After all, Christmas is a bore', to which she takes exception. They quarrel, and all appears to be over. However, under the influence of Christmas cheer, they meet in the course of one of those games where someone has to go out of the room, fall into each other's arms, and know that they have met their soul mates. There is none of Trollope's characterisation, the plot is so transparent that there is no pleasure in trying to work it out, and I believe that the only effect these stories had on Trollope was to add to the sum of Sundries that he would include in the amounts received for his writings at the end of An Autobiography . . .

Howard Merkin

Before I ever wrote a book and at the time I was on Austen-l and Ms Thompson's list I wrote about "Christmas Day at Kirby Cottage" in terms of Austen's fiction:

Re: Trollope and Austen

On this and the Trollope list it is often said that Trollope and Austen are alike; today while reading a short story by Trollope called "Christmas Day at Kirby Cottage," I was struck by the similar gay tone and situation between the opening scene of P&P, and a scene near the beginning of the above short story. The question is, shall the parents (a parson and his wife) invite a young man who is unquestionably eligible (well-educated, 600-700 pound a year, besides other property which can be farmed, a gentleman who may or may not enter the clerical ranks, handsome too) to stay with them--and their two daughters, the older of which is very eligible for marriage--at their house for Christmas. Unlike Mrs B, it is the wife who doubts the wisdom of the proceedings, but this because she naturally believes the young man will naturally fall in love with her daughter; and moreover, as she thinks

if a young man were brought into the house, would it not follow, as a matter of course, that she [the elder of the two daughters] should fall in love with him? That was the mother's first argument. 'Young people don't always fall in love,' said the father. 'But people will say that he is brought here on purpose,' said the mother, using her second argument. The parson, who in family matters generally had his own way, expressed an opinion that if they were to be governed by what other people might chose to say, their course of action would be very limited indeed. As for the girl, he did not think she would ever give her heart to any man before it had been asked; and as for the young man,--whose father had been for over thirty years his dearest friend,--if he chose to fall in love, he must run his chance, like other young men...

The husband will not listen to the "dangers" that might arise from this dicey situation; and so the young man is invited to stay, and a half comic story begins, wherein we will discover pace the husband's irony, the wife is right, the girl falls in love with the young man, and the young man with the girl, and they torture one another accordingly before they yield to that "truth universally acknowledged..."

Ellen Moody

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