Anthony Trollope's "Mary Gresley"

?Written after 1867 (October) when he became editor of St Paul's
Published 1869 (November), St Paul's
Published in a book 1870 (June), An Editor's Tales, Strahan

To Trollope-l

March 9, 1998

Re: Short Story: "Mary Gresley"

I admit the first time I read this story I didn't like itl. I was not amused by Trollope's depiction how, as a middle-aged man, he felt himself helplessly allured by the overtly sweet stance of a pretty seemingly helpless young girl in desperate need of a contact who will help her break into the literary marketplace.

The tone of the piece still feels cloying. Trollope is aware he could get this reaction and tries to disarm the reader by talking of how Thackeray was wrong to call Sterne "hard names" when Sterne revealed how intensely affectionate he felt towards young women who he found physically appealing when he grew old. Surely he seems to say we ought not to reject what is natural and real in human nature, and he argues that what is wrong in Sterne is his lack of aesthetic ability to put such a feeling across with good taste. The problem with Sterne, says Trollope, is his "expression" is "mawkish" and "too often he misses the pathos for which he strives from a want of appreciation on his own part of that which is really vigorous in language." This is a good criticism of The Sentimental Journey. Further, says Trollope, he never acted on the physical longing and intense affection he felt--to "us" (the editorial we must be allowed--as it has an ironical ring) she "was ever a child."

Rose Trollope was very patient with him if he showed even half of of the "unreasoning sympathy,exacted by feminine attraction" on his aging male heart. It may be true that according to Boswell Johnson was the same to young girls--and this explains some of Johnson's behavior to the young Fanny Burney. But as a woman of 50 who cannot expect to ignite such emotions, until today I a hard time allowing myself to identify.

For reading it tonight I likedit. I have now read a number of commentaries scattered here and there on "Mary Gresley" and it is often signalled out as "very good." Sutherland writes of it that is is "one of the most moving tales Trollope wrote and is a classic anatomization of Platonic middle-aged love." Maybe the reason I liked it this time is I got beyond my jealousy of Mary? and instead found myself identifying with her, admiring her considerable strength--for she's not helpless at all--and at the close sorrowing for her that she destroyed this piece of herself for a dream, for a man who was not worthy of her.

Some of the story recalls Charlotte Bronte, both in her real life and in her tales of long-enduring women. In fact Charlotte Bronte herself is Mary's role model. Mary was not playing a part when she held the editor's hand so very tightly, but it's not the whole of her story anyway. The close is very moving: her destruction of her manuscript, her marriage to a missionary and death in Africa. I was touched by her ability to transcend the silly didactic tales of her day and make them charming by pouring her own wit and irony about herself into them. I was of course indignant at how she obeyed that man and destroyed her book. The key sentence here is our editor's "Such a promise [after having destroyed her novel not to write another] should not have been asked,--or given" (Sutherland, p 114). How terrible she should have destroyed these parts of herself.

The story also contains the burden of Fred Pickering's, to wit, unless you are both a genius and have great good luck, you must not try to make your living through writing great books. There is a long apprentice period, and even then you may fail. It must be admitted, as the editor knows full well, he is not harsh towards Mary in his enunciation of this truth:

"'You hear of the few who are remunerated,' we said; 'but you hear nothing of the thousands that fail.'

'It is so noble!' she replied.

'But so hopeless.'

'There are those who succeed.'

'Yes, ineed. Even in a lottery one must gain the prize; but they who trsut to lotteries break their hearts'' (p 103).

The most interesting section of the tale is the depiction of how the editor describes Mary's first book, and how he works with her to help her write another. "The Panjandrum" gives us a graphic and persuasive depiction of how Trollope's stories came to him, how he lived with his characters, developed them, and then spun narratives. One can read this one as the story of a teacher or pupil, or the story of how some people put together the outer or barebones of a story. I believe the depiction of the young woman's first story reflects the autobiographical origins of some of Trollope's own--again his autobiography like mine would be different from Mary's, but he started with what he knew and felt passionately about from within the heart of his experience. That is what we see in the start of the story the writer of "The Panjandrum" invents. The values are interesting: her first story is "simple, unaffected, almost painfully unsensational." I believe Trollope often strove for this--as did Jane Austen as she matured. Trollope also values "a grace and delicacy in [the] work which is charming."

What poor Mary lacks is psychological insight and an ability with dialogue. It is a serious flaw in a novel, one none of Trollope's have. But interestingly he thinks she still might make it. And he's right. Many a novelist writes good novels who has not this gift: long ago there was Fielding; today I think ASByatt is not very strong in this regard, and that's why her historical novels and antique fairy tales often read more strongly than her modern stories.

Well I would be very interested to hear what others who are reading along think of this one.

Ellen Moody

From: Oldbuks
Date: Tue, 10 Mar 1998
Subject: Short Stories: "Mary Gresley"

In reading "Mary Gresley," I noticed a referral to Currer Bell in one of Mary's early conversations with our narrator. One could see how she came up with the comparison. Both poor, with scant prospects, overcoming considerable obstacles to their passion for writing. There was one significant difference, however. Mary was attractive, and Charlotte was, by her own admission, not. They both submitted their writing to a higher authority at about the same age: Mary 18, and Charlotte, 19. Being aware of her lack of physical charms, and even more reluctant to intrude on the great one's presence, Charlotte sent a sample of her poetry to Robert Southey, the poet laureate at the time (rather than showing up at his doorstep). The following is excerpted from his response, from Elizabeth Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Bronte (which we are reading on Bronte-L)

" ' ... it is in truth not an easy task to answer it [Charlotte's letter], nor a pleasant one to cast a damp over the high spirits and the generous desires of youth ... What you are I can only infer from your letter, which appears to be written in sincerity, though, I may suspect that you have used a fictitious signature. Be that as it may, the letter and the verses bear the same stamp, and I can well understand the state of mind they indicate.

' It is not my advice that you have asked as to the direction of your talents, but my opinion of them, and yet the opinion may be worth little, and the advice much. You evidently possess, and in no inconsiderable degree, what Wordsworth calls "the faculty of verse." I am not depreciating it when I say that in these times it is not rare. Many volumes of poems are now published every year without attracting public attention, any one of which, if it had appeared half a century ago, would have obtained a high reputation for its author. Whoever, therefore, is ambitious of distinction in this way ought to be prepared for disappointment.

''But it is not with a view to distinction that you should cultivate this talent, if you consult your own happiness. I, who have made literature my profession, and devoted my life to it, and have never for a moment repented of the deliberate choice, think myself, nevertheless, bound in duty to caution every young man who applies as an aspirant to me for encouragement and advice, against taking so perilous a course. You will say that a woman has no need of such a caution; there can be no peril in it for her. In a certain sense this is true; but there is a danger of which I would, in all kindness and in all earnestness, warn you. The day dreams in which you habitually indulge are likely to induce a distempered state of mind; and in proportion as all the ordinary uses of the world seem to you flat and unprofitable, you will be unfitted for them without becoming fitted for anything else. Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure will she have for it, even as an accomplishment and a recreation. To those duties you have not yet been called, and when you are you will be less eager for celebrity. You will not seek in imagination for excitement, of which the vicissitudes of this life, and the anxieties from which you must not hope to be exempted, be your state be what it may, will bring with them but too much.

''But do not suppose that I disparage the gift which you possess; nor that I would discourage you from exercising it. I only exhort you so to think of it, and so to use it, as to render it conducive to your own permanent good. Write poetry for its own sake; not in a spirit of emulation, and not with a view to celebrity; the less you aim at that, the more likely you will be to deserve and finally to obtain it. So written, it is wholesome both for the heart and soul; it may be made the surest means, next to religion, of soothing the mind and elevating it. You may embody it in your best thoughts and your wisest feelings, and in so doing discipline and strengthen them.

''Farewell madam. It is not because I have forgotten that I was once young myself, that I write to you in this strain; but because I remember it. You will neither doubt my sincerity nor my good will; and however ill what has here been said may accord with your present views and temper, the longer you live the more reasonable it will appear to you. Though I may be but an ungracious adviser, you will allow me therefore, to subscribe myself, with the best wishes for your happiness here and hereafter, your true friend, "Robert Southey'

'Charlotte Bronte, a person of more talent than Mr. Southey (who remembers him now?), let alone Mary Gresley, did not contemplate playing upon a susceptible man's sensibilities by " ... looking at [him] with those bright, beseeching eyes." She continued to write, submitting a novel, The Professor, which was sent to publisher after publisher, wrapped in a brown paper parcel. "Beside the address to Messrs. Smith and Co. [the publisher of Jane Eyre), there were on it those of other publishers to whom the tale had been sent, not obliterated, but simply scored through, so that Messers. Smith at once perceived the names of some of the houses in the trade to which the unlucky parcel had gone, without success." (also from Life of Charlotte Bronte by EG) Somehow I cannot imagine Mary having the fortitude to brave rejection after rejection. She saw she had lucked onto a man who would be susceptible to her charms, and she unhesitatingly used her advantage.

'This is plenty long enough. I will continue in another post.

'Jill Spriggs

Subject: Short Stories: "Mary Gresley" (Continued)

To continue the post I began last night:

I have a problem with the contradictory aspects of Mary's personality. She was an uncharacteristically strong and determined woman for her time (and, actually, for ours). She was willing to uproot her home, sending her less attractive (and assertive) sister off to undisclosed relatives, and taking a leap in the dark by moving her mother and herself to a strange city, on the admittedly remote chance of being able to support themselves on her literary earnings. P. G. Wodehouse did not quit his job as a bank clerk until he was well established as an author, and we all know that Anthony Trollope spent many years as an employee of the postal service before he felt comfortable enough with his earnings to retire. This was the central problem with Fred Pickering. He should have established himself in a more reliably remunerative profession before trying to live by his pen. Mary's problem is not unlike Fred's, with the exception that she had the prospect of marriage for her future bread and butter. For someone who was supposed to be in love with her curate, why did she embark on a career of novel writing when she knew full well how her fiance felt about novels? This to me indicates a rather strong willed person. Did she feel no compunctions about apparently wasting many months of our editor's time? Apparently not, and our narrator was too infatuated to feel resentment for her action. When I commenced the story, I made a mistaken guess as to the direction it would take. I pictured the curate as a tyrant, who, when he discovered the forbidden manuscript, destroyed it. I was all on Mary's side as a feeble female under the thumb of a despotic male. Instead, she proved to be a quixotic, inexplicable woman who destroyed the work of over a year in an attempt to atone for defying her loved one, eventually suffering the fate of St. John Rivers in Jane Eyre. This makes no sense to me. Of course, humankind is often not sensible. But I feel the contradictions in Mary are so great as to strain credulity.

Jill Spriggs
Date: Wed, 11 Mar 1998
Subject: Short Story: Mary Gresley & the Bells

Jill, I enjoyed very much your posts on Mary Gresley's approach to getting published in contrast to that taken by the Brontes.

Yes, The Professo was rejected by all and the book of Bell poems sold just a couple of copies, but luckily the Brontes turned out to be geniuses and shortly thereafter blew the literary world away by submitting the manuscripts for WH, Tenant, and JE. The difference between Mary Gresley and the Brontes was talent. One suspects that had the Brontes submitted just some scraps of juvenilia instead of their blockbusters, they would have continued to be rejected. Luckily for their timid natures, they never did have to go to London to sit in an editor's office a la Mary Gresley. As you know, what DID eventually bring them to London was the necessity to clear up the confusion that arose over just how many Bells there were. That trip cost them much anxiety.

What I'm trying to say is that a woman does what she has to do. Mary Gresley had little talent but much courage and so she gathered herself up and went to London to cast herself on an editor. I cannot answer the interesting questions you ask in the second post, and I agree about the contradictions in Mary. In a way, Trollope liked Mary but didn't know what to do with her. Do you feel that she was punished in some way by the author's giving her a St. John Rivers fate? I do, a little.


Jill answered Bart:

I guess I wanted Mary to show more consistently the fire shown in the early part of the story, and be a little more like Jane Eyre, resisting the prospect of being buried alive for her religion in some tropical clime. I like the early Mary better than the later Mary. I'm afraid a woman with her strength of purpose was not acceptable for her Victorian society.

Jill Spriggs

Someone whose post I have lost misread Jill's commentary about the ending of the tale, and Jill replied again:

I do hope that i didn't give the impression in one of my posts that I felt AT was killing off Mary Gresley. My problem with the story is that it almost seems to be about two different Marys. Now it occurs to me that I might find clues to her in my own personality. I tend to have an over active conscience and worry inordinately about hurting others' feelings. I suspect that Mary felt guilty about being "selfish", pursuing her own desires instead of complying with her fiance's wishes. Given the Sunday School type of moral code so many people live by, she could have felt that God was punishing her by taking away her love. She spent the rest of her life trying to atone for this sin, first by burning the offensive manuscript, and then by immolating herself on a pyre of self sacrifice in a far away land of heathens.

What do you think?


To Trollope-L

March 17, 1998

RE: Short Story: "Mary Gresley" Is Still Us Before we go on to talk of "Josphine de Montmorency," otherwise known as Polly Puffle (our next editor's tale), here are a few more comments about the first story in this collection of "editor's tales" which centers on a female writer and some of the obstacles, psychological, financial, and social which get in her way. Many of us (including me) have been so strongly struck by the sexual atmosphere in which the narrator "bathes" his young-lady author that we have ignored some of other equally striking and perhaps today more generally interesting aspects of this tale.

Some of my thoughts come from a conversation Jill Spriggs and I have had off-list about this story, and I hope she won't mind if I quote some of what she said. Actually I am not sure if she put this on the list or sent it to me privately. In two posts she commented on Mary:

"I guess I wanted Mary to show more consistently the fire shown in the early part of the story, and be a little more like Jane Eyre, resisting the prospect of being buried alive for her religion in some tropical clime. I like the early Mary better than the later Mary. I'm afraid a woman with her strength of purpose was not acceptable for her Victorian society."

And a little later:

"My problem with the story is that it almost seems to be about two different Marys. Now it occurs to me that I might find clues to her in my own personality. I tend to have an over active conscience and worry inordinately about hurting others' feelings. I suspect that Mary felt guilty about being "selfish", pursuing her own desires instead of complying with her fiance's wishes. Given the Sunday School type of moral code so many people live by, she could have felt that God was punishing her by taking away her love. She spent the rest of her life trying to atone for this sin, first by burning the offensive manuscript, and then by immolating herself on a pyre of self sacrifice in a far away land of heathens."

These are astute comments and bring forward some of what Trollope wants us to see in Mary. One important theme which may be found throughout his oeuvre is the effect of too much rigid or narrow religion upon people's real fulfillment in this world. For myself I "find clues to [Mary] in my own personality. I hope this will not embarrass people, but I think Mary's inability to act on her own, and her need of someone to reinforce and urge her on to write again is still common among women. (For all I know it is common among men, but since I am not a man cannot say.) When I was young and wrote a couple of short stories, I remember showing them to my father; one he liked very much and I sent it into a contest and won 2nd place. The other he didn't like, and made a disparaging remark, and I tore it up. I am very aware of how much my husband's encouragement has meant to me over the years I have lived with him in Alexandria. Every once in a while (maybe more often than that) I shall, Shall I go on, Shall I give this up? And he always says, Go on, and even sometimes asks to see whatever it is I am doing and then reads it. I think were he to discourage me against doing something I would not do it. I know one reason I don't try a novel is he thinks it's a bad idea: "Won't sell;" "look at the thousands on slush piles and remaindered;" "your opinions will not do;" and so on.

In Mary's eagerness to have our editor work with her we have a moving depiction of just this need to have approval as you go along; in her destruction of her manuscript we have an even sharper depiction of what can happen if a person whose opinion of you is very important or respected says the manuscript is no good.

Mary's immolation of herself is still with us among women. Most of us are not going on missionary ventures, but many women will bend over backwards doing far more for their children, allowing their children to take over their time and personalities in ways that are not good for the child to "compensate" for lost time. They are perhaps unwilling to discipline a child they have been ignoring for hours on end. A similar reaction might influence a wife's attitude towards her husband. She might be grateful for that which she need not be grateful for.

Jill also wrote: "I did not feel AT was punishing Mary, but rather that she was punishing herself. I felt unhappy because this is not the way a self confident person would act; maybe Mary wasn't as sure of herself as she let on."

The ending is not punitive on the part of Trollope towards Mary: he is showing us how she has been coerced into destroying an important part of herself.. I don't think the man who wrote the story could have written an ending in which he killed her off to teach us a lesson. As I say what view of Trollope himself could someone have who drew this conclusion? It would also be completely out of kilter with what we know of his life and relationships with women as women and authors. He is against a woman selling her pen corruptly, selling words which will corrupt a reader morally or intellectually. That's clear from TWWLN and in what we can observe of his attitude towards writing itself in his own case and in the case of others he knew. He thinks so highly of Thackeray because he sees Thackeray as a brilliantly perceptively moral teacher, partly because he thinks Thackeray's characters are so real and we learn from living with them through the events of a story.

The woman who is not confident is still with us. The public _persona_ demanded of women today forbids confessions of feelings of inadequacy, but every once in a while a well-known female author will write a bit of the truth. Then she may be partly condemned. Gloria Steinem wrote a book about herself which told truths about how she depended on men, lent on them, made someone's view of her her view, and told how of how her beauty was important to her. For the book the reviewers (mostly women) damned her with faint praise.

Finally to pick up the other "aspect" of the story, the editor's sexual attraction to Mary, and her use of this (however unconscious or conscious), this too is still with us. Women are still selling what they can.

Ellen Moody

From: Oldbuks
Date: Thu, 12 Mar 1998
Subject: Misunderstandings

Dearest Ellen;

That was in part why I sent the post clarifying what I had said about the ending, that I did not feel AT was punishing Mary, but rather that she was punishing herself. I felt unhappy because this is not the way a self confident person would act; maybe Mary wasn't as sure of herself as she let on.


There were some questions about the "editorial" we and a joke about Mary's dimples (in Trollope a sexual woman usually has dimples), to which I responded:

This to Bart and others who are reading these stories: When I read "An Editor's Tales" with my students, a number of them also had trouble with the editorial "we." I couldn't understand why. All he means is himself as representative of his periodical. Literally he refers to him ("I, " and "me); he uses the "we" as a kind of joke or irony in the manner a king uses "we." It never refers to anyone else literally but him. Not to his wife, not to anyone. It is a kind of mild self-mockery or deprecation of his power as "editor." Sutherland uses the word "Platonic" partly in the manner of Renaissance or 17th century poetry: it means erotically drawn to the lady but not actually consummated, so its connotations are actually sexual, but there is a semi- ironic undertone of sexual arousal. It is drawn from so-called "neo"-platonic discourses like that of Bembo and other Italians of the period and enters English through the poetry of the Cavaliers. Thus our editor's love is Platonic because he does not have sex with the lady, but it is also nonetheless highly erotic in feel or tone. I did notice Mary's dimples.


To Trollope-l: I include below the following thread on the first person narrator which I have also placed with "The Turkish Bath"

March 9, 1998

Re: Short Stories: "The Turkish Bath" and "Mary Gresley"

I too liked both stories very much, and agree that if we are to take the depiction of Trollope as editor as anything like the truth, he was very kind. Trollope said that these stories were rooted and sometimes closely mirrored real experiences he had. Of "The Turkish Bath" he wrote in An Autobiography that it was based on an actual experience of his--with the "embellishment of the Turkish Bath:" "an ingenious gentleman got into a conversation with me, I not knowing that he knew me to be an editor, and pressed his little article on my notice." Of "Mary Gresley" he said that when he was editor of St Paul's: "I was appealed to by the dearest of little women whom here I have called Mary Gresley."

There is, however, one qualification of the above beyond the embellishments to the stories, which embellishments are very important--like Mr Molloy's Irishness and madness or Mrs Molloy's strength; or the violation of the young girl's right to an imagination by the religious narrowmindedness and downright stupidity of a male curate-fiance. Sutherland says the insiration for the sequence was also one of Thackeray's finest "Roundabout Essays," "Thorns in the Cushion" in which Thackeray presents himself as the long-suffering editor whose "heart-aches" to the point that he is continually helping and visiting his would-be authors. I have not read this one, but I will have a look later this week because I own it somewhere or other. Sutherland says Trollope's aim was to "further investigate the power, pains, and pathos of being an editor," with this difference: Trollope adds "comedy and intermittent editorial rage." We don't see any of this in the above two.

We can't tell how well any of the stories did individually because they were published in a volume called An Editor's Tales. If the pride and detail with which Trollope discusses the volume is any index, I would say the volume sold well. Each of the stories is identified with a "remembrance of some fact." He identifies--and Sutherland agrees--"The Spotted Dog" as the best story he ever wrote. Sutherland says the volume as a whole is "a high plateau in Trollope's career as a short story writer:" what comes across most strongly in almost all of them... is Trollope's good heart." I would add to this a thorough knowledge of the peculiar workings of people's imagination, their longings to use it, the realities of the literary marketplace, and of course his usual psychological astuteness.

It is very much worth it to read what Trollope had to say about this volume in his Autobiography and what Sutherland says in his introduction to The Later Short Stories. Ellen Moody

From a posting by Heidi Hope Johnson on my comments on the use of the first-person narrator in Trollope's Editor's Tales:

Especially in the story's early portions, I thought this was precisely the way use of the editorial "we" was functioning for the narrator: it is a way for him to maintain some dignity through a sort of linguistic garb to make up for his lack of physical garb. Here, and also throughout the story, this struggle between the man's thoughts and reactions, and the way they are only imperfectly submerged in the "we," is not only fascinating to chart but comedic. I am curious, though, about the "I" that surfaces once (I think it's only once) in the story: page 78 of the OUP edition, end of the story's 6th paragraph. Any ideas about why this deviation or slip? I haven't yet read any of the others from An Editor's Tales--does this appear anywhere else?

To Trollope-l

March 11, 1998

Re: Short Story: "The Turkish Bath" and "Mary Gresley"

Heidi Hope Johnson mentions the sudden "drop" from the editiorial "we" into "I" in "The Turkish Bath" (Sutherland p 78). I suppose it's a slip in the sense that if we could ask Trollope, "What happened?" he might look and say "oops!" But the immediate context for the slip is revealing: Mr Molloy has just spoken in such a way as to put on "a splendid face" with just that touch of self-irony and accent that makes our narrator tell us he began to suspect he was talking to an Irishman, and for two phrases he then expresses his personal delight in the idea: "I thought that I detected just a hint of an Irish accent in his tone; but if so the dear brogue of his country, which is always delightful to me..."

Not only two "I's" but a "me." I put the change down to this: the "we" is used to indicate Trollope's position as "powerful editor," with of course considerable self-deprecation." But in this sentence his attraction to the man, and his feelings about the Irish have nothing to do with his being an editor. They are the result of a personal experience of his, an experience in "private" life, in his capacity as Man Who Went to Live in Ireland (as postal surveyor). So he drops the "we." Trollope does not want that slightly "twee" (for that's what it is) kind of irony here. He need no longer half-laughs at his pretensions as he writes about experiences which are the result of this highly limited power of his.

It's not irrelevant to interject here that Thackeray uses this editorial "we" in "Thorns in a Cushion" and other places in Roundabout Papers when referring to himself as the editor. When Thackeray talks about himself in his private capacity, as a man having feelings or thoughts or experiences outside his apparently "powerful" position as editor, he too will drop the "we."

Ellen Moody

Contact Ellen Moody.
Pagemaster: Jim Moody.
Page Last Updated: 11 January 2003