Anthony Trollope's "La Mère Bauche"

Written 1859 (1 September - 29 October), inbetween writing Castle Richmond
Sold 1859 to Harper's New Monthly Magazine, but not printed
Published in a book 1861 (November), Tales of All Countries: First Series, Chapman and Hall

To Trollope-L

December 14, 1997

Re: Short Story: "La Mère Bauche"

This is one of Trollope's great stories. Hisnovella, The Golden Lion of Granpère, presents the same Catholic French bourgeois-peasant cultural milieu. It too is Oedipal, a struggle between a father and son over a girl very like Marie. Maybe there's something in both which is perfectly French and quasi-bourgeois, yet quasi-peasant like about it. Madame is both peasant and landlady. She looks forward to Frau Frohman (who is driven to raise her prices). Both the novella and here Trollope displays a marvel of compression. This story repays careful reading and rereading.

There are many different ways one could discuss this story: one is to look at the men versus the women, and I would say both Le Capitaine and Adolphe are weak, while both Marie and Madame Bauche are strong. Our narrator's attitude towards the men may be summed up in his final bitterly ironic concise sentence: "as for the capitaine--but what matters? He was made of sterner stuff [than Madame who actually has a heart and is shattered by Marie's suicide]. What matters either the fate of such a one as Adolphe Bauche?"

Another view of the story is that Marie won. Yes. Marie won. It will be said it was a pyrric victory, but then so are many. It is a fight to the death. Some aspects of interest: we are made to sympathize with La Mere. There are comical touches, like the green spectacles. But she is a survivor, a down-to-earth practical woman, with deep passions of her own. Her taking the girl in showed something of her nature. Her remorseless refusal to acknowledge the girl's equal humanity to her son is real; she's a good hater and can love too.

Like Sutherland, I feel we are to understand that a definite sexual intimacy existed between Adolphe and Marie. That's why he swore his love, and why she responds so deeply to his giving her over to the captain, why she is so deeply wounded. A quality in the presentation of these two is the understated nature of the dialogues and scenes. This is also one story whose ending surprized me. I was not quite expecting it, and Trollope makes his prose reenact the inner last moments of the girl which can reach even the ears of an Adolphe Bauche:

"But he had hardly begun to mount when a whirring sound struck his ear, and he felt that the air near him was moved; and then there was crash upon the lower platform of rock, and a moan, repeated twice but so faintly, and a rustle of silk, and a slight struggle somewhere as he knew within twenty paces of him; and then all was again quiet and still in the night air."

This gets me to technique: there are a number of effective dramatic scenes. One could imagine someone making a movie of it. Trollope is good at effecting turning points, and the lines the characters speak are not only to the point and realistic in a given scene but epitomizing. There are also good animal metaphors, something I have noticed Trollope use to express moments of deep passion that go beyond reason or civilized veneers; he draws them from hunting, e.g., "now that the world was on the move, she lay hidden like a hare in its form."

Less obvious, but equally interesting perhaps is the theme it shares with "The Relics of General Chassée," i.e, what travelling and holidays are really like--for those who collect the money this time. "The Relics" treated the theme of travelling--the collecting of relics with irony and disillusion, but the former story did have a few graver notes which referred us forward to a time when our Reverend Gentleman was no more. The treatment of travel here is more in this grave or serious vein. I found touching the opening sentence about those who go to such places as Madame Bauche provides:

"it was certainly the fact that men and women who went thither worn with toil, sick with excesses, and nervous through over- care, came back fresh and strong, fit once more to attack the world with all its woes."

Trollope was a great traveller, though his travels were not usually described in the above terms. It was more like "old Trollope banging round the world again."

This story evoked a strong response in my students when I read it with them in a class I taught 2 years ago. To some it may seem merciless. The grim comedy is not to everyone's taste, nor the sudden leap into tragedy. To me it has great vigor.

Ellen Moody

September 9, 1995 Re: College Students Reading "La Mere Bauche"

"La Mere Bauche" evoked a strong response in some people. One speaker, a girl, began by apologizing for attacking Adophe Bauche (the focus of her talk), lest the men in the class think she was attacking them. Then she lit into poor Adolphe with real vigor. If anyone on our list would like to speak about this apology or the above reluctance, I'd like to hear it.

One young mean raised his hand much later and said she needn't have worried; it's clear from the story that Trollope isn't attacking men but the kind of man Adolphe is, which gave us an opportunity to talk about the relationship between him and his mother, him and Marie, and his weakness between 2 strong women. They didn't much like my idea that Marie won in a way. Several students also evinced a strong distaste for Mother Bauche, and when I tried to show the grim comedy and understanding of the portrait, there were lots of protests (not a bit funny), but interestingly three African-American students in one class all showed sympathy for this woman who hadn't foreseen what was going to happen. Everyone agreed people are more like Madame Bauche (in their interest in material well-being and class) than they like to admit. One girl blurted out at one point, "she's just like my grandmother." We talked of her green spectacles, and whether money in England was green at the time. I wasn't sure.

We went on & on about the characters, and then I got them to move to the unexpected ending and took a vote on how many had foreseen it and when; how many not, and what they expected and why. One young pointed out how the understated quality of the near-closing paragraph (my idea) was not so understated in the sense that we are in Adolphe's mind and it would only be he upon whose consciousness the tiny sounds would so reverberate. As it is one of Trollope's great passages I can't resist quoting it:

"But he had hardly begun to mount when a whirring sound struck his ear, and he felt that the air near him was moved; and then there was crash upon the lower platform of rock, and a moan, repeated twice but so faintly, and a rustle of silk, and a slight struggle somewhere as he knew within twenty paces of him; and then all was again quiet and still in the night air."
For both stories ("The Relics" and "La Mère") I underlined the graver notes: the failed seige, the references to the death of the Reverend (now underground), and I read aloud the striking (later to be seen ironic) opening of the second story in the Pyrenees:
"it was certainly the fact that men and women who went thither worn with toil, sick with excesses, and nervous through over- care, came back fresh and strong, fit once more to attack the world with all its woes.

The older students (by which I mean people in their mid-thirties and older, of which I have a couple) nodded at this one.

So as you can see we got off to a good start. I actually had to stop the discussions on "La Mere Bauche" at one point because we had to discuss "tomorrow's assignment"


From: Robert Wright
Subject: Stories - "La Mère Bauche"

Ellen, it was the green glasses which did it for me. I have a friend, my registrar, who is "of a certain age" and can be quite fierce, as well as soft when she needs to be. She also wears green glasses which I find intimidating. Maybe that's why she does, as well as doing so for fashion's sake. Cecily is only 5ft tall, though...

Robert J Wright Kensington, London W87PB England

Date: Sun, 14 Dec 1997 23:46:32 -0700 (MST)
From: Sigmund Eisner
To: Trollope-L
Subject: "La Mère Bauche"

All through Trollope we find parents objecting to their children's chosen. Yet, almost always the young people win out, as well they should. Then the old parent comes around. A wise parent should know that one cannot win the battle against ones child. Once the child is an adult, he or she is what the parent created. If a parent refuses to untie the apron strings (and I hope I don't sound too much like D. H. Lawrence here), the child's social and personal growth is aborted. If Mme Bauch had been less of an autocrat, her son would have been more of a man. Although Trollope dismisses Adolphe with a "who care's" attitude, Madam cares. And now she is going to have to go through all of her life regretting her attitude during the time of the story. The Duke of Omnium objected to his daughter, Mary's, suitor (as I recall), yet no one dance more happily at Mary's wedding. We never meet the Duke again, but I think his last days were happy; Mme. Bauche's were not.


Date: Mon, 15 Dec 1997 09:12:27 -0500 Subject: Stories: "La Mère Bauche"

I see this morning that others are commenting on how so many Trollope stories are concerned with generational struggles. Also, of course, how difficult a time young women have in getting the mate of choice.

"La Mère Bauche" is a cautionary tale, and as the introduction suggests, perhaps too exaggerated to get published right away. Besides the ending, and I agree with Ellen that it is a victory of sorts for Marie, the image of an old soldier with a wooden leg thirty years her senior is heavily drawn.


Date: Mon, 15 Dec 1997 19:43:16 -0500 (EST)
Subject: Short Story: "La Mère Bauche"

About "La Mère Bauche", I agree with Ellen that this story is easily imagined as a movie or play -- that is, it was so easily visualized. It's great drama.

The character Marie is the only one I imagined speaking with a French accent though.

I don't mean to trivialize this story; in fact it was deeply moving and the ending brought tears to my eyes. I for one did expect Marie to kill herself. I knew she would when she became so resigned after becoming engaged to the captain, then after the ceremony when she lay down with a headache, and eventually disappeared.

The kiss which La Mère gives her after she agrees to the engagement is called "sacrificial" and it's clear that Marie is going to be sacrificed.

The ambivalence that La Mère has toward Marie is interesting: she takes her in and raises her, but is affronted when she wants to marry Adolphe. Then she feels guilty and over-compensates with kindness when Marie is engaged to the captain.

Anyway I felt that this story was thoroughly complete, though short, in itself, and it certainly is a great one. These themes of love, marriage, the thwarted or opposed match, marriage with the wrong person, duty -- are becoming very familiar.


Date: Wed, 17 Dec 1997 10:15:51 -0500 (EST)
Subject: "Foundling" theme of "La Mère Bauche"

Robert quoted Thilde

"We have seen this situation before - the adopted child and the fear of her marrying into the family. I am thinking of Fanny Price, of course, and now of Treeshy Kent in Edith Wharton's False Dawn that I am reading for the first time. Treeshy's family accepted her marriage to Lewis Raycie because it was "better than having her entangle Bill" their son who had " shown a lively sympathy for her".

These are examples from three different countries.

Was adopting older children usual in the 19th Century, I wonder?


Then Robert wrote:

"As for adoption, I have not read anything about that, but logically there must have been quite a lot of call for children of parents who had died of disease, childbirth or other sundry causes to be taken in by someone from the extended family.

In the 19thc abandonment ("exposing") of children was still common in London and other parts of Europe; bodies of young abandoned children who succumbed to cold or lack of food could still commonly be found on London streets.* The term "foundling" means an abandoned child "found" by someone by chance and taken in. You'll recall that, in literature, Heathcliff of Bronte's Wuthering Heights had been a foundling, picked up from the streets by Cathy's father, and not welcome by most of the biological family.

So abandonment was more common than "adoption", which before laws regarding adoption were established, meant that people were free to pick abandoned children off the streets if they wanted to. Since ancient times, people abandoned babies in the hope that someone who might want the child would pick him/her up**, much the same way some Americans abandon pets in places likely to attract someone who will pity or want the pet and take it home. But of course most of them simply died.

I looked for exact dates of the founding of the 1st Foundling Hospital in London; haven't found them yet but will report when I do.

The child-rearing practices of the age (such as sending babies out to a wet-nurse, prejudicial distinction between biological and adopted children, whipping, abandonment or the threat of it, and many other forms of physical and emotional torture) certainly had effect on adult personality. It's an important thing to consider when analyzing an author's or fictional characters' motivations.

See, for example, Evolution of Childhood by deMause, 1982; The Kindness of Strangers; Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance by Boswell, 1988


From John Mize:

I was amazed how much better "La Mère Bauche"was than the first three stories. The O'Conors was funny, and I enjoyed it more than The Relics. The story was similar, about social embarrassment, but this time without the symbolic castration, and while Eliza clearly relished the narrator's embarrassment, she didn't cause it. I think I liked the narrator less and Eliza more than Trollope did.

What was Trollope's attitude toward radical feminists anway? "The Relics" and "The O'Conors" would indicate that he disapproved, but I had heard that Frances Wright was a friend of his. It's hard to be more radical than Wright, who was an abolitionist, a feminist, a socialist and a free love advocate. A writer for the Ladies' Companion once said that Wright was "a mental hermaphrodite." I'd consider that a compliment. My guess is that Trollope liked Wright, but he didn't agree with her. After all almost everyone in America and Great Britain seemed to have been fascinated by her. She had a flirtation, if not an affair, with LaFayette, and Jeremy Bentham said that she had the "strongest sweetest mind ever encased in a human body." "La Mère Bauche" is a very powerful story. Madame Bache has no intention of ever sharing power with anyone under any circumstances. She even became annoyed when Le Capitaine became too comfortable in her presence. She consoled herself by thinking that once the marriage was over, she'd bring him back in line quickly enough. Marie's position in La Mere Bauche is similar to Mary Lowther's, but since Marie had less power, Madame Bauche could bully her unmercifully. Madame Bauche, unlike Mary's friends, doesn't even pretend that she cares about Marie's interests. I wonder if Trollope would have portrayed an Englishwoman as quite being that ruthless and self-centered. Of course there's always "Our Lady of the Scissors" in "The Relics". Frankly I was surprised that Trollope didn't make that scarlet harpy Irish or American, but then he was writing for Harper's.

John Mize

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