Anthony Trollope's "Mrs Brumby"

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

Subject: Short Stories: "Mrs Brumby"
Date: Thu, 26 Mar 1998

This one is a little gem. The character of the formidable woman, whom you just know will get the better of the indolent, arrogant Editor, makes the story.

How many women of such tendency do we know? Maybe not so extreme, but I can name a few, and all of them have cowering husbands who do not dare say Boo to a goose.

Actually, now you mention it, my wife is......

Oops, I didn't say that (sorry, very sorry my dear...)

Robert J Wright

To Trollope-l

March 29, 1998

Re: Short Stories: "Mrs Brumby:" Very very funny

I rejoice to agree with Robert Wright. This story is a gem, and while when Sutherland calls it the most ill-natured of Trollope's stories, I suspect he is acceding to his fear of other Mrs Brumbys, and myself can understand how many women would take strong umbrage--doubtless in a muted Brumby style--nonetheless it made me laugh and laugh. There are as many many unscrupulous women as there are many many unscrupulous men. As many girls have been harmed by mercenary class-obsessed narrow-minded puritanical (&c&c) mothers as they have by similarly-inspired abusive fathers. An interesting review in this week's TLS by Melanie Phillips talks of how many of those who profess themselves feminists and interested in social justice are simply interested in producing a "mirror image" of the patriarchy--with their own kind in charge. Robert talks humorously of his wife; if I dared I would talk--and it would not be humorous--of another woman I must deal with every term who is only different from Mrs Brumby in being more skillful in her "cruelty, hardness, unscrupulousness, and dishonesty' (Sutherland, p 216).

This story is about the brutal politics of everyday encounters between people of whatever sex. Bullies often win. People can wrest from others what everyone knows they do not deserve simply by being obnoxious in the right way, by pretending to hold to the high ground. People are often taken at their own evaluation; we may say that shows how the world is filled with fools. The story also shows how most of us would rather avoid unpleasantness--at any cost. My favorite line from many an Elizabethan minor play is one muttered by a male character hired to lug the body away in the most difficult of circumstances: Says he: "Anything for a quiet life, sir." And a recent encounter with the woman I refer to above--even by e-mail--made the story sizzle for me. Sheer skillful audacity goes a long way.

I am losing the light-touch which Robert imitated very well. Sutherland's comment that this is an ill-natured tale is for me untrue since Trollope has transformed what was apparently a humiliating experience not into bitter but light mirth where he wields not a rapier but scimitar. How is it Trollope combines lightness with a scimitar? I think it is a matter of the precision of the images drawn both from classical myth and everyday reality and the intentness of the woman herself which left a visceral impression on our editor--and thus on ourselves.

My sense of a sword plunged at us also comes from the details of the story. She goes to a lawyer. Lest I be misunderstood I want to say I have nothing against lawyers. The couple of times I have hired one I have loved the man; the lawyers I have known have been better for me than teams of psychiatrists. It is always I who am truthful and the other side which has deviated from integrity. My lawyers have been fervently on my side. But I think I have not gone to lawyers in order to wrest anything from someone else which I did not earn or deserve; I have not hired them as attack-dogs (which Mrs Brumby does); they have not been my substitute bullies.

The story is yet another about the writing life as a business, and it is yet another which uses letters astutely.

Which paragraph to quote as a favorite? People will expect the one comparing Mrs Brumby's "large commanding bonnet which grew in our [editor's] eyes till it assumed all the attributes of a helmet... Minerva's headgear;" because Mrs Brumby's "well-wearing brown complexion" when considered in the light of "kissing" made the editor wonder if "an ordinary mahogany table did not offer a preferable surface." No. I am most moved where Trollope most identifies with those who write their hearts out and dream of what they know not what. My favorite paragraph is our editor's acknowledgement of what he knows to be in the slush pile he has not time for because it comes to him without prior praise from someone whose judgement he trusts or friendship he has to respect:

"We knew that strong hopes were bound up in those various little packets, that eager thoughts were imprisoned there the owners of which believed that they were endowed with winds for for aerial soaring, that young hearts,--ay, and old hearts, too--sore with deferred hope, were waiting to know whether their aspirations might now be realised, whether those asure wings might at last be released from bondage, and allowed to try their strength in the broad sunlight of public favor" (Sutherland, p 223).

The man who could write that sentence is angry with Mrs Brumby for the right reasons. He has identified with those who do not understand the nature of literature as a business because when he was young he was in their place.

There is another turn to the story. Early on our editor tells us that the problem with such as Mrs Brumby is not that "the port of literature" is open to her, but that no other is. Had she not been a woman she would have gone and perhaps won the status and power and money of "a prime minister, or an archbishop, or a chief justice." He does not say she would have been a good office-holder in the sense of exercising her power for the good of others. But she would at least have stayed away from making books which she cares nothing for because she understands nothing of them. Alas alas I have here to say in today's academia there are altogether too many male and female Brumbys even if they theoretically could have become prime minister.

Ellen Moody

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