Anthony Trollope's "Parson's Daughter at Oxney Colne"

Written 1861 (13 - 19 January)
 Published 1861 (2 March), The London Review
Published in a book 1863 (February), Tales of All Countries: Second Series, Chapman and Hall

January 20, 1998

RE: Short Story: "The Parson's Daughter of Oxney Colne"

This is one of Trollope's short stories I have seen reprinted in anthologies of Victorian short stories; I own one whose subtitle is "The Trials of Love." It fits in with the conventional view of Trollope: here we have types and a setting we could find in a Barsetshire novel; if Trollope were to have interludes, inset stories which one has to work at to connect to the whole interlace of a book in the manner of Dickens, one can imagine it slipped into say The Small House at Allington. I bring that one up because it bears enough resemblances to Austen's Sense and Sensibility to provide an argument that Trollope had the earlier book in mind when he wrote his, and was "rewriting it" on his own terms; well, we could look at "The Parson's Daughter" as an Emma in little, with the important difference that the ending is not idyllic but disillusioned and if hard true to life. The comparison with Emma is instructive and brings out some salient differences between Trollope's fiction and Austen's. First the daughter may not have an income to support her if she does not marry; she may have a strong mind of her own, may belong to the most respected and high-ranking of families at Oxney Colne, but Trollope does not "top" this off with a dowry of 30,000l. This is not necessarily unAustenlike for the girls in S&S have very tiny private incomes, but Trollope combines this with a realistic portrait of the daughter's father. He is not a caricature--nor is Patience's mentor, Miss Le Smyrger. There are in fact no caricatures in this story; there is no pointed satire, and no-one quite fits what we can call a literary type.

This is especially truth of the portrait of the young man from London who is at first attracted to Patience simply by virtue of their propinquity, and then because she holds out. Austen's Willoughby is a son of Lovelace, and as such can be dismissed ever so slightly as "shaped," as not quite what we meet in life. Captain Broughton is someone I have met many times; he is himself unaware that he is attracted to Patience because of the challenge she presents; he only feels bored and then letdown because he has, as he sees himself, bought goods which are not quite serviceable for his ambition, goods which are "inferior" as the world would have it, to what he could have gotten--"that great heiress with whom his name was once before connected."

I have put it too strongly because Trollope's close is enigmatic; when we are told the Captain is "now a useful member of Parliament, working on committees three or four days a week with a zeal that is indefatible," we cannot be sure whether he is not happier with his heiress. I don't know quite what we are to make of the smile that crosses his face when he thinks of the unmarried Patience.

The whole story is in fact a piece of subtle psychology -- the psychology of disillusionment and quiet despair. We delve into the sexual longings of Patience in the most delicate and pictorial manner:

"There she would sit, with the beautiful view down the winding river below her, watching the setting sun, and thinking, thinking, thinking-- thinking of something of which she had never spoken. Often would Miss Le Smryger come upon her there, and sometimes would pass her by even without a word; but never--never once did she hdare to ask her of the matter of her thoughts. But she knew the matter well enough. No confession was necessary to inform her that Patience Woolsworthy was in love with John Broughton--ay, in love, to the full and entire loss of her heart" (p 236).

The poignancy of this is contrasted to the "hot" desires the Captain had pressed upon her during his stay:

"On the day before he left Oxney Colne, he had in set terms proposed to the parson's daughter, and indeed the words, the hot and frequent words, which had previously fallen like sweetest honey into the ears of Patience had made it imperative on him to do so" (p 238).

This is the kind of thing Austen does not come near. We see how vulnerable Patience is to hurt. Perhaps the most touching or heart-wrenching part of the story is not when Trollope allows us to see inside the young man's very common form of brutality--Austen might call it unconcern, insensibility--in Trollope's quiet words, "I have never said that he was not a brute;" it's when she refuses to allow herself to be bullied, to be drawn into a relationship in which she would have to act the part of the inferior person, the person who has to be grateful, who has so much to learn about "what counts" and "how to behave" in the world where powerful "connections" may be garnered, meaning how to please, I had almost said cater to people with access to money, positions.

This is a story about the cost of pride, about the cost of holding onto one's self-esteem, subtle or intangible as Patience's concept of this reality may seem to someone who can measure such things only by the clothes she gets to wear and furniture she can wander among. And it gets to where the matter gnaws at the heart. Patience chooses to stand alone; noteworthy too is her conversation with her mentor, Miss Le Smyrger who has told no-one she intends herself to provide for Patience. (This of course is the fairy tale element slipping in; Patience's choice is not as hard and perhaps impossible as it would have been in real life.) This "old maid" and "virgin" tells the girl had she "kept" the captain "off her, he would have been at your feet now, licking your shoes." To which Patience replies: "'But, dear friend, I do not want a man to lick the dust from my shoes.'" (p 253). Had Patience been willing to manipulate the situation, not shown so strongly how she longed for the captain physically, how she was his, had she held herself back, she could have held onto him, but if he would not have himself have brought forward the punishment he would have inflicted on her once they married, he would have brought it forward then. Patience did not want to live this way, even if no-one but herself and certain other sensitive people would understand.

Here we have not a matter easy to moralize upon. Trollope does not present the matter as a question of how we would or should behave in love relationships in which two people are rarely on an equal playing field. Rather he drives towards this choice from the very beginning of the story:

"She had taken her outlook into life, weighing the things which she had and those which she had not, in a manner very unusual, and as a rule, not always desirable for a young lady" (p 233).

To me the irony of the last phrase is clear. The tree which will not bend in the winds of life will break. But Patience's alternatives-- marry the man anyway, take what you can from what's on offer and pay the price, even if you cannot without pain or unstintingly, without as Trollope says, "injuring your daily peace" (p 253) or do not marry him, remain alone, and console yourself with your freedom to be strong on your own terms, which, the fairy tale element of Miss Le Smygner's gold being there--allows Patience to be seen from afar not sitting "lonly on a hill," but working "hard to lighten the burdens of those she loves." We are to assume these include helping Miss LeSmyrger and her father's curate help poor people (into whose house we really go at least for a moment--as we don't in Emma) and her father. This is better than Dorothea Ladislaw at the close of her story who after all was made happy when she switched from a withered old man to a handsome young one. Maybe the Captain smiles because he thinks to himself how he had not after all "sold himself too cheaply" (p. 246).

The two times I taught this I had girls in my class tell me their eyes filled with tears as they came to the end of this story. It is one of my favorite stories by Trollope; another is his "The Spotted Dog".

Ellen Moody

Date: Wed, 21 Jan 1998 13:29:05 -0500 (EST) X-Sender:
From: John Mize
Subject: Short Story: "The Parson's Daughter of Oxney Colne"

At 09:44 AM 1/20/98, Ellen wrote:

"This is a story about the cost of pride, about the cost of holding onto one's self-esteem, subtle or intangible as Patience's concept of this reality may seem to someone who can measure such things only by the clothes she gets to wear and furniture she can wander among. And it gets to where the matter gnaws at the heart."

I definitely agree with all Ellen says in her post, and I would only add that the words pride and self-esteem may perhaps not be strong enough to convey all of what Patience would have to give up to marry Captain Broughton; she would lose her soul by marrying the man. She would either have to consent to being his slave or try to dominate him by pretending coldness and aloofness for him to marry her. As Ellen has mentioned, the latter strategy, even if it resulted in marriage, would backfire on her, as Broughton would doubtless take his revenge once they were safely married. Patience, of course, has no intention of becoming either a slave or a slavemaster.

To me "The Parson's Daughter" is certainly the best Trollope short story I've read to date. Of course I am partial to any story which acknowledges that love often isn't nearly enough. I also really admire Trollope's ironic defense of Broughton. Yes, he may be a self-centered, insensitive bully, but, after all, England is full of such men. I see his gratified smile at the end of the story as his congratulating himself on not falling into the trap of marrying Patience.

Obviously I don't care much for Broughton myself, and as Ellen has noted, his type is not hard to find. Last Sunday a woman remarked to me it takes a really good man to be better than no man at all. Broughton doesn't make the cut.

In the interests of semi-full disclosure, I should say that my dislike of Broughton stems from my having worked for too many Broughtons during my 20 years before the mast (actually computer screen) in the U.S. Navy.* Naval Academy graduates tend to be the most arrogant. That may be a case of self-selection, although I personally suspect that there is a required course at Annapolis entitled "Kiss my academy ring, churl." It's no surprise that the Broughtons are drawn to the military, since the military is the only profession in the U.S. where underlings are required to salute their superiors and address them as sir. Even egomaniacs like Donald Trump and Ross Perot do not actually require such behavior from their employees, although no doubt Trump and Perot employees are awarded bonus points for creative sucking up.

John Mize

To which he added:

*Obviously I was a square peg in a round hole in the Navy. I no more belonged there than did Lenny Bruce, who was in the Navy during World War II. After the war Lenny used much the same strategy as Miss Weston to escape from an overbearing uncle, in Lenny's case, Uncle Sam. Supposedly Lenny obtained a WAVE uniform and wore it around the base, thus earning him an early discharge for the convenience of the government.

Date: Wed, 21 Jan 1998 18:25:40 -0500
Subject: Short Stories: The Parson's Daughter at Oxney Colne"

At first I read "The Parson's Daughter" as a clash between what we could call the mercantile and romantic understandings of marriage. Is the primary nature of marriage companionate and emotional, or is marriage an institution by which economic welfare is secured or increased? It looked as though we had in Patience (and note that given name) an example of the romantic point of view, whereas the young man from London emphatically had his eyes on worldly advantage. Worldly advantage, of course, is something the parson's daughter will not give him, despite Miss Le Smyrger's intention to make her at least a moderate heiress. Money aside, she brings no useful connections, and lacks the social deftness, the polish that will impress his associates back home.

So far, so good. But then, as Bart points out, what about the farmer, whose overtures Patience rejects out of hand? Though that incident is little more than a throw-away, in it we have Miss Patience serving for a moment in the role that otherwise belongs to the young man, Captain Broughton--the one who treats marriage as an alliance made for material advantage, rather than for a meeting of minds and souls. Where here is her romantic heart, or at least pity for a lover whose esteem cannot be returned?

True, strictly speaking we don't know that pity would be appropriate in her. For all the story tells us, maybe the farmer's suit was doomed for a dozen excellent reasons. Still, this interlude shows us in Patience some of the impatient hardness or ambition that otherwise marks Captain B. Maybe the farmer was sort of a Mr. Collins without money. Maybe he was gross and stupid. But if these were Patience's reasons for rejecting him, why didn't Trollope put them in her mouth? Her rejection seemed based on his class, not on his deficiencies of morals or understanding. And was this not the Captain's reason for feeling his offer of marriage was a mistake?

agree with what Bart and Ellen suggest in their posts: at least in part the story is a clear-eyed Austenian look at the plight of women on the fringe of middle-class life in England, where pride can come at a painful price. Not everyone has a dowry of 30,000 pounds; not everyone has influential relatives, or dwells in an area where plenty of suitable partners are on offer. Patience has the education and self-image of a member of the gentry, who will bring no shame on any family into which she marries. She cannot agree that it would need condescension for a gentleman to have her in marriage. This puts her above the touch of the men in her sparse neighborhood, but she cannot offer much to attract men of her own caste. Her sense of self places her above the station of a neighborhood farmer. And yet, from the viewpoint of the fashionable young man from London, Patience lies as much below him socially as she felt the farmer to be below her. Here lies the central tension in the story, when a social gulf that didn't exist for her mattered too much for him.

Another reason I discarded the notion of a simple romantic/mercantile conflict was the fact that, when you think about it, Patience was wrong from the start to lose her heart to the Captain. It isn't as though Broughton underwent a personality switch: his attitude certainly changed, but his personality appears to have been a constant. Like it or not, he was a young man geared to material rewards, to personal power. His interest in Patience amounted to infatuation at best, and cooled very quickly once she no longer was beyond his hope. Since Patience could not have helped him win the life he craved, she would not have remained cherished even if she had become his wife. Though he's the one we're told was smiling, at the end of the story, it would be as well if Trollope had ascribed the private smiles to her. While the temptation is to see Patience as a Marianne Dashwood figure, who loved not wisely but too well, I think she has more of Elinor in her.

And speaking of the Captain's smile at the story's end, I want to respond to Ellen's comment that we readers don't know what to make of this. Me, I think Trollope was giving us his take on how a man like Broughton (or a real-life Willoughby?) truly would act if he dodged the injudicious marriage in favor of one that brought position and money. Austen tells us in S&S that Willoughby enjoyed his financial independence well enough, but had always a sense of loss in his heart. I don't know that Trollope believed this about a Willoughby or Broughton figure. His Broughton is a sort of Willoughby as strained through Widmerpool: someone who honestly does value the material above the emotional. Would such a man be pleased, not deflated, by his decision? What, after all, did he give up by losing the parson's daughter? Compare that to the great deal he'd have lost by giving up the heiress! Though the decision seems to have cost him nothing, and to have cost her much, both have a right to smile in the end.

Finally, on a frivolous note, wasn't "Miss Le Smyrger" a fun name for Patience's mentor? For all I know that really is a family name in Devonshire, but to me it smacks of an upstart family trying to seem French so as to imply an old pedigree. As well use a name like "de la Collins" or "Le Bragg"! And I wonder if Trollope intended the name as a sort of pun: "miss le merger," for a lady who never married?

--John Hopfner--

Date: Thu, 22 Jan 1998 18:54:54 -0500 (EST)
From: John Mize
Subject: Short Stories: "The Parson's Daughter at Oxney Colne"

At 06:25 PM 1/21/98 -0500, John H. wrote:

"For all the story tells us, maybe the farmer's suit was doomed for a dozen excellent reasons. Still, this interlude shows us in Patience some of the impatient hardness or ambition that otherwise marks Captain B. Maybe the farmer was sort of a Mr. Collins without money. Maybe he was gross and stupid. But if these were Patience's reasons for rejecting him, why didn't Trollope put them in her mouth? Her rejection seemed based on his class, not on his deficiencies of morals or understanding. And was this not the Captain's reason for feeling his offer of marriage was a mistake?"

Patience may well have rejected the farmer because of his social status, lack of education, or any other reason. To me it does seem clear that she rejects him, because she considers herself superior to him, and for that reason, they could never be a compatible couple. I don't know whether her perceived superiority is based on social status or personal merit. I tend to believe the latter, although the issue is certainly unclear. In Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida Thersites considers himself superior to Achilles, although none of the other Greeks agrees with his estimation. I think Thersites is right in saying that he would prefer to be a tick on a sheep than a booby like Achilles. One could call Thersites a snob, but that type of snobbery somehow seems more acceptable to me than the more conventional kind.

To me Broughton's rejecting Patience because he considered his social status superior to hers is not nearly as bad as his being willing to consider marrying her if she would only acknowledge her inferiority and consider herself fortunate to be accepted by him, realizing the great sacrifice he would be making for her. Marrying someone whom you consider beneath you is no favor to the other person if she or he has any pride or self-respect. The fact that Patience considers herself superior to the farmer makes it in his own best interest that he not marry her.

John Mize

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