Anthony Trollope's "The Château of Prince Polignac"

Written 1859 (1 September - 29 October), inbetween writing Castle Richmond
Serialized 1860 (October 20 & 27), Cassell's Illustrated Family Paper
Published in a book 1861 (November), Tales of All Countries: First Series, Chapman and Hall

From: Robert Wright
Subject: Short Stories - "The Château of Prince Polignac" - Introduction

What I like about the short stories is they are short. You can sit down, with a cup of strong coffee (Seattle Coffee Company Decaf Espresso) and read one at a sitting of about an hour. Most enjoyable.

This one is another goodie. It has travel pictures worthy of Michael Palin or Bill Bryson. Romance. Foreign parts. And a twist to the ending, which you will hardly expect.

The setting is real, and again comes from Trollope's own experience.

I am sure you will like this one.

To Trollope-L

December 26, 1997

Re: Short Story: "The Chateau of Prince Polignac"

Like Robert, I like this quiet little tale. I have never "set" it for a class because it is quiet, a slice of life or mood piece, and I suspect many students would be bored or at a loss for something to say. Students like stories where something is definitely doing or there is some clear moral. I think of the hobbits who as we all know "liked to have books filled with things that they already [know], set out fair and square with no contradictions."

This story has some strange elements in it which would be foreign to students, such as the "struggle" Mrs. Thompson has in accepting as her husband a "tailor." A wine merchant, a jeweller, even a watchmaker would have been no trouble for this lady to marry (I had almost said swallow) at all, but a tailor requires fortitute. "But however" (as Jane Austen would say) the lady comes through; she rises above class prejudice and marries him. This theme of the tailor who is so infra dig is also found in Lady Anna -- there too our heroine meets the challenge (far more serious) and marries her beloved who is (worse and worse) the son of a tailor who is also a radical politically. As E. P. Thompson shows in his great book The Making of the English Working Class, the two went together.

Some other things that might seem strange to them include the lady who decides to live in a hotel in a foreign country because it's cheaper and enables her to keep up "appearances" on a small income. Students would wonder why she didn't get a job. This group of people who are not attached to any country but wander about unattached do not enter public discourse in the way they did in the 19th century--though they are not yet gone from us.

What do I like about the story? The opening, a long picturesque description of a French town perched on some rocks across a mountain. It is drawn lovingly, and since I have travelled through France in a train and by car a couple of times I'd like to say it is accurate. I have seen these places, the old castle, and especially the Romanesque church (Sutherland ed, pp 116-7). The church is best when it is not a tourist attraction, when no-one goes there who is anyone. There are also such places tucked away everywhere in England. In Germany, especially in the south, the churches left after the bombing of WWII are more Baroque, Catholic, and gilded, but they may be found if you have the nerve to get on a bus and just go about. It's actually remarkable how many churches are left since the bombs rained down.

I also like the long description of everyone at table (pp 117-20). The scene is true to life and slowly Trollope builds up the relationship that has been growing between Mrs Thompson and M. Lacordaire. Lacordaire has a "cor" in it--an allusion to heart in French (as in "cri de coeur"). Neither of our lovers is very young or very handsome. The question becomes, Shall she go with him to visit the chateau. People always imagine the big events in life to have been precipitated by something that is clearly marked, but momentous moments can be felt coming out of serendipitous ones which in this time and place suddenly are meaningful.

The feeling conveyed is that although the pirate days of our man of the heart and our lady with her two children are over, and this is a sensible marriage, it is also a marriage based on a quiet friendship, congeniality, and then even attraction and love that has grown up. It's all told with great delicacy.

"Should she marry again,--and she put it to herslef quite hypothetically,--she would look for no romance in such a second marriage. She would be content to sit down in a quiet home, to the tame dull realities of life, satisfied with the companionship of a man who would be kind and gentle to her, and whom she could respect and esteem. Where could she find a companion with whom this could be more safely anticipated than with M. Lacordaire?" (p 123)

The depiction of the long climb upwards is brilliantly felt. One really gets a feel of how steep it is, how high, and the view from the top. Trollope here shows some pity for the poor woman whose job it is to show the place. They get to the old turret, but the steps are too broken to attempt, so they proceed to the "kitchen of the family." She offers to show them the place where the (famous of course) oracle once spoke. The girls of course "scamper off." And then we get the scene. It is very real.

Brooke said she has just read C. P. Snowe. He does justice to Trollope's ability with what seems natural dialogue. The poor M. Lacordaire hopes "the heat" does not "incommode" his lady. She suddenly tells him she has appreciated his kindness to her all this time. It is not easy to speak; the hint is not clear, and there is a sweet comedy in the scene, but there is also the touching comment from him, "''my one great consideration is this;--that I love madame to distraction'' in response to her "'There are so many things to be considered.'" She is "'flattered,'" but says in these matters it is best "'to be explicit,''' and then we get the real comment someone her age would make to someone his: "'the happiness of a household depends so much on money.'" (pp129-32). Money he does have.

Up to this point Henry James could have learned something from Trollope. James is always trying for this kind of exquisitely delicate feel. But then Trollope--for the modern reader--drops down to bathos. M. Lacordaire has money, but "what is his business.'' He gets it out: ''je suis tailleur'" (p 133). I suggest this line was meant to be comic but also a serious jolt, where for us it is kind of strange.

How to grasp the feeling by analogy? Imagine yourself a lady professor at a university in Germany who is travelling and falls in love with a man who is appealing and appears to have money, and then at the last moment when the bargain is about to be clinched (marriage is a bargain), he reveals he is a garbage man. We are not that far from Trollope in the sense that we have our class hierarchies too.

I naturally reached for an analogy with a lady as professor because the point of view in the story is basically that of Mrs Thompson and I am a female, but I would like to offer the idea that the notion that a woman takes on her husband's rank and that a man lifts a woman up to his is not gone from us altogether. Imagine a medical doctor who is charmed by a woman during a tour of France and pops the question; would the discovery she works for Macdonald's and didn't graduate high school be as bad? I think not. I think he'd offer to put her through school or say "stay home" and we'll raise a family on my income.

It's so very pleasant. I was happy for Mrs Thompson and M. Lacordaire, and I think we were meant to be so, for our narrator's last sentence is: "speaking for myself, I am inclined to think that she [Mrs Thompson] arrived at last at a wise decision" (p. 135).

Ellen Moody

Then Bart Hansen wrote in:

In 'The Chateau' we see the difficulties encountered by those who have reached 'a certain age.' Sutherland points to Mrs Thompson being able to overcome class prejudice, but I liked the description of the halting lovemaking. When the middle-aged suitor kneels in the dust for his proposal, Trollope comments, 'If the thing was to be done, this way of doing it was, perhaps, as good as any other.'


Date: Sat, 27 Dec 1997 10:12:57 +0000
From: Robert Wright
Subject: Short Story: "The Chateau of Prince Polignac"

Nicely judged, Ellen.

Dare we say M Lacordaire (the man whose heart was 'light as air', at least after the lady had accepted him) as a tailor (ugh!) might have been the sort of "cove" who had constructed the reverend trousers, so badly mangled by the women?

Taking the male view (as you have taken the female) one must remember also the bravery of this man who, risking rejection and loss of face, stakes all and asks for what he desires most, that is for the better-born English lady to grace his table and enable him to rise a little above the class of trader.

Robert J Wright
Kensington, London W87PB England

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