Anthony Trollope's "The Relics of General Chassé, A Tale of Antwerp"

Written 1859 (July)
Published 1860 (February), Harper's New Monthly Magazine
Published in a book 1861 (November), Tales of All Countries: First Series , Chapman and Hall

December 9, 1997

To Trollope-L

Re: Short Story: "The Relics of General Chasse"

In his introduction to Anthony Trollope: The Early Short Stories, John Sutherland writes:

"The new monthly magazines which were springing up every month had created an insatiable market for 'fillers,' such as the 10,000 word story. Moreover, dealing directly with the magazies would allow Trollope a more direct address to the reading public than the ciruclating libraries with their proverbial timidity about bringing blushes to the maiden cheek. It ws not the least attraction of the new form that Trollope could use his short stories for stronger meat than Barsetshire stories were to release a free-ranging, artistic risk-taking, altogether un-Trollopian Trollope" (pp viii-ix)

While Bart Hansen is right to say that the ostensible word which is never said is trousers or drawers, the real word and image which is never made explicit is that a man's penis, or, if Victorian language is preferred, how about male virile member. The "relics" of General Chasse are far more than the shreds of black silk to which we are told the "Queen of the Harpies," one Miss Grogram, so eagerly, nay industriously, applies her scissors to make an "unkind cut," but also the thing (hinted at of course) which "she had never known-- could never know--aught of," "the comforts of married life. This is one bawdy story, and whenever Trollope's use of allegorical terms for men like Glascock or Miss Mackenzie's suitors like Rubb and Ball is deconstructed for the joke beneath "The Relics of General Chasse" ought to be brought up.

When a couple of years ago now, I read this story with my students who of course pride themselves on being ever so contemporary, it was interesting to find that they had real difficulty in getting frank about the salacious undercurrents of the story. They were made uncomfortable by far more elements in the story than Trollope's antifeminism, though really he is attacking not women but repression and its results in women and men. He is mocking the Reverend Dandy who had so prided himself on his exquisitely upper class savoir, and is left to walk around in the most outrageous of red pants and to show that underneath the apparent luxury of his garments he wore the cheapest of socks since he relied on their normally not being seen. He is mocking the size of the man's great bum. My students kept talking about how the Reverend lost his clothes, not his pants, and really couldn't get themselves to say why it was so very embarrassing, though at prompting by citing some of the details (e.g., the explanation for why the trousers the ladies cut up could not have been the general's); one person did have the courage to say the story was a kind of "dirty joke." How on earth could then then be great literature? was the implied question. A real Victorianism is with us still: before we will grant something seriousness it must have a vein of solemnity, it must check certain jokes at the door.

An equally interesting aspect of the students' reluctance to discuss this story was that the girls shied away from discussing Miss Grogram. I remember thinking well here's some material that will make them angry. But it didn't. They didn't want to mention how she brandished her scissors. They also manifested no anger at how the elderly woman and her two blushing virgin daughters and the older aunt with the broad back were sent up.

Students are always more comfortable in discussing the conventional and upbeat. They talked of the comeuppance of the Reverend and how well he acted in the end--he does in fact laugh at himself in his red clown pants, and takes his situation in good part. There is the usual Trollopian parallel here: the women get a comeuppance too. As the clergyman had wanted to wear the regimentals of the great general, so the women are stealing what they think are the general's relics, and when found out, they do not act well, but run frightened at the first notion they will be caught.

There is a important theme in this story, one I think is found throughout Trollope's works--and is deal with by Christopher Herbert in his Trollope and Comic Pleasaure. Trollope is always on the side of pleasure; he likes to expose hypocrisy and the reluctance of the characters to face their humanity--all the characters in the story (except the landlord whose interest is in their and his purse) are anxious to dress themselves up, truss their bodies up, pretend they don't have appetites. But the Reverend enjoys his meal, and the ladies love their tea and cake too.

I also like the satire on tourist delusions which are still an important motive for some people travelling (as well as taking a picture of themselves in some far away place so they took can be in a postcard):

"There are people who have a wonderful appetite for relics. A stone with which Washington had broken a window whem a boy--with which he had done so or had not, for there is little difference; a button that was on the coat of Napoleon's, or on that of one of his lackeys; a bullet said to have been picked up at Waterloo or Bunker's Hill; these, and suchlike things are great treasures. And their most desirable characteristic is the ease with which they are attained. Any bullet or any button does the work. Faith alone is necessary. And now these ladies had made hemseles happy and glorious with 'Relics' of General Chasse cut from the ill-used habiliments of an elderly English gentleman" (p 10).

A more poignant moment in the story occurs when we are told the reason the narrator can tell us the story is "now my old friend has been gathered to his father, full of years." There is a curious undertone of sorrow and poignancy as the narrator remembers back.

A final perspective is the autobiographical: it is slightly astonishing to realize this story comes from a time when the Trollope family were bankrupt, the father fled in the dead of the night by boat to escape his creditors, and from a place where he was nursed till he died of TB by his mother. It reminds me of Jane Austen's Sanditon -- as she lay dying and in great pain she writes a hilarious story about hypochondria. Trollope has taken from memory what he could recall about a better-heeled uncle who was with them for a time and had some revenge.

To conclude with Sutherland's introduction, Trollope's

"'early short stories' can be conveniently described in terms of five ... connections--with Harper's, Cornhill, Cassell's Illustrated Family Paper, the London Review, and Good Words. It is significant, that each of these relationships broke down-- typically on a dispute over Trollope's moral offensiveness. Tracing the emergence of Trollope the short story writer discloses the unexpected image of a morally embattled writer, one at odds with and sadly hampered by, the 'squeamishness' (his word) of the times" (p ix).

Ellen Moody

To which John Mize replied:

Christmas does bring out the worst in me, and "The Relics" annoyed me, no doubt causing me to be harder on Susan Bell than I normally would have been. I agree with Ellen and Rachel that the aggressive women cutting up the clergyman's pants has to be a symbolic castration, and that the narrator's frightening the women in abandoning their trophies, in some sense, restores the clergyman's manhood. I have probably been exposed to too much Freud and neo-Freudianism, but I have a hard time reading the story any other way. Actually I kept thinking of Euripides' The Bacchants while reading the story. Maybe that's why the men stayed in hiding. They feared the women would abandon the pants and tear the men to shreds.

John Mize

From Ellen:

This afternoon, Bart Hansen wrote in protest against the bawdy nature of the tale,

"The author was only 19 years old at the time, and Freud only three!"

Bart's tone captures the tone of the story: it is not a traumatic . It's merry. Alas, the mood of bawdiness is one our culture is not comfortable with. Shakespeare laughs uproariously and very foully too (I suppose) in the scene where the local townsmen put on their play within A Midsummer's Night Dream. We are so far from a robust and merry comfortableness with our bodies, we don't even "read" the jokes about the "chink" in the in the wall through which Wall presses his fingers, the cranny, the jokes about "stones," and especially the funniest one "My cherry lips have often kissed thy sones/Thy stones with lime and hair knit up in thee" (fellatio). I have had students get "shocked," "shocked" when in January and May the young man gets the young girl up in a tree and we are told "in he throng." One girl worried lest this was a form of daterape.

Though I don't remember the story well enough I'd like to suggest the word "relics" has an interesting history. Trollope was a great reader of earlier literature, the Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, the classics, including Chaucer. Now the pardoner goes around selling "relics" and since his own sexuality is suggested to be less than salubrious (it's not clear what his tastes are, but they are not wholesome and he is ill, thin and pale as is his good friend, the summoner, another crook), and the whole trade in "relics" in Europe was still going on in the 19th century and is not dead yet I wondered how far this word has a curious sexual resonance for Trollope. I wouldn't want to lean on this one too much though. It's simply a robust mocking tale which exposes the false vanity and pride of all the people, their repressions, their delusions, and their curious cowardice in public.

It is we who are uptight. It is we who melodramatize ourselves, our bodies. Thus a whole mood that was common in popular literature before the Victorian period is lost to us. Trollope plays it down because he was part of that period we are heir to which made sex some special area of experience in which it is no longer socially acceptable to laugh uproariously. Except of course alone at night when you are watching Benny Hill reruns. He was bawdy.

Ellen Moody

This to Rachel:

I'm not sure that in "The Relics" the Reverence is not exposed or embarrassed, but I will agree there is a real animus against the "old maid" with the scissors.

While many of the older bawdy tales are written at the expense of women, so many are written at the expense of men. These stories are no respecter of person. I have read Renaissance collections of tales mostly and men are often figures of fun; what is most often mocked is their pride and their assumption of power. Favorite types include:

1) the cuckold. These stories regard the man who is cheated on by his wife as hilarious. He's the one with "the horns." Tales show us the wife tricking her husband out of the room and going to bed with a man she presumes is her boyfriend. Of course it's much funnier when he's not and she went to bed with the wrong guy. Moral: we're all the same in the dark.

2) the sissy or sighing lover (something of Gilmore here, but not seen sensitively in the manner of Trollope at all). My favorite is the Miller's tale: poor Absalom thinks to trick the touch he-man type who has beaten him to Alison's bed (after which he so yearned) by (now remember I write under the star of bawdy). He decides to ask for a kiss, and when Nicolas sticks his head out to provide the kiss (in lieu of Alison) he kisses Absalom's ass. Absalom though doesn't know when he's ahead. He comes again and this time a red-hot object of some sort is his present...

3) the old man who marries a young girl is seen as hilarious. To me the descriptions are something obscene and distasteful, but bawdy stories are not kind.

4) fat men.

The Reverend falls under types 2 & 4. He is fastidious and tasteful. He is also fat.

And so it goes. Material we nowadays regard with emotion is sent up. These are not politically correct tales at all. They are subversive of rank and place too.


To Trollope-l

December 17, 1997

Re Short Story: "The Relics..." and Bawdiness

I knew I had something wrong about the Miller's Tale, but didn't realize I reversed the characters. I was waiting for Sig to come in and tell the tale accurately. On Sig's types from fabliau I want to say I was really speaking from memories of Renaissance compilations. These have a good deal of the original fabliau material, but they also have curiously realistic elements (such as laughing at someone's fatness). I agree that the old woman is often the most shrewd while the old man is often the most imbecilic in any group of characters in one of these broad tales.

We will see other broadly humorous tales in Trollope. No-one has talked much about "The O'Connors of Castle Conor." This is partly a broadly humorous joke, with the narrator as the figure of fun. I think the servant comes off very well. Like "The Relics" it differs from Renaissance and I imagine medieval collections because it is either partly autobiographic or is a retelling of something Trollope was told happened. A real gem because of the skilled use of suspense and point of view is "The Man Who Kept His Money in a Box" (on our list from this volume); in Volume Two we will have another foray into sexy-kinky-uncomfortable if you take it too seriously humor in "Father Giles of Ballymore." Now this Father is fussy about who he gets into bed with? Can you imagine? Who does he think he is anyway? Well does he get his comeuppance.

Earlier today Rachel wrote a number of interesting posts; here, however I simply want to say that I agree with her on "The Relics" about bawdy literature that

"Nevertheless the humor disguises anxiety."

Athough the average person in medieval or Renaissance times might not have recognized the bawdy tale he or she had just read (or had read to him or her) if we were to proceed to talk about it in terms of its psychological and emotional roots in experience, nonetheless they are there. John Mize's phrase "Our Lady of the Scissors" captured this sense of the character or image beautifully.

Ellen Moody

To Trollope-L

December 18, 1997

Dear all,

I was not arguing that "The Relics" is a thinly disguised Freudian castration scene is not what I meant at all. That gives the text an emotional temperature that's not there. Lurking subtly in the margins are various anxieties, but the primary emotion here is humor. Trollope gives the Dandy Reverend a comeuppance, and the Reverend takes it very well. Under his vanity and pride were a sense of humor about himself. He does expose the hidden aggression of the repressed old maid as she wields her scissors, and in that as an intuitively great artist reaches for just that primal image that resonates in the mind to become Freudian, but that's not what the story is centrally about. The women are exposed for vandalism, for stealing, as silly tourists who worship nonsensical outside visibilia -- as does the Reverend. The Reverend could not be the General even if he could have gotten comfortably into his trousers (Robert note I use the British word).

We have a bawdy tale

Ellen Moody

Robert Wright suggested Trollope never intended us to see "the relics" and "the scissors" in this ribald light:

I replied:

Surely it was intended. Not as trauma, not as deep commentary on the human condition, but as a sly and sharp joke at the expense of all the character. How could a man as smart as Trollope have an image like this of a woman with a man's trousers, with a gleam in her eye, while reminding us she is a virgin (gets none of those comforts of marriage) and teasing about the girth of the bum of that Reverend, not know what he was teasingly referring to....

He would have to be naive not to realize what he was doing and do it so consistently.

No. He's quiet and tactful because he doesn't want to offend his middle class Victorian readers who might be too offended. He regarded his audience as made up of two kinds of readers: those who got the quiet joke, and those who didn't. And yet he did offend them. That's what Sutherland said. They knew he meant the image to be what it obviously, humorously, is.


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

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