Anthony Trollope's "The Widow's Mite"

Written 1862 (18 November - 8 December)
Published 1863 (January), Good Words
Published in a book 1867 (August), Lotta Schmidt and Other Stories, Strahan

In this particular instance I place the most recent reading of this story we had: on Trollope-l in December 2000. I also include a posting I wrote in which I connect Margaret Oliphant's "Old Lady Mary" to Trollope's "A Widow's Mite" and show how "Old Lady Mary"is a reverse Dickens A Christmas Carol.

Date: Sun, 10 Dec 2000
Reply-trollope-l@egroups.com
Subject: [trollope-l] "The Widow's Mite": Background

Hello all

Here's a little background on Trollope's short story "The Widow's Mite", shamelessly pinched from John Sutherland's introduction to the Oxford World's Classics Early Short Stories.

Sutherland explains that the publisher of evangelical magazine "Good Words", Alexander Strahan, wrote to Trollope asking for a short Christmas/ New Year tale for the January 1863 edition of the magazine, passing on a suggestion from Scottish minister Norman Macleod that the title should be "Out of Work" and that it should deal with the unemployment in northern textile mills caused by the cotton famine as a result of the American Civil War. Trollope agreed but politely objected to the title. " 'Out of Work' would be a very nice name for a story - But it would be needfull with such a name that the chief character should be an operative. I do not think I could manage this. But the line of the story shall be of the same nature - if possible."

Sutherland writes: "'The Widow's Mite,'... was one of Trollope's strongest efforts to date. He had visited the United States for six months over 1861-2 and his mind was full of the country and its turbulent condition. The story is narrated in Trollope's increasingly relaxed comic mode, but the mood is hotly topical - angry, almost... the story, while maintaining its easy tone of social comedy, probes the sorest of middle-class sore points - is it 'charity' if you don't feel the donation as loss? 'How many of us,' Trollope asks, 'when we give, give from our own backs, and from out of our own mouths?' Walk through the streets of London or New York and it is still a topical question."

There is also quite a bit of background on the Lancashire cotton famine in Jenny Uglow's biography of Elizabeth Gaskell - I was really looking in here for information on "The Old Nurse's Story" but then realised that of course Gaskell was living in Manchester and closely involved in the relief effort for the poor people hit by the cotton famine.

Uglow writes: "In Manchester local causes were indeed all-consuming. The mills had no American cotton, but the masters were reluctant to change their machinery to suit Indian supplies if there was hope of the Civil War ending. Elizabeth set up 'Sewing-schools' to provide part-time work and corresponded eagerly with Florence Nightingale, hoping that some of the laid-off mill-women might train as nurses... 'The poor old women' were her special concern:

'at present they have only the workhouse allowance; barely enough for the cheapest, poorest food - only just enough to keep life in. They have worked hard all their working years - poor old friendless women, and now crave and sicken after a "taste of bacon" or something different to the perpetual oat-meal.'

By late summer the Plymouth Grove household had to check themselves from talking about the distress, 'which was literally haunting us in our sleep, as well as being the first thoughts on waking and the last at night'. Gaskell's words, in a letter, but this is very much the feeling you get in Trollope's story, too, where the family are increasingly feeling guilty about every little luxury while others have nothing.

Cheers,
Judy Geater

Date: Sun, 10 Dec 2000
Reply: trollope-l@egroups.com
Subject: [trollope-l] "The Widow's Mite": Links

Hello all As we start our read of Trollope's classic short story "The Widow's Mite", I have been looking for background on the Lancashire cotton famine and found a useful link. This website has information on the devastating poverty amid British cotton workers and their families caused by the American Civil War:

http://www.csa- dixie.com/Liverpool_Dixie/cotton.htm

I also found three relevant sections on the wide-ranging educational Spartacus site, dealing with the cotton industry, poverty in Victorian Britain and the American Civil War itself, at these addresses:

http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/ Textiles.htm

http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/p overty.htm

http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAcivilwarC.htm

Be warned - from what I've seen so far, some of this material is very harrowing, and the interviews with young children forced to work up to 18 hours a day in the textile industry are heart-breaking stuff, even 150 years on.

Judy Geater

Date: Tue, 12 Dec 2000
Reply- trollope-l@egroups.com
Subject: [trollope-l] "The Widow's Mite"

Hello all

I just wanted to say that I do think that Trollope's short story "The Widow's Mite", one of the current reads for our Christmas and ghost story sub-group, is a wonderful and moving piece of work.

Somehow, after only reading novels by Trollope up to now, I found it hard to imagine him writing Christmas stories. But this one is certainly full of what most of us would think of as the "real" seasonal spirit - not telling readers to spend a fortune or eat and drink too much, but concentrating on reaching out to help those with little or nothing.

I've been reading this story alongside Dickens' A Christmas Carol, which of course is far better-known, and there is a striking similarity of theme in the gulf between the haves and the have-nots, although the two authors treat it very differently.

Dickens shows us the poor people directly - the struggling Cratchits with their pitiful festive dinner, and the frightening symbolic figures of the two scrawny child monsters: "This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want." Trollope, by contrast, shows us the poverty at one remove - we do not see the starving textile workers hit by the devastating cotton famine (anybody who has had time to check out the website links I posted earlier will know just how devastating) but we do see how the caring middle-class Fields and Grangers are deeply affected by the suffering all around them, and cannot enjoy any of their comparative plenty.

The story is written with a wonderfully light touch, but still gets its powerful message across, probably as effectively as any preacher. At the start, most readers will be likely to laugh at the argument between Charley and Bob, where Bob tries to prove that if everybody gave up their Christmas dinner the savings would be "two millions and a half" - and Charley brings him down to earth by pointing out that the grocer and butcher would be ruined.

However, if as readers we continue to scoff at Nora as she decides to make her own personal sacrifice by doing without wedding finery, I think the laughter soon dies on our lips as we realise that there is indeed a real point in her giving up her two mites.

Many other Victorian authors would probably have tended to treat this storyline more unsympathetically, slightly sneering at Nora for wanting to look beautiful on her wedding day in the first place. For instance, in Felix Holt, George Eliot is full of stern comments about Esther spending her money on finery, and in Far From the Madding Crowd Hardy constantly emphasises Bathsheba's vanity as typically female. Here, by refreshing contrast, Trollope recognises how natural it is for Nora to want to look beautiful on her big day - and makes it clear that she is making a real sacrifice.

It is a lovely twist where Nora realises that she has not given her "two mites" after all because the wedding day has been just as special as it would have been with the white dress and all the trimmings. When she says: "It has cost me nothing" I was reminded of that old religious saying, don't know where it comes from: "Give of your substance, not of your abundance." Easier said than done, as Nora discovers.

But perhaps the best touch of all is the final exchange between the vicar and his wife:

"It is my belief that all that is given in a right spirit comes back instantly, in this world, with interest.

"I wish my coals would come back," said Mrs Granger.

"Perhaps you have not given them in a right spirit, my dear."

This light touch of mockery resists any temptation to sentimentality, and certainly left me with a warm feeling.

Cheers
Judy Geater

December 13, 2000

To Trollope-l

Re: "The Widow's Mite": Trollope's attitude towards Christmas (I)

Before talking about this story, I'd like to remind everyone that Trollope consistently tries to avoid the kind of humbug to which Christmas can lend itself. He was not a Scrooge, but as his 4 chapters in Orley Farm show, he knew that Christmas is not a time when people are simply readily joyous and kind, that the way they spend their Christmas reflect their nature and circumstances and outlook the rest of the year. In Trollope's Autobiography he says he finds it the continual humbug and commercialization of Christmas (yes it was happening then) "distasteful." He says he dislikes when being paid to write Christmas stories. It makes him uncomfortable

"to have to give a relish of Christmas to what I write. I feel the humbug implied by the nature of the order. A Christmas story, in the proper sense, should be the ebullition of some mind anxious to instil others with a desire for Christmas religious thought, or Christmas festivities,--or better still, with Christmas charity. Such was the case with Dickens when he wrote his two first Christmas stories."

He uses a curious and strong analogy when talking of the task of having to write a Christmas story. He says:

"While I was writing The Way We Live Now, I was called upon by the proprietors of the Graphic for a Christmas story. I feel, with regard to literature, somewhat as I suppose an upholsterer and understaker feels when he is called upon to supply a funeral."

In explaining that he dislikes the annual set nature of the task which makes the emotion meretricious he emphasizes the metaphor of a man who writes such a story with that of an undertaker called upon to supply a funeral as he sees both occasions as filled with cant:

"Alas! at this very moment I have one to write, which I promised to supply within three weeks of this time,--the picture-makers always require a long interval,--as to which I have in vain been cudgelling my brain for the last month. I can't send away the order to another shop, but I do not know how I shall ever get the coffin made."

Still it is interesting to note that the story he is referring to and which he did produce on time (being Trollope) was "Christmas at Thompson Hall" which is, as Sig reminded us last year, a magnificent comic story of a nearly thwarted and anxiety-ridden attempt to get to a family celebration on time against many obstacles.

Ellen Moody

December 13, 2000

Re: 'A Widow's Mite': About Charity (II)

Like Judy I like the mood and tone of "A Widow's Mite". Like most of Trollope's stories written for the Christmas market -- that is the realistic way to put it -- it does not take the Christmas celebration or festivities or time for its subject. Judy has told us about its background in the fierce US civil war, the controversies surrounding slavery whose continuation was in the immediate economic interests of wealthy factory owners and those who traded in cloth, and upon which the labouring classes of the north depended for their meagre sustenance.

But the story does take place around Christmas, and it is the feeling that people ought to have a decent dinner on such a day, some warmth, something to feel hopeful about that gives rise to the action of the story. What shall this middle class family do, if anything, to help the Lancashire cottonworkers of the area? Is it in good taste for the family to have an expensive wedding and the bride a luxurious dress when all around them others starve. While Trollope condemns the phoniness of the sentiment when what was going on was sheer selling for selling's sake (commercialism) Trollope said writing Christmas stories was justified if the author felt a desire to communicate kindness and charity for real.

Here his subject is "Charity. What is its true nature? Is it even justified?" The American character in this story, Frederic Frew, a businessman, is against charity. Bad for the poor. (Presumably a proto-1950s American republican. Welfare is no good as it discourages the poor from working and rising in life.)

The story's title alludes to Mark 12:42-4:

"And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing.

And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury:

For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want cast in all that she had, even all her living."

As the story opens we are told the American civil war has led to the Lancashire cotton workers losing their jobs and as it has gone on for some time they are now beginning literally to go without food, without warmth, without clothes, and some are nearly starving. They have been laid off as there is no cotton to work upon, but as Trollope develops the story there seems to be little resentment against the war against by the people it's hurting. (It has been suggested they identified with the slaves.) The heroine, Nora, wants to help her uncle, the Reverend Mr Granger, gather money to feed the workers, but she feels she wants to feel she's done something. It's not enough to give out of her superfluity; she wants to give up something she will miss. It may seem odd that she finds this difficult to do--but she is middle class, gentry, genteel -- and by the end of the story, has not pulled it off.

As Judy remarked, this 'problem' is one that seems to speak to some middle class people as important. To those who starve or are homeless, such a question is egocentric: the concern suggests that the middle class is more interested in its own feelings than in giving to those who are in need. Still this is the way the story is often read; when I assigned it to my classes, one girl gave a long talk about how when she was young, someone forced her to give up an expensive doll she liked to a cousin. She was told that wasn't charity at all as she didn't even need it. I'm afraid this little girl wasn't impressed.

Back to the story. How does Nora solve her problem? (Note it's her problem; the angle is taken focuses on Nora and not the starving people.) Well, what she tries to do is to give the money she was going to use to make herself expensive finery to wear on her wedding day to her uncle for the use of the cottonmill workers. She is about to be married and decides she will have a plain wedding, and she refuses to allow her American (and Unionist) husband-to-be to pay for the finery which he could do. I would liken Nora to the person with one pair of very fancy boots walking in the snow who sees someone with nothing on his feet. She gives up her boots up so she can feel the snow, although she has a small pair of ordinary shoes in her bag and is close to home where there's another pair of boots waiting for her.

What Nora discovers is she doesn't miss her very fancy boots at all, and -- and this is what is interesting about the story -- she doesn't get the uplift she had longed for. She thought it would make her feel good to walk through the snow shoeless ( to keep up my metaphor) or with inadequate shoes, but it somehow doesn't. This is the subtlest level of the story. Trollope suggests such a feeling is fleeting at best because luxurious goods are not what make us happy.

There's an anti-materialism at the heart of this story and perhaps this is what makes it an idealistic or Christmas story. This anti-materialism is figured forth for us in the closing scene of the wedding -- Nora does have a very plain one. Nora finds that she didn't need the finery. More: its absence is not only unimportant but actually adds to the beauty of the moment. The narrator underlines this moral lest we not pick it up:

"For myself [Trollope speaking as narrator within the story] I think they all looked more comfortable on that cold winter morning without the finery which would have been customary than they could have done without it. It had seemed to them all beforehand that a marriage without veils and wreaths, without white gloves nd new gay dresses, would be but a triste affair; but the idea passed away altogether when the occasion came. [The immediate family heads for church with the bridegroom with them, but said bridegroom], Frederick F Frew had met with a rebuff in the hall of the Parsonage, in being forbidden to take his own bride under his own arm; but when the time for action came, he bore no malice, but went through the work manfully. On the whole, it was a pleasant wedding, homely, affectionate, full of much loving greeeting... this, at any rate, was certain, that the wedding clothes were not missed. When they all went down to their breakfast in the Parsonage dining-room, that little matter had come to be clean forgotten."

We might read the story as against turning something privately meaningful into an occasional for conspicuous consumption. In this moment Nora does feel the uplift she longed for. Her uplift is in her actual preference for the simple and for plain emotion, not in having deprived herself of some luxury. Nonetheless, we are left with some decent thought about the parable which Trollope also consciously emphasizes. Through the parable, he asks, Why was it necessary for Nora to "feel" deprived in order to feel her charity was charity? It seems to me that Trollope's text shows us this parable projects a very selfish kind of charity, one which is egoistic: Nora's feelings about her charity giving were were more important than the results of the charitable act: feeding hungry people, providing them with warmth and clothes.

The story is the usual multiperspective narrative typical of Trollope: we look at the characters as products of their class and type and nationality. Their attitudes reflect their situation in life and what cultural group they grew up in. Nora's cousin, Bob, suggests all the people in England, Scotland, and Ireland should simply not eat a Christmas dinner, take all the money saved, and hand that out. He is only momentarily non-plussed when he is told the problem is the Irish don't have a Christmas meal to give away: "They never have any in Ireland, Bob."

Charley, Nora's other cousin, takes her to task for not spending money on finery, for in her efforts to help the cottonworkers she will leave those who make clothes without work: "Charley condemned [Nora] altogether, pointing out that it was bad policy to feed the cotton spinners at the expense of the milliners."

The characters argue explicitly over how the wealthy in their community should go about giving to the poor: should they give charity or does this ruin the independent spirit of the workers? In the situation at hand this is an absurdity. It is said by the Newt Gingrich of the piece, Frederick Frew, Nora's bethrothed and an American, who we are told "trusts to syllogisms which are often false, instead of to the experience of his life and daily workings of his mind. Trollope tells us explicitly and through the use of heavy irony that our American Fred is wrong when he scorns charity givers as degrading the poor, that his analogy of "how dogs let other dogs starve and therefore we but follow nature if we do likewise to other people" is wrong, and that his idea "the widow would have done better to have invested her small capital in some useful trade," is a hilarious bit of anachronistic and here obtuse American capitalism. Trollope was not a Tory in his own time; he ran on the Liberal ticket.

Still, we are left to wonder if he is not telling us an important hard truth when he says of Nora's behavior and that of charity givers that they act so to make themselves feel good in comparison to others. All their acts are seen in a social context or against what others are feeling and saying Thus Nora worries terribly whether she is depriving her American fiance of something by not wanting to dress in finery while the workers starve. One of her sincerest motives for refusing to have the fancy wedding is simply guilt and discomfort when she thinks of their misery in comparison with her comfort. It simply seems to her wrong that she should be decked out in luxury while the others starve. The American civil war and the suffering it causes is also part of this social background. Nora's reluctance to appear so rich and her desire to act is in this way like the widow with her two mites. This is a richer finer understanding of Trollope's use of the parable than simply seeing him exemplifying the original flat story.

I realize that it's probable many people reading this story will simply take it as exemplifying the parable. Trollope wrote for the common reader and the thrust and sense of the text is continually about whether Nora is giving up enough. If the story means just this, then it would (I suggest) be fatuous and complacent. Ironically it would highlight the inadequacy of this (among many other) Biblical stories. Trollope shows Nora going round in endless circles in her desire to flagellate herself: she would be ostentatious in her charity were she to show up at her wedding in poor things but then that the people around her would accuse her of this, would not that be a form of flagellation?

The story ends with a wry ironic dialogue. The Rev Mr Granger (Nora's uncle) has gotten his wife to give her coals to the poor to help them keep warm. We are given to understand it's kind of cold in that wedding-breakfast room: "I say, isn't it cold, said Bob." Just before Nora and her new husband leave for their ship to go to America, Nora tells Mrs Granger: "I almost feel I have been wrong in thinking of it so much [the widow's mite]. It has cost me nothing [giving up the fancy wedding]. I tell you, aunt, that is is not easy ot be a widow with two mites." She tells this to her husband, but he counters with

"'And who can tell us... that it was not the same with the widow herself? She threw in all she had, but who can say that she suffered aught in consequence? 'It is my belief that all that is given in a right spirit comes back instantly, in this world, with interest.'

'I wish my coals would come back,' said Mrs Granger.

'Perhaps you have not given them in a right spirit, my dear.'

It was important to Trollope to write sincerely. He always detested lies. This makes writing a Christmas story for him difficult as at Christmas time there is even more pretense about ourselves than usual. In this story he delicately managed to bring out the elements in human nature that make for kindness and peace as well as the inabilty of these elements to make people purely or truly charitable. No one for a moment forgets self especially in comparison to other people.

Trollope's story is more complex on the surface than Dickens's A Christmas Carol. Frederick Frew would probably ask if the increase in charitable donations during the Christmas season when A Christmas Carol was first published made any fundamental effect on the lives of those who received the charity, and would point out that the gifts did not continue. Of course Trollope says this attitude towards charity is dense and selfish and wrong. But why we give, if we do, and what are feelings are about it, we are left to think about on our own.

Ellen Moody

Reply-To: trollope-l@egroups.com
Subject: [trollope-l] 'A Widow's Mite': About Charity

Hello all

I was very interested in Ellen's comments on Trollope's views on Christmas, and the view of charity he expresses in the short story The Widow's Mite.

Even though I've read this tale a few times now, I don't think I had really grasped the slightly self-indulgent side to Nora's guilty need to give her "two mites" until I read this post.

Ellen wrote

To those who starve or are homeless, such a question is egocentric: the concern suggests that the middle class is more interested in its own feelings than in giving to those who are in need.

This is very true, and expresses in a nutshell why Nora is doomed from the start to feel she has not given her "two mites" after all. The wedding finery which she gives up is not substance but abundance - really giving up her two mites would mean doing without essentials, like food and warmth, to help those who have nothing.

This question reminded me of the passage in Is He Popenjoy? where Mary objects to the laborious sewing of petticoats for the poor, and would prefer to give money for somebody else to sew the petticoats. I suspect that Nora would take the opposite view and be keen to sew the petticoats herself, pricking her fingers with the needle and drawing as much blood as possible.

But does this different reaction make either woman better than the other? Probably not. The poor people who need the petticoats will not care much who sewed them.

Really the story seems to show just how deeply the gulf between the haves and have-nots runs (sadly, this still holds true today as well as in Victorian times.) Even when Nora has given her 20, there will still be people going hungry -- it is only a drop in the ocean. She is still safe in her middle-class world.

I think "delicate" is the right word for the story - it is still relevant today to everybody giving to charities this Christmas, making the tale still very modern in some ways even though it is rooted in the American Civil War and the resulting poverty in England.

Bye for now
Judy Geater

Date: Sat, 23 Dec 2000
Reply- trollope-l@egroups.com
Subject: [trollope-l] "The Widow's Mite"

Judy asked

Does anybody know whether the publication of this story led to an upsurge in charity donations, as with A Christmas Carol?

I don't feel able to answer that, but when I was studying Victorian periodicals I did look at Good Words. It is absolutely a Christian magazine, perhaps meant for reading on the Sabbath, and therefore would be preaching to the converted. My guess would be that powerful though this story is, it probably did not have wide enough readership to influence people who didn't normally give to contribute (as did the Dickens' story).

I liked the sense of family conversation you gain from the story, where people talk to each other in familiar ways with comic references such as the use of "Amalekites".

Angela

To which Judy replied:

Thanks for this information, Angela. Studying Victorian periodicals must have been very interesting. I suppose that even though the audience for Good Words was limited, possibly the story may have encouraged the readers to give a little more to charity than they were planning to, with the emphasis it places on giving more than the donor can easily afford.

On another list (AmerBrit) we've just been reading another Trollope short story, "The Journey to Panama", which he wrote for a publication edited by the feminist publisher Emily Faithfull. That story takes the theme of an independent woman, so it is interesting to see how careful he was about tailoring each tale to the particular market he was writing for.

I liked the sense of family conversation you gain from the story, where people talk to each other in familiar ways with comic references such as the use of "Amalekites".

Yes, you seem to come in halfway through a conversation and immediately get that family feeling of teasing, backchat... and certain tensions beneath the surface!

Cheers
Judy Geater

As Judy had brought up A Christmas Carol which she was reading and posting with a group of people on Inimitable-Boz@Yahoo and on Trollope-l we were due to read Margaret Oliphant's "Library Window" (a wintry Ghost/Christmas story), I wrote the following comparison>

Re: Margaret Oliphant's 'Old Lady Mary': A Christmas Carol Reversed

I thought it might offer some food for thought to have a summary cum-commentary of Margaret Oliphant's 'Old Lady Mary', also a ghost story, also written for Christmas, as a kind of reverse Christmas Caro. It seems to me to contain just the same sort of half-cheer, half-melancholy as Trollope's "A Widow's Mite".

The story: a very old lady, 'Old Lady Mary', who is very rich and alone, takes the daughter of a distant cousin, nearly a child, without anyone else to turn to, into her house. She is all that can be loving and tender and good to the child as she brings her up. She is told that she must make a will out which will leave her money to young Mary, but cannot get herself to do it. She cannot face the reality she will die, has always herself been because of her wealth sheltered. (like Austen's Mr Woodhouse in Emma). Lady Mary resents advice, and avoids the lawyers by playfulness. She does however write a codicil, leaving everything to the girl, but she hides it away.

She dies, and the young girl is left desolate.

Thus the story opens. It then takes us through the young girl's fear, loss, humiliations at the hands of the family who takes over Lady Mary, her guardian's house -- they don't mean to hurt her, but they put her in her place. She is now their servant. At the very end of the story we are told it was finally found, but that is in a coda and is not important. What's important is the story is told from the point of view of Old Lady Mary after she has died -- when she is a ghost, trying to make contact and reparation, retrieval is too late. Her presence is felt but the human beings act towards her frivolously, foolishly. Ghosts make them uncomfortable.

Oliphant has some fun gently mocking the way ghosts are treated in stories.

The curious effect is to make us believe in Lady Mary as a ghost; to take her seriously. This is no silly story for people who want titillation or reassurance.

These are certainly besides the point to Lady Mary who is desperate to make contact with the young Mary. But, she supposes that she wants more than emotional catharsis, forgiveness, and release. She wants to help her. (Think Tiny Tim.) She wants more than to compensate; she wants to retrieve, to make up for past mistakes, and finds she cannot make genuine contact. She has convinced herself her attempts her unselfish because there's the codicil to be found and then the young Mary will own the house where she is now a servant. But ghosts are laughed at or make people nervous. Their paraphernalia is absurd.

The climax of the story is in a obscure but precisely described vision of the young girl. From all her troubles and the disquiet and upset brought on by Lady Mary's efforts, the young Mary grows ill, and, as in a dream, for a split second thinks she sees Lady Mary who thinks she is seen. In that moment the girl holds out her hand and Lady Mary feels she has been forgiven. After all she discovers she needs no nothing more. That's it. We get a sense the young Mary and the old Lady Mary were face to face. But we are not sure. It might just be in the ghost's mind. Young Mary never fully explains what she feels because people would laugh, and she's not sure what she saw though she did from the beginning forgive & never hated her ex-guardian. She was taught by the old lady not to expect much.

The last line of the story is enigmatic: 'Everything is included in pardon and love'.

It's very delicately done. All the wintry imagery. Scenes of snow, of darkness, ice abound. Early in the story there's a remarkable moment in Lady Mary's consciousness when she realises she is dead. To me there is something in this which reveals a sentimentality in Dickens's performance in _A Christmas Carol_ -- or a complacent religion which Oliphant, a religious Scotswoman herself, didn't have.

As we all know the ghosts make contact with Scrooge, and he retrieves himself, and is re-formed and the story ends in pardon and love. "A Christmas Carol" is highly ununusual ghost story in that the ghosts are ultimately benevolent in purpose. It's a comforting parable. In comparison, 'Old Lady Mary' offers no certainty, and no sense of justice. The codicil is found by chance, and almost not found.

We are not told much about what happens afterwards except now the ghost leaves young Mary alone. Old Lady Mary rests because she is satisfied with her illusion of contact. We assume things get better for young Mary, but don't know. No one intervened before old Lady Mary died.

I admit the only place where I could see any contact with Trollope is in the lawyer. He is as sharp, saturnine and disillusioned as the lawyer in Orley Farm. As as ultimately well- meaning. On the other hand, Lady Mary when alive never listens to what she does not want to hear -- nor do the characters in "A Widow's Mite".

"Old Lady Mary" was itself not printed in a December/January number -- as were 'The Open Door', 'Lady's Walk', 'Portrait', 'Land of Darkness' (a powerful description of the worlds of the afterlife), and 'The Library Window'. It was first printed with these after a couple of them had been somewhat revised and expanded in a collection called Stories of the Seen and Unseen. I have not read them all, but 'The Open Door' and Earthbound' make a strong use of the world of winter: ice, snow, and the natural world outside the warmth of the probable and society are important to the effect of the tales. Nonetheless 'Old Lady Mary' seems to me clearly to belong to the set as a story for winter and Christmas even if Margaret Oliphant never did place it on its own.

Ellen Moody

Re: 'Old Lady Mary': A Christmas Carol Reversed

People may be wondering why I was moved to retell this story. I was wondering how Dickens's A Christmas Carol is understood today. I wish I could believe there was an increase in charitable donations among 19th century people after they read some of these Christmas stories but I don't. For 19th century people it seems the way they experienced Christmas was increasingly by participating in the marketplace for Christmas things -- Christmas experiences, Christmas stories. I agree with Trollope on the meretriciousness of this -- though I see much pathos here. Many people today experience Christmas in the mall and then by turning on their TV and watching a canned packaged gush-y show, or bywatching a film of people in old-fashioned clothes which works to make them feel emotional -- or by listening to "Christmas music. Of course the film adaptation changes the original, and we can see that of late the Victorian costumes and bric-a-brac are no longer thought necessary.

There is an argument that Oliphant's story is the sounder, truer story. At the close of the story the old and the young Marys are comforted: they are both at peace; they have know some sort of confused joy; they have been strengthened by the experiences of the story to carry on. But unlike Dickens's story, time is not retrieved. Is it, for example, probable that a man who led such a lonely life, was so embittered when young, has become so saturnine by now, can be re-formed? Is it probable that all can be retrieved. What about the submissive, sweet -- and terrified -- Crachits? Their fears are probable (loss of job, loss of child), but is anything else?

I have read that Dickens's story is a secularisation of the Christian myth. There is no one-on-one connection between the two stories or the figures. Is it the family picture? Those are not the elements that appeal in the popularity of another film of retrieval and hope, It's A Wonderful Life!, a Jimmy Stewart product, complete with a ghost. When I watch Alistair Sims's film I am deeply moved by scenes towards the close: for example, when the old man stands outside the door, manages to knock, sees a pretty young woman, and then openly asks her, Can she forgive an old foolish man? And she does, and there is he, dancing gayly away to the frail refrains. A touching tender moment.

Dickens knows his story is unreal: the chapters are not chapters but staves. It's a song with symbols for emotions in it. He is using the supernatural to get us to accept something highly improbable. His presentation of it is in a way far more of a caricature than Oliphant's. They take up far more space in the story. The anguish of the past is displaced into this realm -- as it is not in Oliphant. In Oliphant it is in real life too. I would say she takes the supernatural seriously in a way he doesn't because she leaves it so vague and it's not a bit picturesque.

It's odd that Dickens's story carries on having its power. It even lacks the gift-exchange and the tree -- though the latter has become the central problem of Christmas to most people. Maybe that's why it is appealing? A Christmas Carol is a fairy tale disguised by the techniques of verisimilitude. But is it taken as fairy tale? I remember back during Reagan's era when some social program or other was cut right around Christmas, someone who was against it made a reference to Bob Cratchit, and one of Reagan's top people, talked of how Cratchit had it good and should have been grateful. Frederick Frew is still with us.

Cheers to all,
Ellen

Here is what those who read "A Widow's Mite" wrote 3 years earlier; mine is an earlier version of the one made public above.

December 22, 1997

To Trollope List

Re: A Christmas Story: "The Widow's Mite" As I am having occasional outages, luck being what it is, I missed Jill's schedule for Christmas reading and instead simply read "The Unprotected Female" and "The Chateau" (on which see separately tomorrow evening). However, I very much appreciate Jill's attempt to repeat what we did last year on old Trollope, and hope no-one will mind if I repost one of the stories I posted on last year. Trollope wrote one masterpiece for Christmas, "Christmas at Thompson Hall," but I chose last year to write on "The Widow's Mite" because I liked the tone and mood of the story.

First last year on old Trollope Sig reminded us that Trollope did not much care for the kind of humbug to which Christmas can lend itself. To this I assented and commented that in Trollope's Autobiography he says he finds it the continual humbug and commercialization of Christmas (yes it was happening then) "distasteful." He says he dislikes when being paid to write Christmas stories. It makes him uncomfortable

"to have to give a relish of Christmas to what I write. I feel the humbug implied by the nature of the order. A Christmas story, in the proper sense, should be the ebullition of some mind anxious to instil others with a desire for Christmas religious thought, or Christmas festivities,--or better still, with Christmas charity. Such was the case with Dickens when he wrote his two first Christmas stories."

He makes Christmas the equivalent of a funeral when he talks of how he feels about the task of having to write a story "in the Christmas spirit":

"While I was writing The Way We Live Now, I was called upon by the proprietors of the Graphic for a Christmas story. I feel, with regard to literautre, somewhat as I suppose an upholsterer and understaker feels when he is called upon to supply a funeral."

In explaining that he dislikes the annual set nature of the task which makes the emotion meretricious he turns the storyteller into an undertaker who is seen as just as commercial as the undertake in Christmas Carol who explaining why he shows up so promptly after someone dies, "Ours is a commercial business, sir:"

"Alas! at this very moment I have one to write, which I promised to supply within three weeks of this time,--the picture-makers always require a long interval,--as to which I have in vain been cudgelling my brain for the last month. I can't send away the order to another shop, but I do not know how I shall ever get the coffin made."

And yet the story referred to is his best, a parody of pre-Christmas anxiety, "Christmas at Thompson Hall". I agree with Sig that it's a magnificent comic story.

I chose "A Widow's Mite" because it is one of Trollope's Christmas stories which does not take the Christmas celebration or festivities or time for its subject, although it takes place around Christmas, but rather a social dilemma--the American civil war and the suffering it is causing the Lancashire cottonworkers-- and a theme he deems appropriate, Christian charity. The story alludes to Mark 12:42-4:

"And there came a certain poor widow, and' she threw in two mites, which make a farthing.

And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury:

For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want cast in all that she had, even all her living."

As the story opens we are told the American civil war has led to the Lancashire cotton workers losing their jobs and as it has gone on for some time they are now beginning literally to go without food, without warmth, without clothes, and some are nearly starving. They have been laid off as there is no cotton to work upon, but as Trollope develops the story there seems to be little resentment against the war against slavery by the people it's hurting. The heroine, Nora, wants to help her uncle, the Reverend Mr Granger, gather money to feed the workers, but she feels she wants to feel she's done something. It's not enough to give out of her superfluity; she wants to give up something she will miss. It may seem odd that she finds this difficult to do--but she is middle class, gentry, genteel--and by the end of the story, has not pulled it off.

What she tries to do is to give the money she was going to use to make herself expensive finery to wear on her wedding day to her uncle for the use of the cottonmill workers. She is about to be married and decides she will have a plain wedding, and she refuses to allow her American (and Unionist) husband-to-be to pay for the finery which he could do. I would liken her to the person with one pair of very fancy boots walking in the snow who sees someone with nothing on his feet and give those boots up so she can feel the snow, even if either she has a small pair of ordinary shoes in her bag and is close to home or if at home there's another pair of boots waiting for her. What she discovers is she doesn't miss the very fancy boots at all, and--and this is what is interesting about the story--she doesn't get the uplift she had longed for. She thought it would make her feel good to walk through the snow shoeless ( to keep up my metaphor) or with inadequate shoes, but it somehow doesn't. This is the subtlest level of the story.

Trollope consciously meant the "Christmas mood" of the story or message for the average reader to inhere in the closing scene of the wedding in which Nora "learns" that she didn't need the finery, its absence is not only unimportant but actually adds to the beauty of the moment:

"For myself [Trollope speaks as narrator within the story] I think they all looked more comfortable on that cold winter morning without the finery which would have been customary than they could have done without it. It had seemed to them all beforehand that a marriage without veils and wreaths, without white gloves nd new gay dresses, would be but a triste affair; but the idea passed away altogether when the occasion came. [The immediate family heads for church with the bridegroom with them, but said bridegroom], Frederick F Frew had met with a rebuff in the hall of the Parsonage, in being forbidden to take his own bride under his own arm; bu twhen the time for action came, he bore no malice, but went thorugh the work manfully. On the whole, it was a pleasant wedding, homely, affectionate, full of much loving greeeting... this, at any rate, was certain, that the wedding clothes were not missed. when they all went down to their breakfast in the Parsonage dining-room, that little matter had come to be clean forgotten."

We might read the story as against turning something privately meaningful into an occasional for conspicuous consumption. In this moment Nora does feel the uplift she longed for. Her uplift is in her actual preference for the simple and for plain emotion, but we are left with something curious still which Trollope also consciously emphasizes. Through the parable referrred to above, he asks, Why was it necessary for Nora to "feel" deprived in order to feel her charity was charity? It seems an almost selfish kind of thing, as if her feelings about her charity giving were more important than the charity (feeding hungry people, providing them with clothes) itself.

The story is the usual multiperspective narrative typical of Trollope: we look at the characters as products of their class and type (profession, each man is given a different profession) and nationality (Nora marries an American). Nora's cousin, Bob, suggests all the people in England, Scotland, and Ireland should simply not eat a Christmas dinner, take all the money saved, and hand that out. He is only momentarily non-plussed when he is told the problem is the Irish don't have a Christmas meal to give away: "They never have any in Ireland, Bob." Charley, Nora's other cousin, takes her to task for not spending money on finery, for in her efforts to help the cottonworkers she will leave those who make clothes without work: "Charley condemned [Nora] altogether, pointing out that it was bad policy to feed the cotton spinners at the expense of the milliners." The characters argue explicitly over how the wealthy in their community should go about giving to the poor: should they give charity or does this ruin the independent spirit of the workers? In the situation at hand this is an absurdity, and it is said by the Newt Gingrich of the piece, Frederick Frew, Nora's bethrothed and an American, who we are told "trusts to syllogisms which are often false, instead of to the experience of his life and daily workings of his mind. Trollope tells us explicitly and through the use of heavy irony that our American Fred is wrong when he scorns charity givers as degrading the poor, that his analogy of "how dogs let other dogs starve and therefore we but follow nature if we do likewise to other people is wrong," and that his idea "the widow would have done better to have invested her small capital in some useful trade," is hilarious bit of anachronistic and here obtuse American capitalism.

But we are left to wonder if he is not telling us a cynical hard truth when he says of Nora's behavior and that of charity givers that they act so to make themselves feel good. Nora worries terribly whether she is depriving him of something by not wanting to dress in finery while the workers starve. One of her sincerest motives for refusing to have the fancy wedding is simply guilt and discomfort. It simply seems to her wrong that she should be decked out in luxury while the others starve. The American civil war and the suffering it causes also forms part of the background of Nora's reluctance to appear so rich and her desire to act like the widow with her two mites.

The story ends with a wry ironic dialogue. The Rev Mr Granger (Nora's uncle) has gotten his wife to give her coals to the poor to help them keep warm. We are given to understand it's kind of cold in that wedding-breakfast room: "I say, isn't cold, said Bob." Just before Nora and her new husband leave for their ship to go to America, Nora tells Mrs Granger: "I almost feel I have been wrong in thnking of it so much [the widow's mite]. It has cost me nothing [giving up the fancy wedding]. I tell you, aunt, that is is not easy ot be a widow with two mites." She tells this to her husband, but he counters with

"'And who can tell us... that it was not the same with the widow herself? She threw in all she had, but who can say that she suffered aught in consequence? 'It is my belief that all that is given in a right spirit comes back instantly, in this world, with interest.'

'I wish my coals would come back,' said Mrs Granger.

'Perhaps you have not given them in a right spirit, my dear.'

An happy ambiguous Christmas message from Trollope.

Ellen Moody

From: hansenb@frb.gov
Date: Tue, 23 Dec 1997
Subject: Short Stories - Misunderstandings
To: trollope-l@teleport.com

Robert, I don't think you need worry about Americans on this list being bothered by the likes of Frederick F. Frew.

Ellen, thank you for the essay on "The Widow's Mite", and especially on how ambiguous the moral seems to be. I agree with the part about Nora giving to make herself feel good, and would answer by pointing out that the same book giving us the original poor widow story also tells us to give anonymously rather than openly. Giving up one's wedding dress is a very public and ostentatious act. Maybe Trollope tells us that such public giving is not in the right spirit.

Bart
hansenb@frb.gov

In reponse to Bart's posting:

Yes I agree this is part of the story. Consider Nora's thought about her desire to appear less than sumptuous on her wedding day: "Would there not be an ostentation in her widowhood?"

Ellen


The Gates, Central Park, Winter 2004, Christo and Jeanne-Claude


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