Angela Thirkell, Christmas at High Rising
Anthony Trollope, The Christmas Stories
I had my heart set on the new Virago collection of Angela Thirkell's short stories as soon as I first read about it. I was lucky enough to get my copy last month, and I've been saving it for Christmas reading. The volume of Anthony Trollope's Christmas stories was part of a trove of Trollopes I found last year at a used-book store. I had set it aside for holiday reading as well, but though I did read some of the stories, in the hustle and bustle of packing for the unexpected move a year ago, I never finished it. Given the overlap in their stories of Barsetshire, it seemed right to be reading these two together for Christmas this year.
The Thirkell stories were not, contrary to my expectations, all Christmas stories. Nor are they all set in High Rising, the village that gives its name to the first of Thirkell's Barsetshire novels. Those that are set there feature Laura Morland, one of my favorite characters in the series. With Laura comes her school-boy son Tony. I know he is a favorite of many Thirkell fans, but I find him really exhausting - much as his mother and her friends do. At least here he comes in smaller doses than in the novels. Among the stories, I particularly enjoyed "Christmas at Mulberry Lodge," an account of a late-Victorian Christmas, which is probably autobiographical. It reminded me of Thirkell's memoir Three Houses. I also enjoyed the last, "A Nice Day in Town," published in 1942, which describes a day Laura Morland spends in war-time London, coping with crowds and the shortages of practically everything she hopes to buy.
The Trollope stories are one volume of five published by The Trollope Society, collecting all his short stories. This volume includes a forward by Joanna Trollope, and an Introduction by Betty Breyer. Both make it clear that Trollope was ambivalent about the kind of Christmas stories that came out every year in special holiday editions of magazines and papers. He refused to write "humbug" stories with just "a relish of Christmas." As he wrote in his Autobiography (which I seem to quote a lot), he wanted his stories "to instil others with a desire for Christmas religious thought or Christmas festivities - or, better still, Christmas charity." But there would be no Ghosts of Christmas, nor any Tiny Tims, in his stories. Actually, sometimes there isn't all that much of Christmas itself in his "Christmas" stories. "Catherine Carmichael: or, Three Years Running" is a very bleak story set in New Zealand, where the holiday marks the years a miserable, mistreated wife passes in what really amounts to a forced marriage. "Christmas at Thompson Hall" is about a wife dragging her husband home from France for a good old-fashioned family Christmas with her family at the Hall, but it's set mostly in a Paris hotel, where the wife is trying to get a mustard-plaster for her hypochondriac husband. "Not If I Know It:" concerns a brother spending the holiday with his sister and her husband; a casual question sets off a tiff that threatens to ruin Christmas for everyone. I could think of a couple of similar scenarios in past family Christmases. This volume also includes Trollope's only short story set in Barsetshire, "The Two Heroines of Plumplington."
I found one of the stories particularly interesting, because of its setting and its theme. In "The Widow's Mite," published in 1863, Nora Field is preparing for her marriage to a young American, Frederic Frew, who will take her home with him to Philadelphia and an America torn by the Civil War. (Frederic is apparently exempt from the Army.) Nora sees the effects of war daily, from her uncle's rectory in Cheshire, where mills are standing empty because no cotton is coming from the southern states. Her aunt and uncle are absorbed in relief work, raising funds simply to keep the mill hands in food and clothing. Nora has done what she can to help, out of her limited means, but she feels that she must do more, before she can leave her home for a new life in America. It is a serious consideration of true charity, of obeying the Scriptural commands to be generous in caring for those in need, particularly at Christmas. I liked and admired Nora for what she was trying to do. The story also of course allowed Trollope a few digs at America and Americans. He set another story in Civil War America, "The Two Generals," about a family in Kentucky divided over the war. This undoubtedly drew on his experiences touring the United States in 1861, which he chronicled in North America.
These two books made perfect Christmas reading, and I know I'll come back to them again, particularly to Trollope, for his slightly acidic perspective on the holidays.