Anthony Trollope at Christmas.
Christmas is an appropriate time to read Trollope. The Victorian novelists popularised most of our Christmas customs. Everyone knows about Dickens and Christmas. But what about his contemporary, Trollope, who now bids fair to overtake him in the popularity stakes? Settle down with a Trollope novel in front of a good Christmas fire and the cares, confusions and absurdities of the twentieth century vanish into the flames. Cold and damp dissolve as you drift into a Barsetshire rectory or perhaps leap across a fence on a fictional fox hunt.
Trollope's literary success came slowly. Because he was both an author and an important official at the Post Office he had to follow a careful schedule which required a set number of pages each day. By this method he was able to write over 60 books. In the 1860s his wealth from writing provided a pleasant country house in Hertfordshire, Waltham House, which was well stocked with food, wine and servants. Success also gave full rein to his love of hospitality, particularly at Christmas. Every bedroom was full of guests, |young folk and folk who are not so very young'. They often stayed for a week.
Christmas began like any other day for Trollope. At dawn guests could hear the footsteps of Barney, the old Irish servant, who came up the stairs with a cup of coffee to awaken his master. If Trollope failed to heed this call, Barney was entitled to an extra five shillings in wages. After dressing and lighting a fire Trollope settled down to his current novel. Sometimes Christmas could delay even his rigid schedule. On 25 December, 1865 he only managed to write three pages of his novel Nina Balatka, a novel set in Prague with the rather un-Trollopian plot, the love of a Catholic girl for a Jewish merchant. His schedule called for four pages each day, but he made it up in the next few days and finished the book on New Year's Eve less than two months after starting it. Once he had put aside his current fiction, he was still not finished with his daily writing. Even on Christmas day, there were letters to publishers or to people who had complained about the postal service. On his first Christmas at Waltham House, he wrote to one publisher saying that he had been over-paid by 3 [pounds]. It is unlikely that any other writer in history ever wrote such a letter on Christmas!
Part of Trollope's Christmas morning would be spent at church. Because he did not shout about his deep Christian faith, many people have failed to see that it underpinned his whole life. Those who knew Trollope well, such as his vicar or his friend George Eliot knew that he was a devout Anglican with moderately high church views. In his last Christmas tale Not if I Know it, published a few weeks after his death, he described his attitude towards the Communion Service: it was, he wrote, |more powerful with its thoughts than its words'.
When he came back from church, he could entertain his guests. Like most people, his Christmas celebrations were based on his recollections of his youth. Thus he had little interest in Christmas trees, which were only popularised when he was in his thirties. From his mother, who was also a successful novelist, Trollope inherited the idea that roast beef and Christmas pudding were the essential ingredients of the holiday meal. A turkey was normally available as well. The cook and the undercook, usually a young girl, would be busy preparing quantities of traditional English fare. No fashionable dabs of the latest French cuisine rested on the mahogany of Waltham House. Trollope, who took a great interest in the quality of the meat on his table, would have been to his butcher's to order it personally. As many vegetables as possible would come from the large gardens and greenhouses at Waltham House. The fruit bowls overflowed with exotic delights for children although not all the children were impressed. One young boy, invited for the holidays when his parents were abroad in the diplomatic service, picked up a banana and announced, |At school that's the cheapest grub we can buy!' At dinner Trollope had a notable appetite, as befitted a fifteen stone man who never ate lunch. |You seem to have a good appetite, Mr. Trollope' commented one lady. |Not at all, madam, but thank God I am very greedy.'
Guests did not go away thirsty although their host might wince if he saw some less hearty souls squirt soda-water into his favourite claret, Chateau Leoville, |which I regard as the most divine of nectars'. A few days after his last Christmas in 1881, he wrote to his son Henry: |I wish you to consider the wine lying in the two further binns as your own ... There are at present 24 dozen in each ... The Leoville cost 72s. a dozen and the Beycheville 54s.' Trollope was fortunate to live in an era when the price of good clarets fell! The Christmas meal had to finish to allow several hours for the card games that Trollope loved, particularly |commerce'. The host or an older guest would suddenly startle the children by appearing as a ghost.
Trollope took the old idea of the twelve days of Christmas quite literally. The feasting and entertaining went on into January. In the 1860s, when his two sons were young men, he liked to arrange a Christmas ball. Invitations were spread far and wide, particularly to young girls. When he invited his niece's governess, he told her to bring her younger sister, Nelly Ternan, even thouch he must have known that she was Dickens' mistress. Any acquaintances who were on their own were particularly welcomed to the festivities. In 1863, William Glenn, a Maryland journalist who had fled to London after being imprisoned for opposing Lincoln's government, was invited for Christmas and asked to stay for the fox-hunting. He was squeezed into the 'togs' of Trollope's younger son Fred so that the American was resplendent as he leapt across the notorious ditches of Essex. Glenn had only one complaint. In his diary, while noticing that almost all English houses lacked a smoking room in the mid-1860s, he commented that 'even Anthony Trollope in his snug little house only smoked in an outhouse, beyond the kitchen'. Rose Trollope insisted that her husband and his friends smoke outside the house. Modern medical research has now shown the wisdom of Rose's prejudice against polluting her house with foul fumes. Her husband's Christmas guests could select a cigar from a huge rack which held hundreds of choice Havanas in Trollope's library and then wander into the garden to chat about politics or books.
A large part of Boxing Day was usually devoted to hunting. Once again guests might be awakened not only by the dawn call to work, but by their host's singing of hunting songs or his loud shouts for missing clothes: |Mrs. Sock where have you got to? Now Mr. Top Boot where is your twin?' Both his sons were hunters as well and the Essex Hunt could never decide whether Trollope or his son Henry had tumbled into more ditches. Even at his enthusiastic pursuit of the fox, the novelist was at work. Any incident that could be used in a novel was scribbled into a small notebook. Glenn saw his host's joy when another hunter's fall knocked down the top rail of a fence. |A damned good thing you did for us,' shouted the leaping Trollope to the upset man. A few days later, this incident, without the |damn', found its way into his current novel, Can You Forgive Her? As Trollope and his guests came back to Waltham House after a hunt, they could be sure that Rose was seeing that mounds of hot toast would be ready for the hungry huntsmen.
Trollope was rare among the great Victorian novelists in having a happy family life, with Rose, his two sons, Henry and Fred, and a niece, Florence Bland, whom he adopted. The Victorian era was the golden age of the family. Everything centred on family life and authors were expected to extoll it, particularly at Christmas. Most writers, including Trollope, found it difficult to turn out Christmas sentiment in short stories written in the heat of the summer. The easiest ploy was to take a plot and transfer it to Christmas. Most of Trollope's story, Christmas at Thompson Hall, occurs in a Parisian hotel where a wife wanders into the wrong bedroom and places a mustard plaster on a sleeping stranger rather than her ill husband. The seasonal flavour needed for the story comes from the fact that the characters are on their way to England for Christmas. In December, 1863, when Glenn came to Waltham House he must have noticed the magazine Good Words with his host's story The Two Generals. Here Trollope used the true story of two sons of a prominent American politician who fought on opposite sides in the Civil War. He added a love plot and stirred in some seasonal flavour by setting the story at the last Christmas of peace and then at another one in the midst of war.
Introducing Christmas into novels was much easier. A seasonal episode could be stuck into a novel published in serial form as easily as in its modern descendants |the Archers' or |Emmerdale Farm'. Trollope's best use of this is in Orley Farm, which describes Christmas at four houses. One belongs to a man called Moulder, a crass materialist who feasts without knowing what he is celebrating. His only concern is to see that his butcher gives him the biggest turkey and that it receives a daily wipe of vinegar for a fortnight. His Christmas dinner is a business meal punctuated by attacks upon religion. In one of the harshest sentences in all his writing, Trollope exclaims: |Such is the modern philosophy of the Moulders, pigs out of the sty' of paganism.
We see a far different Christmas at a judge's home called Noningsby, where guests enjoy the tables groaning with food because they know what they are celebrating. The games culminate in |blindman's buff at quarter past three, and snap-dragon at five'. Trollope's nephew recalled that |Uncle Tony' loved these same games as well as cheating at cards -- to make sure that the children won. He was delighted that Millais did the illustrations for Orley Farm and in one, the artist had a little joke: the blind-folded and portly figure taking part in these games is almost certainly Trollope himself.
Trollope revelled in old English customs and often introduced them into his Christmas stories. He was always a determined enemy to anyone who invented religious reasons to suppress enjoyment. In The Mistletoe Bough, a girl persuades her mother not to hang the white and green branches. For Trollope, this was the worst side of Victorian prudery: |The world is changed' he bemoaned. |Kissing is less innocent now than it used to be when our grandmothers were alive, and we have become more fastidious in our amusements.'
However, he argued that old customs should be abandoned when they grew absurd. In a short novel set at his younger son's Australian sheep station, Harry Heathcote of Gangoil, Trollope wonders why in that |happy land the Christmas fires are apt to be lighted, or to light themselves, when they are by no means needed'. After the toast, |Our friends at home', vast Christmas puddings were borne into the room. Their blaze only added to the heat where |one could hardly bear a shirt on one's shoulders'. Yet all eyes are moist as the pudding reminds them of the |old country'. This may seem sentimental now but Trollope was writing for people like himself who had to wait two months for a letter from Australia and who wanted to know how people lived. On Christmas day, 1882, Fred Trollope took some time off from his sheep to write to his father in England. He did not know when he wrote that his father had died almost three weeks before.
Unlike any other Victorian writer, Trollope influenced the English Christmas in other ways than by his writing: he played an important role in improving postal services. Anyone who drops a Christmas card into a pillar box can thank Anthony Trollope for it was he who introduced them in 1851. In addition, his arrangement of postal routes was so efficient that a friend in Scotland could post him a letter on Christmas Day and he could open it in Hertfordshire on Boxing Day.
Yet for Trollope, Christmas meant more than gigantic sirloins, vast puddings, choice clarets, seasonal stories or swiftly delivered messages. It was the time to celebrate the family and Christianity. |For those who have managed that things shall run smoothly over the domestic rug there is no happier time of life than those long candlelight hours of home and silence. No spoken content or uttered satisfaction is necessary. The fact that it is felt is enough for peace.' Anthony Trollope traced this blessing and all others in life to the first Christmas and in his usual, unadorned manner he left us in no doubt of his own firm belief: |Christ came to us, and we do not need another teacher'.
[Richard Mullen is the author of Anthony Trollope: A Victorian in His World and the editor of the recently published anthology The Sayings of Anthony Trollope (both published by Duckworth).]
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|Title Annotation:||Victorian novelist|
|Date:||Dec 1, 1992|
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