Christmas at Thompson Hall and Other Christmas Stories by Anthony Trollope

Last December I couldn’t resist buying a couple of these lovely Penguin Christmas Classics with their beautiful covers and decorative endpapers – they make wonderful gifts. Christmas at Thompson Hall & Other Christmas Stories – my first read in the series – brings together five short stories by Anthony Trollope, all with a seasonal theme. Shot through with the author’s customary insight into the dynamics of human relationships, these stories mostly depict the English middle classes and gentry of the Victorian era, their lives governed by the social conventions of the time.

trollope

The book opens with the titular story, which happens to be one of the strongest pieces in the collection. Having grown accustomed to spending their winters in the South of France, Mr and Mrs Brown are travelling back to England for a family gathering at Thompson Hall in Stratford. Mrs Brown’s younger sister is to be married, and this will be the couple’s first opportunity to meet the girl’s fiancé in person. With her fondness for the traditions of the season, Mrs Brown is eager to get to Thompson Hall in time for Christmas Eve. Her husband, however, seems reluctant to make the trip for fear of aggravating his weak chest and throat, a condition which prompts the couple to break their journey to spend the night in Paris. When his wife asks him if there is anything she can do to relieve his suffering, Mr Brown identifies just the thing – the application of a mustard compress to the throat is sure to be of great help. (As it turns out, Mr B is something of a hypochondriac.)

Down in the salon he had seen a large jar of mustard standing on a sideboard. As he left the room he had observed that this had not been withdrawn with the other appurtenances of the meal. If she could manage to find her way down there, taking with her a handkerchief folded for the purpose, and if she could then appropriate a part of the contents of that jar, and returning with her prize, apply it to his throat, he thought that he could get some relief, so that he might be able to leave his bed the next morning at five. “But I am afraid it will be very disagreeable for you to go down all alone at this time of night,” he croaked out in a piteous whisper.

“Of course I’ll go,” she said. “I don’t mind going in the least. Nobody will bite me,” and she at once began to fold a clean handkerchief. “I won’t be two minutes, my darling, and if there is a grain of mustard in the house I’ll have it on your chest immediately.” (pp. 7-8)

What follows is a hilarious sequence of white lies, misunderstandings and coincidences, all of which culminates in a most embarrassing predicament for Mrs Brown. To say any more might spoil the story – this is a wonderful piece, one that makes an excellent introduction to the collection.

Christmas Day at Kirkby Cottage is a beautifully observed story of the dynamics between two young lovers who are drawn together over the festive season. While Isabel Lownd, the daughter of the household, and Maurice Archer, a ward of the family, clearly have feelings for one another, a disagreement over their respective views of Christmas leads to a bit of an impasse. One of the joys of this piece is the interplay between Isabel and Maurice as they try to hold their respective positions, hiding their true feelings for one another in the process.

Why had Isabel made herself so disagreeable, and why had she perked up her head as she left the room in that self-sufficient way, as though she was determined to show him that she did not want his assistance? Of course, she had understood well enough that he had not intended to say that the ceremonial observance of the day was a bore. He had spoken of the beef and the pudding, and she had chosen to pretend to misunderstand him. He would not go near the church. And as for his love, and his half-formed resolution to make her his wife, he would get over it altogether. If there were one thing more fixed with him than another, it was that on no consideration would he marry a girl who should give herself airs. (p. 77)

This is a gentle story of misunderstandings, pride, generosity and the true spirit of Christmas, another fine addition to the collection.

The Mistletoe Bough has much in common with the previous piece, set as it is in the home of another English family coming together over the festive season. Central to the story are two young sweethearts, Elizabeth Garrow, and her former fiancé, Godfrey Holmes. Some months earlier, a disagreement between the pair caused their brief engagement to come to an end; nevertheless, Elizabeth remains very much in love with Godfrey even if she refuses to admit it. Once again, Trollope illustrates his skills in portraying the dynamics of human relationships. I particularly like Trollope’s depiction of the women in these stories as he seems genuinely interested in their thoughts and feelings. Here’s a short quote from a conversation between the couple in question – Godfrey is the first to speak.

“In marriage should not the man and woman adapt themselves to each other?”

“When they are married, yes; and every girl who thinks of marrying should know that in very much she must adapt herself to her husband. But I do not think a woman should be the ivy, to take the direction of every branch of the tree to which she clings. If she does so, what can be her own character?” (p. 148)

While the outcome of this story is somewhat predictable, it is nevertheless an engaging read.

The Two Generals is rather different from the other pieces in this collection. Set in Kentucky in the early 1860s, this is the story of a family fractured by the divisions of the American Civil War. It features a father and his two sons: Tom, the elder of the boys, a Southern gentleman who has profited from the presence of slave labour on his land; and Frank, the younger son, a member of the National Army and supporter of the North. The two brothers end up joining opposing sides in the war – Tom for the Confederacy, Frank for the Union – a situation which creates significant tension within the family. (Tom has already claimed that he will not hesitate to shoot his own brother should he come face to face with him on the battlefield.) Furthermore, both brothers are in love with the same woman, Ada Forster, a distant relative of the family who also happens to live in their house. Somewhat surprisingly given her Yankee sympathies, Ada is engaged to Tom; Frank, with his strong conviction to the principles of the Union, remains ever hopeful of winning her hand. To a certain extent, the narrative plays out as the brothers return home over successive Christmases while the war continues to rage on their doorstep. This is an excellent story, one of the highlights here.

The book closes with Not If I Know It, the shortest and least memorable piece in the collection. It centres on a disagreement between two brothers-in-law, something that could have been resolved fairly quickly and easily. Once again, misunderstandings, unnecessary pride and bruised feelings all play a role here, but in this instance the characters seem thinly sketched compared to those in the other stories.

Overall, this is a most enjoyable collection, one that would make a fine introduction to Trollope’s style. Ali has also reviewed this book here.

Christmas at Thompson Hall & Other Christmas Stories is published by Penguin Books.

39 thoughts on “Christmas at Thompson Hall and Other Christmas Stories by Anthony Trollope

  1. heavenali

    This is a good introduction to Trollope although I had already read a lot of Trollope when I bought it. I recently bought it for a friend who hasn’t read Trollope before. I love Christmas stories at this time of year and this collection was perfect last year. The title story and the Two Generals are especially memorable.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I’m with you on the titular story and The Two Generals – they’re the standout pieces for sure although I also really enjoyed The Mistletoe Bough. This was my first experience of Trollope, and I thought the stories worked very well as an introduction to his style.

      Reply
    2. JacquiWine Post author

      I meant to say Christmas Day at Kirkby Cottage, not The Mistletoe Bough (as those two stories are quite similar I keep mixing them up in my mind!). Well, I liked them all, except perhaps the final story which just felt a bit weak and thinly sketched compared to the others. I wondered if it had been a late addition to lengthen the collection a little bit.

      Reply
  2. Brian Joseph

    I have not read these stories. As you know I generally love Trollope.

    You wrote about Christmas Day at Kirkby Cottage- “this a gentle story of misunderstandings, pride, generosity”. That seems true of so much Trollope.

    I may try to sneak this collection in before the end of December.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I do indeed, and your reviews definitely played a part in encouraging me to give him a go. It’s interesting, even though this was my first experience of Trollope, something about the stories felt very familiar, almost as though I was revisiting an old friend. My impressions of his themes certainly chimed with some of the things you have talked about in your reviews. In particular, I was struck by Trollope’s portrayal of the women in these stories. He seems genuinely interested in their welfare and inner thoughts, more so than I had expected. Misunderstandings, maintaining face and wounded pride are running themes here, for sure – nearly all of the stories touch on these aspects in one form or another. Christmas Day at Kirkby Cottage really highlights the importance of generosity at this time, so often overlooked in the all-consuming whirl of activity that takes place – and it’s a beautiful story to boot. I hope you do manage to sneak this collection into the mix before the year end – would love to hear your thoughts on it.

      Reply
  3. realthog

    I’ve read some Trollope, but not nearly enough and very long ago! This does sound like a tantalizing collection. I haven’t really been aware of him as a short-story writer — just known him for those whacking great big fat Barsetshire chronicles — so I ought to give something like this a try.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I wasn’t aware of these short stories either – well, not until Ali reviewed this collection last year! I’m not sure if he’s written any other non-Christmassy stories, but I guess it’s highly probable given the existence of these pieces. As far as I know, this collection was only put together in 2014 as part of the Penguin Christmas Classics series. It’s a lovely little book, just perfect for the festive season.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, glad to hear you enjoyed it too. Yes, the first one is such a funny story – all that creeping around in the middle of the night in search of the mustard jar, not to mention what happens once she makes her way back upstairs. I doubt whether I’ll forget it in a hurry…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Aren’t they beautiful? And the end papers are very pretty as well. The people at Penguin have done such a great job with these little books.

      I hadn’t read Trollope before so this collection turned out to be a very good introduction. I’m sure I’ll go on to read a few of his novels at some point, maybe in another year or two.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I know what you mean about the length as it can feel like such a big commitment. I thought this was a pretty good selection: two standout stories, two good ones and only one filler (the final piece). That’s not bad going for a themed collection.

          Reply
  4. Naomi

    Oh, this would make a nice Christmas present! Hmm…
    I saw another book yesterday that also looked like it would make a good gift – Jeanette Winterson’s Christmas Days.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, yes. It’s perfect gift material as these Penguin Christmas Classics are so beautifully produced. I wasn’t aware of the Winterson – will keep an eye out for it.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh dear. What have you been reading? Mary Hocking’s In the Dead of Winter might be a good one to try as it takes place over Christmas. I think you’d really enjoy the characters!

      Do you have a favourite Trollope or a recommendation for which novel I should try next? (This was my first taste of his work.)

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Sounds great – I’ll add The Claverings to the list. Thanks. Just looked up A Very Russian Christmas: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov – yes, I can see why you might be struggling to get into the Christmas mood! Sounds like an interesting collection though…

          Reply
  5. Jeff

    The Two Generals seems an anomaly in what sounds like a comforting pair of slippers. I wonder what Victorians read at Christmas? Adventure and the Waverley novels no doubt. A bit of grunge in Dickens of course. Gothic horror!
    I should say that I don’t do Christmas though – not being Christian, traditionalist or consumerist. I get forced to take annual leave on days irrelevant to me. Why can’t the dates of bank holidays be chosen? Another subject! Maybe one for a polemical book?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! Yes, The Two Generals definitely stands out from the crowd in more ways than one. It’s quite an unusual story in the context of this collection – an excellent piece, though.

      Oh, gothic horror for the Victorians, definitely. I like a spot of that myself, especially when the nights are so long and dark. Maybe some of Edgar Allen Poe’s stories, they’re always a good bet.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re welcome. I enjoyed reading these stories in the run-up to Christmas, plus they were easy to fit around other activities when time was short.

      Cat’s Cradle – is that by Kurt Vonnegut? I’m not very good with science fiction, I must admit…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s interesting to hear. This was first experience of him, but I’m looking forward to reading more in the future. Do you have any suggestions of a good novel to try?

      Reply
  6. bookbii

    This sounds like a delightful collection, beautifully packaged and a perfect read for the festive season. I’ve been very tempted by all the beautiful books that pop up this time of year (but resisting purchase…mostly). Lovely review Jacqui.

    Reply
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  9. Moe Murph

    Oh, Jackie. This looks simply wonderful. After the disorienting horrors of the last several months, I just want to curl up by the fire with this book and some warm apple cider, with the scent of pine and fur from the evergreens enveloping me. Perhaps some hot chocolate later!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, this would make a delightful fireside companion, a return to simpler times when all that mattered were affairs of the heart. Wishing you all the best for the festive season. I hope it’s a peaceful one. :)

      Reply

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