I do like a Christmassy read – at this time of year – but with the weirdly warm and horribly wet weather in the UK, I needed some help in feeling at all Christmassy. Christmas at Thompson Hall & other Christmas stories looked like just the thing.
These Penguin Christmas Classics are gorgeous – and I found myself seriously tempted by them last year. This year I gave in, treating myself to this collection of five stories by Anthony Trollope. There are four more books in this lovely little series, and I think there’s a high probability of my buying the rest of them in time for next Christmas.
The collection put together just last year, but written in the late nineteenth century – comprises stories which humorously depict the English middle or upper classes of the nineteenth century. Told with Trollope’s familiar wit, they proved perfectly suited to my seasonal reading as they are traditionally Christmassy without being unpleasantly sentimental.
My favourite story, because it made me laugh – was definitely Christmas at Thompson Hall – the Thompson Hall of the title being the destination of Mrs Brown and her husband. The couple having spent several years living abroad – are on their way back to Mrs Brown’s family home in England. Mr Brown is a very reluctant traveller – his tendency to hypochondria making him not want to travel any further than the Parisian hotel where they have broken their journey. Mrs Brown however is eager to reach Thompson Hall on Christmas Eve as she has promised, where she will meet for the first time her younger sister’s future husband. While Mr Brown makes as much as he can of a sore throat – Mrs Brown does what she can to ease her husband’s suffering. Going in search of a pot of mustard with which to make Mr Brown a mustard plaster for his throat leads to toe-curling embarrassment and a hilarious coincidence.
“He had been lying on his back, with his lips apart, and as she held back his beard, that and her hand nearly covered the features of his face. But he made no violent effort to free himself from the encounter. He did not even move an arm or leg. He simply emitted a snore louder than any that had come before. She was aware that it was not his wont to be so loud – that there was generally something more delicate and perhaps more querulous in his nocturnal voice, but then the present circumstances were exceptional. She dropped the beard very softly – and there on the pillow before her lay the face of a stranger. She had put the mustard plaster on the wrong man.”
Gentle romance and misunderstanding is the theme of both Christmas at Kirkby Cottage and The Mistletoe Bough. Victorian conventions and buttoned up emotions mean the heroines in these two stories very nearly mess things up for themselves. Both these stories are nicely Christmassy with descriptions of Christmas decorations, snowy weather, gifts to the poor and the entertainment of visitors for Christmas. Both these two stories along with the first and fifth stories in the collection – are all very similar in theme – essentially English families at Christmas.
The Three Generals is definitely the story which stands out from this little collection. Here we dispense with the upper echelons of British Victorian society – as Trollope tells the story of a family torn apart by the American Civil War.
“Marriage now, as things stood at this Christmas time, could not be thought of even by Tom Reckenthorpe. At last he promised that if he were then alive he would be with her again, at the old family house in Frankfort, on the next Christmas day. So he went, and as he let himself out of the old house Ada, with her eyes full of tears, took herself up to her bedroom.
During the year that followed – the year 1861 – the American war progressed only as a school for fighting. The most memorable action was that of Bull’s Run, in which both sides ran away, not from individual cowardice in either set of men, but from that feeling of panic which is engendered by ignorance and inexperience. Men saw wagons rushing hither and thither, and thought that all was lost. After that the year passed in drilling and in camp-making – in the making of soldiers, or gunpowder, and of cannons. But of all the articles of war made that year, the article that seemed easiest of fabrication was a general officer.”
A father his two sons, his ward Ada; engaged to the elder brother come together at Christmas as the war rumbles on. Each brother has taken a different side in the war – Ada is a Yankee – but she feels loyalty to her confederate lover, much to the disgust of the younger brother – who loves Ada himself.
The final story, Not if I know it, is the shortest story in the collection – and definitely the least impressive. Another upper middle class family, another Christmas, a small family argument, hurt feelings which culminate in everybody realising the error of their ways.
All in all I loved this collection – which served to remind me I still have four of the wonderful Barsetshire Chronicles left to re-read. Trollope is such a good storyteller – like Galsworthy I think – he remains very readable even today.