Christmas at Thompson Hall
Those of you who have read Anthony Trollope’s novels know that he is a master of the art of character creation. Each of the people who populate his novels have distinct personalities that bring them alive to the reader and draw them into his world. With a short story, however, I wondered if Trollope’s fine skills would hold up using a smaller palette. And so I began to read Christmas at Thompson Hall with a somewhat apprehensive curiosity.
Instead of being set in England as the reader might suspect, we meet Mr. and Mrs. Brown who are an English couple wintering in the south of France as they do every winter season, however this year they have received an invitation to spend Christmas at Thompson Hall in Stratford among Mrs. Brown’s relatives and her sister in particular who is preparing to be wed. Mr. Brown is not pleased at the thought of travel but Mrs. Brown will not be deterred, and they set off on their journey. Yet Mr. Brown is not to be easily placated nor does any carefree nature rise to the surface as he begins to complain of the distance and the inconvenience and the cold and finally his sore throat and sickness in his head that he certainly would not have contracted if they’d stayed in the south. While Mrs. Brown sympathizes with her aggravating husband, she is not to be waylaid and will do everything to ensure a return to her relatives. Upon reaching Paris though, she makes the mistake of trying too hard to appease her husband’s wishes.
‘“I’ll tell you what you can do,” he said very hoarsely. His voice was so bad now that she could hardly hear him. So she crept close to him, and bent over him. She would do anything if he would only say what. Then he told her what was his plan. 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 As he left the room he had observed that this had not been withdrawn with the other appurtenances of the meal.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.’
The comedy that ensues from Mrs. Brown’s nightly jaunt will keep you chuckling through the story, as mistake piles upon mistake and impossibility upon impossibility. And no sooner have the Browns escaped their Paris foibles than they have a surprise upon reaching Thompson Hall greater than they could have imagined.
Trollope focuses on the dignity of an English matron in contrast to the situation abroad. If Mrs. Brown had only sacrificed her English decorum and respectability and directly approached the truth, the ensuing calamities could have been prevented. It is indeed a story set around Christmastime but Trollope certainly plays on the differences of gender and culture to craft this tale. Only he could take an English matron in France and a jar of mustard and devise a short story well worth the read!