On Christmas Day, I read a charming little story by Anthony Trollope called “The Mistletoe Bough.” Ironically, Trollope’s frequent admission of fictionality in his narratives usually couples with some of the most realistic characters in nineteenth-century fiction. And I certainly found this true in “The Mistletoe Bough.” The story begins with a gentle argument between mother and daughter, and the narrator says after just a few lines, “The point in dispute was one very delicate in its nature, hardly to be discussed in all its bearings, even in fiction.” Even in fiction. If characters on stage break the fourth wall, what do characters in a book break? The cover?
The subject of the argument? Whether to hang mistletoe in the dining room of Thwaite Hall for the holiday visit of some young acquaintances of the Garrow family. Mrs. Garrow is for it, her daughter Elizabeth against it. It seems that Bessy (as her friends call her, and I consider myself a friend) has broken an engagement with one of the coming guests, Mr. Godfrey Holmes. So naturally she doesn’t want to find herself in an embarrassing situation at dinner one evening.
You can call the end of that story right now, and its predictable sweetness would be too precious, except for the reason Trollope gives Bessy for breaking the engagement. Bessy has decided not to be “vapid, silly, and useless” like most girls but instead to lead a life of religious purpose, which involves, in her view, a great deal of self-denial. In Bessy’s mind, self-denial itself is the goal of a pious Christian life, so clearly she can’t marry the man who loves her and makes her so happy. (On the other hand, she takes it as an insult when her brother calls her a Puritan.) Trollope says it is as though she carries a fox under her tunic biting away at her just so she can have some suffering that she can stoically bear. Perhaps, like me, she has recently read Byron’s Manfred, and, inspired by the titular character, takes a morbid comfort in a self-inflicted punishment that can even go into Heaven. If so, it’s possible she should have done some other reading from my list for 2012. She could have learned from Peer Gynt that true Christian self-denial serves only to reveal the true self “with Master's intention displayed like a signboard.” Or maybe she could have read Descartes’s and William James’s searches for the self. Even better, Bessy, read Aquinas on ordinate and inordinate love!
I’ve known many, many believers whose most interesting characteristic consists of such venial heresies: eccentric beliefs that they hold proudly because by believing in them they feel especially spiritual. Trollope’s doctrinally passionate characters seem so utterly real to me, I sometimes think he openly declared them figments of his imagination just to keep their very nonfictional originals from complaining. In any case, slightly weird theologies make for such interesting drama, I wonder that more novelists haven't capitalized on the idea as much as Trollope did.
By the way, the last line of “The Mistletoe Bough” goes to an undramatic character: Kate, who must be one of the vapid, silly, and useless girls Bessy uses as a negative example, takes full advantage of the Mistletoe in partnership with Bessy’s brother, Harry.