'The Mistletoe Bough' by Anthony Trollope

Must a short story take the world by storm? Trollope doesn’t seem to think so: ‘The Mistletoe Bough’ is a rather gentle tale of a courtship taking an interesting turn around this festive time of year. It begins with a “very delicate” quandary, as the Garrow family wonder whether the branch of mistletoe should be “hung up on Christmas Eve in the dining-room”; they are expecting visitors, and Miss Garrow is desperately keen to avoid an embarrassment involving one of those visitors in particular. Namely, Godfrey Holmes, the young assistant manager of a bank in Liverpool, to whom she has been engaged, but is engaged no longer. 
 
Elizabeth’s younger brothers, unaware of the awkwardness, mock her as “my lady Fineairs” and “a Puritan” for her rejection of the mistletoe bough; the narrator concedes that she may have half a point, at least. “Kissing, I fear, is less innocent now than it used to be when our grandmothers were alive, and we have become more fastidious in our amusements.” 
 
Complications ensue that have little to do with Christmas. But there are some comical seasonal touches, and the whole concoction has a thoroughly, predictably Victorian charm, and (this is the personal part) offers some light respite to the reader who has been bitterly gorging on the short stories of Fleur Jaeggy, T. F. Powys and other reputable malcontents. Also: Trollope earns bonus points for deploying the term “the bump of philomartyrdom” in the incidental process of mocking the period’s phrenology craze.
 
First published in the Illustrated London News, Christmas Supplement, December 21, 1861. Reprinted in Tales of All Countries, second series, 1863. See also Early Short Stories, ed. John Sutherland, Oxford University Press, 1994

Chosen by Michael Caines. Michael works at the Times Literary Supplement and is founding editor of the Brixton Review of Books. He is the author of Shakespeare and the Eighteenth Century. You can read his full Personal Anthology and other seasonal contributions here. 

‘An Unmarried Man’s Summer’ by Mavis Gallant

Maybe the summer, if you want to be all seasonal about it, is a good time to open up Mavis Gallant’s Selected Stories and turn to page 284. Here you will make the acquaintance of Walter Henderson, “a stripling to his friends”, who are the elderly folk of the French Riviera. They look at Walter, and listen to his sociable stories, but see a long-lost loved one, whether that means a lover or “an adored but faithless son”. But this is how Walter spends his winters (driving his car “gaily, as if it were summer”). His summers are a different matter, as he “lolls on a garden chair, rereading his boyhood books”. Only, in Walter’s forty-fifth year, a complication arises, in the form of a family visit… 

The details are craftily, cattily observed, the intrigue of the story leisurely. Walter, so used to reading and telling stories of his own, has to acknowledge the discomfiting existence of other people’s. Meditations on age take place against the drowsy backdrop of a “breather” for his guests that they seem reluctant to end. The good news is that Gallant’s Selected Stories runs to nearly 900 pages, making it a pleasantly Walter-like companion for train journeys, sojourns in the sun.

First published in the New Yorker, 1963 and available online to subscribers here and collected in The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant, Bloomsbury, 1997. Picked by Michael Caines, who works at the Times Literary Supplement. He is the author of Shakespeare and the Eighteenth Century (Oxford University Press, 2013) and the editor of a TLS bicentennial celebration of Jane Austen. He is writing a short book about literary prizes, and a slightly longer book about Brigid Brophy. He is founding editor of the Brixton Review of Books. You can read his full Personal Anthology here.

‘Christians Singing’ by William Saroyan

“Boy, I’ve got plenty to say. You should have heard those Christians singing.” William Saroyan infiltrated my bookshelves via an anthology I’d purchased because it included work by another now-neglected author. Oh, the unexpected rewards of completism. Leafing through the book, I found ‘Christians Singing’: four wondrous pages, narrated in the voice quoted above. The story is not explicitly set at Christmas time; maybe it’s not, maybe it doesn’t matter. The unabashedly sentimental point is that the singers in question are out making their annual attempt to raise donations, singing songs about walking with Jesus and the like. “I don’t want to convert anybody to anything,” the narrator assures you. “Boy,” though, he sure feels bad for lying to the Christian girl who comes to his door about being broke. “I had seventy-eight cents on the table upstairs in my room.” Scrooge in miniature. Saroyan’s gift to you.

First published in Inhale and Exhale, Random House, 1936. Collected in Best Stories of William Saroyan, Faber & Faber, 1945

Chosen by Michael Caines. Michael works at the Times Literary Supplement and is founding editor of the Brixton Review of Books. He is also the author of Shakespeare and the Eighteenth Century (Oxford University Press, 2013) and the editor of a TLS bicentennial celebration of Jane Austen.

You can read Michael’s own Personal Anthology here

Introduction

What a dauntingly brilliant series this is. All that I can contribute to it, I think, is the following clutch of recommendations – which is, alas, merely a list of stories that have troubled, or continue to trouble, me. That have troubled me for two days or two months or two years or two decades. That will trouble me, I suspect, for a good while yet. Admittedly, the trouble is sometimes an entirely pleasurable one. And this is part of what short stories are about, perhaps. You could say. Even so. I am – you know –  troubled.

And that’s just by short stories.

Enjoy!

‘Mock’s Curse’ by T. F. Powys

“The Old Testament Scriptures end with a terrible word. This word no polite language of modern times can ever soften . . . .” T. F. Powys’s power over me is something remarkable. He often writes about pariahs of one sort of another; I feel that if wasn’t one already, I become one, and a complaisant one at that, when I read him. He wrote many fine stories and lived in a world of his own. One anecdote has it that, when he was eventually persuaded to take a ride in a motor vehicle, for all the wonder and speed of the experience, he merely commented, with the  fluttering visions revealed by the vehicle’s headlamps, that travel by such means must have been hell for lepidopterists. (Also recommended: the novels Mr Weston’s Wine and Unclay, as well as Powys’s various story collections.) ‘Mock’s Curse’ is the story of two brothers, John and James, and how they fall out.

From Mock’s Curse: Nineteen stories, edited by Elaine and Barrie Mencher, Brynmill Press, 1995)

‘The Widow’s Widow’ by Rose Rappoport Moss

“I was thinking how lucky they were to live at this moment when the whole country and the world would see a change momentous enough for myth.” The story (the story? one of the stories?) is that South Africa gave up on the nefarious idea of apartheid in the early 1990s. And that that process of surrender took a few years. Rose Rappoport suggests that history is less willing to play along with human whim than we might hope. It is narrated from the point of view of someone returning to South Africa after some time, a considerable time, abroad. Black and white remains fixedly black and white. There is a long way to go. It reminds me of both a period of grand political change in my own lifetime; and also, somewhat more trivially, of my local library, since that is where I came across Rappoport’s work in the first place. Nobody had ever recommended her, written about her at me, or anything like that. Gor’ bless the British library system.

First published 1998. Collected in In Court, Penguin, 2007

‘La Penseuse’ by Dorothy Edwards

“It was the first time since Mary’s girlhood that she had been in a library which was the possession of and the expression of the tastes of a single person.” Public libraries are all very well, but, alas, I reserve especial interest and (often) admiration for other people’s personal libraries. Dorothy Edwards has the female protagonist of this story enter such a library, and it is as quietly astonishing a scene as one could wish for. I like this Dorothy Edwards. ‘La Penseuse’ is a story of three intelligent, interesting people who grow close because they live in the same Welsh village; then, who would have thought it, things change. It is both sad and happy. I am not sure I will ever get over it, nor Edwards’s way with telling the story in the first place.

from Rhapsody, Parthian, 1927