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.