Trollope’s Malachi’s Cove: An “Edge” Tale: On behalf of Trollope’s Short Stories
Dr Ellen Moody
Those accustomed to think of Trollope as a powerful and interesting storyteller “at full length” (Gordon Ray, HLQ), the core of whose fiction is a “complete appreciation of the usual” (Henry James, Partial Portraits), at his most Trollopian when writing of British middle and upper class people in drawing rooms are in for a surprise when they read Trollope’s short story masterpiece, “Malachi’s Cove.”
Emma Thompson said of her screenplay for her and Ang Lee’s adaptation of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility that the greatest compliment she received occurred when fans wrote to say they could not find this or that felicitous movie scene in Austen’s book. Why not? They weren’t there. The same holds true of Henry Herbert’s 1973 85-minute movie, Malachi’s Cove: it has scenes which the students I studied the two with thought must have been in Trollope’s tale. When we went back and searched, no such thing. I hope to show that the Penrith film (the name of the Cornish film company cited in the credits) develops from hints in Trollope’s violent mood piece as parable, a coming-of-age film (a familiar movie subgenre) and atmospheric Cornish story of intense loss, grief, anger and providential renewal. Trollope’s tale is a persuasive glimpse of two people surviving together through “a hard and perilous trade” (460): the girl rakes seaweed from the cliffs and rocks on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean where it washes up on the shore, to sell it for fertilizer. She makes it seems just enough to stave off destitution for herself and her grandfather who appears to have custody of her.
Trollope begins his story with an evocative allusive description, not an unusual opener for him in itself, but here in what he chooses to describe, and what is the social world and homelife of our heroine, the 20-year-old Mally Trenglos, and her aged rheumatic nearly-doubled over grandfather, Malachi Trenglos, who shelters her and whom (in turn) she helps to keep alive:
I doubt whether it be not the finest morsel of cliff scenery in England … Cliffs should be nearly precipitous, they should be broken in their outlines, and should barely admit here and there of an insecure passage from their summit to the sand at their feet. The sea should come, if not up to them, at least very near to them, and then, above all things, the water below them should be blue … At Tintagel all these requisites are there, except that bright blue color which is so lovely … (458)
Malachi has built a stone “hovel” at the top of a rock fissure “so great that it formed a narrow ravine … afford[ing] an opening for a steep and rugged track from the top of the rock to the bottom” (458). The peril and hard work Mally seems to revel in have been somewhat softened by the acquisition of a donkey, trained to accompany Mally, to climb up and down the “steep track” with a single pannier (there is room for no more) over his loins. He is much in evidence in the film (as Jess): if you do not grow fond of this donkey, I doubt you’ll enjoy the film properly.
Then we learn the nature of the girl and her grandfather’s trade and recent further hardships: “the article was becoming cheaper, and it was necessary that the exertion should be greater. So Mally and [her] donkey toiled and toiled” (460). Worse yet they have competitors. One of several “farmer’s lads,” from the Gunliffe family, Barty by name, “no boy, but a young man, old enough [thinks Mally] to know better than to rob a poor old man and a young girl” (461), has become far more determined than the others, and using the very path Malachi, Mally and donkey had made by usage and patient maintenance, with a sturdy pony begun to go down regularly into Malachi’s cove to gather seaweed. Barty claims he is taking the “drifting masses of seaweed” from further out, brought in by the rush of the sea into the cove, “long, soft , sea-bedewed, trailing masses,” far more dangerous to rake in, and only half of which could Mally herself gather (459). Anyway, says he to the old man:
’The sea’s free to all, Malachi.’ ‘And the sky’s free to all, but I musn’t get up on the top of your big barn to look at it,’ said Mally, who was standing among the rocks with a long hook in her hand (463)
Mally shows the admirable Trollopian pragmatism my above-imagined reader might expect when “her heart” “broken” and temper inflamed by more than Barty’s disdain and his “interloping, this intrusion,” she goes to an attorney who, while taking a fee from her, tells her he can do nothing for her – the cove, sea, paths, and rocks are “not freeholds of her grandfather” (461). But then she reviles him wrathfully.
Mally is atypical for a Trollope heroine. She is “… a wild- looking, almost unearthly creature, with wild-flowing, black, uncombed hair …” (459), dressed continually in an outfit appropriate to her occupation (“thick serge petticoat, loose brown jacket,” without stockings), unaware of niceties of manners, and while capable of selflessness. ” … she was so good to her grandfather; and it was said of her that though she carried to him a little gin and tobacco almost daily, she bought nothing for herself” (459), at the same time, “fierce and ill-natured,” with “no friends and but few acquaintances among people of her own age” (459), who some suppose is aided by “a fairy, or daemon” (460). She is described in supernatural terms. The epithet “mermaid” is applied to her from story’s beginning to end — in the Victorian era an image which signified fearful and sexualized power.
But one person differs from all the others: the local vicar, Mr Polwarth, takes a genuine interest in and has befriended the Trenglos pair. “Two years” before our story begins, he had persuaded Mally to go to church. Mally, “with a courage which certainly deserved admiration … mingled with an obstinacy which was less admirable” (she comes without “proper clothes” and merely ties her “long streaming hair” with “an old shoestring”), now attends regularly.
In two very different essays on Trollope’s short stories, Donald Stone and John Sutherland argue and (very like Mrs Proudie vis-à-vis the Bishop) I agree with them that Trollope’s short stories are often experimental, more daring, allowing for more intensity, more explosion, and passion than his novels. For example, an attempted murder, and successful cutting of a woman in front of our eyes by Aaron Trowe, a convict whose initials match Trollope’s own. There are broader kinds of humor, more unusual targets than the longer works he spent such time and labor on (and so needed to be sure of commensurate payment). I’d put it Trollope reaches for things outside his usual verbal repertoire like an astonishing recreation of the sound of a zither in “The Last Austrian who left Venice;” a depiction of sexual fluidity in “The Ride Across Palestine,” and, of great interest, he reveals his creative procedures in his The Editor’s Tales, especially “The Panjandrum”.
“Malachi’s Cove” fits into this swirl of effective intriguing experiments and surprises. After our initial six page introduction (in Sutherland’s Oxford edition), eight pages are given over to a single final climactic occasion of sheer physical and primary psychological struggle between Barty and Mally, on and about the cliff and the rock edges of the cove by the sea. We follow their maneuvering back and forth, and taunting of one another, beginning in the light but ending in coming darkness, on the edges of a squalling powerful tidal sea, which is described more than once:
Every now and then there came a squall of rain, and though there was sufficient light, the heavens were black with clouds. A scene more beautiful might hardly be found by those who love the glories of the coast. The light for such objects was perfect. Nothing could excel the grandeur of the colours, — the blue of the open sea, the white of the breaking waves, the yellow sands, or the streaks of red and brown which gave such richness to the cliff (464)
The center of the story is ultimately a bravura psychological conflict, as Barty tries to outdo Mally with all the paraphernalia of seaweed, hooks, forks, animals, holes of “the devil” (they are called), and Barty’s attempts to “steady” himself and navigate on foot “the treacherous slippery edge of the pool” by himself actually slipping along, only suddenly to be taken by the “eddying waves” of the tide, knocked out, “his forehead covered with blood.”
The twisting contest has been accompanied by details which evoke the supernatural: Mally’s voice sounds to Barty “weird, wild, shrieking,” part of the wind, but from another equal angle these pages are characteristically Trollopian. What we have is a kind of alternative re-mix of elements familiar to us, central to Trollope’s mainstream art, but usually there as subtext to the more complacent, genial or ironically sardonic matter and tones, and here now allowed to come out strikingly. What words Barty and Mally manage, like in many a drawing room or letter in Trollope, while (say in our memory as we read) the sort of naturalism (we think to ourselves) overheard in social moments, here because of the exigency of the situation reach down to capture deeper private, hidden selves uttering, spitting them out or thinking them. Mally, you see, wavers, and as she watches Barty risk all, and cannot tell herself she is “relenting” or feeling “dismay” or anything but “hatred” (though she is), as Barty suddenly goes under or is taken by the sea, she “instantly” moves to reach him with her “hook,” then “kneeling, couching, straining” to reach yet further, to touch him as he is washed by the water, banged about on the rock. She can barely hold on to the hook, which she does, at risk of her own life.
Then we find ourselves in a discernible providential moment, which (like ghosts) are rare in Trollope’s fiction:
What prayer passed through her mind at that moment for herself or for him, or for that old man who was sitting unconsciously up at the cabin, who can say? The great wave came and rushed over her as she lay almost prostrate, and when the water was gone from her eyes, and the tumult of the foam, and the violence of the roaring breaker had passed by her, she found herself at length upon the rock, while his body had been lifted up, free from her hook, and was lying upon the slippery ledge, half in the water and half out of it. As she looked at him, in that instant she could see that his eyes were open and he was struggling with his hands (468).
She pushes at and clings to him with her hook, so he remains on the ledge as the “succeeding wave passes by,” and then thinking “what would she not give that he might live” (he is becoming “beautiful” to her now), she moves,”drags” and “lifts” him, “wondering at her own strength, but she was very strong at that moment” and pushes him up further on the sand where there is a two hour grace period before the water will reach them again.
A five page denouement, where narrative and dramatic scene speed up to a more usual pace, ends Trollope’s story. Seeing what was happening from above, Malachi has made his way down, and prompts a dialogue with Mally where he is fearful they will be blamed for murdering or hurting Barty, and is not sure what to do; whereupon Mally breaks away and runs up high beyond the cliff to the Gunliffes’ cottage. Both parents, infuriated at, distrustful of her, run down “stumbling over the stones,” and after a scene of mild scolding at one another, threats and accusations on their part at Mally, with Mally now resuming her “disdainful scornful wrathful” self, though relieved to hear Barty “sigh” (i.e., breathe), the two tenderly carry their boy away. The old man then persists in fearing whatever happens to Barty, because he and Mally are so poor, they will be “trampled upon,” but an immediate scene follows hard upon where Barty’s father returns, now aware Mally “had saved his boy’s life,” and wants to make reparations, to thank her. He makes gestures of love, like holding her hand, and brings her back up to the Gunliffe “homestead” to see Barty who has asked for her.
The story ends on a reconciliation scene where Barty’s parents now want to shield the girl from this life she seems anxious to return to: the father holds her back from the darkness where he has been shocked to see where and when she regularly toils. Barty’s mother caters to her with “tea, thick milk, and hot cake,” Barty voicing all eagerness to return to the cove and cooperate with her. The story’s final line is spoken by Barty’s mother “Mally, thou art my child now, and I shall think of thee so,” within a narrator-voiced context about a “future destiny” for Mally as Barty’s wife. While at story’s end we are told that Malachi will now live his remaining days in considerable more comfort under the Gunliffe roof, there’s a quiet irony that “the right of sea-weed, from that time forth has been supposed to attach itself to Gunliffe’s farm” (475)
There is something Shakespearean in Trollope’s story. I find a possible conscious allusion to one of Shakespeare’s songs (from the Tempest) in the references to “yellow sands.” It is in Pericles and other Shakespeare romances that magical or providential billows bring people in from tempestuous seas. And I speculate (but cannot prove) the idea for the tale came from the scene in King Lear where Edgar brings his blinded aging father, Gloucester, to a piece of flat land, which Edgar imagines for us and his father is at top of a steep Cornish cliff
Come on, sir; here’s the place. Stand still. How fearful
And dizzy ‘tis to cast one eyes so low!
The crows and choughs that wing the midway air
Show scarce so gross as beetles. Half way down
Hangs one that gathers samphire – dreadful trade!
Methinks he seems no bigger than his head …
The fishermen upon the beach “appear like mice,” a “tall anchoring bark,/Diminished to her cock;/her cock, a buoy/Almost too small for sight.” Edgar speaks of the “murmuring surge, the “chafing” waters on the far away “pebbles” and looks away (King Lear IV:6, lines 5-32). At the opening of 1973 movie, we have the first of numerous zoom camera shots where we see from far away Mally and her donkey as specks, who as the camera comes closer are revealed to be busy about their samphire trade on the sands. The camera tracks her and Jess around the turns of the cliff, until she is in full view headed for Jesse’s shed and Malachi’s hut. At the film’s close we find ourselves close up to both Mally (played by Veronica Quilligan) and Barty (David Bradley), who are throughout much younger teenagers, companionably gathering the same seaweed, close up, and gradually the camera moves away until they are specks. Several times in the film we move close up and far away from a cove, three times in the form of nightmare flashbacks, Mally’s dream memories of her parents’ fearful drowning.
The movie, I will now maintain, realizes in a softened more realistic way a more home-y but also the gothic qualities of Trollope’s tale. Visually, aurally, by a careful use of a moving camera, sometimes seemingly the equivalent of a hand-held camera. There were no computer techniques in 1973 (Veronica Quilligan has to go barefoot when we see her feet, as we do quite often), and the camera really had to zoom in and out, along those cliffs, tracking and various sophisticated point of view shots, so we experience alongside Mally her earlier memories of this edge terrain, one with her mother, her present life and the climactic scenes on the cliff, of which the movie provides an early quieter foreshadowing in a first incident with Barty. We also watch the grandfather’s existence in and about his hut, here presented as a badly crippled man (played by Donald Pleasance who perhaps coincidentally also played Mr Harding so well in Alan Plater’s Barchester Chronicles 10 years later, where he has a much younger daughter).
Let us return to the opening of Trollope’s tale where Trollope provides the various hints the film-makers develop. The daily gin and tobacco Mally somehow provide becomes a visit to a general store for bread and liquor, and walk around a real village; the kindly vicar (played by John Barrett) who tells Malachi that Mally must dress more acceptably, that she needs friends, turns up repeatedly in the film to support or advise Mally. He has her at his side welcome other parishioners coming out of church as a community member when church comes to an end. Of course Mally’s visit to the attorney is given full play. In Trollope’s story Mally’s open fury, hatred and threats, e.g., “’If he was in the big hole there among the rocks, and the sea running in at half-tide, I wouldn’t lift a finger to help him out’” (463) become mischievous teasing of Barty and his pony on the beach, and pushing him in the water (recalling Phineas Finn’s in Phineas Redux brandishing his club against Mr Bonteen whom Finn is later accused of murdering). We knew Barty has a sturdy pony because in the story Mally tells her grandfather: “’I’ll hamstring the beast the next time as he’s down here!’” (462), but we see the lovely white animal in the film. Trollope’s mention of seagulls becomes several caw, caw, cawing birds, intersecting with the haunting Celtic music in the background soundtrack. We see the seagulls flying high through arched rocks as framed shots within the film’s picture space (mise-en-scene). The colors Trollope cites, white, yellow, red and brown all replicated in the meadows.
After (in Trollope’s text) the wild and increasingly crazed competition in the one climactic scene between Barty and Mally (he sees himself as male and she sees herself as the owner and expert) over who will gather more seaweed, who will be more daring, Trollope provides the specifics of the Gunliffe farmhouse, the angry and terrified exclamations of Barty’s mother (Lillias Walker), and some of the most memorable lines in the film, as when Barty’s father (Peter Vaughn) assuming that in fact Mally and maybe the grandfather too have pushed Barty into the foaming sea, vows: “’If he has come by his death between you, your blood shall be taken for his’” (470). There is the actual description of Barty and Mally’s struggle as they stand on the ledges of rocks and withstand the buffets of the wind and terrors of the water – these are used in the film to realize the details of the drowning and deaths of Mally’s parents – in the obsessive flashbacks to Mally’s anguished memories which appear to have been filmed at night by roaring waters.
But otherwise, the scenes that enrichen and deepen Trollope’s story, are not literally in the original text, just imagined out of it. These include scenes of Mally and her grandfather eating together companionably, fights over the grandfather’s medicine, of her pet rabbit, and their sleeping arrangements, and scenes of daily life in a working-class Cornish village by the sea, including fishermen, with Barty throwing rocks at Mally as she jeers at him after coming upon him flirting with other girls. In Trollope’s text there is no (as in the film) coming of a trader and his sons piling up the seaweed on their cart, conversing indoors with Malachi (echoing the Vicar that Mally should not be so isolated, telling of unfriendly village gossip which could hurt Mally, though what the grandfather can do is not apparent), and then paying Mally for the seaweed. While we are told of a church, we don’t (as in the film) go inside, see the place, see Mally alone, hear parts of the sermon and the congregation singing – nor, importantly, see (as in the film) the churchyard, its many ancient gravestones, one of which has Mally’s parents names carved into it. Her memories of her parents’ drowning, her anger at the failure at the time of the Gunliffe father to arrive in time, and with her grandfather, at the indifference of the rest of the community to what happened, the village kindness & defensiveness help make the film a depiction of a real village life.
Herbert has made of Trollope’s brilliant mood piece an ethnographic study, where Trollope’s implied social critique becomes detailed and can be felt as a cogent argument. Some of Trollope’s recurring themes come out more clearly. How unheathy it is to be asocial, how we need the perspective of wider views and (I think) that it is the duty of all of us not to exclude those more unfortunate, who exhibit more desperate behavior because they have been excluded and to forgive each other. The unusual metaphysical note, part of the gothic genre’s investment in death and another world beyond the natural is given body in Mally’s dream or nightmare memories, the minister’s behavior and the social scenes at church and in the graveyard.
The film has its faults. Trollope’s narrator’s words about a larger hard economic context, even with the addition of a trader; his making Barty and Mally so much older (though the film does not sentimentalize Mally); and his explicit conjuring up a marriage by which the Trenglos will escape the dire poverty they live in when we meet them in — are all lost. Yet worse there is a completely uncalled-for thread of misogyny. Barty’s mother stigmatizes Mally in a store and insults Mally outside the church whereupon Mally angrily accuses the woman. In the film’s penultimate scene Barty’s mother acts in ways directly opposed to Trollope’s character: she is a deranged active jealous vixen. Eager to blame and to reject Mally: she becomes violent when Mally kisses Barty; her husband of course is then all reasonableness, as he placates the stupid woman, with Barty chiming in about how he has to be allowed to grow up too. Why this was thought necessary or a worthy addition is beyond me. I am glad to exonerate Trollope’s text from any of this.
“Malachi’s Cove” is not alone as a masterpiece in the shorter kind for Trollope. In my book, Trollope on the Net, I made a case for a number of the novellas (to which The Warden belongs, books “under 300 pages” as Trollope put it). He was also capable of writing masterpieces in the very short kind. Trollope once singled out the tragic tale of wasted alcoholic scholar called “The Spotted Dog” as among the best stories he ever wrote, to which I would add the comic capitalist fable, “Why Frau Frohmann Raised Her Prices.” Also remarkable are his colonialist tales, two of which he singled out in The West Indies and Spanish Main as probably not getting the attention they deserve, “Returning Home” and “Aaron Trowe;” a third is “Journey to Panama.” The poignant, Barchester-like story, “The Parson’s Daughter of Oxney Colne,” made a couple of my female students cry. Since there has been so little written about these stories, there is little consensus beyond these top-notch ones, and perhaps two of those I mentioned above, “The Ride Across Palestine” and “The Panjandrum,” and beyond them, another moving tragic tale, “La Mere Bauche,” and a rich Christmas parable story, “The Widow’s Mite.” Several, if not exactly feminist, present strong women in still interesting circumstances, among which we may number Mally Trenglos. I concede (as have others), the collection is uneven: some fall very flat (what is bawdy to one person is unendurable to another, as in “The Relics of General Chasse”), some are painfully anti-feminist or racist (“An Unprotected Female” and “Miss Sarah Jack of Spanish Town”). But there is a strong case to be made for many of the mid-range stories as fresh, of considerable thematic, historic, autobiographical, and human appeal, artful in unexpected ways where Trollope, the master, extended himself successfully.
A Select Bibliography
Beaumont, Gregory. “Anthony Trollope: A Critical Study of the Short Fiction,” unpublished Ph.D thesis, Florida State University, 1999. Available at George Mason University Database. An excellent book.
Malachi’s Cove. Dir, Script Henry Herbert. Perf. Donald Pleasance, Veronica Gilligan, John Barrett, Peter Vaughn, David Bradley. Impact Quadrant & Penrith, 1973.
James, Henry. “Antony Trollope,” Partial Portraits, 1983, may be found complete on The Victorian Web, https://victorianweb.org/authors/jamesh/trollope.html
Navakas, Francine. “A Review [of The Complete Short Stories of Anthony Trollope for the Trollope Society, ed Betty Jane Slemp]: The Case for Trollope’s Short Stories,” Modern Philology, 83:2 (1975):172-78.
Ray, Gordon. “Trollope at Full Length,” Huntington Library Quarterly, 31:4 (1968): 313-40.
Stone, Donald. “Trollope as a Short Story Writer,” Nineteenth Century Fiction, 31:1 (1976):26-47
Trollope, Anthony. Early Short Stories, Later Short Stories, ed. Introd, notes John Sutherland. Oxford UP, 1994, 1994.
The Complete Shorter Fiction, ed., intro, notes Julian Thompson. NY: Carol & Graf, 1992.