"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

January 30, 2012

Classic Novel: "He Knew He Was Right" (1869) by Trollope

He Knew He Was Right is the ironic title of one of Trollope's greatest novels, the story of the disintegration of a marriage. Strangely enough, there is no earthly reason why the marriage between Louis Trevelyan, a well-heeled English gentleman, and Emily Rowley, the eldest daughter of a British colonial governor, would not be successful. They love each other and the fruit of that love soon makes its presence felt in the form of a baby boy. Emily's sister Nora lives with the young couple in their London mansion and there only seem blue skies ahead.

But then a small thing happens, something which normally would not even be a bump in the road. Emily receives regular visits from Colonel Osborne, a friend of her father, with a reputation of a lady's man despite his advanced years. There are some rumors, the husband starts paying attention, he gets jealous. Though nothing improper ever occurs, Trevelyan overreacts by ordering his wife to avoid Colonel Osborne in the future. Emily strongly resents her husband's lack of trust and is angry that he dare doubt her innocence.

Normally, such a small matter would be cleared up in the evening, forgiven at night and forgotten the next day. But the chance for reconciliation passes, another small matter occurs which feeds Trevelyan's jealousy, and Emily is again strengthened in her stubbornness. And so the unreasonable (and totally unfounded) jealousy of Trevelyan, and the stubbornness of the willful Emily gradually escalate. Pride and vanity on both sides cut off the way back to happiness. Husband and wife start living apart; Trevelyan travels abroad to forget his shame; in his absence, Trevelyan has his wife watched by a detective. Colonel Osborne does not make things easier by paying some more visits to Emily, just to spite the husband and feed his own vanity. This gives Trevelyan reason for his jealousy and by and by he starts wallowing in his unhappiness, and slowly descends into insanity.

A butterfly moving its wings can lead to disaster.

This main story-line has been keenly observed by Trollope, who is the author of human behavior, especially of conflict and collision. Trollope is at his best when he describes people who try to manipulate each other, his dialogues are always wonderfully sharp. Usually the weaker party, like Emily, doesn't let herself be ordered around and stands up for her rights. This leads to delicious conflicts.

The subplots are also full of it. The whole world wants Nora, Emily's sister, to marry Lord Glascock (although of course a suitor with such a name can't be allowed to be successful), but she stubbornly perseveres in her love for the penniless Hugh Stanbury, a friend of Trevelyan. Hugh's sister Dorothy lives in Exeter with their aunt, the formidable Jemima Stanbury. The aunt wants her to marry a clergyman, the sly Mr Gibson. She refuses, for she loves Brooke Burgess, the heir to the Stanbury fortune and the last person in the world her aunt wants her to marry. And so on. Exquisite is also the predicament of Mr Gibson, who after being jilted, proposes to the vain Camilla French, who even before being sure of her prey reveals she is a harridan of the first order. Poor Mr Gibson escapes from the marriage, but has to pay for his sins by being coupled for life with Camilla's elder sister, Arabella.

Conflicts of course not only arise in lovemaking. Aunt Stanbury has quarreled with Hugh because he writes for a penny newspaper and has liberal views. When Emily and Nora are staying with Hugh Stanbury's relatives, vicious letters are exchanged between Aunt Stanbury and Dorothy's sister Priscilla about a perceived "immoral" visit of Mr Osborne, which first didn't take place but later does. Emily and Nora stay for a few months with an uncle, Mr Outhouse, a clergyman who has to receive them in his house, but does not really want them to come. Sir Marmaduke, the father of Emily and Nora, briefly returns to the U.K. and is grilled by a parliamentary committee. He also gives Trevelyan a dressing down. The old and the new worlds collide in the house of Mr Spalding, the American Ambassador to Florence, where several characters have traveled to, including Mr Glascock, who is caught by Caroline Spalding and educated in democratic principles.

My evaluation: He Knew He Was Right is 950 pages thick, but remains interesting to the last page. Despite some instances of 19th century redundancy, this is Trollope at his best. Read it as an Oxford Classic as I did, a Penguin Classic, or at Gutenberg.

Also see the Anthony Trollope website, the Trollope Society or the Victorian Web.