Louis Trevelyan met Emily Rowley when he was visiting the Mandarin Islands. Louis was a young gentleman of good fortune, and Emily was the daughter of the British governor of the Mandarins. It seemed like an ideal match—except for the fact that, as Emily’s mother observed, both of them liked to have their own way. The couple married and moved to London, with Emily’s younger sister Nora in tow. All was well for the first two years, but then Louis comes to suspect his wife of having an improper relationship with an old friend of her father’s, Colonel Osborne. He doesn’t exactly suspect unfaithfulness, but the appearance of unfaithfulness. Because both of the Trevelyans like to have their own way, neither will give in to the other. The situation gets worse and worse, leading to kidnapping, madness, and more.
Although the story of the Trevelyans is established early on as the core of Anthony Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right, theirs is just one of several examples of the difficulties of Victorian-era courtship and marriage. The rest of the book focuses more on young people who are seeking—or not seeking—marriage. Emily’s sister Nora is torn between Mr. Glascock, a good man of great wealth, and Hugh Stanbury, an equally good man whose fortune is less certain. Stanbury’s sisters have no prospects, a problem that does not trouble Priscilla. She declares herself “unfit to marry,” adding that “I am often cross, and I like my own way, and I have a distaste for men.” Her sister Dorothy is simply resigned to her fate, not daring to hope something might be different until her maiden aunt Jemima, a powerful force in her own right, tries to arrange a marriage between her and the clergyman Mr Gibson. Dorothy likes Mr Gibson well enough, and she likes the idea of being Mrs Gibson, but does she love him? Meanwhile the sisters Arabella and Camilla French are doing everything they can to draw Gibson’s eye.
Teresa: This is the fourth novel by Anthony Trollope that I’ve read, and with each of his books that I read, I grow to love his work more and more. I loved the scope of this book, the way Trollope looked at marriage from so many angles, showing how in almost every case, the traditional ways have worked against people’s happiness. There are the obvious cases of women having to rely on others’ whims for their very survival, but there’s also the notion that men must always stay within certain bounds, following certain expectations. There’s a sense, though, that the book is depicting a pivot point in the state of marriage, when either the old ways must fall away or the youth of England must live in misery.
Jenny: I’m so glad you loved it, because I was just astonished by it. I’ve read two of the Barsetshire novels, both of which I really enjoyed, but this seemed like a book on another plane. Trollope looks not just at marriage but at courtship rituals and even single life from every angle: “trying to land a fish,” for instance, and the despair of women who can’t do that, because they have no other options; the agony of deciding between an eligible match and a man you love (or believe you love, having spent about ten solid minutes in his company); the slow strangulation of genteel poverty for the woman who cannot or will not marry; the voice of “strident” American feminism. And the writing! It was funny, touching, satirical, gentle.
Teresa: I’ve heard this referred to as Trollope’s masterpiece, and I can certainly see why. As ambitious and sprawling as it is, it still feels focused because each storyline comes back to the state of marriage and singlehood. And Trollope does a wonderful job with the tone. Almost all of the characters, even the comic ones, are given a psychology and a reason for being as they are—and they’re given opportunities to grow and change. In fact, a willingness to change seems to be the key to happiness. I think especially of Jemima Stanbury, who is old and imperious and set in her ways. She’s cruel and self-centered, but not without soft spots. Those soft spots enable her to change her attitudes in a way that brings happiness to others, including herself. On the other hand, Trevelyan’s complete lack of malleability is what breaks him. He becomes a victim of himself—and even more tragically, he takes his wife and son and sister-in-law along.
Jenny: That’s such a great observation. Even the lesser characters reflect this theme. Bozzle, the private detective (the character who seemed to have stepped directly out of a Dickens novel), was able to change his mind about his employer, and was almost redeemed by it. Miss Petrie, on the other hand, “the Republican Browning,” is unbending in her opinions, and is a far less attractive person for it. This book is really about the sin of pride, in all the forms that may take in society.
One of the things I liked best about this book was how insightful it was about human nature. At the beginning of the Trevelyans’ dispute, Trollope takes care to point out the tiniest flaws: how tone of voice, ill-chosen words, or tiny self-deceptions can lead to hurt feelings, sprained dignity, misunderstandings, and — eventually — lives and loves broken and ruined. While my own relationships have thankfully never involved kidnapping or insanity, I know firsthand how true it is that tiny changes in tone make an enormous difference. Trollope absolutely nails this kind of thing.
Teresa: Oh yes, Trollope does a wonderful job of showing how small missteps can grow and grow, especially when both people like to have their own way, as the Trevelyans do. I particularly loved how in those early chapters he shows that both Louis and Emily have a valid complaint and that both do wrong by each other. Emily’s relationship with Colonel Osborne is certainly innocent on her part, as she claims, but it’s not exactly what she makes it out to be either. But neither Louis nor Emily is willing to see the other’s point of view. As you say, it comes down to pride. But, oh, it was so frustrating to watch. Every time they seemed on the cusp of a break-through, some small action or word would tear it all to pieces. It was maddening!
But I was glad that the book wasn’t all gloom and misery. I felt like Trollope demonstrated quite well how the traditional Victorian view of marriage was broken, but he also showed a way forward. And he showed that not everyone needs to make the same choice. It was a pleasure to read, well worth its length.
Jenny: You’re right, both about the humor that leavened some of the more serious topics, and about its being a great read. I loved his women: they were so nuanced, so capable of both good and bad, not fitting into the ordinary roles women play. Trollope is such a good observer of people that I always feel I’ve left him understanding others better than I did before, whether those others are bishops or Bozzles. Yet another round of applause for the Classics Circuit, without which I would have taken much, much longer to get around to reading this wonderful book!
This post was part of the Classics Circuit’s Anthony Trollope tour. See the complete schedule for more on the works of Anthony Trollope. Sign ups for the next tour, which features the Ancient Greeks, is open until December 20.