Monday, July 2, 2012

He Knew He Was Right by Anthony Trollope

Source of Book: I own this

He Knew He Was Right is not merely the title of the book, nor the defining factor in the main plot: it could rightfully be considered to be the underlying theme of Trollope’s treatment of each of the characters and of all the myriad subplots. Everyone is sure that he or she is right. Trollope could have made the book about stubbornness and preached against a strong nature. He also could have done the typical Victorian thing, and punished the assertive women while rewarding those with a meek spirit. Instead, Trollope’s loyalty lies with the truth. Each character must confront the question of whether his or her cherished views are true or false.

It is difficult to know exactly where to begin with this length and complex book. At around 800 pages of fairly small print, it is epic, even for Trollope, who is hardly known for his brevity. Perhaps I should start with the author himself.

Anthony Trollope is one of my favorite authors for a number of reasons. He was formerly one of the more popular Victorian novelists, but made the ill-advised choice to write an autobiography. In said autobiography, he admitted that he set aside a certain amount of time each day to write, and made himself write a certain number of words. This did not jive with the idea of the author as inspired genius, writing as the spirit led him, so his reputation suffered.

I find Trollope to be more subtle in his characterizations than his contemporaries, Dickens and Collins. Rarely do even his minor characters become “types,” and his books rarely contain true villains. Even those who exist, such as the unforgettable Obadiah Slope are complex characters, who seem psychologically true to life, even though they populate a world foreign to a modern American reader. He Knew He Was Right is no exception, being full of realistically drawn characters.

The main plot of the book revolves around Louis Trevelyan and his wife Emily. Even before the marriage, there are signs of future trouble. Louis likes to have his way. His future father-in-law, Sir Marmaduke notes that, “his way is such a good way,” but his wife realizes that, “Emily likes her way too.”

The trouble begins when the rakish Colonel Osborne attempts a not-so-innocent-on-his-part flirtation with Emily, who is half his age. Louis demands that she cut off contact with him. She protests that he is unfairly accusing her of unfaithfulness. In this way, the conflict is not one primarily of behavior, but of ego. Emily will not admit any fault, and Louis will not admit to wrongfully suspecting her. This feud grows all out of proportion until it results in a prolonged separation and the use of the couple’s child as a pawn in a battle of wills which consumes the parties and destroys their happiness. Of this plot, I will have more to say later.

Meanwhile, a number of subplots are developed. Emily’s younger sister, Nora, falls in love with Hugh Stanbury, a gentleman who is forced to earn his own living due to financial circumstances. Hugh’s sister Dorothy goes to live with her Aunt, Jemima Stanbury; who is an epically strong willed and stubborn old lady, in the vein of Miss Havisham, perhaps, in her manipulation and bitterness, but less crazy, and still capable of kindness on rare occasions. Dorothy’s mother and sister are called upon to share a house with Emily after she is banished from her husband’s presence. The French girls, Camilla and Arabella, fight over the hand of Mr. Gibson, who wishes to marry Dorothy.

Each character has the opportunity to display a stubborn commitment to his or her values and preferences. Louis, of course, wishes for his wife to admit fault. Emily likewise desires to be acquitted of the accusation of unfaithfulness. Dorothy, who is rather mild mannered at the outset, has no desire to marry Mr. Gibson. Nora and Hugh must defy the wishes of her parents in order to court each other. Miss Stanbury continues her feud with the family of her late beau, who left her his fortune at their expense. Arabella and Camilla French both wish to be married and to dominate the other. And on it goes.

Nora’s case is particularly interesting because she is offered the hand of Mr. Glascock, the future Lord Peterborough. Glascock is one of the truly admirable men in the book. (Hugh Stanbury is the other.) After making a rather kind and affectionate proposal and being refused, he acts as graciously as possible. Later in the book, he goes far out of his way on behalf of Nora and Emily, despite no duty to do so. In every respect, he is a true gentleman, and one that most girls would be eager to marry. However, there is no chemistry between him and Nora, perhaps on account of the difference in age, or perhaps because of temperament. Mostly, however, it is because Nora loves Hugh.

Hugh is also a worthy man, but in a different way. He knows that he will never inherit wealth, so he chooses to use his talents writing for a newspaper – something which horrifies his aunt Jemima. He has a world-wise and jaunty air, and puts a good face on his lack of a fixed income. He is, moreover, kind to his sisters and mother, and also takes action at personal expense to assist Emily. As Nora recognizes, there are tradeoffs in making this choice. She chooses love over money, but Trollope allows her to truly understand the factors on both sides.

As usual, there are too many quotable passages to choose from. Trollope’s extended description of Louis and Emily while they are not speaking to each other is brilliant, as is his use of repetition to show Louis’ obsession as his mind slowly crumbles. Indeed, this continual and recurring internal discussion was disconcertingly familiar to one like me who tends to spend time thinking things through. As Trollope puts it near the end, “Thought deep, correct, continued, and energetic is quite compatible with madness.” Perhaps the line between a reflective introvert and a madman is not so broad as could be hoped.

In this book, Trollope also questions some of the orthodoxy of the Victorian Era (and previous eras) regarding the role of women. Nora, while realizing that she did not love Mr. Glascock, laments to herself that, “The lot of a woman, as she often told herself, was wretched, unfortunate, almost degrading. For a woman such as herself there was no path open to her energy, other than that of getting a husband.” Hugh makes a perfect potential match with her. In a discussion with Louis Trevelyan, he notes that women do not like being “looked after.” “[I]f I were married, - which I never shall be, for I shall never attain to the respectability of a fixed income, - I fancy I shouldn’t look after my wife at all. It seems to me that women hate to be told about their duties.” I might add that men don’t fancy it much either, but this was less of an issue 150 years ago, I suspect.

Hugh may be flippant in his speech, but he is fiercely loyal to Nora. He stands up to his future father-in-law, who thinks him too poor: “And I, Sir Marmaduke, have been brought up in the idea that when a man has won the affections of a woman, it is the duty of that man, - as a man, - to stick to her through thick and thin; and I mean to do my duty, according to my idea.”

Trollope has the ability to slip little self-effacing asides into the narrative. “Who would ever think of learning to live out of an English novel?” Or, his subtle dig at the conventions of the novel: “It was for the welfare of England at large that the eldest sons of good families should marry the sweetest, prettiest, brightest, and most loveable girls of their age. It is a doctrine on behalf of which very much may be said.”

I also love the extended riff on the ending of books in a marriage.

We must now go back to Exeter and look after Mr. Brooke Burgess and Miss Dorothy Stanbury. It is rather hard upon readers that they should be thus hurried from the completion of hymeneals at Florence to the preparations for other hymeneals in Devonshire; but it is the nature of a complex story to be entangled with many weddings towards its close. In this little history there are, we fear, three or four more to come. We will not anticipate by alluding prematurely to Hugh Stanbury's treachery, or death, or the possibility that he after all may turn out to be the real descendant of the true Lord Peterborough and the actual inheritor of the title and estate of Monkhams, nor will we speak of Nora's certain fortitude under either of these emergencies. But the instructed reader must be aware that Camilla French ought to have a husband found for her; that Colonel Osborne should be caught in some matrimonial trap, as how otherwise should he be fitly punished? And that something should be at least attempted for Priscilla Stanbury, who from the first has been intended to be the real heroine of these pages. That Martha should marry Giles Hickbody, and Barty Burgess run away with Mrs. MacHugh, is of course evident to the meanest novel-expounding capacity; but the fate of Brooke Burgess and of Dorothy will require to be evolved with some delicacy and much detail.

Of course, much of what he alludes to here does not come to pass – he is only messing with the reader.

As a final dig at English tradition, Mr. Glascock, after having had an argument with Caroline Spaulding, the daughter of the American diplomat (who he eventually marries), makes a tongue-in-cheek reference to the infamous “rule of thumb” in the English common law. “Caroline and I have had a little dispute, but we have settled it without coming to blows.”

Carolyn’s cousin, the feminist “poet” Wallachia (one of the few caricatures – and a good one), retorts, “I don’ suppose that an English gentleman ever absolutely strikes a lady.”

In his wonderful, self confidently wry manner, Glascock replies, “Not except on strong provocation. In reference to wives, a stick is allowed as big as your thumb.”

In another exchange with Caroline’s younger sister, who opines in her “ugly American” way, “I’d sooner be senator from Massachusetts than be the Queen of England.”

“So would I,” said Mr. Glascock. “I’m glad we can agree about one thing.”

In general, I would say that Trollope does a better satire of American manners than Dickens.  Trollope is more gentle, and therefore more perceptive, in his approach. Dickens feels the need to demonize the Americans, while Trollope’s darts are more true to the mark by their very charity.

Even Wallachia, who is obnoxious even by modern American standards, is given a few good lines. Trollope eventually notes that, “The hope in regard to all such women, - the hope entertained not by themselves, but by those that are solicitous for them, - is that they will be cured at last by a husband and half-a-dozen children.” Occasionally, I suspect that this is what my in-laws hoped would happen to my wife. (She is much nicer than Wallachia, but she would have had a hard time with Victorian Era English gender roles. Whether the kids and I have “cured” her is debatable, of course.)

Jemima Stanbury is also another worthy character in this book, and she gets some of the great lines. As a guy, I was a bit unfamiliar with the idea of the chignon, although my wife and other women presumably have an idea about this. Trollope himself was no fan of the Victorian version of this hairdo, and pokes fun at it later in the book. However, he cannot resist a little dig at Miss Stanbury.

Mr. Gibson and Arabella French. Illustration by Marcus Stone.

“She would talk of ‘those bandboxes which the sluts wear behind their noddles;’ for Miss Stanbury allowed herself the use of much strong language.” Unsurprisingly, the battle between the generations over styles has been in existence as long as recorded history, and Trollope makes a particularly effective satire of the desire that the younger generation dress exactly as the older did.

That Trollope did not exactly wish to identify with Miss Stanbury is made clear in a later incident involving the posting of a letter. Anthony Trollope’s primary career was that of a postmaster, and writing was originally a diversion for him. He was the inventor of the ubiquitous “pillar box” – the curbside mail collection device. Miss Stanbury, along with many of the older set, disapproved.

Miss Stanbury carried her letter all the way to the chief post-office in the city, having no faith whatever in those little subsidiary receiving houses which are established in different parts of the city. As for the iron pillar boxes which had been erected of late years for the receipt of letters, one of which--a most hateful thing to her--stood almost close to her own hall door, she had not the faintest belief that any letter put into one of them would ever reach its destination.  She could not understand why people should not walk with their letters to a respectable post-office instead of chucking them into an iron stump as she called it out in the middle of the street with nobody to look after it. Positive orders had been given that no letter from her house should ever be put into the iron post.

Dorothy’s sister, Priscilla, is very like Miss Stanbury in temperament, if not in opinions. The two, predictably, do not get along. Trollope has an odd affection for Priscilla, even though she is clearly out of place in Victorian society. She refuses to cater to the expectations of others, and will not accept charity, even from those she loves. She also has a delightfully witty tongue, which is why she is the one young female in the book that I truly liked. Sure, Nora is strong in her way, but it is Priscilla that I would marry, if I were placed in that world, despite her misgivings that she would make a man miserable.

Her thoughts on “self esteem” are illustrative: “All that is twopenny-halfpenny pride, which should be thrown to the winds. The more right you have been hitherto, the better you can afford to go on being right. What is it that we all live upon but self esteem? When we want praise, it is only because praise enables us to think well of ourselves. Every one to himself is the centre and pivot of all the world.”

Another great line occurs in reference to the rather cowardly Mr. Gibson, who is continually at the mercy of a variety of strong women. After a particularly bad “foot-in-mouth” moment, Trollope opines, “But there are men so awkward that it seems to be their especial province to say always the very worst thing at the very worst moment.”

I also liked his explanation of benign government incompetence. Sir Marmaduke is the governor of some Asian islands, and he is recalled to explain his policies for some useless government committee. His explanation is amusingly accurate, “It had worked well; - that is to say, everybody had complained of it, but he, Sir Marmaduke, would not recommend any change.”

Despite all of the wit, and despite the happy ending for many of the characters, the story of Emily and Louis is a devastating tragedy.

Louis Trevelyan at Casalunga. One of many excellent illustrations by Marcus Stone in the edition I own.

I think that Trollope was at the height of his powers in his analysis of the situation. The rift is devastating precisely because it was avoidable. Had either Louis or Emily made a different step, at least during the first few months of the feud, reconciliation was likely. Trollope is too good of a writer to come out and directly state the reason why the parties could not understand each other, but the point cannot be missed: Louis and Emily cannot express what they truly desire of the other. Instead, they make demands based on the conventional gender roles of their time, and never take the time to hear and understand the other.

Louis says that he wants obedience. Emily is willing to obey. But, really, what Louis wants is to know that Emily cares about his feelings and insecurities, and will voluntarily avoid hurting him. It pains him to demand obedience, where love should have attained the same result.

In contrast, Emily desires to be treated like an adult. She wants to be trusted, and not treated like an errant child for innocent behavior. And really, any wrong that has occurred has been on the part of Colonel Osborn (who is really slimy), not on Emily’s part.

Trollope makes it clear that if Louis had simply expressed his feelings and fears, Emily would have seen his point. Likewise, if Emily had simply validated Louis insecurities, he would not have demanded obedience in a high-handed manner.

If either had given a millimeter, the whole tragedy could have been avoided.

This is one area in which I think that certain religious movements have gone astray in focusing on some form of “submission,” by which they often mean, “obedience.” A decent man does not want a servant to do his bidding. A decent man wants to know that his wife values his feelings and desires. In a loving relationship, each party should care enough about the other to avoid causing pain to the other. Louis and Emily cannot and will not see this until it is too late. Eventually, it becomes more important to each that he or she be RIGHT, and that the other admit it, than that the marriage ever be put back together.

Louis himself eventually begins to subconsciously hope that his fears may be true. That is, he would be happier to find out that Emily had been unfaithful than that he had been unreasonably jealous. It is this pride and stubbornness that tears the relationship apart. The love that they once had for each other is slowly destroyed, until all that is left is pride and despair.

1 comment:

  1. A pretty fair assessment of a fairly disturbing book. My biggest complaint is Osborne vanishes midway, along with the thrilling tension he brings to the narrative. With so many characters moving around the Continent, reviving him would have been easy, and quite satisfying.