Saturday, July 5, 2014

Cousin Henry by Anthony Trollope

Source of book: I own this

It has been a pretty big gap since my last post, but I have a good excuse. My kids and I took an extended vacation to Bryce Canyon National Park, which was delightful, but also ended up requiring some heavy days at the office catching up.

We homeschool our kids, and I am responsible for science. This year, we did a unit on astronomy, so we planned to be at Bryce for their annual astronomy festival. Bryce has one of the darkest skies in the United States - perfect for absolutely amazing stargazing. The Salt Lake Astronomy Club brings a few dozen large telescopes out, and there are lectures and model rocket launches during the day. I must say, it was an outstanding week, and one I will never forget. Not only was the Milky Way as clear as I have ever seen it, you could even see stuff like the Lagoon Nebula with the naked eye. I highly recommend Bryce for its hiking and spectacular scenery, and also recommend the astronomy festival as a great experience for young and old alike.

On our last evening of the trip, the older kids and I attended a performance of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors in Cedar City. Also great fun. So, anyway, that is why I haven’t blogged in a while. I’ll try to get caught up on book reviews and reading and stuff as I can.

Back to our regularly scheduled review.


Regular blog readers will know that I am a huge fan of Anthony Trollope, chiefly for his nuanced characters.

Previous reviews:

Cousin Henry is an unusual book in that it is short. That is not characteristic of either Trollope or the Victorian Era in general. For the most part, his books run 500-800 pages, and take some pretty serious hours to read. For this book, the author decided to focus on a very limited time frame, a simple issue, and just a handful of characters.

The setup is pretty simple: the wealthy Indefer Jones is dying, and cannot decide whether to leave his property to his closest male heir, his nephew Henry, or to his beloved niece, Isabel. Jones wants to keep the property in the male line, but also wants to take care of Isabel, who has cared for him for years.

Also heightening the problem is that Henry is unlikeable. His is weak, and indecisive, and, well, by the standards of the time, unmanly. He doesn’t have a particularly pleasant personality either, although he isn’t really bad in any definable sense. He’s just...weak and simpering. As the lawyer puts it to him, he is “whining like a woman.”

My Oxford paperback version of this book has this painting on the cover.
Not a bad choice for Henry, in my opinion.
Self Portrait by Frank Holl (1863)

Jones would consider his problem solved if Isabel would just marry Henry, who would be happy to do so, but she finds him repulsive.

Not too long before he dies, Jones invites Henry to the property and essentially informs him he will inherit. His lawyer (who also dislikes Henry) writes the will in Henry’s favor. However, on his deathbed, Jones has a change of heart, and himself writes a new will disinheriting Henry, and leaving everything to Isabel. He has two of his tenants witness it, but forgetfully leaves the will inside a book, rather than placing it with his documents.

After Jones dies, a search is made for the new will, but it isn’t found. Henry, however, has accidentally stumbled upon the will, but is too weak minded either to come forward with his knowledge, or destroy (or even hide) the will. It is primarily, then, with Henry’s tormented conscience and ghastly fears that the book is concerned.

I won’t go further with the plot than that. As is usual with Trollope, the plot isn’t much of a surprise, and the ending is telegraphed from the beginning. Trollope is less concerned with what happens, but with how the characters respond to circumstances. Henry is placed in his position through no fault of his own. He would just as soon have inherited nothing, but not had the old man get his hopes up or his cousin insult him as Isabel does. He lacks the moral fiber to disclose the location of the will, but also lacks the perfidy to simply destroy the will and have done with it. He cannot bring himself to do active wrong, but he also cannot bring himself to do the noble thing. This is in particular contrast to Isabel, who undoubtedly shows herself capable of doing right even at her own cost. But I also found myself wondering if she was also capable of doing wrong. I suspect she could and would have destroyed the will had she been in Henry’s position.

This wasn’t my favorite Trollope book, although it had its moments. The chief flaw, in my opinion, was in the handling of the scenes with the lawyer. Trollope was the son of a barrister - a really bad one - who failed to retain clients, making it necessary for Trollope’s mother to support the family with her writing. So, it is puzzling when Trollope gets legal details wrong. There are occasional things to quibble about in other books, but most of them involve archaic British law, so they can be easily ignored. This one is a bigger problem.

I’ll admit I am not particularly knowledgeable about the ethics rules in 19th Century England. However, in 21st Century California, what the lawyer, Mr. Apjohn, does in this book would potentially get him disbarred.

Mr. Apjohn represents Indefer Jones, which is fine. After Jones dies, he more or less represents the estate, which is potentially fine, provided he is clear about who he represents and where his loyalty lies.

The problem comes because his loyalty clearly is with Isabel’s interests, as his overriding goal is to find the missing will so that Isabel can inherit. To this end, he acts as though he were Henry’s lawyer, and persuades him to file a libel suit against the local paper, which has claimed that Henry destroyed the will. The purpose of inciting this suit isn’t that it would be in Henry’s best interest, which is debatable, but that doing so would subject Henry to examination on the witness stand, and Apjohn thinks Henry will confess if he has to testify. (Apjohn thinks Henry destroyed the will.) Then, as soon as Apjohn guesses from Henry’s begrudging answers to his questions that Henry knows where the will is, he bullies Henry into allowing another search, and, once he finds the will, proceeds to take action to make sure that the property goes to Isabel.

This is a glaring breach of conflict of interest rules, the duty of loyalty, and several other ethical rules. At least in my time and place. Pretty breathtakingly bad behavior, regardless of its legality, and it would have been nice for Trollope to have lavished his usual care on the ethical dilemma faced by the lawyer as well as Henry’s quandary.

For Trollope, the writing itself is more experimental than his earlier works. This one came late in life, and I suspect he wanted to stretch himself a bit, and try something new. Sometimes this works better than others. Overall, not a bad book, but not as good as Trollope can be.

Just for fun:

I mentioned the Lagoon Nebula because it was one of the best things I saw through a telescope at Bryce. There are so many more, of course. Special mention to the Ring Nebula, M81 and M82, the Whirlpool Galaxy, Saturn, and several amazing star clusters. If you have never had a chance to be given a tour of the sky by an experienced telescope operator, you must. It will blow your mind.

Here is a great picture of the Lagoon Nebula, compliments of the Paranal Observatory in Chile. All their images are free to use with attribution, and are just plain incredible. You can find the original here. 

For more about the Lagoon Nebula, check out this site.

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