April 24, 2015 will mark the bicentennial of Anthony Trollope’s birthday and Karen at Books and Chocolate is planning a celebration on her blog http://karensbooksandchocolate.blogspot.com/ to encourage her readers to pick up as much Trollope as possible by then. I had planned already to read the forth book in the Barsetshire Chronicles this year as part of Karen’s Back to the Classics 2015 challenge, so I could have doubled up, but I felt that instead I should take this opportunity to read one of his stand-alone novels instead.
I ultimately decided on one of Trollope’s better known titles, He Knew He Was Right. Louis and Emily Trevelyan are a young, wealthy couple with a small son. Despite the fact that both are fairly headstrong personalities, they happily married until a certain Colonel Osborn starts to give Emily rather more attention than a friend of the family who is old enough to be her father should in polite society. Emily isn’t too fussed since she is secure in her knowledge that she has not and never will stray from what is considered proper. However, Louis is bothered by Colonel Osborn’s attentions and what the whisperings of society gossips might think. Emily willfully misunderstands her husband’s fears as an accusation that she has behaved immorally. Louis willfully refuses to compromise or discuss the matter with his wife reasonably and insists that it is his right as a husband (this is the Victorian Era don’t forget) that Emily cease all contact with the Colonel. And from that misunderstanding and stubborn refusal their relationship begins to unravel.
At first I was worried that this novel would be 800 pages of a back and forth argument between a jealous husband and a headstrong wife, however, there are several other side characters with parallel story lines, almost all to do with marriage and courtship. These parallel narratives help break up the intensity of Emily and Louis’ disintegrating marriage and temper the tragic main plot with humor and romantic sub-plots. There are really too many supporting characters to mention, but probably the main ones are the Stanbury family. Hugh Stanbury is a friend of Louis who has given up all respectability by deigning to earn a living writing for a penny newspaper and who is in love with Emily’s sister Nora Rowley. Then there are Hugh’s unmarried sisters, Pricilla and Dorothy Stanbury who live with their widowed mother. And most amusingly, in my opinion, there is Miss Jemina Stanbury, Hugh’s maiden aunt who Dorothy goes to live with. Once I encountered Miss Stanbury, about 50 pages in, I knew this book would become a favorite. I just loved her as a character. She is petty, willful and obstinate, but can also be generous and kind when she wants to be. I thought she was a hoot.
He Knew He Was Right has fairly overt feminist undercurrents which touch on the absurdity and double-sided unfairness of Victorian upper/middle class society in its treatment of women. For many women, marriage was their only option for a secure future and but under the law, they had almost no rights within the marriage. So a bad marriage could be very, very bad for the wife, with little recourse for her to better her situations. And as so many have noted before me, Trollope’s female characters are so much more three dimensional than those in Dickens’ novels, which is always appreciated by me. So, over all a really enjoyable and page turning read, in particular all the scenes in Essex, where Miss Stanbury lives. I always say I hate romance, but I sure loved this book which was virtually nothing but romance. Go figure!
The image above is from the Penguin Classics paperback edition of this title that I read which is one of my favorite publishers for classics because the editions are annotated and contain an introduction (which I always read after I have finished the book for fear of spoilers, naturally).