The Book in My Bike Bag: Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right

bike council bluffs path img_0932Every summer I carry a Big Book in my bike bag.

On bike journey breaks, I flip down my kickstand (I am the last person with a kickstand), sit on a bench, and read.

It is always a Very Big Book.

He Knew He Was Right trollope 41RJjyDTOLL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_This being Trollope’s bicentenary,  I have reread four of his books this year.  And I now admit it is possible to read too much Trollope.   I ODed on my rereading of Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right (my bike book of the summer)It  is a very great book, one of Trollope’s best, and an engrossing novel about jealousy, madness, marriage, and money.  It is a retelling of the Othello story, set in the 19th century.   I wonder if I am  critical of the flaws in the characterization of Louis Trevelyan, Trollope’s Othello,  and the looseness of the structure, because I have read too much Trollope.

He is very good, he is often great, but he wrote too much:  47 novels.  His work is uneven.

On the other hand, He Knew He Was Right is 823 pages long, so a little rambling is in order.

Trollope writes easily and well, and has a gift for comedy.  In this novel, and also in Phineas Redux, which I read earlier this year, he also shows his gift for tragedy.  (I cried at the end of He Knew He Was Right.)

The novel begins with the story of a happy marriage.  Louis Trevelyan has married Emily Rowley, the penniless daughter of the governor of the Mandarin Islands.  Louis generously invites Emily’s sister, Nora, to live with them  in London.  She is more likely to make a good marriage in London.

Louis has everything.  He is smart, “but not a book-worm.”  He is a “handsome, manly fellow, with short brown hair, a nose divinely chiselled, an Apollo’s mouth, six feet high, with shoulders and arms and legs in proportion–a pearl of pearls!”

And then Trollope adds,

Only, as Lady Rowley was the first to find out, he likes his own way.

Emily also likes her own way.  In fact, almost everyone in this novel likes his or her own way, as Trollope is quick to tell us.

HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT TROLLOPE DOVER 7154878-LLouis and Emily are very happy at first.  But they soon begin to struggle because her father’s oldest friend, a fiftyish colonel, visits her often  and flirts with her.

Louis asks her not to see the Colonel. He is an agony of jealousy.  She says she has done nothing inappropriate and refuses to ban her father’s oldest friend.  She does not believe the Colonel is flirting.  (He is.)  Her sister, Nora, does not think there is any flirting, either, but she begs Emily to humor Louis. Should Emily or shouldn’t she have?  Would it have made things better, or would he have just become more tyrannical?

And then it takes a tragic turn.  Trevelyan is driven mad by jealousy (though is that enough to account for his madness?), and eventually he and Emily have a terrible disagreement, resulting in a separation, his spying on her, the kidnapping of their child, etc.

There are comic courtship subplots, which lighten the mood.

Louis Trevelyan’s best friend, Hugh Stanbury, is in love with Emily’s sister Nora.  She hesitates, though.  What’s wrong with him?  Well, he is poor.  He gave up the law to be a journalist.  And though Nora is in love with Hugh, she very much wants to be in love with her rich suitor, Mr. Glascock, the son of Lord Peterborough.  Why oh why can’t she be in love with the right man?   But she has to refuse Mr. Glascock.

Hugh was his rich spinster aunt Miss Stanbury ‘s favorite until he began writing for a “penny paper.”  Now she has invited his younger sister, Dorothy, to live with her, and hopes to marry her off to Mr. Gibson, the smug, conceited curate. But it is just as well that Dorothy dislikes him (she has fallen in love with someone else):  Mr. Gibson has flirted for years with two card-playing spinster sisters, Arabella and Camilla French, and his fate lies with them, if only he can figure out which one.

The third marriage subplot is smooth and without conflict.  And Mr. Glascock, Nora’s rejected suitor, falls in love in Italy with a pretty American girl, Caroline Spalding, the niece of the American ambassador. Even though Nora is engaged to Hugh, she feels jealous of Caroline.

Why read Trollope?  He’s a bit of a shaggy-dog storyteller.  Even his best books, the Palliser novels and the Barsetshire novels, ramble.

Yet he is an addictive, cozy writer.  Some will bridle at the word “cozy,” but it is true. He will not shock you. He will entertain you. We read him because he is an addictive storyteller. He is neither George Eliot nor a Dickens–but he is reliably entertaining. He is one of the best storytellers of the 19th century, and you can’t do much better than that.

17 thoughts on “The Book in My Bike Bag: Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right

  1. I think with any writer, even your bestest favourite, there is still the risk of over-reading. I used to do it all the time, and I found the the Virago challenges I tried that the same author constantly was too much. Even if I’m having an author binge, I try to spread them out a bit!

    • Yes, this has been true with my Trollope OD! I do love his books, but perhaps reading He Knew He Was Right for the third time was rash. And I don’t feel quite about Trollope as I do about some of the other 19th-century writers. I love this book, but noticed so many of his quirks and stock methods…

  2. Yes, read Trollope, but space them out. He Knew He Was Right is not my favorite but the digressions — as you call them — in some of the books are just delightful. Trollope must have provided them on purpose. They lighten an otherwise sober tale and in the age before radio or television readers wanted a lot of entertainment.

    • Yes, I have read too much T this year! Oh, he does so well with the subplots in He Knew, until maybe the last couple of hundred pages, when we are wondering, What on earth is all this about Glascock for? It’s one of those serial writing problems. But I prefer T’s long books to his short: they are very entertaining!

  3. First, hello!
    It’s been a million years.
    I’ve done the math.
    I hope you’re well.
    Me, I’m fine.
    Busy but fine.
    I’m reading Trollope!
    Just by happenstance.
    I’ve been working my way through the Chronicles of Barsetshire for a spell now.
    Currently: The Small House at Allington.
    It may be my favorite yet.
    Great pacing and tension, fine dialogue, and all the rest.
    Oh, and the writing is fine, too.
    Between The Warden, The Towers of Barsetshire, and The Small House at Allington,
    I think I give a nod to the latter.
    Good stuff.
    Take good care.
    Best,
    K
    Postscript. My world is here: https://instagram.com/jkneilson/

    • So great to see you again! Am glad to know you’re around: I’ve kept an eye out for activity on your blog. Will check out Instagram.

      The Barsetshire Chronicles are the best!

  4. Is it contradictory to say that I love digressions in moderation? Or is digression, by its very nature, excessive? Either way, it’s not something with irks me as much as, say, repetition in a novel (which it sounds like you ran up against, too, in terms of his overuse of stock tricks of his trade) but, then again, I’ve not read anywhere near as much Trollope as you, ever, let alone in a single year. Hope you enjoy the next one more!

    • Oh, I love rambling as a rule in Victorian novels! You’re absolutely right: I got to know Trollope’s style, and similar character types, etc. I do love English novels, but they do seem to ramble more than European and American. (The Victorians wrote so long…) If I wait a year to read him I’ll love him again.

  5. Pingback: Reading the Victorians, Lost in Trollope, & Why I Don’t Read Their Modern Equivalents – mirabile dictu

  6. Pingback: Trollope’s Doctor Thorne – mirabile dictu

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