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.
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.
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.