Mind you, Victorian writers were rarely known for their spare style, and the leisurely Trollope needs ample space to unfold his plots and reveal his astute knowledge of psychology. He is one of the smartest Victorian writers: his unimbellished style is so readable that we sink into his narratives unconscious of the length. His best books, among them The Last Chronicle of Barset and The Way We Live Now, are 800 to 900 pages long. Yet they are fast reads.
I cannot say the same of his short works, which I have found disappointing. Cousin Henry, just 280 pages long, has moments of brilliance but it is mostly drudgery: it reads like an outline. Sometimes Trollope develops a dramatic scene with pithy dialogue (sometimes in dialect) or enlightens the reader with a precise description of the inner workings of a character’s mind. But overall it is lackluster and uninteresting.
And yet it is in some ways a fitting book to read after Orley Farm (which I recently read and posted about here). Both novels deal with dodgy wills and unscrupulous heirs.
In Orley Farm, which Trollope considered his best novel (and it is nearly a masterpiece), Lady Mason, the beautiful, intelligent heroine, forged the codicil of her husband’s will 20 years ago so her son Lucius, then a baby, would inherit Orley Farm instead of his rich older half-brother. She was accused of forgery in court, but found not guilty. Now new evidence has turned up, and the case will be tried again. Lady Mason is a sympathetic character, older and wiser, shattered by her trouble but hoping to hide her guilt from her son, who is now a young pompous Oxford-educated farmer. And she is much tougher than her sympathetic neighbors and friends think she is–Trollope even uses the words “hard” and “she-wolf.” And as more and more friends realize her guilt, they try to minimize her pain.
In Cousin Henry, we have another tangled will. The squire, Indefer Jones, in old age changes his will in favor of the male line. He will leave the property to his once-wild nephew Henry, now a stolid clerk, instead of to his very smart niece, Isabel Brodrick, who has lived with him for 10 years. He summons Henry from London, and when Henry comes, the squire despises him and cannot bear to be around him. Isabel is also very rude to her cousin, whom she finds very stupid. And so he is. And so when Isabel goes home to visit her father, Uncle Indefer decides to change his will again in favor of Isabel. And then he dies.
But what happened to the will? No lawyer was called, but two tenants say they were called in to sign it. Henry denies all knowledge of it. But he had actually spotted the will in a book of sermons by his uncle’s bed, and simply shelved the book. Henry does not dare destroy the will, and yet he is uneasy and hardly dares to leave the bookroom. And the tenants and townspeople are brusque and offensive to him when he goes out, because Isabel should be the heiress.
And Isabel, the sympathetic character, is such a spitfire that she, too, is almost a caricature. She won’t accept £4,000 from her cousin, even though that was her uncle’s intention. Trollope often writes about strong-minded characters, but Isabel, even though she is right morally, comes off as eccentric rather than admirable. Her father and stepmother plead with her to take the money from Henry, because they are very poor and can hardly support her in addition to their young children.
The book starts out very well, and then goes downhill. It is a very slight book. Trollope could have written a brilliant 800-page novel on this theme, but instead he produced one of those show-don’t-tell books that I don’t care for even in the 21st century.