Emily Trevelyan’s Moral Code in “He Knew He Was Right”

Anthony Trollope’s  He Knew He Was Right is my favorite novel at the moment, simply because I know it less well than my two other favorites, War and Peace and Villette.  And I consider He Knew He Was Right even greater than The Way We Live Now, which is often cited as Trollope’s greatest (see Robert McCrum at the Guardian and John Lanchester at NPR).  I almost wonder is there is a man/woman split on these two classics:  The Way We Live Now is about finance; He Knew He Was Right focuses on marriage.  Mind you, I love both novels almost equally.  But I am fascinated by Trollope’s views on the making and disintegration of engagements and marriages In He Knew It Was Right.

In this brilliant novel, the marriage plot is at its thickest.  Can two obstinate people have a happy marriage? A seemingly well-suited couple, Louis Trevelyan, a wealthy Englishman, and Emily Rowley, the daughter of Sir Marmaduke Rowley, the governor of the Mandarin Islands, have fallen in love and are engaged to be married.  Emily’s mother, Lady Rowley, observes that Louis has one fault:  he likes to have his own way.

“But his way is such a good way,” said Sir Marmaduke. “He will be such a good guide for the girls!”

“But Emily likes her way too,” said Lady Rowley.

And that is the crux of the novel.  What happens when a strong-willed couple disagree and will not see each other’s point-of-view?

The marriage between Louis and Emily is all billing and cooing at first:  they live in an extravagant house in London, and  Emily’s charming sister Nora lives with them because the Trevelyans can help her make a good match, i.e., with a rich man.   Louis and Emily have a little boy who is the apple of their eye.

Suddenly everything changes.  Louis becomes pathologically jealous of the frequent visits of Colonel Osborne, a flirtatious 50ish man who is one of Emily’s father’s oldest friends, as she frequently points out.  Emily does think she views the Colonel as a father figure, and he is much too old to be attractive to a woman in her twenties.  But she is oblivious of the fact that Colonel Osborne glories in mischief.  He caused a rift between another couple, as Louis’s friend Lady Millborough warns him, and the jealous husband took his wife to Naples to get away from him.  She asks, Couldn’t Louis just take Emily to Naples?  When Louis decides he and Emily must separate, Lady Millborough is appalled.  She tries to talk to Emily, but the talk of obedience to her husband does not go over well. Emily says, “And I will obey Mr. Trevelyan–in anything reasonable,”

Louis, Colonel Osborne, and Emily in the park.

Why is Emily so hard to empathize with?  She is right, and her husband is wrong.  But in the beginning, she carries things so very far.  Louis is tormented with jealousy, but she does nothing to assuage it.  Even Nora tells her to take a step back, but Emily fusses, argues, and continues to be defiant, writing notes to the Colonel, in which she implies that her husband is being unreasonable.  It drives Louis crazy–literally.

And so the couple separate.  Their friend Hugh Stanbury (eventually Nora’s suitor) arranges for them to live with his mother and his strong-willed spinster sister, Priscilla, in a nice biggish house in a village.  Even here Colonel Osborne cannot leave Emily alone.   He enjoys his mischievous flirtation and pays her a visit.  There is much gossip in the village after Emily “receives” him, and even Nora is not sure that he should have visited.  And the  mad Louis, who has hired a detective to keep an eye on her, becomes, if possible, even madder on the point of Emily’s “sins” when he learns of the visit.  And Priscilla tells Hugh that things have gone too far, what with the Colonel and the detective and the gossip, and that it is not right for them to continue to live with Emily and Nora.

My inner spinster is almost, if not quite, in agreement with Priscilla.  On the one hand, I love Nora (if not Emily), and want them to have a home.  I also want Priscilla and her mother to have a nice home:  before they lived in a tiny cottage.  But all the women are (rightfully) uncomfortable about the Colonel’s visit.  Only Emily seems not to notice his transgressions.

Emily has a strong moral code, and as a feminist I agree that she should be able to see anyone she wants.  But in a marriage compromises are made, and where there is jealousy someone usually has to bend.  Couples do break up due to jealousy, but not over a father’s friend!  Colonel Osborne is not worth it.

I do not empathize with Louis Trevelyan, and do not mean to indicate that I do.  But Emily is only sympathetic as a mother:  her insane husband’s kidnapping of their child is one of the cruellest acts in the history of fiction.  One question that is never quite answered is whether Louis’s madness could have been prevented, or whether the mad jealousy would have manifest itself later with someone else.  Trollope seems to have regarded the jealousy as inevitable.  I am not sure.

This is a rich novel, with a large cast of characters, most more sympathetic than the Trevelyans, and all at the center of a web of engagements (some broken) and marriages (that we hope will be happy).  And he is an unusually effective writer. It drives me crazy when people say Trollope’s style is flat. It is simple, unembellished, and seems more modern than that of most 19th-century writers.

Trollope’s “He Knew He Was Right” & Literary Links

I am rereading He Knew He Was Right, my favorite novel by Trollope. Is this his masterpiece?  Well, I am fond of most of his books, but I do think this is one of the greatest Victorian novels.

This is a timeless and unputdownable novel about a marriage that becomes unbearable because of a husband’s pathological jealousy and his  wife’s rightful insistence that he has no reason to be jealous.  But he knew he was right, and she knew she was right, so the couple separates with disastrous results.  But I am equally intrigued by the various subplots (which aren’t quite subplots, because some get equal time) about other marriages being made, especially a worldly young woman’s reluctant falling in love with a penny journalist.  If only she could bring herself to marry the rich Mr. Glascock!  And what about the two spinsters pushing thirty who are both courting the affections of the vicar?

This is my fourth reading, but knowing the outcome makes no difference to the pleasure.

I started HKHWR last week after finishing Cousin Henry (which I wrote about here) and smugly planned to finish the 800 pages today.

Turns out it is 930 pages, so my calculations were wrong.

Meanwhile, you can read an essay about He Knew He Was Right at the TLS, “Reading Trollope in the Age of Trump.”


1. Check out Howard Jacobson’s essay, “Why the Novel Matters,” at the TLS.

I don’t mind you thinking me a scaremonger. Scaremongering has a respectable history. The fact that we’re still here after so many prophecies of doom doesn’t, to my mind, prove the prophets were mistaken – only that the worst hasn’t happened yet. That state of “savage torpor”, for example, into which Words­worth saw the “discriminating powers of our mind” descending – did he get that so wrong? Wrong about the torpid, maybe. We are too hectic to be torpid. We troll, wear trainers and fulminate. But is “savage” so wide of the mark? Wordsworth was describing what made his age unpropitious to poetry. Need I state what makes our age unpropitious to the novel?

2. Obama has posted his Summer Reading list at Facebook.  He writes, “This week, I’m traveling to Africa for the first time since I left office – a continent of wonderful diversity, thriving culture, and remarkable stories.”  And he lists six books by African authors, including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

3.  At Tor you can read “Five SFF Books in Which Art Matters,” by C. E. Polk.

I love art and illustration. My childhood obsession with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood led to hours with art history texts. I’d need a fortnight just to properly do the Met. And so I love it when SFF books engage with art and culture, providing insight into the history of the world, their aesthetic, and their values. There are plenty of literary works revolving around art, and artists, but SFF provides a number of stories where art matters—to the story, to its society, and to its character.

Happy Weekend!

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.