Sunday, April 24, 2016

He Knew He Was Right

"I do not know that in any literary effort I ever fell more completely short of my own intention than in this story."

That's Anthony Trollope, writing in his autobiography about his 1867 novel He Knew He Was Right. Given how prolific Trollope was, that's surely sufficient reason to stay away from it, right? I'm here to tell you otherwise.

Here's how Trollope frames his failed intention:
It was my purpose to create sympathy for the unfortunate man who, while endeavouring to do his duty to all around him, should be led constantly astray by his unwillingness to submit his own judgment to the opinion of others. The man is made to be unfortunate enough, and the evil which he does is apparent. So far I did not fail, but the sympathy has not been created yet. I look upon the story as being nearly altogether bad. It is redeemed by certain scenes in the house and vicinity of an old maid in Exeter. But a novel which in its main parts is bad cannot, in truth, be redeemed by the vitality of subordinate characters.
He's right--to a point. Louis Trevelyan, the gentleman whose prideful obstinacy and jealousy of his wife (whom he puts away from him over unfounded fears of infidelity) set the events of the book in motion, never garners more than our incidental sympathy. He is almost bereft of compelling qualities or congeniality, and the changes his character undergoes are all significantly for the worse: stubbornness becomes mania as self-inflicted emotional wounds become septic. Yet even as we can't quite sympathize with him, his decline nonetheless manages to take on a genuinely tragic hue. There's an fatal inexorability to the novel that feels more like the work of Hardy than Trollope, and it generates its own fascination, fascination that adheres to Trevelyan. Trollope may have failed to achieve his specific goal, but that goal seems secondary, inessential, when considered alongside the story he ended up telling.

Even leaving aside Trevelyan, however, the book is worth reading, if for no other reason than to remind yourself that no male Victorian novelist wrote about women with anything like the seriousness, care, and honesty of Trollope. And while Trevelyan may not command our sympathy, the women who orbit him--his estranged wife, her sister, and some friends--certainly do. More than anything else, He Knew He Was Right is an examination, and indictment, of the place of women in Victorian society, and of the severe limits that placed on their choices.

I'll share just a couple of examples. This one comes soon after an intelligent and attractive, but poor, young woman has realized that she'll soon be asked for her hand by a young clergyman . . . who could not be more dull, and whom everyone assumes she'll accept:
Was it then really written in the book of the Fates that she, Dorothy Stanbury was to become Mrs. Gibson? Poor Dorothy began to feel that she was called upon to exercise an amount of thought and personal decision to which she had not been accustomed. Hitherto, in the things which she had done, or left undone, she had received instructions which she could obey. . . . But when she was told that she was to marry Mr. Gibson, it did seem to her to be necessary to do something more than obey. Did she love Mr. Gibson? She tried hard to teach herself to think that she might learn to love him. He was a nice-looking man enough, with sandy hair, and a head rather bald, with thin lips, and a narrow nose, who certainly did preach drawling sermons; but of whom everybody said that he was a very excellent clergyman. He had a house and an income, and all Exeter had long since decided that he was a man who would certainly marry. He was one of those men of whom it may be said that they have no possible claim to remain unmarried. He was fair game, and unless he surrendered himself to be bagged before long, would subject himself to just and loud complaint. The Misses Frenches had been aware of him, and had thought to make sure of him among them. . . . That Dorothy herself should have any doubt as to accepting Mr. Gibson, was an idea that never occurred to them. But Dorothy had her doubts. When she came to think of it, she remembered that she had never as yet spoken a word to Mr. Gibson, beyond such trifling remarks as are made over a tea-table. She might learn to love him, but she did not think that she loved him as yet.
For as much as Trollope deploys the metaphor of the hunt with the Gibson as the game, he also lets Dorothy feel the panic of the hunted as well. This, he says, is what it feels like to be cut out from the herd by the eye of the predator--and, worse, to be told you mustn't fight it.

Later, Trollope gets even more explicit about the limitations placed on women. Nora, a young woman who has decided to marry a man of limited means, finds herself looking for a home to bridge the brief gap between when her parents are departing England for their colonial home and when her future husband will likely be able to welcome her into his. This causes no end of consternation, as one option after another turns out to be unworkable. Finally, in a discussion with her parents and sisters, Nora is fed up:
"If papa will allow me something ever so small, and will trust me, I will live alone in lodgings," said Nora.

"It is the maddest thing I ever heard," said Sir Marmaduke.

"Who would take care of you, Nora?" asked Lady Rowley.

"And who would walk about with you?" said Lucy.

"I don't see how it would be possible to live alone like that," said Sophie.

"Nobody would take care of me, and nobody would walk about with me, and I could live alone very well," said Nora. "I don't see why a young woman is to be supposed to be so absolutely helpless as all that comes to."
Nora's response is so simple, so sensible, that reading it today is almost painful. Of course she could do what she says--everything we know about her to that point has established her independence and strength. But . . . nice girls don't do that. They can't.

As much as anything else I've read in a long time, that scene sent me into the past, recent and distant both. I remember being 18, then 22, and the excitement that came with striking out on my own. And I remember the rush of freedom that came with realizing that I could pay my bills myself by working in a shop. Imagine knowing deep in your bones that you could do those things . . . and being bluntly forbidden. Then think on the vast, incalculable waste to intellectual, cultural, and economic life of a society that controls and relegates women like that. A century and a half on, from the viewpoint of our still imperfect society, it's staggering--and it's too Trollope's credit that he saw it, and built a novel around it.


  1. Mudpuddle,
    Sorry: I just accidentally clicked the wrong button and deleted your comment rather than publishing it--my apologies!

    1. computers have too many keys; tx for the response anyway... i can't remember what i said; as someone once said(bd), blowing in the wind...

  2. Interesting, especially since you underscore the notion that authors are often not the best judges of their own work. But, in spite of that notion, I take pleasure in reading authors' accounts of their lives and works; the perspective is often very revealing. And so is your posting. I appreciate your POV. Tell me, though, which is your favorite Trollope novel? All the best, Charles

  3. I think my favorite Trollope is still Can You Forgive Her? It's full of interesting characters and sets the pieces in motion for the whole of the Palliser series. But I've got 40 or so left to read, so I may change my mind!