The Booklovers: Chapter Two

14Jul08

Previously: Chapter One

Anthony Trollope

Good-good-good-good evening!

When I was in year seven, I had an English teacher named Mrs K, whose favourite word was “incidentally”. We used to keep tallies on how many times she would say it during one thirty-five minute lesson. I think the record was seventeen.

We studied books deemed suitable for eleven year olds. I can’t remember them all, but I remember she described every single one of them as “a story of love, hatred and betrayal”. I was never convinced that this was necessarily a suitable description of The Owl Service, but it does accurately summarise the plots of several novels – including Anthony Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right.

He Knew He Was Right is a novel in the best Victorian tradition. It’s long, detailed, and mostly about marriages. It’s said to be based loosely on Shakespeare’s Othello, another tale of “love, hatred, and betrayal”, but while the basic theme of the main plot is the same (suspicions of jealousy drive a husband and wife apart), there is very little scheming in Trollope’s book and most of the drama springs from simple misunderstandings and Victorian prurience.

Louis Trevelyan does not like his new wife Emily’s relationship with an old family friend, and tells her to stop seeing him socially, as he fears it will cause a scandal. But Emily is less malleable than Louis hopes, and refuses to alter her behaviour when she has done nothing wrong. They refuse to forgive each other, and are driven to live apart, Emily taking their son to live with her.

The Trevelyans are the main characters, and theirs is the tragic story. As time passes and the couple remains separated, Louis descends into madness. He hires a private detective to spy on Emily, and eventually gains custody of their son by deception and takes him to live abroad. He refuses to admit that Emily is innocent, and she refuses to submit to his authority without apology.

Trollope never considered this novel a success – he thought the Trevelyans unsympathetic, and indeed they are to some extent. But it’s difficult for me to view the story through the eyes of a contemporary audience. From my point of view, Emily really has done nothing wrong, but in the climate of the 1860s women were forced to guard their reputations and even the appearance of impropriety could be damaging both to her and to her husband. So perhaps the novel was written with more ambiguity, and both Emily and Louis were supposed to be stubborn and at fault in preventing a reconciliation.

But it is certainly true that the subplots are more interesting, and their characters more appealing. I would venture to say that Trollope realised this even as he was writing – for while Louis and Emily are depicted as rather flat characters, with their sole motivation their collapsing marriage, the others are described in more detail and with more inner character.

Trollope was a prolific writer, who produced some sixty or seventy novels. In an autobiography published after his death, he revealed that he adhered strictly to a writing quota every day, and freely admitted that he wrote for money – which did not endear him to the more high-brow critics of the day. This method of writing sometimes shows up in reading, in the occasional error in the text (such as when he describes a character as having attended two different universities in the space of a few pages) and in larger plot points that bear similarities to each other.

Two minor characters experience very similar stories. Nora, Emily’s younger sister, and Dorothy Stanbury, the sister of Louis’ friend Hugh, both reject eminently suitable suitors because they want to marry for love (a brave decision in Victorian England). Nora rejects Mr Glascock, a wealthy peer, because she loves Hugh, who works as a journalist. Dorothy, who lived in a very poor household until she is taken to live with her wealthy aunt, rejects Mr Gibson, a clergyman, although she has very little chance of marrying anyone. But this leaves her free to fall for her aunt’s heir, Brooke Burgess. The two storylines play out slightly differently, but the end result is the same. Both women marry the men they love, and both rejected suitors marry other women. The repetition may be deliberate, but it still jars.

The novel contains some well-written comic touches. Bozzle, the private detective, goes above and beyond the call of duty in his efforts to prove Emily’s guilt – including exaggerating events and evidence. His relationship with Louis, who wants the proof but despises the way he has to obtain it, is fraught and hilarious. Mr Gibson’s decision, after Dorothy’s rejection, about which of two sisters to marry, is a Morton’s Fork and leads to yet another betrayal, as he promises first one sister and then the other. And the American feminist who is a friend of Mr Glascock’s eventual wife is a pastiche of everything Trollope himself disliked when he visited the USA.

Despite the fact that the writing is uneven at times, the pacing is fairly good and the book is comparatively easy to read when compared with other contemporary writing. Maybe it isn’t Trollope’s best novel, but it’s the first I’ve read, and I wouldn’t say no to reading more.

But I don’t know what the significance of “Good-good-good-good evening” is.

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2 Responses to “The Booklovers: Chapter Two”


  1. 1 The Booklovers: Chapter One « Gin&Comment
  2. 2 The Booklovers: Prologue « Gin&Comment

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