Marriage, Actually

What with the dozen novels making up The Barchester Chronicles and the Palliser series (and, of course, the necessity of rereading these wonderful works), it’s actually quite difficult to move onto any of Anthony Trollope’s other fiction.  I’ve read The Way We Live Now a couple of times, but I finally got around to buying another of his novels, He Knew He Was Right, earlier this year and, as I’m currently a man of leisure, thought I would spend an idle few weeks working my way through this 820-page monster.  So, nine days (!) later, I’m ready to review and, luckily enough, also in time to participate in the Classics Circuit Trollope Tour – step this way…

He Knew He Was Right centres on the marital problems of Louis Trevelyan and his young wife, Emily.  When an old ‘family friend’, the slightly sleazy Colonel Osborne, becomes a little too intimate with Emily Trevelyan, her husband overreacts, and his heavy-handed actions are the catalyst for a devastating split.  Emily’s refusal to apologise for her lack of obedience and Louis’ inability to countenance a reconciliation without her unconditional apology and surrender prevent any possibility of a resolution, and the effects of the separation, not only on the unfortunate couple but also on the innocent bystanders caught in the cross-fire, are sketched out perfectly across a very wide canvas.

Most of the Trollope novels I’ve read so far have used marriages as a sub-plot, often as a form of light relief from the main proceedings, and at first I was a little disappointed with the book, wondering how the trials and tribulations of a host of star-crossed lovers could possibly fill the pages allotted to the task.

However, I gradually became absorbed by the many differing approaches taken to the subject of holy wedlock.  From Nora Rowley’s rejection of a ‘suitable’ match and her resolute adherence to her true love, to Dorothy Stanbury’s willingness to sacrifice her love to the loyalty she owes her aunt and the Reverend Gibson’s constant dithering as to which of the Misses French he desires to marry (and eventually, as to which would be the lesser of two evils…) – getting married is a rather complex and worrying affair.  As I have intimated in my title, I was reminded a little of the style of the film Love, Actually with its light-hearted look at various types of love (platonic, unrequited, forbidden, betrayed etc).  When all is said and done, marriage actually is all around…

Anyone reading the book will be struck by the frequent allusions to (and quotations from) Othello, and – according to the introduction in my edition – one of the catalysts for the writing of He Knew He Was Right was a newspaper article bemoaning the lack of a Victorian Othello.  Of course, being Victorian, there was little chance of a full-blown tale of sexual jealousy, and this side of the story is very muted.  However, the parallels with the Shakespeare play, including the addition of an Iago figure (Bozzle), are there for all to see: just like Othello, He Knew He Was Right is the story of an otherwise succesful man laid low by one deadly character flaw.

Another interesting theme touched upon rather too briefly is the growing importance of feminism, portrayed in this book by the rather unflattering figure of Wallachia Petrie, an American poet(ess) who rages against the iniquities of both male domination and hereditary power (and who, therefore, is doubly disappointed when her intimate friend decides to get involved with a member of the English aristocracy).

Trollope was not fond of strident blue-stockings, and this exaggerated caricature is guaranteed to annoy feminists, but the character is a very interesting one, representing a slight shift in Trollope’s fiction from an entirely patriarchal anglocentric world to one where America is playing an ever-increasing role, and where traditional gender roles are, if not challenged, then questioned ever so slightly. It may be stretching things a little to think that the writer intended undertones of sexual attraction between Petrie and her protégée (this is Trollope, not Woolf), but there is enough there to make one think that it is not beyond the realms of possibility, especially in the final mention of the American poet:

“In the privacy of her little chamber, Wallachia Petrie shed – not absolute tears – but many tearful thoughts over her friend.  It was to her a thing very terrible that the chosen one of her heart…” He Knew He Was Right, Penguin Classics (2004, p.682)

It is though, of course, the Trevelyan marriage which is the focal, and most important, pillar of this novel.  In his lengthy description of the tragic consequences of a seemingly trivial disagreement, Trollope shows how an unwillingness, or an inability, to overlook an apparent slight can bring a marriage crashing down.  The actual issue of who is right or wrong is not really that important; it is more about a clash of wills and a struggle for marital supremacy.  Louis, despite knowing full well that his wife is completely innocent of the charges he has lain upon her, demands that she bend to his will, insisting on the complete obedience and submission he (and many Victorian readers) believed owing to him as the husband.

When his wife refuses to apologise for something she has not done, his attempts to punish her, while causing her enormous anguish, backfire and affect him much more deeply.  He begins to suffer both mentally and physically, the stress of his marriage breakdown taking its toll on his appearance and, later, his health.  However, even when it is clear that he has been abandoned by his closest friends and that even his paid helpers have decided to wash their hands of him, his obstinacy refuses to let him take his wife back without the profession of submission and repentance he craves:

“Should he yield to her now – should he make her any promise – might not the result be that he would be shut up in dark rooms, robbed of his liberty, robbed of what he loved more than his liberty – his power as a man.”  (p.659)

Trevelyan is prepared to go to the grave, if necessary, before compromising his principles and excusing his wife without her apology.  I’m sure modern psychologists would have a field day analysing Louis’ state of mind and tracing the progress of his decline into madness – even for someone with no real knowledge of mental illness, He Knew He Was Right is a masterful and intriguing insight into the effects of mental strain on bodily well-being.

Then again, those mental health experts may have been preoccupied looking at the effect these events had on someone who has so far remained unmentioned – Trevelyan’s son Louis.  The descriptions of the poor boy towards the end of the novel – apathetic, unemotional, silent – perhaps do more to highlight the stupidity of the quarrel than all the deterioration his father undergoes.  Whoever you think is right in the dispute, there is no denying that both parents are utterly wrong when drawing the argument out has such a worrying effect on their only child. 

The moral of the story?  Think twice (at least) before rushing into marriage; respect your partner and don’t jump to conclusions without talking things through; and never ever allow your actions to hurt the children.  There you have it: Anthony Trollope – marriage adviser.

Oh, and yes, it’s a very good book.


12 thoughts on “Marriage, Actually

  1. You've hooked me! I need to read this. Great review, thank-you. Interesting that the (perhaps) lesbian bluestocking is American; she's completely “other” and no threat to Victorian ideals of English womanhood, but Trollope sows the seed of possibility.

    I'm rather fascinated (in an appalled way) at the whole grotesque Victorian marriage thing, and this sounds like a book I would really enjoy.


  2. Thank you so much for this review. I spent a long time when reading this book fighting the feeling that Ijust wanted to bang the couple's heads together. In an earlier novel Kept in the Dark, we have a similar scenario when the wife is discovered to have broken off an earlier engagement before marrying her husband and he refuses to understand or forgive her. The wife begs his forgiveness in the end so perhaps AT decided that he would stick to his guns in this one.

    There is an excellent BBC DVD of this which is well worth watching ifyou have not already seen it


  3. Violet – As you know, Vic-Lit is very tame in some ways, so you can't blame Trollope for what he couldn't say. The idea of marriage is also a prominent strand in my current read, 'Buddenbrooks' – I'm glad I'm alive now, not then 😉

    Elaine – The idea of Othello is prominent in the introduction to my Penguin edition – perhaps building Trevelyan up a bit more first would have added to his downfall…

    …and added another 200 pages!

    P.S. I'd love to watch some of the Trollope adaptations; I also heard that Poirot himself was Melmotte in 'The Way We Live Now'.

    Wendy – Thanks 🙂 'The Warden' is great. Some people are put off by the church element, but if you regard it as many Victorians did, as just another workplace like any other, it's less offputting.

    Becky – It's very good. Off to look at your post for the tour 🙂


  4. This sounds fascinating, but as I'm still working my way through the Barchester Chronicles at the moment, it might be a while before I get around to reading this one! Trollope has been a new discovery for me this year and I'm really looking forward to all the great books I have ahead of me.


  5. I've put off reading your review until Jenny and I finished our co-review (posting tomorrow), and now that I've read your thoughts, I must say that I concur absolutely, right down to noticing Miss Petrie's possible lesbianism (and I'm a reader who is extremely reluctant to make assumptions about close same-sex relationships in fiction, especially older fiction).

    The thing that astonished me about this book was its incredible scope. Trollope looks at marriage and courtship from so many angles, and he comes out seeming to adopt a surprisingly progressive attitude. The characters who refuse to accept the expected sort of marriage seem by the end to have a good chance at happiness. And the more hide-bound and traditional a character is, the more misery they bring upon themselves and others.

    It's a wonderful book, and I'm excited to see Elaine's comment that there's a BBC version. I was hoping that was the case but hadn't gotten a chance to find out!


  6. Excellent review! I'm especially taken with the Shakespeare allusions. I'm sort of a Shakespeare freak, thanks to my 11yo son. (In fact, I just wrote a post talking about Shakespeare and Thomas Hardy.)

    For the Circuit I read Rachel Ray–a lesser novel that was lots of fun to read but doesn't sound nearly as fascinating as this book.


  7. Teresa – I must pop over and check out your review. There was supposed to be another review of this, but I think they dropped out (just as I dropped in!).

    As mentioned, I was dubious at first, but the sheer variety of approaches to marriage really made this an interesting novel.

    Bit long though 🙂

    Lifetime Reader – I must read more Shakespeare (although every time I do, I end up saying I must watch some Shakespeare!).

    Now that I've knocked off so many Trollopes, I need to be careful that any future ones are quality and not dross. 'Lady Anna' sounds like one to go for next.


  8. You say: “However, I gradually became absorbed by the many differing approaches taken to the subject of …”

    This is how I felt about the first two Palliser books. I wasn't blown away at first (a bit disappointed in CAN YOU FORGIVE HER? given the length) but the more I read the more I realize how many different approaches he has to society and women and LIFE.

    You've definitely intrigued me on this one. Looking forward to it, once I finish Palliser novels and whatever else I choose next…..


  9. I think it's one to read once you've gone through the series (I can't understand how people can read one Barchester novel here and a Palliser there – out of order!).

    Probably on to the Autobiography next though…


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