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.