Four years ago I started to read my first Trollope – ‘Cousin Henry’ – for a Classics Circuit tour. I didn’t get on with the book, I didn’t finish it, but I at least had the sense to write:
“I suspect that I may still come to love Trollope. I just need another time and another book.”
When I saw the same book in the library again last month I thought it was time to try again, time to see if another time and the other books I’ve read would make all the difference.
I think they did; because this time I liked ‘Cousin Henry’, and this time I had to keep turning the pages until I reached the end of the book. It’s a short book, and it moves along more quickly than any other Trollope I have read, but it is still distinctively and recognisably him.
The story opens on a country estate in Carmarthenshire. Indefer Jones, the owner of that estate was elderly, his health was failing, and he was contemplating his will.
He wanted to make his niece, Isabel Brodrick, his heir. She was his sister’s daughter, and she Isabel had lived with her uncle for many years, since her mother had died and her father had remarried. There was a strong between uncle and niece; and Isabel loved the estate and was well liked by her uncle’s staff and tenants. She was the perfect heir in all respects but one: she was a woman whose claim came from the female line.
Custom and convention said that Henry Jones, the son of Indefer Jones’ younger brother should be his uncle’s heir. Henry had run up debts, he had been sent down from Oxford, and he had found a job, of sorts in London. He didn’t come near, and he didn’t have the best of reputations.
The choice was intriguing, questioning the importance of primogeniture, and asking what roles a woman might play.
A marriage between Isabel and Henry was suggested, and it could have resolved their uncle’s dilemma; Henry was willing, but Isabel was proud, she knew what was said of her cousin, and she dismissed the possibility out of hand.
Indefer Jones died and the will that was found in his desk showed that tradition had won the day. Henry Jones was the heir.
Isabel returned to the home of her father and step-mother, and Henry Jones took up residence in the manor house.
Friends and neighbours, staff and tenants, were all disappointed with the will. And rumours started to spread The story was that shortly before his death, Indefer Jones had asked two visiting tenant farmers to witness a new will. It hadn’t been drawn up by his solicitor, but he told them that all would be well. He had copied the wording of an earlier will; all he had changed was the name ….
Cousin Henry knew that the story was true, because he had, purely by chance, found that will, in the library, tucked into a book of sermons his estate to Isabel. That was a great blow to a young man hoping for a new life. He couldn’t quite bring himself to bring to destroy the will, and so he tucked it back into the book and said nothing.
He found that easy, but he found living with the guilt and the fear of discovery very, very difficult. And Cousin Henry found it very hard to dissemble, and, though none of them could prove it, Henry’s manner, his actions, his responses to certain questions, convinced many people he was guilty.
Meanwhile, Isabel’s pride lead her to reject the overtures that Cousin Henry made as a sop to his conscience, turn down the proposal of the young clergyman she loved because she was poor, and offer to go out and earn her own living rather than be a burden to her father.
The story worked so well because the characters of Isabel and Henry were so well drawn. They were both fallible; he was weak while she was strong; that was interested and it meant my sympathies were shared between the two, albeit unequally.
I couldn’t say that that I liked either, but, as always with Trollope, I understood, I was involved, and I had to know how the story would play out.
The story is simple, it feels a little contrived in places, but as a psychological study – particularly of the effects of guilt – it’s brilliant!
The story comes to a head when Carmarthen Herald publishes a series of articles accusing Henry of destroying the will, or at the very least having knowledge of its existence. The family solicitor tells Henry that he had no choice but to sue for libel, and he sets the wheels in motion.
But, as he observes Henry, his certainty that there is no libel grows.
I guessed the ending long before it happened, but it didn’t matter. I enjoyed seeing the story play out.
Now I know that this was the wrong book four years ago, and it shouldn’t be anyone’s first Trollope, but when you have come to know and love him it is definitely worth reading.