Little reviews on little (and big!) books

He Knew He Was Right by Anthony Trollope

on December 10, 2013

‘We know that the sane man is responsible for what he does, and that the insane man is irresponsible; but we do not know,- we only guess wildly, at the state of mind of those, who now and again act like madmen…’

Before you start this novel, a word of warning – this book is a monster! If you’re in need of a good doorstop, look no further 🙂 Having said that, it’s also a really good read, but you do have to set aside a lot of time to read it. My Oxford World’s Classics copy sat at a whopping 952 pages including explanatory notes, but if you’re used to reading Dickens, for example, this won’t be a daunting task! 😛 So, without further ado, to the story…

Prepare to meet one of the most frustrating characters in literature. Pretty much one of those ‘I-want-to-shake-you-for-being-so-annoying-and-not-listening-to-reason’ characters – I’m sure we’ve come across some of those in our time! This one goes by the name of Louis Trevelyan and his story is rather on the long side. He is happily married to Emily, until she starts to keep close company with an old friend of her father’s, Colonel Osborne. Several chapters in the first quarter of the novel then tend to yo-yo between Louis allowing his wife to see her friend and then forbidding her to do so (which is the first realisation that this is going to be a difficult journey throughout the novel!) To cut a (very) long story short, Louis becomes adamant that his wife is having some sort of sordid affair behind his back. Of course, he is wrong; his wife has been anything but unfaithful to him. Unfortunately, Louis refuses to accept his wife’s pleas that she is innocent, instead listening to gossip and hearsay to fuel his suspicions. He casts her out of their house, and here begins the great saga of his foolish actions.

As most readers of Victorian novels will know, there was a certain standard of masculinity expected from males of that period, where man regarded himself as the head of the household, whose will and commands were unquestionable. Part of Louis’s problem is that he is an extremely staunch supporter of these values; when he starts to see that his orders are being undermined by his wife, he becomes angry. Men were supposed to show they could control their wives, and gain their submission with just a word. As the reader encounters, his wife Emily is put into a situation where she cannot win. She submits to Louis’s wishes, but is still suspected so continues to see her acquaintance which enrages him. All she wants is for her husband to apologise and admit he was wrong, but of course Louis simply cannot do this (hence the title of the book). To Victorian man, status was regarded as one of the most important values. No man wanted to be less thought-of because he could not take control of his wife. Unfortunately, this is exactly what Trevelyan feels he has lost, regarding himself as a lesser man in the eyes of his peers because he cannot control his wife’s conduct. He puts his wife through mental torture and suffering, but since these were not then deemed as cruelty, nothing could be done about his actions.

The novel examines the new institution of the divorce courts in the 1860s. This shook up Victorian society somewhat, with cases being reported almost daily in newspapers around the country. This allowed the general public to read about the innermost workings of previously private problems in relationships. The reading of these cases becomes an obsession for Louis in the novel, almost like an instruction manual on how he should behave towards his wife. His thoughts centre upon one thing only, and that is his wife’s supposed infidelity; in fact, he is medically diagnosed with monomania by the close of the novel. It consumes every waking moment of every day for him. His suspicious jealousy eats away at him, leaving him as an utter shell of a man, showing just what a corrupting influence jealousy can be. Louis is unable to see the errors of his ways, so his downfall seems inevitable. Not only does Louis separate himself from society, he becomes alienated from the initial character that we’re introduced to. Louis becomes a completely different person, and this is a vital question surrounding the madness topic: is Louis really in control of his actions if he has essentially become a different person through his jealousy? Trollope seems to assert that the Louis who we see at the end of the novel is a complete alteration from the beginning, but I’ll leave you to make up your mind on that one 🙂 The more Louis drives himself insane with jealousy, the more the narrative style also changes. As he sinks lower into monomania, his rationalisations are lost to the reader; we only become acquainted with the outer view of Louis. Therefore, the more mad Louis becomes, the less a sane reader (like ourselves) can know what goes on inside his head – although I’m not really sure we would want to! Personally, knowing any more of his thoughts would probably have frustrated me even more! 😛

As a massive Shakespeare fan, I can’t finish this review without mentioning the blatant references to Othello throughout the text. We see a version of the poisonous Iago in the policeman Bozzle. Bozzle is hired by Louis to spy on Emily and report back what he finds, but consistently tells twisted information, causing Louis to become more and more vindictive. See if you can spot any more references yourself 🙂

Finally, a note on the ending – it is one of the most ambiguous I have ever come across. As Louis lies on his deathbed, Emily begs for forgiveness. However, the reader is actually never fully sure that his actions constitute an apology to her. There is a great deal of divided opinion on whether the novel ends with Louis being truly sorry for his actions or not – perhaps only Trollope knows! Nevertheless, despite the read being a very long one and almost driving me crazy at points, I really did enjoy reading Trollope’s portrayal of a man descending into madness through jealousy. It really is expertly done, and I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the psyche, or that loves to lose themselves in literature 🙂


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