Charles Petzold

Summer Reading: “Cousin Henry”

August 27, 2006
Roscoe, NY

"Does anybody read Trollope anymore?" The questioner was a distinguished gentlemen in his 70's, and of the multi-generational dinner table of about 12, only one other person (not quite the same age, but close) had ever read any Trollope, and it wasn't as if either of them were devotees: Both had read only Anthony Trollope's most famous novel, Barchester Towers (1857).

At the local Barnes & Noble the next day, I avoided Trollope's long novels (of which there are many) and picked an Oxford World Classics edition of Cousin Henry (1879) for my initiation. In retrospect, it was a good choice. It's "late Trollope" and somewhat unusual for Trollope in the extent of its psychologically penetrating plot. I remember squealing with empathetic anguish at Cousin Henry's self-made quandary.

That was six years ago, and following Cousin Henry I read all six novels in the "Barsetshire Chronicles" and perhaps ten-odd others. I am currently 2/3 through the six Palliser novels (a.k.a., the Political novels or the Parlimentary novels), and before commencing The Prime Minister this upcoming week, I decided to revisit Cousin Henry and read it again.

Indefer Jones, squire of the estate of Llanfeare in South Wales, is of the age where he has to consider who should inherit the estate. He has no direct descendents, although for many years his sister's daughter, Isabel Brodrick, has been like a beloved daughter to him. He'd like to leave the estate to her in his will but ... well ... she's a girl.

To Indefer Jones, that "first male heir" would be his brother's son, Henry. Everything would work out just fine if only Isabel and Henry would marry and share the estate. Isabel, alas, despises Henry, and when Indefer Jones invites Henry to Llanfeare in preparation for inheriting the estate, nobody else much cares for Henry either. He has no (what we would call today) people skills, and seems more interested in inheriting the estate than running it properly.

When Indefer Jones dies (about 1/6 into the short 280 pages of the novel) questions about his will arise. The most recent will that exists leaves the estate to Henry, yet there is considerable evidence that Indefer Jones drew up another will just days before his death that left the estate to Isabel. If this later will exists, where is it?

Henry knows exactly where that will is, but he's keeping his mouth shut. He's dishonestly hiding his knowledge of that undesirable will, but he's much too cowardly to actually destroy it. Henry digs himself deeper into a hole of deceit and (what's worse) tormenting rationalizations and guilt. For much of the novel, Trollope takes us inside Henry's head, and we suffer along with him.

During my recent second read of Cousin Henry, I focused more on Isabel. She is quite certain her uncle left the estate to her, but there's not much she can do about it. Meanwhile, she's had to move back home, and both her father and stepmother want her out of the house. They want her to accept the £4000 Henry is offering her in compensation, and they want her to get married to the man who's proposed to her, but Isabel's obstinate refusal on both matters drives everybody around her nuts. When her stepmother says that Isabel and the man who's proposed to her are "both dying for each other," Isabel replies,

Trollope's novels are character driven, and the characters he has created seem exceptionally real and three-dimensional. It would have been almost impossible for Trollope to have written a murder mystery, for example, because his characters are so transparent that the reader would guess almost at once who did it. In Phineas Redux (1874), when a character is murdered, we know for certain that Phineas Finn could never have done it, despite all the evidence against him, just as we are sure in The Eustace Diamonds (1873) that Lizzy Eustace's necklace wasn't really stolen. Yet, nothing quite prepares us for the true-to-life emotional devastation that both characters succumb to as a result of their ordeals.

Trollope may ruin other authors for you, particularly those who value plot twists over character. A couple years ago somebody persuaded me to read James Patterson's Along Came a Spider (1992). The novel had what I thought was a very interesting premise: A psychopath has been masquerading as a teacher at an exclusive private school, gaining the trust of all the other teachers and students. How did he do this? I wondered. How did he prevent the psychopathological aspects of his personality from showing through? Unfortunately, Patterson is not interested in showing us this part of the story, or in actual human characters at all. Our introduction to this character begins with his mask coming off, as if personalities can change at whim. In real life, they do not. Sudden personality changes in a novel reveal not an author's skill in managing plot, but an author's failure in creating characters anything close to real life.