I’ve read two books which deal with secrets and inheritance over the last week; Wilkie Collins ‘The Dead Secret’ and Anthony Trollope’s ‘Cousin Henry’. The similar subject matter was coincidence but it’s made for interesting reading. It sort of makes sense (to me) to talk about ‘Cousin Henry’ first – this is my first foray into Trollope; I’ve been flirting with him for a few years now, but never actually committed to opening a book.
The reason behind this long flirtation is not that he’s one of those big names I feel I should read (though that’s not unattractive to me), but that Trollope was a favourite of a much missed god father. He was a deeply intelligent, very funny, wise, and kind man – I feel if he loved Trollope then there’s something in Trollope for me. Of course if I’m wrong I’ll be a bit upset about it – hence the hesitation in getting stuck in. ‘Cousin Henry’ probably wasn’t a good place to start; chosen because it was short and had large print, I thought I’d be done with it in a few hours and ready for the next one. It turned out to be an experimental and surprisingly modern late work, a detailed and introspective character study of a troubled character in a morally fraught situation.
Deep in the Welsh countryside an elderly man is almost at the end of his life and wracked with indecision as to what to do with his estate. On the one hand is his beloved niece Isobel Broderick who has been regarded as his heir, on the other his nephew Henry who bears the family name. Respect for primogeniture is ingrained in the old squire so despite feelings of guilt about the situation he’s leaving Isobel in the old man makes out his will and calls Henry down to the country as his successor. Initially he hopes for a marriage between the cousins to salve his conscience but Isobel makes it clear that she despises Henry. In fact everybody despises Henry although it’s never really made clear why and when Isobel removes herself, the old man left alone with poor old cousin Henry changes his will again.
Now Henry knows the will has been changed, and he understandably feels angered by it, so much so that he allows it to become hidden (not really a spoiler because it’s on the back cover). The resulting situation is a mess. It’s generally accepted that a new will was made but equally widely assumed it’s been destroyed, perhaps by the old man, perhaps by Henry, and this is where things get interesting. In the absence of a later deed Henry inherits, but what will he do next – reveal the truth or keep the estate?
Meanwhile Isobel returns to her father’s house where she’s not entirely welcome determined to make a martyr of herself. She suspects a good part of the truth and the rest of the book is something of a struggle of wills between the determined strength of a silent Isobel, and the weak vacillations of Henry who’s inexorably pushed towards a public declaration of his innocence that he’s entirely unequal to making.
What makes this book different is that the wronged heroine is not an especially likable young woman, whilst the rogue of the piece is incapable of the actual act of villainy which would secure his position. Isobel is proud, stubborn, hypocritical, disdainful, and uncompromising. She refuses her cousins offer of marriage with an insult which couldn’t fail to make him her enemy, refuses to take any part in the search for the will in her favour, but equally refuses to believe that it doesn’t exist, refuses again to accept any money from her cousin under the terms of the proved will (which makes her unpopular at home) and generally sets out to make a public martyr of herself, presumably aware of the effect this will have on public opinion towards her cousin.
Cousin Henry in his turn finds himself in a terrible trap. Despised by all around him he feels powerless to act. Destroying the evidence will mean committing a sin beyond redemption, allowing its continued existence removes any security or comfort from his situation. He lets chance after chance to reveal the truth painlessly slip by him, each time he does so the probability of total disgrace becomes more certain and he knows it. The great question is this – if he was treated more kindly would he act more honourably?
Plot wise I thought this was a corker, stylistically it was more of a challenge. The dialogue felt stilted, and as the protagonists mull over their options it all becomes somewhat repetitive – which is realistic, but not as entertaining as the more sensational ‘The Dead Secret’ or ‘The Crimson Petal and The White’. All in all a mixed success, but I’m not done with Trollope yet – I’ve had some encouraging recommendations for what to try next and would welcome any more...