Anthony Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right

Anthony Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right

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Anthony Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right

Anthony Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right is unique among the prolific writer’s novels in having as its title a complete declarative sentence. Such a title stands as a sort of challenge to the reader: it invites us, as we make our way through the novel’s densely detailed presentation of lived reality, to consider the relation between that reality and the proposition put forward in the title sentence. What does it mean to say that Louis Trevelyan “knew he was right”? Even if we are unconvinced by J. Hillis Miller’s argument that “a long multi-plotted novel like He Knew He Was Right, with all its wealth and particularity of character, incident, realistic detail, may be an exploration of a single ‘complex word’” (Miller 77), Trollope’s choice of title inevitably throws us back, as we attempt to make sense of the events narrated under that title, on questions of moral epistemology; that is, it compels reflection on how we know what is right and on the extent to which we can be secure in that knowledge. Obliged to read the narrative as, among other things, a meditation on “knowing” and on “rightness,” we can perceive that Trollope’s concern here is with the manner in which his characters come to possess certainty in their moral judgments, with the process by which they acquire the disposition towards what is “right” that we can label “virtue.” “Who would ever think of learning to live out of an English novel?” an irritated Caroline Spalding asks her zealously romantic sister, a credulous devotee of the genre. We might turn her question on its head and ask how it is that people learn how to live in an English novel, and what He Knew He Was Right in particular has to say about becoming good.

If the novel’s most prominent interest is in the breakdown or perversion of moral certainty, exemplified in the grotesque errors of judgment that deprive Trevelyan of his family and his sanity, it also manifests a subsidiary interest in the ways in which moral agents can replace such false certainty with the sort of just and balanced ethical vision that Trevelyan so conspicuously lacks. As we will see, this concern with moral education is displayed most directly in the novel’s secondary narrative threads, in which both Jemima Stanbury and her niece Dorothy attain an empathetic subtlety of perception and a depth of understanding of others that are absent in their former selves, as depicted at the opening of the novel.

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The Stanburys share with Trevelyan an essential purity of intention and a concern for the good; what separates their ethical ascent from his decline into myopic selfishness is their acquisition of a moral sense, that is, a character habituated to virtue in such a way that they can act rightly, and thus secure happiness, independently of the vicissitudes of fortune. As Jemima Stanbury explains, “it’s not God’s breezes that are hard to anyone, but our own hearts” (680). The true source of Trevelyan’s misery, and conversely of the eventual happiness of most of the other characters, lies within: the shape of our inmost thoughts and emotions, Trollope suggests, ultimately inscribes itself in our outer, practical life and is thus the root cause of our flourishing or floundering. Becoming good is a matter, then, less of sheer will than of the shape of our “hearts,” the ways in which we naturally and intuitively navigate the complexities of life in community.

This discourse of moral sense is, as Terry Eagleton has pointed out, intimately bound up with the political and social conditions of the era of industrial capitalism of which Trollope’s commitment to realism makes him so sensitive a chronicler. The Earl of Shaftesbury, David Hume, Edmund Burke, and their fellow theorists of moral sense are concerned, Eagleton writes, with a “process of refashioning the human subject from the inside, informing its subtlest affections and bodily responses with this law which is not a law” (Eagleton 43). In the liberal democratic state, just beginning to emerge in England as these theorists wrote, absolutist compulsion yielded to the autonomy of the governed; moral theory underwent a coeval and parallel transformation, laying new stress on the cultivation of sensibility and on aestheticizing analogies that linked moral norms to the inexponible laws of “taste.” Eagleton argues that the moral sense theorists were in fact laying the groundwork for a new bourgeois hegemony: in contrast with their feudal predecessors, the new commercial ruling classes secured the cooperation of the ruled by canons of taste rather than by cannons and cavalry. The realist novel, he writes, was “the most important cultural instrument of this hegemony in the nineteenth century, one which never ceases to grasp universal reason in concretely particular style” (Eagleton 43-44). Eagleton would doubtless view Trollope’s novels as paradigmatic examples of the sort of “cultural instrument” that shaped Victorian moral sensibility, but we can perhaps learn just as much about this sensibility by examining the ways in which He Knew He Was Right is itself, in its psychological acuity and its attentiveness to the ethical health of its characters, an essay in comparative moral biography, an attempt to chart the inner lives of good people as they cultivate, or in Trevelyan’s case tragically fail to cultivate, a subjective sense of the good.

Perhaps we can gain an understanding of the ways in which the novel is distinctively a product and summation of the morality of its age by comparing it with its most obvious thematic precursor, Shakespeare’s Othello. John Sutherland writes that Trollope “intended” his novel to be “a Victorian version” of the play (xii). It is, then, the points at which Trollope’s rewriting of Othello signally diverges from the original that highlight what is unique about the novel’s picture of moral interiority. The most striking lacuna one senses on comparing the two works is the hole in the novel’s plot where anyone expecting a straightforward congruence between the texts would look for Iago. Trevelyan is alerted to the possible impropriety of his wife’s friendship with Colonel Osborne by Lady Milborough, a kindly but unreflective dowager and a firm believer in the restorative powers of “Guinness’ stout” (25) whose good-hearted meddling is surely not intended to substitute for the celebrated motiveless malignity of Shakespeare’s villain. Iago’s plan is to arouse in Othello “a jealousy so strong / that judgement cannot cure” (II.1.323-324); there is no character in Trollope’s novel who seeks to make Trevelyan jealous. It can be said, then, that Trevelyan is his own Iago. Shakespeare’s play personifies idle malice as a discrete character; in Trollope’s novel, the function of generating groundless suspicion has been assumed by the Othello figure himself. Sutherland points out the debt Trollope’s picture of Trevelyan’s monomania owes to the theories of the psychologist Jean Esquirol (xiv-xv), but perhaps the most fundamental way in which the emerging nineteenth-century science of psychology has marked the novel is in this fusion of Othello and Iago into one: we encounter in the novel, unlike in Shakespeare’s play, characters so deeply conflicted in their emotions and desires that the concept of a unitary subjective character is no longer an accurate representation of their state of mind. As Trollope reminds us, “they who do not understand that a man may be brought to hope that which of all things is the most grievous to him, have not observed with sufficient closeness the perversity of the human mind” (364). In He Knew He Was Right more than in Othello, the true enemy is within: Trevelyan’s struggle with himself reflects a new, and distinctively bourgeois, apprehension of the extent of human inwardness, of the degree to which the human subject can be divided against itself.

This shift of emphasis leaves the novel virtually empty of genuine evil. Colonel Osborne is vain and selfish, and in Exeter Mr. Gibson and the French sisters exemplify a sort of moral squalor that Trollope seems at special pains to skewer, but none of these characters even approximates the sort of heartless nihilism that grips Iago and which we label “evil.” Instead, Trollope offers a subtle examination of the ways in which the absence of habitual moral sense can lead well-intentioned individuals into actions whose ramifications for those around them are every bit as grievous as Iago’s machinations. That is, by omitting evil from his novel he shows us that good intentions are not enough and must be supplemented by a sort of sentimental education.

To this end, the novel is replete with careful description of Trevelyan’s state of mind and of his motives for his destructive actions. After his first attempt to extract from his wife a promise that she will discontinue contact with Colonel Osborne, he reminds himself that in his attempt to check what he views as incipient scandal, he must be guided by “first of all considerations, the duty which he owed to his wife, and the love which he bore her” (43). Indeed, as this and several similarly phrased glimpses into Trevelyan’s thoughts reveal, his wholly involuntary alienation of his wife is driven largely by a misplaced sense of duty—not simply his obligations as a gentleman, but his obligations as a husband, his “duty” to Emily Trevelyan. Although the novel’s unblinking depiction of the consequences of Trevelyan’s views on marriage constitutes as straightforward a condemnation of those views as could be asked for, never is there a suggestion that Trevelyan is consciously acting from any motive other than “duty.” In his jealous rage he “hate[s] Colonel Osborne with all his heart” (177), but his loathing for the Colonel, who is in any case a bloodless amalgam of character flaws rather than a fully developed individual, occupies an strictly ancillary position in the hierarchy of his motives. Even as he languishes at Casalunga, the squalid farmhouse near Siena in which he secludes himself as his physical and mental vitality ebb, he continues to couch his pronouncements on the state of his marriage in the language of universally binding imperatives, declaring to Mr. Glascock that “no man should submit to be forgiven by his wife” (807). References to God and to divine law are sparing. Religion functions in this novel more as a sort of social shorthand, as, for instance, when the clerical vocation of Mr. Outhouse, whose “work had been altogether among the poor,” alerts us to the gulf between his “dreary” way of life and that of his bon vivant brother-in-law Sir Marmaduke Rowley (270), than as a source of specific moral guidance; for Trevelyan, “duty” is, as far as the reader can tell, the undiluted wellspring of normative value. In showing us in such wrenching detail the consequences of Trevelyan’s rigid adherence to duty, Trollope offers an implicit challenge to a strain of moral thought that had its roots in Kant’s deontological ethics and its debased contemporary manifestation in the sort of cut-and-dried moralism embraced by Trevelyan. A pure will, an unbending allegiance to “duty,” are, we learn from the novel, ultimately inadequate: the book argues instead, as we shall see, for a more holistic approach to the pursuit of good, one that lays its emphasis on the cultivation of a virtuous character and of the moral imagination.

It is perhaps the characteristically gentle and moderate rebuke Trollope administers to the cult of duty that caused the reviewers of the day to find He Knew He Was Right mildly shocking and generally distasteful. The Spectator felt moved to declare itself “both astonished and displeased” with the novel’s attempts to enlist the reader’s sympathy on Emily Trevelyan’s behalf (Smalley 326). The anonymous reviewer complains that Mrs. Trevelyan is a “self-willed, haughty, steely woman” and tosses in a boilerplate claim that her “self-love” is the true cause of the couple’s woes (Smalley 325), but the heart of the Spectator’s grievance seems to lie with the ultimate fate of the duty-conscious Trevelyan: although the review acknowledges Trevelyan’s “conceit and weakness” (Smalley 325), it contends that as a result of the vexing final scenes “the moral of it [the novel] is distorted as we have rarely known any novel of Mr. Trollope’s distorted before” (Smalley 328). The closing chapters of He Knew He Was Right are complicated by the question of Trevelyan’s “madness” and by the ambiguity of his final gesture, but they plainly assign to him the blame for what Henry James called the novel’s “impressive completeness of misery” (quoted Pope Hennessy 291). The novel’s climax is “distorted” in the judgment of the Spectator, which we can safely take as the voice of mid-Victorian respectability, because Emily Trevelyan’s “tardy triumph” (928), her extraction from her husband of what she takes as a sign of forgiveness and an acknowledgement of wrongdoing, comes at the expense not only of Trevelyan himself but also of the entire body of marital and moral doctrine to which he subscribes.
Trollope, however, is no more of a social or sexual revolutionary here than anywhere else. His interest lies not in demolishing the edifice of conventional morality, but in rebuilding it on a more secure foundation. But what sort of foundation is this to be? What sort of normative compass does Trollope propose as a substitute for “duty”? The progressive dimming of Trevelyan’s moral vision that precipitates the novel’s tragic and, to the Spectator and like-minded readers, deeply unsettling climax is, as we have seen, most readily explicable within the framework of a moral psychology of virtue, that is, one that regards the state of the moral agent’s character as a whole, rather than discrete moments of ethical choice, as the crucial bellwether of moral health. Ruth apRoberts argues that “Trollope’s study of Cicero provides in itself a solid rational basis for his artistic method” (apRoberts 71), but, as has been hinted in the paragraphs above, it becomes apparent on reflection that the conception of virtue revealed in He Knew He Was Right shares closer affinities with the moral theory of Aristotle. The Greek philosopher is not mentioned in Trollope’s autobiography among the ancient authors who supplied the “chief delight of [his] later life” (Autobiography 101) and Aristotle’s unique approach to ethics was not, in the novelist’s time, enjoying one of its periodic revivals, but if indeed “Trollope stands in the stream of liberal humanism” as apRoberts claims (apRoberts 14), it may prove profitable to trace this stream back from Cicero to its headwaters in Aristotle’s account of human flourishing. According to Aristotle, “like states arise from like activities” (Nicomachean Ethics 1103b); that is, we are habituated to virtue and vice generally, and to particular virtues and vices, courage and cowardice, particularly, by engaging in the sort of actions that are expressive of virtue or vice, courage or cowardice. “This is why,” Aristotle tells us, “we must give a certain character to our activities, since it is on them that the resulting states depend” (NE 1103b). Our everyday ethical decisions thus shape, indeed are constitutive of, our characters; we acquire an inclination towards, that is, a propensity to find pleasurable, either virtuous or vicious actions as the weight of our personal moral history pushes us in one direction or the other.

We can find an echo of Aristotle’s recognition of the cumulative power of actions exiguous in themselves in Trollope’s use of the Latin phrase Gutta cavat lapidem non vi, sed saepe cadendo (“A drop hollows stone not by force, but by falling frequently”) to describe his work habits in his Autobiography (Autobiography 365) and an English analogue, “ the drop from a house corner will hollow a stone by its constancy” (642), in He Knew He Was Right to explain Major Magruder’s eventual success in setting up his committee of inquiry into colonial affairs. Trollope presents, in such tucked-away Aristotelian turns of phrase, nothing less than a moral rationale for the realist novel: the writer must concern himself not only, perhaps not even at all, with life’s moments of radical uncertainty and high drama, but with the everyday business of living, the apparently insignificant words and deeds that add up to who we are. Trollope’s “complete appreciation of the usual,” to use Henry James’s famous phrase (Smalley 527), thus amounts to more than a descriptive knack; it is a statement of aesthetic principle, a constant reminder to his readers that the roots of character must be sought in the commonplace and the quotidian.

We can see this attention to the formation of moral sense at work in those strands of the plot that do not share in the “completeness of misery,” that is, in the stories of the marriages of the Trevelyans’ friends and relatives, a narrative cluster we might label with approximate geographic accuracy “the Exeter subplots,” since that city and the adjacent countryside is home to a number of the characters involved and is the backdrop to much of their interaction. It is noteworthy that, although Trevelyan’s decline and death cast a dark shadow over the book’s final chapters, He Knew He Was Right ends with no fewer than three weddings, each of which promises to inaugurate an idyllically happy union; statistically at least, comedy predominates over tragedy to the very end of Trollope’s Othello. As James Kincaid notes, these weddings “are more than just successful; they are triumphs of pure romance, ending in marriages that combine wit, spirit, love, and property: it is as if three Elizabeths married three Darcys” (149). This sphere of proto-domestic bliss remains largely separate from the misfortunes of the Trevelyans: it is significant that, in the period narrated in the novel at least, Louis Trevelyan does not set foot in Exeter or in the lovingly described countryside near Nuncombe Putney, which, except for occasional stumbles on the path to happiness and, of course, the unrelieved tribulations of the French sisters and their satellite Mr. Gibson, remain unsullied venues for happy and reciprocated love. Keeping in mind Jemima Stanbury’s formulation, quoted above, of what Eagleton calls “the law of the heart,” we must identify as the source of this diremption not “God’s breezes” but rather the “hearts” of the characters involved.

The moral education of Dorothy Stanbury consists in a deepening and broadening both of her sense of self and of her capacity for feeling. When first summoned from Nuncombe Putney to the Exeter Cathedral Close by her aunt, she is self-abnegating to a fault, entertaining no hopes of love or of any other form of happiness than the mild contentment she derives from serving others. “She had ever estimated her own value so lowly,” Trollope tells us, “as to have told herself often that such success [love] could never come in her way. From her earliest years she had regarded herself as outside that pale within which such joys are to be found” (542). Dorothy sees the barriers to her happiness as rooted in the natural order of things; she is excluded from the distinctively human “joys” of love and condemned to “a blank existence” (542) not by external forces but by her inalterably and objectively low “value” as a person, that is, by a quality ontologically indissociable from her very self. The free exercise of the human capacity for love and for being loved is left to other individuals, as indelibly marked for happiness as she is for dreary loneliness. Her resignation to a life of which the best that can be said is that it is “without active misery” (542) thus amounts to a refusal to assert her full humanity.

The Dorothy Stanbury we see at the close of the novel, newly married to the preternaturally kind and soon-to-be-wealthy Brooke Burgess, is so completely transfigured as to excite the wonder of observers: Mrs. MacHugh marvels at the new bride’s metamorphosis from “a plain, silent, shy, dowdy young woman” into “one of our city beauties, with plenty to say to everybody” (918). Dorothy’s transformation comes after her immersion in the sort of experience she once believed to be wholly and ineluctably foreign to her own existence. When Brooke Burgess declares his love to her, her “blank” conception of herself and her belief that she is by her nature unfit for happiness are shattered forever. She is left “feeling but not knowing that the whole aspect of the world was changed to her” (488); she constructs, at the level of emotion rather than of thought, a new cosmology, one in which she no longer stands “outside that pale” within which life can be fully enjoyed.

This subconscious reordering of Dorothy’s conceptual universe manifests itself in a new independence when her aunt flatly forbids the marriage: “What right,” Dorothy asks herself, “had her aunt to give any command upon the matter?… If Brooke and she chose to become man and wife by mutual consent, how could her aunt prohibit the marriage?” (541). As her love for her aunt and her love for Brooke, comparatively recent but overpoweringly strong affections that she now perceives to be incompatible, struggle within her, and as she recognizes herself for the first time as a free moral agent, Dorothy’s inner life takes on an intensity she had never experienced before: “there came upon her spirit,” Trollope writes, “an agony so bitter that she had known before how great might be the depth of human disappointment” (543). Access to a new realm of experience, albeit painful experience, allows her to realize the narrowness of her previous emotional range. Dorothy, Trollope writes later in the novel, “had entered from barren lands into so rich a paradise! But there is no paradise, as she now found, without apples which must be eaten, and which lead to sorrow” (686). Her disappointment renders her alive to the complexity and moral ambiguity of lived experience, a complexity nowhere to be found in “her old mode of living, her old ideas of life” (686). Trollope’s metaphor is not accidental: the new Dorothy, no longer walled off from profound emotion and thus from opportunities to exercise her moral intelligence, has eaten of the fruit that gives knowledge of good and evil.

Having become human in her suffering, Dorothy becomes human in her joy as well when her aunt unexpectedly relents and agrees to allow, even to endorse, the proposed nuptials: the novel’s events have strengthened and refined the moral sensibility of Jemima Stanbury as well as that of her niece. “Aunt Stanbury is a most excellent woman … with no fault but this, that she likes her own way,” writes Hugh Stanbury to his sister Priscilla at the opening of the novel (72). Hugh’s own choice of profession has given him occasion to discover how deeply his aunt’s imperious obstinacy runs, and his observations seem borne out as Miss Stanbury, grimly intent on “doing her duty by a relative whom she did not even know” (73), takes Dorothy into her home and attempts, with little finesse or subtlety, to dictate the course of her niece’s life. When Dorothy, citing uncertainty in her feelings, declines to accept the marriage proposal of the drab and self-seeking Mr. Gibson, to whom her aunt has all but promised her, Miss Stanbury is livid: “If you had so much doubt about it, you might have done what I wanted you” she exclaims (346), in an utterance that encapsulates her view of Dorothy’s proper role.

The last third of the novel, however, gives us a changed Miss Stanbury to set beside her changed niece. Indeed, she is “known through Exeter to be very much altered from the Miss Stanbury of old” (838). Having allowed Dorothy to return to Nuncombe Putney in the aftermath of Brooke’s first proposal of marriage, Jemima Stanbury is seized by “an uncontrollable longing to have her niece back again” (628), for Dorothy supplies “that love of which Miss Stanbury had enjoyed so little during her life and which had become so necessary to her” (836). Her opposition to Dorothy’s marriage was founded on her proud determination that her fortune “go back to the people from whom it had come to her” (35), the Burgesses, rather than falling into the hands of her own family. In the transfiguring light of love, she recognizes these scruples as absurdities, left over from the days of her legal battle for her money, when she “had become hard in the fight” (839). Confronted with the necessity of weighing her profound love to her niece against the strict and invariable rules by which she has governed her life, Miss Stanbury knows uncertainty for the first time. Reflecting on her quarrel with Hugh, she “would not, even now, tell herself that she had been wrong; but there were doubts, and qualms of conscience and an uneasiness” (839). In opening herself to the possibility that she may have been wrong, Miss Stanbury feels the first stirrings of genuine “conscience;” her moral sense, like that of her niece, had been allowed no scope of operation in her earlier glacial state. Her “uneasiness” marks the dawn of her consciousness of herself as a moral being.

The transformed Miss Stanbury finds her niece’s love “necessary;” she takes an indispensable pleasure in the latter’s companionship and devotion. As Aristotle points out, “we must take as an indication of a person’s states the pleasure or pain consequent on what he does” (NE 1104b). That is, the pleasure Miss Stanbury derives from her niece is a sign not of selfishness but of moral ascent: formerly Miss Stanbury took pleasure in bending others to her will, but her character has now changed in such a way that she finds joy in reciprocal love, on terms of approximate equality. Her unmediated, unreflective delight in Dorothy’s affection indicates the extent to which she has acquired a quasi-aesthetic sense of the good. Once given, like the less fortunate Louis Trevelyan, to dour meditations on “duty,” she now unites pleasure and what is “right” in her forgiveness of Hugh and her love for Dorothy.

The deeply conservative Miss Stanbury is, as Trollope’s discussion of her “right to be regarded as ‘county,’ in opposition to ‘town’” (59) makes clear, pre-bourgeois in her social allegiances and affiliations. In achieving the seamless union of the ethical and the aesthetic described above, then, she exemplifies Eagleton’s account of industrializing England’s transition to the “law that is not a law,” the rule of moral sense. As we have seen, Trollope’s picture of virtue in He Knew He Was Right stands firmly in the tradition of Aristotelian humanism and embraces its emphasis on the full development of human capacities for happiness, but represents at the same time a modulation of that tradition, an exploration of the ways in which it could be brought into harmony with his century’s growing awareness of the complexity of human inner life. “They are most happy,” Miss Stanbury reminds us, “who have no story to tell” (328). Storytelling is predicated on change and disruption, on the tumultuous and often wrenching eventfulness of life. Trollope’s narrative genius lies in his ability to see this eventfulness wherever it may be, and to show us the ways in which men and women struggle to be happy and good in spite of the stories they have to ell.

Works Cited:

apRoberts, Ruth. The Moral Trollope. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1977.
Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Edited and translated by Roger Crisp. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Eagleton, Terry. The Ideology of the Aesthetic. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990.
James, Henry. “Anthony Trollope.” In Partial Portraits (1888): 97-133. Rpt. in Trollope: The Critical Heritage. Ed. Donald Smalley. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969. 525-545.

Kincaid, James. The Novels of Anthony Trollope. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977.
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He Knew He Was Right. Edited with an introduction by John Sutherland. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
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