This is my first review, I’m still unsure how much to leave off, and how to structure it, but I hope to learn this very quickly!
This book revolves around the marital discord between Louis Trevelyan and his wife Emily, what set it off, how they react to this, and how their life begins to rapidly unravel as they find themselves caught in a web of obstinacy and distrust. The book also has two other key subplots, including a very unlikable clergyman, about two sets of lovers and a travel on the European continent.
The story begins with Trevelyan suspecting and subsequently accusing his wife Emily of a liaison with an older family friend, who is known to be a man about town but uses his age and position as friend to her father as both an excuse to play down, and yet a justification to continue to meet with her, despite Louis making his objections clearly known to both. Emily refuses to accept this allegation – by her behaviour she (the reader can also see this) has not betrayed or broken any vow, or been unfaithful in any way. Her “stubborn” refusal to bow down to Louis’ increasingly unreasonable and adamant demands that she follow his orders or else remain separated acerbate Louis, leading him down an irredeemable path of unhinged decision making, where he finds himself completely isolated and unable to gain perspective.
The Trevelyans’ story is a painful journey – a study of jealousy, misplaced trust in one’s own judgement, and an inability to come to a mutually agreeable compromise.
The cover illustration is accurate but not the way one would think.
To provide relief from the gloom, there are juxtaposed two other related stories – each involving a young woman with no money to her name, and a life-altering decision ahead of her – to follow her heart’s desire or to make the wiser and ostensibly sounder choice.
Nora, sister of Emily, can easily choose to accept a wealthy marriage proposal and ascend to a ladyship (which she knows she would like), but she learns at a crucial moment she realises she would rather continue to love Hugh Stanbury, a rebel – a mere journalist who writes for a penny newspaper – disowned by his wealthy aunt for choosing to be independent and subversive. His sister Dorothy too finds herself in a difficult place, where she lives with the same aunt, obligated to her for her very board and physical comforts, but a incongruous (to her aunt) independent streak in her leads her to firmly go against her aunt’s insistent proposal of marrying the local clergyman, who seems alright on paper but is a confused man driven by his selfish questionable motives. Both the young women find themselves debating sense versus sensibility, setting them on uncertain paths supported only by their principles. Their meekness is not be mistaken for weakness. Nora Rowley is a strong character, as is Dorothy, and they stick t their convictions, which is reassuring.
There is a happy ending in the book, to not make it too despondent, but I was left with a deep sorrow for the lead characters. Emily punished for sticking to her convictions, and Louis punishing himself until the end, because he would not allow sense, compassion and contemplation to alter his. Their story is a depiction of a slow and sure descent into madness, Emily finding herself at the eye of the storm she very marginally set off, finding herself pushed by her husband’s inability to forgive, forget or treat her as an emotional equal.
Trollope is brilliant in painting his characters with just enough pathos to create sympathy and I found myself pitying and angered with Trevelyan; reminded that women have – until very recently – been forced to accept their fate of having nowhere to go if their husband abandons them, or that asserting themselves would mean they would be censured by nearly all who hear of their plight, because a woman *has* to obey her husband.
I like that Trollope creates a strong and yet compassionate character in Emily, unbending where it mattered, and flexible where a life was at stake. I like this book a lot, though it wasn’t an easy read because I could clearly find myself too involved in the pain and psyche the leads suffer.
I’m now interested in reading Trollope’s other creations; in particular the Chronicles of Barsetshire. His writing style is easy to follow, terse and effective, with no tendency to be overwrought with descriptions (looking at you, Thackeray), and with a firm understanding of human psychology.
I also learnt The New Yorker reported Trollope saw a resurgence of favour in the late ’80s. Nathaniel Hawthorne is said to have tried to shock a friend by declaring Trollope to “suit(s) his taste”. Henry James complained once that Trollope’s work lacked irony, and, for all his mastery of daily life, was not realistic enough. Excuse me Mr James, but you are unbearable enough.