Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Book review: He knew he was right

The wealthy young Englishman Louis Trevelyan visits the British colony of the Mandarin Islands. Here he meets and falls in love with the governor's daughter Emily Rowley. Louis and Emily marry and settle in England together with Emily's sister Nora. Initially their marriage is happy and they have a baby boy. But when Emily is visited a few times by her older family friend, the single and rakish Colonel Osborne, Louis over-reacts and orders Emily not to see him again. Emily is shocked by her husband's lack of trust and soon their relationship deteriorates, leading even to a separation. Emily and Nora go and live with the family of Louis' university friend Hugh Stanbury. Hugh is in love with Nora, but because of his precarious living as a journalist, he dares not express his feelings. Meanwhile Nora is pursued by wealthy and titled Mr Glascock. Hugh's sweet and timid sister Dorothy is asked to come and live with her spinster aunt Miss Stanbury. Once there, aunt Stanbury tries to arrange a marriage between Dorothy and the local vicar Mr. Gibson, but Dorothy has more backbone than her aunt suspected!

This was the first novel I ever read by the Victorian author Anthony Trollope though I had watched adaptations of several of his works, among which the excellent BBC miniseries of He knew he was right from 2004. I was definitely not disappointed by this new (to me) author; Trollope has a pleasant writing style and can be funny and profound at turns. There were times while reading this book when I had to snicker and times when I thought 'Wow, that's a really beautiful sentence!' He knew he was right has a large cast of characters, but still manages to have a very well-balanced storyline. I think the reason for this is the common theme of the multiple stories in this novel: marriage.

Obviously the story of Louis and Emily sheds light on what marriage means, but so do the stories of Nora, Dorothy, Mr. Glascock and Mr. Gibson. All the stories show a different aspect of marriage: a failing marriage, an unequal marriage, an arrange marriage and together they give a rather complete picture of marriage in Victorian society. In particular, this novel details the position of women and the huge importance of marriage to their lives. At one point in the novel Nora  is practically homeless as a young unmarried woman with no parents in the neighbourhood. Louis Trevelyan presumes he has complete control over his wife's life and in many cases this is true as he can order her where to live even after they are seperated.

Trollope himself considered He knew he was right as a failure. His main character (Louis Trevelyan) was unsympathetic and the secondary stories where much more lively than the main storyline. Now, this may be true (I readily admit I liked the secondary storylines best in this book), but in my opinion this does not make this a failed novel. On the contrary, I think this is a book with an important message but it avoids being preachy and there is a good balance in the book between more poignant and lighter scenes. o Also, Trollope has created some memorable characters here (the French sisters, anyone?). My personal favourite is Dorothy Stanbury. She is sweet and her kindness even brings about a softening in her strict aunt. But Dorothy also knows what she wants and doesn't let people walk all over her in the end. I think this combination of sweetness and self-esteem is quite rare among Victorian heroines. Another favourite is Caroline Spalding, a minor character which arrives in the second half of the novel and who impressed me with her matter-of-factness and practical outlook at life.

In short, I was really happy with this introduction to Anthony Trollope and I recommend He knew he was right to any fond reader of Victorian novels!


  1. This sounds so good! Thank you for your review! I have yet to read anything by Trollope, but I'm thinking I should start with this one.

    1. You're welcome! Have you read and enjoyed works by Eliot or Dickens? I thought this book had some elements of both of these famous 19th century authors in it.

    2. I haven't read a lot of them, but that's a good additional recommendation, I imagine, if anything is!