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Archive for June 3rd, 2019


Marcus Stone, “Trevelyan at Casalunga”

Dear friends and readers,

Though it’s been some time since I taught Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right, and I have published a chapter of my book (Trollope on the ‘Net) on this novel, and know there is a sizable body of subtle interesting essays on the book — on the subjects of love, sex, marriage, custody of children, gender power, male abuse of women, male sexual possessiveness and anxiety — since writing on Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? after teaching it, I’ve been wanting similarly to focus on one aspect of this enormous and complex book, which we discussed in my class. This because I feel this perspective has the power to make the book function on the side of compassion in today’s world, and it was taken up by my class with real interest as reconciling together many of its disparate elements.

We can look upon He Knew He Was Right as a modern semi-medical study of anxiety and depression. I found the idea most fully worked out by C. S. Wiesenthal in “The Body Melancholy: Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right, which appeared in the Dickens Studies Annual for the year 1992. In the case of Louis Trevelyan Trollope goes beyond his other studies of male who cross the line of sanity into insanity through obsession by a fixed idea, usually sexual jealousy, to present, examine and then trace the “psychopathology of melancholy.” He has gone beyond the traditional figure of melancholy (think of Durer’s famous icon) — super thinness, sleeplessness, profuse perspiration, paleness, hollow eyes, a bent back, his eyes not working right, all are slowly developed in Trevelyan.


Oliver Dimsdale brilliant as Louis Trevelyan, here he watches Emily leaving River Cottage (2004 He Knew He Was Right, scripted Andrew Davies)

In the last session of the class we examined Louis’s descent into profound illness and finally death as a gradual piling on of mental and then physical symptoms which destroy his ability to judge rationally and see what is in front of him. This leads to his inability to be around others, to adjust to them, so that he isolates himself in a nervous irritability. Most centrally he and Emily are just not compatible; what amuses her (social life, flirting) is anathema to him (he prefers to write papers in his study). He cannot bear the solutions presented to him as what he must do to alleviate the situation — take his wife away or come out of his study. He cannot present his case, adjust his conversation to theirs, and ends up intensely alienated from everyone. We were watching him break down step-by-step, with his hiring of Bozzle just one of the stages on his journey to a loss of the identity he had. Bozzle’s jokes are not just edgy, they have a sinister feel. The actor playing the part in Davies’s film adaptation had an expression on his face of self-deprecating irony, a wild laughter at himself,a kind of cunning in his eyes. He is alienated from himself and half-watches himself acting and talking in self-destructive ways, but he cannot help himself to stop. He writes letters from time to time which he thinks are offers of compromise when they are insults, threats, and come out of paranoia. Continual nervous distress and paranoia exhaust him to the point he becomes weak with inanition. He cannot dress himself conformably, is not used to sitting down to do anything with others. Bozzle sums this process up as Mr T “is no longer becoming quite himself under his troubles,” and wants to rid himself of this client. Louis crossed a kind of Rubicon when he paid Bozzle to kidnap his son. In his dialogue with Lady Rowley when the Rowleys come to England she discerns a mentally sick man.


Geraldine James as Lady Rowley, startled by what she is seeing

Seen from this angle, we could read the novel as a defense of Trevelyan: in his Autobiography Trollope said he wanted to create sympathy for Louis, and saw that he had failed. When I say the novel then becomes out about how Trevelyan came to act so badly, I would agree that this perspective is inadequate because it omits too much: Louis’s desire to control Emily, his insulting her for being knowing in bed (“harlot” is the word he uses); his overreaction to the petty rake, Osborne. Madness was in Trollope’s era thought to manifest itself in delusions, and he is delusional about what is going on between Emily and Osborne: flirting yes, adultery no. Emily’s refusal to assuage his anxiety at the price of her social liberty, life and self-respect are understandable, and the novel is probably more convincingly seen as genuinely feminist, genuinely about insoluble conflicts in temperament in marriage, the problems of using hypocritical cant. But Trollope also blame Emily for not yielding, refusing to compromise or reassure Louis — look how by contrast Dorothy and Aunt Stanbury give in and win out because they self-negate. She drives the man (the way Desdesmona does) when he visits by her recurring to the terms of the original quarrel and demanding he make a sign of admitting some wrong done; Trevelyan in frustration, and out of spite too, angry at his inability to make the Outhouses behave the way he wants — seeks some weapon he can use to compel the others to declare Emily sexually unfaithful, a bad wife, a mother risking her children. The weapon is his kidnapping of his own child. Now all will have to deal with him since the law is on his side over this child. We are now canvassing the larger important feminist themes and humane outlook at the core of this Trollope novel.


Uncle (Mr Crump) and Camilla


She cannot


Kindly collapse

Singling out Louis’s symptoms and trajectory —- helps us appreciate the depth of insight in Trollope. You can go round him to look at the other characters, and their coping with their bleakness: like Dorothy Stanbury who will say she is nothing to others, has nothing to offer, or Nora Rowley who wants more useful tasks and power than her gender allows; Priscilla Stanbury’s deeply generous letters showing her sane perspective against her life of poverty because she will not marry (is probably lesbian). The comic analogue to Trevelyan is the madness of Camilla French and her carving knife. She caves in easily when met with common sense backed by kindness. It’s funny in the film when Claudie Blakeley as Camilla breaks down and cries and hands the knife over to her uncle. But I suggest at the core of this is Trollope exorcizing his own demons: I agree with those (the Stebbinses are not alone in this) who suggest he spent long periods depressed (he says as much of his youth in London) and he is pouring his own experience into this character.

What I liked about ending the class discussion on the novel this way, and making this perspective one of the central ones is that the feminist position can become a series of beratings, blaming of Louis, anathematizing him. How does that help?

Ellen

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