So much goes on in He Knew He Was Right that it’s hard for me to focus for long on any one point of interest while this reading of it is still so fresh. Since I’ve been remarking the novel’s relationship to sensation fiction, I’ll add that while I knew the main plot of the novel was ‘sensational,’ I was surprised at the way Trollope puts other sensational bits into the novel’s most comic segments and registers, especially the saga of Mr Gibson and the two Misses French. Here’s Camilla reflecting on Mr Gibson’s possible perfidy:
A sister, a mother, a promised lover, all false,–all so damnably, cruelly false! It was impossible. No history, no novel of most sensational interest, no wonderful villany that had ever been wrought into prose or poetry, would have been equal to this. It was impossible. She told herself so a score of times a day. And yet the circumstances were so terribly suspicious! (Ch. LXXIV)
As the tragic drama at Casalunga advances towards its painful conclusions, so too the ridiculous affair at Heavitree lurches along, until this:
The maid-servant, in making Miss Camilla’s bed and in ‘putting the room to rights,’ as she called it,–which description probably was intended to cover the circumstances of an accurate search,–had discovered, hidden among some linen,–a carving knife! . . . The knife [Camilla] declared, had been taken up-stairs, because she had wanted something very sharp to cut,–the bones of her stays. (Ch. LXXXII)
At times I found myself impatiently skimming these sections, as my interest and sympathies were far more engaged with the Trevelyans’ trials and, eventually, most of all with Nora and her steadfast determination to achieve a new (indeed, a manifestly modern) marriage with Hugh. But at the same time they pique my critical curiosity: are they simply diversions, a break into silliness to offset the sometimes lugubrious development of the ‘main’ plot? The overt mock-sensationalism suggests Trollope is having fun with generic conventions and disrupting the sensation/realism distinction he rejects in his critical writing (e.g. his Autobiography) while also amplifying many of his main themes, including the not-so-mock desperation of surplus women on the marriage market and the degradation of morals that results. Still, why do so comically, when the serious plot lines of the novel offer a pretty complete theme and variations along these lines? Perhaps the best answer is just “because he can.”
More evidence of self-consciousness about genre and form comes (in true Trollope style) through narrative intrusions. There aren’t many extended ones, at least for a novel of these proportions, but there’s a really good one at the opening of Chapter LXXXVIII:
It is rather hard upon readers that they should be thus hurried from the completion of hymeneals at Florence to the preparations for other hymeneals in Devonshire; but it is the nature of a complex story to be entangled with many weddings towards its close. [insert faint sigh of relief at the idea of ‘its close’] In this little history there are, we fear, three or four more to come. We will not anticipate by alluding prematurely to Hugh Stanbury’s treachery, or death,–or the possibility that he after all may turn out to be the real descendant of the true Lord Peterborough and the actual inheritor of the title and estate of Monkhams, nor will we speak of Nora’s certain fortitude under either of these emergencies. But the instructed reader must be aware that Camilla French ought to have a husband found for her; that Colonel Osborne should be caught in some matrimonial trap [there’s a motif that runs throughout the novel, sometimes without much hint of humour];–as, how otherwise should he be fitly punished? [and the number of characters who end up reflecting on marriage as a punishment or threat is actually remarkable]–and that something should at least be attempted for Priscilla Stanbury, who from the first has been intended to be the real heroine of these pages [interesting, that, since to me Nora emerges as the finest female character]. That Martha should marry Giles Hickbody, and Barty Burgess run away with Mrs MacHugh, is of course evident to the meanest novel-expounding capacity; but the fate of Brooke Burgess and of Dorothy will require to be evolved with some delicacy and much detail [do we detect a bit of glee in that last phrase, as he cracks his knuckles and settles in for another 100 pages?].
Trollope’s world has an odd and, in my reading experience, unique quality: his novels are at once so fully realized and capacious that he can link them together with coy little cross-references (in this one, we get both Phineas Finn and Lady Glencora, from the Pallisers series, and Bishop Proudie from Barchester), and so contrived and overt in their artifice that they defy what would otherwise seem simple categorization as ‘naive’ realism. It’s like being in some kind of virtual reality simulator, in which you are always aware at some level that you are playing a game but can look all around without really seeing its limits.
There’s no doubt this is a great novel to consider in a course on the ‘woman question’. It’s as direct in its confrontation with women’s political, social, and marital rights and obligations as any 19thC novel I know, if perhaps more ambiguous or ambivalent in its attitudes than some. But its 903 pages are difficulty simply to carry around, or hold while reading, and it’s hard to imagine just how to manage it pedagogically to maintain students’ enthusiasm when they are taking four other courses. If they’ve read Mill’s Subjection of Women and Cobbe and others on ‘old maids,’ though, along with the other novels I have in mind, won’t they find it irresistible? And failing those intellectual reasons, won’t they love it because of all the friends they’ll make reading it? I guess I’ll find out.