My online Trollope group is reading one of Trollope’s lesser known and mildly controversial books, Cousin Henry, written in 1879, three years before his death. The book is very short, which alone makes it unusual among Trollope’s oeuvre. We associate the name of the author with thick, 800-page novels with half a dozen subplots and half a hundred characters.
Cousin Henry is different. The plot goes like this: The old Squire of Llanfeare is dying and he has decided to leave the estate to his niece, Isobel, who has for a dozen years been like a daughter to him, managing his household and taking care of him in his illness. But he is a conservative man and it bothers him that he should leave the estate away from the male line of the Jones family. Unfortunately, the male heir, one Henry Jones, is a thoroughly inappropriate choice to be squire of Llanfeare.
The squire wants Isobel to marry Harry Jones, but she despises the man and refuses. The old man, reluctantly and in great sorrow, makes a new will leaving the estate to Cousin Henry. Cousin Henry arrives for a visit to the squire and Isobel leaves for a visit to her father and his family.
Then the squire dies, Isobel having hastened back to be at his bedside.
When it’s time to read the will, two tenants report that the squire made another, later will leaving everything to Isobel. But that will is nowhere to be found, despite a thorough search of the house. The estate passes to Cousin Henry.
And here the story warms up. Isobel, who interpreted her uncle’s last words to mean that he had changed his mind and that she was to inherit, believes, along with the rest of the populace of the estate and the nearby town, that Cousin Henry has either burned or hidden the will. He certainly acts like it, being unable to look anyone in the eye, sweating when asked about the whereabouts of the latest will, sitting up late in the evening alone in the book room, hardly eating, and wandering about Llanfeare in a distressed state.
Then the newspaper starts a crusade. In every issue they come closer to accusing him outright of a crime until finally Cousin Henry’s lawyer, Mr ApJohn, bullies him into suing the editor for libel.
Cousin Henry has not burned the will, nor actively hidden it, but he knows where it is and he knows that the estate is not rightfully his. Under the pressure of the people’s dislike and the newspaper’s accusations, he suffers terribly from this knowledge. All he wants now is to be rid of the burden of this ill-gotten estate. But he is unable to force himself to burn the document, hand it over to the lawyer, or fake a dramatic “finding” of it, even as the days go by and the date when he will have to testify in public as to what he knows about the true will comes ever closer.
There you have it. The reader knows from the first that there is a valid will leaving everything to Isobel. We know that Cousin Henry is keeping the information from the authorities. We even know where the will is located and how it got there. And yet for me this book has more suspense than one of the thrillers on the best-seller list. It is mesmerizing to watch a not-very-good man without much courage, beset by the distain and disrespect of his tenants and neighbors, wrestle with his sin and search for a way to escape his predicament without either going to jail or being forever condemned by God.
Not your run-of-the-mill Victoriana. But well worth reading for a glimpse into the places that Trollope could have taken us if it hadn’t been unfashionable to write this sort of thoughtful novel.