Cousin Henry (1879), a short novel which runs to just 280 pages in my edition, came late in Trollope’s career. Weak on characterisation, but strong on its depiction of guilt, it’s not the best place to start for anyone treading into Trollope territory for the first time. Trollope’s sub-plots are absent and instead this is a very simple story in which Trollope examines the question of inheritance.
The elderly, childless Indefer Jones owns an estate, Llanfeare, in Wales. When the book opens, he’s close to death, and he’s spent the last few years of his life vacillating back and forth regarding the disposition of his estate. For many years now, his young niece, Isabel Broderick, has lived at Llanfeare. Isabel is the product of Indefer’s now deceased sister and an attorney who has since remarried and has several children by his second wife. Mr. Broderick’s new wife, Isabel’s stepmother, considers Isabel a burden and a threat to the family’s limited resources. During visits back home to her father, Isabel has been courted by the local curate, Mr. Owens–a man who has but 200 pounds a year to live on. Uncle Indefer cannot decide whether to leave his estate to Isabel or to a male relative, a young clerk, the Cousin Henry of the title, who lives in London.
A dilemma arises. Indefer, when he’s in the mood to leave his estate to his devoted niece, Isabel, forbids her to marry Mr. Owens, “the grandson of an innkeeper,” so when he keeps changing his mind, Isabel, who still expects to be left a sizeable legacy from the estate if it goes to Cousin Henry, believes she will be free to marry Mr. Owens. Indefer agonizes about the decision:
Mr. Indefer Jones, who was now between seventy and eighty years old, was a gentleman who through his whole life had been disturbed by reflections, fears, and hopes as to the family property on which he had been born, on which he had always lived, in possession of which he would certainly die, and as to the future disposition of which it was his lot in life to be altogether responsible. It had been entailed upon him before his birth in his grandfather’s time, when his father was about to be married. But the entail had not been carried on. There had been no time in which this Indefer Jones had been about to be married, and the former old man having been given to extravagance, and been generally in want of money, had felt it more comfortable to be without an entail. His son had occasionally been induced to join with him in raising money. Thus not only since he had himself owned the estate, but before his father’s death, there had been forced upon him reflections as to the destination of Llanfeare.
Indefer, at one point had a younger brother named Henry, who “disgraced the family.” He ran off with a married woman and spent too much time at “race courses and billiard-rooms.” While Indefer strongly disapproved of his brother’s lifestyle, he acted as a benefactor for his wastrel brother’s son, the Cousin Henry of the title. Indefer even paid for his nephew to attend Oxford, but he was sent from there in disgrace. The young man is seen to be “sly” and “given to lying,” and is considered a great disappointment. Shortly after the book opens Cousin Henry is summoned to Llanfeare and this releases Isabel to visit her family. Indefer still agonizing about the disposition of the estate, thinks that Isabel ‘deserves’ it but believes that the estate should go to a “Jones.” The perfect solution, as far as he is concerned, would be if Isabel agreed to marry her cousin, but she refuses to do so.
Uncle Indefer dies, and the last will, drawn up by the very sagacious lawyer, Mr. Apgood indicates that Cousin Henry is the heir. Isabel is supposed to inherit 4000 pounds, but there’s no 4,000 pounds to give. This leaves Isabel penniless and Cousin Henry the new owner of a large estate. But is there another will? Did Uncle Indefer, famous for his will changes, dictate another will prior to his death? Two local farmers swear this is so and that Isabel is the rightful owner. Where, then, is the last will?
One of the problems with the story is that Cousin Henry is seen by everyone in the novel as weak and despicable. All the servants at Llanfeare and the locals think that Isabel, a young woman they know well, should have inherited the estate, and the fact that Cousin Henry is the heir is seen as grossly unfair. For his part, Cousin Henry thinks he’s rather hard done by, and he has a point. His uncle summoned him from London–it wasn’t as though Henry weaseled his way into the house on false pretenses. If anyone needs to share some blame here, it’s Indefer Jones for not being able to make up his friggin’ mind. Cousin Henry, quite frankly, has my sympathy. The estate has been dangled in front of his nose for years. Yes, he’s a vacuous young man, but he was promised the house repeatedly, and now Master of Llanfeare he’s treated badly by the servants, who, in some sort of mini-rebellion, all give notice and depart–with the exception of the housekeeper who serves him very poor meals.
Isabel is not an appealing heroine. She says she thinks that the house should go to Cousin Henry, but then when the chips are down, it’s clear that she’s bitter about it (not that I blame her). She rather hypocritically considers that she’s too much of a “lady” to appear to care about the inheritance, and so she refuses to join in the hue and cry when the house is searched for the missing will. And then there’s her relationship with Mr. Owens–a very flat character who doesn’t leave much of an impression. Isabel proudly refuses to take that 4,000 pounds in payments from her cousin. So even though she didn’t become the heiress of Llanfeare, she still can’t marry Mr. Owen as he’s too poor to support a family. Isabel’s stepmother wants to shake some sense into Isabel and I did too.
The best part of the book is Trollope’s understanding of Cousin Henry’s thought processes : he has the justification, the opportunity, and the need to seize the moment, but he isn’t a bad man, and so he believes that passivity still leaves some room for the moral high ground. I loved the descriptions of Henry’s inner moral arguments as he goes back and forth, trying to decide if he should do the ‘right thing,’ and then arguing with himself about what that ‘right thing’ might be.
While the main characters are weakly drawn, there’s a peculiar aspect to this book–I wondered if Trollope considered making it longer at some point. A court case for legal action against the local newspaper which has published numerous anti-Cousin Henry articles is in the works and the formidable Mr. Cheekey (otherwise known as Supercilious Jack) is mentioned and discussed in tones of fear and awe by several of the characters. It is arranged that during the trial Henry will be brought “under Mr Cheekey’s thumbscrews” in order for the truth to be discovered. The legendary Mr. Cheekey, however, never appears and we are left only with his awesome reputation for wringing the truth from his victims in court. Mr. Cheekey, a character who is only talked about in Cousin Henry remains firmly established in the mind of this reader. Seems like a bit of a waste of a wonderful character.
Trollope seems to be playing with the roles here of the good vs the bad characters. Traditionally Isabel would be considered the heroine, but she’s hard to like, and poor Cousin Henry would be the villain, yet here Trollope clearly intends Henry to be a sympathetic character– in fact he even addresses this victimization of Henry towards the end of the novel. Perhaps that’s why Trollope treats these two with generosity–opting for the positive outcome. Trollope also considered the question of inheritance in the excellent novel: The Belton Estate.