Laura Fraser as Emily Trevelyan and Bill Nighy as Colonel Osborne in the 2004 BBC production of He Knew He Was Right.
If Louis Trevelyan was so convinced that He Knew He Was Right then he was equally convinced of its corollary and He Knew She Was Wrong. To modern readers the position is nowhere near as clear cut as Louis viewed it but Trollope knew his contemporary nineteenth century audience was still coming to terms with the legal changes that were taking place and would regard Emily’s actions at the start of the novel, which trigger the ensuing drama as being questionable and, for many, she would be in the wrong. It was necessary, therefore, for Trollope to build in an excuse for her failure to behave as a nice, middle-class English young lady might be expected to behave. This he did by giving her a background as the daughter of a diplomat whose postings had been overseas for the duration of her childhood thereby depriving her of the proper influences which would account for her behaviour. Early in the quarrel, Louis thinks to himself, “And then this poor wife of his, who knew so little of English life, who had lived in the Mandarin Islands almost since she was a child, who had lived in one colony or another almost since she had been born, who had had so few of those advantages for which he should have looked in marrying a wife, how was the poor girl to conduct herself properly when subjected to the arts and practised villainies of this viper? And yet the poor girl was of so stiff a temper, had picked up such a trick of obstinacy in those tropical regions, that Louis Trevelyan felt that he did not know how to manage her.” Having thus made his excuses for her in chapter two of the book, Trollope felt able to proceed with his tale confident that he had not alienated his audience from the sympathy for Emily which would be so necessary for them to go along with the plot he envisaged.
Emily Rowley was born in the mid-1840s. She is therefore, unlike the women of Barchester (with the exception of Lily Dale) whom we have considered thus far, a truly Victorian woman, having been born and grown up under Victoria’s reign rather than during the Regency/late-Georgian period. This may also be reflected in her more advanced views on the rights of women than Trollope’s own generation born at or about the time of Waterloo. Certainly her mother observes that, “Emily likes her way too”, when her husband says that Louis Trevelyan will be “a good guide for the girls!” This assertiveness on Emily’s part brings her closer to the modern era and to the sympathies of modern readers rather than the reverse as Trollope feared might be the case for his contemporary readership.
Emily is the oldest of eight daughters and no doubt this position gave her further cause to be assertive – she would no doubt have been expected to assist her mother in controlling her younger sisters as they grew up. It is no wonder then that she should know her mind and be prepared to speak it.
Emily, Trollope tells us, “was a very handsome young woman, tall, with a bust rather full for her age, with dark eyes – eyes that looked to be dark because her eyebrows and eyelashes were nearly black, but which were in truth so varying in colour, that you could not tell their hue. Her brown hair was very dark and very soft; and the tint of her cheeks was often so bright as to induce her enemies to say falsely of her that she painted them. And she was very strong, as are some girls from the tropics, and whom a tropical climate has suited. She could sit on her horse the whole day long, and would never be weary with dancing at the Government House balls.”
It is interesting that in this first description of her that Trollope should mention Emily having enemies – it is a warning shot across the reader’s bow that all will not be plain sailing for this character.
She is barely twenty-three when we first meet her in London. She has been married three years and has a son – named Louis after his father – who is just a toddler. It is here that she has been introduced to Colonel Osborne – or should I say, been re-introduced to him for Trollope relates that, “When Colonel Osborne was introduced to her as the baby whom he had known, he thought it would be very pleasant to be intimate with so pleasant a friend – meaning no harm indeed, as but few men do mean harm on such occasions – but still, not regarding the beautiful young woman, whom he had seen as one of a generation succeeding to that of his own, to whom it would be his duty to make himself useful on account of the old friendship which he bore to her father.”
Emily, no doubt, from her twenty-something perspective, regarded him as old enough to be her father (indeed, she points out to her sister that he is “A man older than my father, who has known me since I was a baby!”). She would naturally consider any suggestion of a romantic attachment to him as ludicrous, indeed laughable.
Had he been aware that such was her view of him, the Colonel’s ego would have been severely pricked because, while past fifty, he did not consider himself middle-aged in the way that a man with family responsibilities such as Emily’s father bore might regard himself. He was, though, in truth a lecherous older man whose pleasures in life were derived from flirting with younger women. In this respect, no doubt, Emily’s “bust rather full for her age” would no doubt feature highly in the list of her attractions for him. As Trollope makes clear, he does not see himself as too old for her at all even though he has no intentions of doing anything more than pass his time amusing himself by flirting with her.
Unfortunately, Emily’s husband Louis is by no means as aware of the age gap making any suggestion of romance as ridiculous as it appears to Emily and his jealousy becomes intensified into a monomania as the novel progresses.
Her legal position at this point is precarious. She is the property of her husband – a situation which would not change until the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882. So too is the child, little Louis. The Custody of Infants Act 1839 provided that a woman could petition the courts for custody of the child up to the age of seven but thereafter she could only seek a court order for access to the child. The later Infant Custody Act of 1873 would amend this to introduce the principle that the interests of the child would be considered paramount up to the age of sixteen.
The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 applied at the time the events of the novel take place. It was biased in favour of men, who had only to prove a single instance of adultery to obtain a divorce. This determines the course of action which Emily’s husband takes in employing the private detective Bozzle to seek the necessary evidence of adultery on her part. He would then be able to divorce her, should he wish, and, unless she went to court (and won, which would by no means be a foregone conclusion if she was held to have been the guilty party in the divorce), he would have custody of the child and could decide whether or not she had access.
Emily must face this crisis alone, since her parents are inaccessible in the distant Mandarins, at the age of only twenty-three. Not forgetting, of course, that she still loves her husband, as she repeats throughout the novel. It is this enduring love which is perhaps hardest for a modern reader to understand. A modern woman, treated as she is by her husband, would be forgiven – almost expected, in fact – to stop loving the man who so abused her. That she does not is, I think, necessary for Trollope because in this way she remains in the right in the eyes of his contemporary readership who were predisposed by society’s expectations of the time to regard her as breaching the norms of the time which expected obedience of the husband by the wife.
Indeed, Emily is at pains to point out during the early stages of the quarrel that if her husband were to give her a direct order to stop seeing Colonel Osborne she would obey him. As I have observed previously (Illustrating Trollope: He Knew He Was Right), Emily’s response is rather like that of the army private who responds to orders with which he does not agree by dumb insolence (though Emily is far from dumb, indeed, she is most eloquent in expressing her objections to her husband’s instructions). She makes clear that she would regard such an order as unreasonable but would obey. Louis never actually issues her a direct order but thinks that his expressions that he does not wish Emily to meet Osborne, should have the power of an order without requiring him to be explicit in making it an order. It is on this semantic point that the couple fall out.
Emily is contrasted with her younger, and more malleable, sister Nora. Nora waits patiently for her would be lover Hugh Stanbury to propose to her and is even willing to sacrifice her happiness to his good name by refusing to marry him while she is potentially tainted by association with her sister during the scandal of the breakdown of the Trevelyans’ marriage. This is a regular trick of Trollope’s to provide his readers with two women whose approaches to life are different so that each provides a commentary on and reference point for comparison with the other – Ayala and Lucy Dormer are another such example.
It may be argued that Emily is almost perverse in accepting Colonel Osborne’s transparently self-serving excuse for travelling to Devon on the pretext of visiting the church at Cockchaffington and following that with a slightly inconvenient detour to see her at Nuncombe Putney. She tells her sister, “He happens to have a friend in the neighbourhood whom he has long promised to visit; and as he must be in Leesboro’, he does not choose to go away without the compliment of a call. It will be as much to you as to me.” Emily is being disingenuous here. She must be aware that the Colonel is truly interested in her alone rather than both of them. It is, after all, to her alone that he writes.
However, since her grounds for quarrelling with Louis are that it is insulting to her to regard the relationship with the man old enough to be her father as in any way improper, she cannot refuse a visit from Colonel Osborne without conceding that there may indeed be something improper in the relationship even if it is a fault on his side which she should discourage. This unwillingness to concede the point is a rather masculine strength of purpose which might be seen as stubborn by readers who are not inherently sympathetic to Emily’s position. She tells Nora, “I will not be frightened by bugbears. And I will not be driven to confess to any man on earth that I am afraid to see him. Why should I be afraid of Colonel Osborne? I will not submit to acknowledge that there could be aby danger in Colonel Osborne. Were I to do so I should be repeating the insult against myself. If my husband wished to guide me in such matters, why did he not stay with me?”
Indeed, Trollope emphasises her strength when her husband subsequently writes to her in most unreasonable terms. “In her general mode of carrying herself, and of enduring the troubles of her life, Mrs Trevelyan was a strong woman; but now her grief was too much for her, and she burst into tears.” But she recovers herself and resolves to cease being financially dependent on her husband by transporting herself and her sister to live with relatives, Mr and Mrs Outhouse, where he was rector in the poor parish of St Diddulph’s-in-the-East in London’s East End until such time as their parents return to England. She realises this is only a short term solution to their difficulties but it is the only practical step to take under the circumstances. She does not collapse, as a middle-class lady of the period might conventionally have been expected to do, but remains pragmatic and active in trying to work out her own fate.
When the increasingly irrational Louis then contrives to kidnap her son – for this is how it must feel to her in spite of the prevailing legal view at the time that he was acting within his rights to take possession of little Louis as his father – and does so by a trick which surely betrays the moral uncertainty of that course of action, Emily still does not break.
In the immediate aftermath she is quite naturally distraught, “Mrs Trevelyan had staggered against the railings, and was soon screaming in her wretchedness…Mrs Trevelyan was hardly in possession of her senses when she reached her mother, and could not be induced to be tranquil even when she was assured by her father that her son would suffer no immediate evil by being transferred to his father’s hands. She in her frenzy declared that she would never see her little one again, and seemed to think that the father might not improbably destroy the child.” With these harrowing scenes, Trollope perfectly captures the response of the bereft young mother and, her imagination is not overrunning the possibilities of what an unbalanced father might do as any number of tragic cases in real life will confirm.
But after the initial shock, Emily recovers and becomes once more practical in seeking a resolution to the appalling situation in which she finds herself. When she is able to ascertain the whereabouts of her child she goes and negotiates with Louis to obtain access to him, albeit briefly. She refuses, however, to acknowledge that she has “sinned” as her husband accuses her and tells her “You must repent – repent – repent.” Trollope makes clear, and Emily must have sensed this to be true when talking to Louis, that “Who can say how long the tenderness of his heart would have saved him from further outbreak – and whether such prevailing on her part would have been of permanent service?” We, as readers, and she, now know that he can never be relied upon not to find some future cause for dissatisfaction with her behaviour, however much it is beyond reproach. She knows that, in the long run, it will be necessary to establish that her husband is unfit to care for the child by reason of his insanity.
When Louis goes to Italy, Emily, in a step which must have taken much self-belief to undertake, when women were not generally independent, moves herself to Italy too to be close to her child and persuades her father to support her in this. What seems most strange to the modern reader is that she persists in regarding him with love and telling her father when Louis continues to forward money to keep her that “though his mind is distracted on this horrible business, he is not a bad man. No one is more liberal or more just about money.” This is an extremely rational perspective for a young woman in her mid-twenties to take of a husband who treats her as Louis does. Indeed, her own mental health, under such trying conditions, holds up remarkably well. As they travel over the Alps she joins her sister in rambles through the mountains and “would for moments almost forget that she had been robbed of her child.” (How much nuance of meaning can Trollope pack into that single word “almost”?) She can still enjoy life and does not fall prey to depression as she so easily might in the circumstances.
When, with the help of her father and Mr Glascock, she tracks her husband down to the villa Casalunga outside Siena, she then very bravely agrees to visit him alone as he stipulates she must if she is to see her child. She, probably rightly, judges that he is not likely to be a threat to her but the risk of physical violence at the hands of a man when she is alone with him at such an isolated spot is nevertheless a possibility she must consider.
When she does finally meet her husband “she threw her arms round his neck, and before he could repulse her – before he could reflect whether it would be well that he should repulse her or not – she had covered his brow and cheeks and lips with kisses.”
She evidently, as she has insisted all along, continues to love the man and is solicitous for his welfare as well as that of her child. He still persists though with the view that it is for him to forgive and for her to repent her actions in order to merit that forgiveness while she speaks of forgiving and forgetting on her part the wrongs he has done to her. They remain poles apart but now Trollope is clear that the readers should side with the wife’s view of the matter. Trollope reveals her thoughts at this point. “That she could be happy again as other women are happy, she did not expect; but if it could be conceded between them that bygones should be bygones, she might live with him and do her duty, and, at least, have her child with her. Her father had told her that her husband was mad; but she was willing to put up with his madness on such terms as these. What could her husband do to her in his madness that he could not do also to the child.”
Trollope conveys her perspective so accurately. Her child is her hostage to fate. And she recognises that her only means of attaining even partial satisfaction in life is to care for her child and her husband who is, effectively, becoming a second child under her care – albeit with the legal powers of the tyrant such as no toddler might ever achieve. Her compassion for her husband is extraordinary to the modern reader.
In the end, Louis’s physical and mental decline is complete and he finally surrenders little Louis to Emily’s care. “It was open to her to go with [her family back to England], and to take her boy with her. But a few days since how happy she would have been could she have been made to believe that such a mode of returning would be within her power! But now she felt that she might not return and leave that poor, suffering wretch behind her. As she thought of him she tried to interrogate her feelings. Was it love, or duty, or compassion which stirred her? She had loved him as fondly as any bright young woman loves the man who is to take her away from everything else, and make her a part of his house and of himself…Emily Trevelyan was forced to tell herself that all that was over with her…that she could never know what his thoughts of her might be…though she could not dare to look forward to happiness in living with him, she could understand that no comfort would be possible to her were she to return to England and leave him to perish alone at Casalunga.” She therefore decides that she will remain in alone in Italy to care for the broken man as best she might after her family departs.
Finally, when he consents to return to England and is clearly dying, “she was down on her knees before him instantly. ‘Oh, Louis! Oh, Louis! say that you forgive me!’ What could a woman do more than that in her mercy to a man.”
Emily’s tremendous humanity, even to the extent of confessing to a fault that was no fault except in the eye of a man whose judgment is shown to be palpably wrong, which is so galling for the modern reader to endure, reflects that “Her mind towards him had changed altogether since she had been so indignant, because he had set a policeman to watch over her. All feeling of anger was over with her now. There is nothing a woman will not forgive a man, when he is weaker than she is herself.”
I still find this hard to stomach – even with the deathbed confirmation that Louis accepts she was not actually an adulteress. But she has sufficient self-respect to accept the blow to her own pride and grant him a final victory so that he might have the peace of mind at his death that he needed – the ultimate confirmation that He Knew He Was Right. When her sister Nora questions this, Emily with maturity beyond her years, tells her “Do none confess but the guilty? What is all that we have read about the Inquisition and the old tortures? I have had to learn that torturing has not gone out of the world – that is all.”
It is no wonder that Trollope, at the conclusion of the novel, when Emily passes out of our sight once more, confirms that though many widows remarry, it is expected that Emily will keep to her avowed intention not to remarry.
It would have been easy for Trollope to write a novel exploring the nervous breakdown of a man which focused solely on the man. One could imagine such a novel with a ministering angel of the hearth tending to him as he declined. But instead he gives us not one but two characters of depth and realism to hold our attention as their relationship collapses under the strain of the husband’s depression. Both are equally the subjects of his authorial gaze and deserve our attention in equal measure.
That Emily’s inner strength should be both her fatal flaw that precipitates the crisis and her means to overcome it and not succumb to despair is worthy of a Greek tragedy. She is indeed a flawed heroine but she is the more real for it. Her flaw, if it is a flaw, which in a woman might be labelled “stubbornness” or “obstinacy”, would in a man be called “strength of purpose”, “determination” or “self-assurance”. Yet Trollope does not label her in this way – even if many of his contemporary readers might have done. He shows greater understanding of her which leads him to avoid this trap. That he tries to have his cake and eat it with the ultimate reconciliation(s), vacillating between Emily’s confession and the final deathbed acknowledgment by Louis that she had not sinned, indicates his desire to bring his more conservative, conventional audience with him. Nevertheless, Emily Trevelyan stands out as a young woman with real emotions but a core strength and willingness to take the initiative in direct contrast to the passive, supporting roles expected of middle class women whose husbands are the ostensible principal subject of the novel.