Monday, November 19, 2012

Keeping secrets

Kept in the Dark, Anthony Trollope

I've had my eye on this book ever since I saw it described as a mirror-image of He Knew He Was Right, which may be my favorite of the books set outside the Barsetshire-Palliser worlds.  (Though it might also be Is He Popenjoy?, but that's another post.)

He Knew He Was Right is a sprawling book, stuffed full of Trollopian sub-plots, but the main story centers on the He of the title, Louis Trevelyan, who marries Emily Rowley.  An old friend of her father's, Col. Frederick Osborne, then insinuates himself into her life, and rumors begin to fly about their friendship.  Though Emily's relationship with him is completely innocent, she resents the gossip and refuses to give weight to it by giving up a family friend.  Her husband takes this amiss, to say the least.

Kept in the Dark was published in 1882, shortly before Trollope's death.  Written almost fifteen years after He Knew He Was Right, it is also a story of the damage that gossip and jealousy wreak in a marriage.  In the first chapter we're introduced to Cecilia Holt, a young woman of twenty-two, living comfortably with her widowed mother in Exeter.  Though it's clear she will be the central character, she isn't presented as one of Trollope's endearing heroines.  In fact, she comes off as a bit of a prig:
No doubt there was present in Cecilia's manner a certain looking down upon her mother, - of which all the world was aware, unless it was her mother and herself. The mother was not blessed with literary tastes, whereas Cecilia was great among French and German poets. And Cecilia was aesthetic, whereas the mother thought more of the delicate providing of the table. Cecilia had two or three female friends, who were not quite her equals in literature, but nearly so.
And then Cecilia has a lover, a baronet of small means, Sir Francis Geraldine, who has proposed and been accepted.  Though the match is considered a good one, she has begun to have doubts.  She can't help but see that her fiancĂ© has a bad temper, that he speaks to her almost with contempt, that he spends as little time with her as possible, breaking their appointments and standing her up.  She does not feel she can consult her mother, and she is embarrassed to talk to her friends, but after much soul-searching she decides to break the engagement.  Sir Francis can hardly believe that she is jilting him.  While he is not in love with Cecilia, seeking a wife mainly for financial reasons and to to keep his cousin from inheriting the title, he reacts with angry pride when she ends their engagement.

Cecilia and her mother then take an extended tour of Europe, to provide some distractions and to escape the gossip in Exeter, where Sir Francis has let it be known that he was the one who broke the engagement.  On their travels, they meet George Western, a quiet older man, who gave up a seat in Parliament because he found politics a waste of time.  He eventually confides in Cecilia that he has recently been jilted, by a woman who married a Captain Geraldine instead.  Cecilia feels some delicacy in telling him that she recently broke off an engagement, to the cousin of the same Captain.  They spend much of their time together, falling in love, but Cecilia never finds the right moment to tell him.  When he proposes and is accepted, he is still in the dark, and at that point she feels it's best to keep him there.

The Holts return to England, to prepare for the wedding, and George eventually joins them in Exeter.  Cecilia's mother and her friends realize that he is still in the dark, but no one chooses to tell him what Cecilia hasn't, until Sir Francis learns of the marriage.  Still holding a grudge against Cecilia, he calls on her at their new home, where he in turn realizes that she has kept a secret from her husband.  In a spirit of revenge, he then writes George a letter to enlighten him.  As if the news of the engagement weren't enough, George assumes from the social call that Cecilia has been carrying on some kind of intrigue with Sir Francis, whom he considers a reprobate of the worst sort, one who once defaulted on a debt of honor.  It stretches credulity a little that George would immediately jump to the conclusion that Cecilia has never been true to her marriage vows or to his love for her, based on such flimsy evidence, particularly from a man he despises.  Unlike Louis Trevelyan, he really has no grounds for his suspicions, except that Cecilia did not tell him of her first engagement.  But in his wrath he immediately leaves her, with only a letter promising her financial support though he can no longer live with her.  Cecilia rejects his money without his love, returning to her mother's house in Exeter while he travels the Continent.

This is not one of Trollope's greatest novels, and I certainly wouldn't recommend it to a new reader, but I thought it an interesting story.  Though marriage is an important element in most if not all of Trollope's novels, I think this short, late book has some of his most explicit discussion of it.  Cecilia is offered two marriages, and she has to consider what she expects from marriage, which is the better choice, which will make her happy. Two of her friends in Exeter are married, and she has their example, but another friend, Francesca Altifiorla, is a great advocate of women remaining single and independent.  However, in a rather solemn novel, Miss Altifiorla is the one comical character.  She instantly abandons her principles to jump at marriage when she gets the chance, so clearly her ideas aren't meant to be taken seriously.  Sir Francis has his own ideas about marriage, primarily that the husband should retain all his freedom, all his own interests and friends, and his wife should interfere as little as possible with them.  George Western has his as well, which move Cecilia deeply but which I found rather disturbing:
"I have believed you to be sweet, and pure, and innocent, and true; - one in whom my spirit might refresh itself as a man bathes his heated limbs in the cool water. You were to have been to me the joy of my life, - my great treasure kept at home, open to no eyes but my own; a thing perfect in beauty, to think of when absent and conscious of when present..."
This is also a story of pride, or at least of vanity.  Sir Francis is still brooding over being jilted when he sends his poisonous letter.  Part of George's over-reaction to it is his wounded pride, that his wife preferred another suitor first, that she was open to other eyes than his.  It is also pride that keeps him from admitting that Cecilia is innocent of all the sins he accused her of, on no evidence.  She in her turn is too proud to beg for forgiveness, though she will forgive.  Nor will she remain in his house and live on his money, yet it is also pride that carries her through returning to Exeter, a wife abandoned. 

I really felt for her poor mother.  Mrs. Holt is kept in the dark almost as much as George, but she is always there to care for and support her daughter.  She is one of Trollope's unwise but loving mothers, like Mrs. Woodward in The Three Clerks, and I think she deserves a better daughter.  Perhaps once Cecilia becomes a mother herself, she will come to appreciate her own more.

6 comments:

Katrina said...

Now I don't know whether to choose this one or The Three Clerks for my next Trollope read. Decisions, decisions.

Lisa May said...

If I got a vote, I'd say The Three Clerks, because it's just so much fun.

Anbolyn said...

Trollope's characters and plots are so attractive to me - I just have to get over the fear of his writing. Though I read The Warden this year, I am still frightened to read another of his novels!

So sad for Mrs. Holt!

Lisa May said...

Is your concern over his writing style, Anbolyn? because his narrative voice is so warm & comfortable, just telling you a story. If you liked The Warden, then I bet you'd enjoy its sequel Barchester Towers too.

Karen K. said...

I love Trollope but I've never heard much about this one. There are just too many Trollopes to choose from! I am envious of the lovely stack in your photo.

And I completely agree, Barchester Towers is so much better than the Warden! I'm glad I read The Warden first but BT is where the series really takes off.

Lisa May said...

Karen, all the sideways stacks are the unread ones! and you're right, there's a marvelous but slighly bewildering variety to choose from.

I always think of The Warden with Barchester Towers - almost like it's a prologue.