Robert Pimm

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Trollope: “He Knew He Was Right”. A masterpiece of dry comedy

Trollope is, perhaps, my favourite novelist (although PG Wodehouse is up there).

I have described before 11 life-changing reasons you should read Trollope, including his views on religion, sexual politics, and the media (links in bold italics are to other posts on this site).

But not everyone is convinced.

So I thought I would give an example of the brilliance of Trollope by quoting an entire chapter from his 1869 novel He Knew He Was Right.  

He Knew He Was Right deals with the breakdown of the marriage between Louis Trevelyan, a wealthy young Englishman, and his wife Emily.  As a description of how jealousy and stubbornness can destroy a relationship, it could have been written yesterday.

My Trollope Society edition of “He Knew He Was Right” has 823 pages

Emily’s father is Sir Marmaduke Rowley, Governor of the fictional Mandarin Islands, a distant British colony.  An old friend, Colonel Osborne, who is also Emily’s godfather, arranges for Sir Marmaduke to be summoned back to London, ostensibly to appear before a parliamentary committee, but in fact in order that he can return to London at the taxpayer’s expense to see Emily.  Sir Marmaduke acquiesces in this subterfuge; yet is dismayed when he is summoned before the committee of Members of Parliament, which is chaired by one Major Magruder: “a certain ancient pundit of the constitution, who had been for many years a member, and who had been known as a stern critic of our colonial modes of government”.

I have reproduced here Chapter 68 of He Knew He Was Right, giving an account of Sir Marmaduke’s appearance before the Major Magruder’s committee.  I often counsel people who want to understand politics, and British parliamentary procedure, to read Trollope.  Chapter 68 (out of 99 in the book) illustrates why.  The procedures described; the emotions of the elderly Sir Marmaduke as he is questioned; the chairmanship and motivation of Major Magruder; and the outcome of the hearing, including the way Sir Marmaduke is treated compared with the incomparably more competent “Governor from one of the greater colonies” who has also been questioned  by the committee, could describe the proceedings of a British parliamentary committee in 2019.

Read, and relish.  I hope you enjoy it.

Chapter 68

Major Magruder’s Committee

Sir Marmaduke could not go out to Willesden on the morning after Lady Rowley’s return from River’s Cottage, because on that day he was summoned to attend at twelve o’clock before a Committee of the House of Commons, to give his evidence and, the fruit of his experience as to the government of British colonies generally; and as he went down to the House in a cab from Manchester Street he thoroughly wished that his friend Colonel Osborne had not been so efficacious in bringing him home. The task before him was one which he thoroughly disliked, and of which he was afraid. (more…)

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