Trollope's Insanity Defense: Narrative Alienation in He Knew He Was Right

By Oberhelman, David D. | Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Autumn 1995 | Go to article overview
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Trollope's Insanity Defense: Narrative Alienation in He Knew He Was Right


Oberhelman, David D., Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900


"Madness in Novels," an 1866 Spectator review of Mrs. Henry Wood's St. Martin's Eve, sharply criticizes her portrayal of Charlotte Norris, a character who suffers from an acute case of insane jealousy. According to the reviewer, Wood's representation of madness is deeply flawed, for she merely uses Charlotte's mental disorder as a sensational plot device and does not treat it as a psychological problem. The reviewer then calls for a novelist with a superior talent for characterization, a novelist such as Anthony Trollope, to provide a more psychologically complex portrait of mental aberration. Wood, he writes, "wants to paint jealousy in its extreme forms, and she has not of course the power to create Othello, or the art to paint, as Thackeray or Trollope might have done, the morbid passion in its naturalistic nineteenth-century dress." (1)

P. D. Edwards has speculated that these words may have been the germ of Trollope's 1869 novel He Knew He Was Right. (2) The main plot of the novel revolving around Louis Trevelyan's seemingly mad suspicions about his wife Emily's relationship with the elderly Colonel Osborne can indeed be called Trollope's St. Martin's Eve. Through his depiction of Trevelyan's descent into a jealous rage, Trollope demonstrates how the depiction of madness in fiction can be related to the questions of personal identity underlying the Victorian legal doctrine of criminal insanity--the doctrine which defined insanity as not knowing right from wrong. Trollope, it appears, follows that reviewer's suggestions quite literally, for he portrays a character alienated from himself by an inability to know right from wrong and suggests that that alienation within the character even produces a profound alienation within the narrative fabric of the novel itself. In the end Trevelyan becomes a character who is both himself, a sane Victorian gentleman, and a mad Othello in nineteenth-century dress, and He Knew He Was Right becomes a narrative that is at once a "sane" realistic novel and a "mad" Shakespearean tragedy.

Trollope's fiction, as many critics have noted, emphasizes character over plot, focusing upon how character is formed within a narrative. (3) As he writes in An Autobiography, "The depth and breadth, the narrowness and shallowness of each [character] should be clear" to the novelist. (4) The novelist's aim, in other words, is to know his characters intimately so that he can produce complete, almost psychological, profiles of them for the readers. Trollope is nowhere more concerned with the issues of psychology and character than in He Knew He Was Right. Most of the inquiry in this novel is directed towards Trevelyan, since the intensity with which the husband suspects Emily of infidelity and his refusal to grant her custody of their son Louey force the other characters to doubt his sanity and to ponder whether he should be held criminally liable for his actions. Emily, Nora, Stanbury, Glascock, Lady Milborough, Sir Marmaduke, as well as the lawyers and the physicians, debate Trevelyan's state of mind but come to different conclusions, some even declaring that he is not mad at all. But Trollope's narrator categorically states that Trevelyan is mad, even declaring upon his death, "At last the maniac was dead." (5)

The narrator's analysis of Trevelyan resembles a case study of Victorian psychiatry or "psychological medicine." As a critic of the novel in the British Quarterly Review observed, "the chief artistic study of Mr. Trollope's new novel is a psychological one--viz., the rise and development of a jealous monomania." (6) But the narrator's discussion of Trevelyan often resembles not so much a medical report as an attempt to use madness as a means of justifying Trevelyan's heinous conduct. The narrator's account proceeds almost as though it were a calculated defense of the jealous husband's insanity delivered to a jury of readers, a defense similar to those heard in Victorian criminal proceedings to have a defendant declared irresponsible.

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