What a simple, hearty pleasure it is to see virtue rewarded and vice punished. Cousin Henry, a short novel by Trollope’s standards, gives you that pleasure. Cousin Henry is a mean-spirited, cowardly, underhanded fellow while his cousin Isabel is a forthright young woman with strong and clear emotions. Everybody loves Isabel, everybody dislikes Henry. The plot turns around old Indefer Jones’ estate: he wants to leave it to his much-loved niece Isabel Brodrick, but believes it is customary and therefore right to leave it to a Jones. Summoned to the estate, Henry doesn’t impress; in fact, his uncle decides at the last moment that he will after all leave it to Isabel, and in his dying days he writes another will and puts in between the pages of a book of sermons. The official will leaves everything to Henry, and though there’s a search for the later will, which two local men say they witnessed, it is not found. Aha, but Cousin Henry knows exactly where it is and what it says. Pallid, sweating and stammering, he arouses everyone’s suspicions – but the will is not found.
I don’t know if Trollope intended it to be funny, but I found it so. Poor Henry, afraid to leave the room where the will is enclosed in the book of sermons, afraid even to look in the direction of the book in case he arouse suspicion, is a kind of Raskolnikov of the small stuff. He has nightmares of being exposed and sent to prison, he wants to burn the document but his hand simply will not put it in the flame, he makes up his mind to reveal it but at the last moment can’t bear to give up the estate, and when the local paper prints libellous claims that he has destroyed the will, he is afraid to bring a case, and suspected all the more because of it. When he is forced into suing for libel he is terrified by the prospect of being cross-examined by the notorious Mr Cheekey:
At the hearing of the awful name sweat broke out on Cousin Henry’s brow….Ghastly pale he became, – livid , almost blue by degrees.
With a masterful hand Trollope pulls the strings of the various puppets needed to bring about a just ending. But his characters remain lively and real to us, no one more than the unfortunate Henry who is not so much a bad man as a weak one, whose weaknesses we can relate to. And Henry is to be pitied because, through no fault of his own, he is just unloveable and unable to love.
Curl up in a big armchair for the afternoon and lose yourself in this most satisfying read.