Miss Mackenzie with my online reading group & I also took Cousin Henry off the tbr shelves.
Cousin Henry is one of Trollope's standalone novels. It's not part of the famous Palliser or Barsetshire series & it's not a blockbuster like The Way We Live Now or He Knew He Was Right. It's short by Trollopian standards (under 300pp), has no subplots & is an acute psychological study of guilt & indecision.
The plot is easily told. Mr Indefer Jones, owner of Llanfeare on the coast of Carmarthenshire, is an old man. He has no children & is undecided as to what he should do with his estate. He has made many wills as he dithers between leaving the property to Henry Jones, the next male heir, or to his niece, Isabel Brodrick. Henry Jones is a clerk in London, a very unprepossessing young man with no real vices but he just fails to please. On the other hand, Isabel is the darling of her uncle's eye. She has lived at Llanfeare for some years, mostly to get away from her unsympathetic stepmother. She is loved & admired by all the tenants on the estate & she loves them & the estate in return. However, Uncle Indefer's conscience inclines him to leaving the property to Henry & to leave £4000 to Isabel. Isabel is a noble, proud girl who would scorn to try to influence her uncle in any way. She leaves him to wrestle with his own conscience & never reproaches him. His lawyer, Mr Apjohn, has remonstrated with Uncle Indefer about disinheriting Isabel but to no avail. The only result has been a breach between lawyer & client which contributes to the misery that follows.
The final will seems to be the one leaving Llanfeare to Henry. He has been brought down to visit his uncle in the last months of his life & introduced to the servants & tenants, all of whom take an instant dislike to him. When Uncle Indefer dies, there's talk of a later will, favouring Isabel, having been written & witnessed by two of the tenants. Isabel was with her uncle when he died & he told her that he had made such a will. Mr Apjohn knows nothing of it because Uncle Indefer refused to consult him about it. However, he had told Henry of the will & showed Henry where he had hidden it, in a volume of sermons in the library. After the funeral, the tenants tell their story of witnessing a new will but Henry stays silent. As no later will can be found, the will favouring Henry is read & must stand.
Isabel immediately makes plans to return to her father's house in Hereford. Unfortunately the £4000 her uncle bequeathed her doesn't exist because the old man sold the land that was meant to provide the cash. So, she returns home with nothing. Henry is persuaded by Mr Apjohn to offer Isabel the money as soon as he can get it but she scornfully refuses him. She suspects that Henry knows the whereabouts of the later will. She despises him & has no reservations about telling him so to his face. Isabel is in love with William Owen, but her uncle didn't think a poor clergyman was good enough to marry his heir so Isabel has refused him. Now that she's poor, she refuses to marry him because she's too proud to go to him with nothing. Isabel's father & stepmother don't see why she shouldn't accept Cousin Henry's offer of the £4000 & marry Mr Owen but she refuses. She hates living with her family but her father won't allow her to earn her own living.
Henry, meanwhile, is at Llanfeare. He is tortured by guilt & paralysed by indecision. He knows where the will is hidden, & he can't bring himself to leave the library in case the will is discovered. He knows he should confess & produce the will but he can't. He vacillates between planning to tell all & wallowing in self-pity about his treatment & his dislike for Isabel. He's despised by the servants, who all give notice, & he's too cowardly to go about the estate because he fears the wrath of the Cantors, the tenants who witnessed the will. So he skulks around the house, afraid to leave the library in case the will is discovered but wishing someone would find the will to extricate him from the torment he's suffering.
Mr Apjohn suspects Henry of knowing about the will but can't prove anything. Without the will, nothing can be done. Then, as rumours spread about the will & about the injustice suffered by Isabel, the local newspaper, the Carmarthenshire Herald, prints a series of articles questioning Henry's honesty & his right to the estate. The editor hopes to provoke Henry into a libel action that would see him cross examined in court about the will & exactly what he knows about it. Could Henry commit perjury by lying in court or the even more serious crime of destroying the will? Mr Apjohn enlists Isabel's father & the two men decide to confront Henry & try to prove Mr Apjohn's theory about the will.
Cousin Henry is such an interesting character study. Henry is a coward, snivelling & self-justifying. He spends most of his time cowering from imaginary blows, vacillating between opposite courses of action, avoiding the servants & tenants & crying with self-pity over his situation. However, he's not altogether an unsympathetic character. Uncle Indefer doesn't help by openly disliking him & preferring Isabel. The tenants take their cue from him &, of course, Henry has never had an opportunity to get to know the estate. He's bullied by everyone from Mr Apjohn to the Cantors, despised by Isabel, but he's not evil. He could have destroyed the will & brazened it out but he doesn't do that. He does have a conscience but his fear of the consequences of almost any course of action leave him doing precisely nothing.
Isabel is an even more interesting character. Proud & prickly with a streak of masochism (she plans to work as a housemaid or starve herself rather than accept Henry's offer of money), Isabel prides herself on her moral rectitude. She refuses to blame Henry publicly, even though she is sure that he knows of the later will. She declares her love passionately to Mr Owen but then refuses to marry him. She drives her stepmother mad by standing on the moral high ground, refusing Henry's money, refuses to marry Mr Owen while she can bring him nothing &, as Mrs Brodrick puts it, taking the boots from her own daughters' feet as her husband has to provide for his ungrateful daughter. I sympathized with Henry & Isabel but was furious with Uncle Indefer for being such an old ditherer & creating such a mess. As Mr Apjohn says, the danger in owning property is in leaving heirs & tenants in ignorance of what is to come afterwards. I enjoyed Cousin Henry & I'm looking forward to reading more Trollope in this anniversary year.