Cousin Henry is a more leisurely tale than could be published today. It takes a couple of chapters for the title character to show up. One paragraph contains, by my estimate, over 400 words, and it’s not the longest. The climax is followed by another two chapters of moralizing and tying up loose ends. These are not faults, merely indications that the story was written for a slower time than ours. Though it’s a short volume by Trollope’s standards, it’s a long read.
Despite the fact that the tale begins and ends with his cousin Isabel, it is Henry’s story. The middle belongs to him, and while they both suffer and change, his is the greater pain. Certainly we do not feel he is improved at the end; but we feel he can never again be the same.
The plot, briefly, is this. The childless Indefer Jones has adopted his niece, Isabel. He’s promised to leave her his estate, Llanfeare, when he dies. In his declining years, however, he becomes obsessed by the idea that estates should pass to the oldest male heir, and he makes a new will leaving everything except 4,000 pounds to Henry, Isabel’s cousin.
On his deathbed, Indefer repents and makes one last will, restoring the estate to Isabel. Everyone knows there’s another will, but nobody knows where it is. Nobody, that is, except Henry, who discovers it by accident in a book of sermons. He leaves it where it is, neither hiding further nor destroying it, but he tells nobody about it. He takes possession of the estate and Isabel returns to her family’s home.
That’s the bare skeleton of the action. The meat of the book is Henry’s tortured possession of his property. He cannot bring himself to destroy the will, but he lives in constant fear of its discovery. From this point, the novel is a character study of a man who has “just enough conscience to make him miserable,” someone who cannot commit either to virtue or crime.
If Cousin Henry vacillates, however, he comes by it honestly. Uncle Indefer is a great waffler, going back and forth on the inheritance. Isabel’s character, in contrast, is rigid, unbending and proud. Henry has Indefer’s indecision and Isabel’s pride; he lacks courage, charity, and more than anything moral strength. Nevertheless, he is not unsympathetic. He never really has a chance, because nobody will give him one. Everyone hates him on sight, before having any reason to do so, and everyone expects the worst from him. If Indefer or Isabel had once expected him to behave well, we feel he might have.
Though the other characters in the novel loathe him, we do not. Even when he’s at his weakest, at his pettiest, we can identify with him. Isabel is harder to warm up to. She wouldn’t be out of place in Northanger Abbey: she seems to be an Emily Bronte character as portrayed by Jane Austen. If anything, she’s more ridiculous than Henry, because her motives are less understandable. She’s less sympathetic, because she seems to need nothing, even when she’s reduced to poverty.
Henry is a whiner who continually feels he’s being wronged, but he has reasons. His uncle calls him away from his life and job in London with the promise of the estate, then takes it away from him. When Henry proposes marriage to Isabel (before the last will and Indefer’s death), which would let them share Llanfeare, she flatly tells him she despises him. Indefer’s lawyer, Apjohn, takes Henry on as a client, but only so he can act in the interests of Isabel.
In his indecision, Henry reminds me of Hamlet, but there’s one significant difference. Hamlet wavers because he doesn’t know what the moral course of action is. Henry knows what’s right and what’s wrong, but he doesn’t have the nerve to choose one or the other. We are more often weak than baffled in the moral sphere, and we can all identify with Henry.
Ultimately, Cousin Henry is a comedy, not only because of Isabel’s happy ending, but because Henry himself gets what he wants: to be rid of the estate and the heavy secret of his uncle’s last will. He escapes prosecution, keeps his London job, and even gets the four thousand pounds once meant for Isabel.
In its way, Cousin Henry is a very Shakespearian work. The plot is barely more credible than some of Shakespeare’s late plays, but the characterization is rich and deep. The point is not the action, but the players.