Cousin Henry | Decidedly Undecided

Cousin Henry
Anthony Trollope (1879)

A couple of caveats to kick off this review:

Caveat Number One: There is a very good chance that many of you reading this recommendation will dislike Cousin Henry, but that’s the very reason it makes such a good choice for a book club discussion. Every winter, my club (going two-decades strong, thank you very much) chooses a work of classic literature to discuss over high tea. It’s a lovely escape from the doldrums of the deep winter in Chicago–a special group outing, and a wonderful way to usher in another year of book club gatherings.

Cousin Henry, the titular character in Anthony Trollop’s novel, didn’t garner many sympathetic readers among our group. In fact, the three main characters, each unable to make up their minds to varying and frustrating degrees, had members throwing their hands up in annoyance. I, on the other hand, found it amusing and believable that Henry and his Uncle Indefer could not make up their minds to save their lives, while haughty Isobel stubbornly stuck to her guns (to the bafflement of some in the group.) In all, this book elicited strong opinions, which made for lively discussion.

Caveat Number Two: Cousin Henry is definitely not the book to start with if you’re coming to Trollope for the first time. Start with The Chronicles of Barsetshire series or the terrific How We Live Now, which my book club read a few years ago during the financial crisis, and wow, did that book ever seem contemporary.

All that being said, Trollope is a master when it comes to creating timeless characters, as he taps into human nature with characters that will have you nodding your head in recognition. So it is with Cousin Henry, who makes a life-changing discovery about his recent inheritance and cannot for the life of him decide what to do about it.

Henry’s indecision would seem to run in the family, as his lately departed Uncle Indefer, whose death triggers the story, was no better at making up his mind and sticking to it. Nearing his death, Indefer Jones vacillates over whom to name as heir to Llanafeare estate: either Isabel, the niece he loves like a daughter, or the only male heir, his odious nephew Henry. Days before his death, Indefer changes his mind yet again, and drafts a final will that leaves everything to Isobel. Upon his death, the latest will, rumored to exist, cannot be found and Henry is named inheritor. When Henry discovers the missing will, he slips it back into its hiding place and spends the remainder of this short novel vacillating over what to do. He cannot reveal it and he cannot destroy it, and there lies the crux of this amusing character study.

No; he could not himself destroy the document, though it should remain there for years to make his life a burden to him.

Henry and his uncle, paralyzed by an inability to just-make-a-damn-decision-already and stick to it. Alas, don’t we all know someone like them?

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