Book Review: Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite by Anthony Trollope

While having enjoyed several adaptations of Anthony Trollope’s novels on television, I have never actually read one. When I saw Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite on the library shelf I thought this short novel of approximately 250 pages would be the ideal introduction to this author’s work.

The death of his only son leaves Sir Harry Hotspur with a dilemma now that his daughter, Emily, has fallen in love with her cousin, the black sheep of the family and heir to the title, George Hotspur. While reconciled that the title must pass to George, Sir Harry is determined that his property will not.

Emily, as honourable and principled as her father, gives her word to George that she will marry him, but only with her father’s consent no matter how long it takes. George, however, is in desperate need of money to satisfy his creditors and avoid prison and is not prepared to wait.

With the help of his friends George tries to convince Sir Harry he is able to reform and thus be worthy of his daughter. And Sir Harry in turn tries to convince Emily that George is an unsavoury character and cannot be trusted with her happiness or her inheritance.

Despite more of George’s nefarious dealings coming to light, Emily remains steadfast in her belief that a “black sheep can be made white” and encourages her father to help George become a worthy future son in law. She raises some valid arguments as to why she should be able to marry George, among them why did her father invite him to Humblethwaite with this intention if he was an unsuitable candidate in the first place? A deed Sir Harry himself later comes to question and regret.

The novel's theme involves titles and inheritances, primarily what happens when an estate is not entailed and the only heir is a female. Most large titled estates were “entailed” and inherited by the male next in line. Entailing ensured that these estates were kept intact with the title, and was a method used to protect a family’s wealth, status and power.  If there were no male heirs, the property would pass to the female line and if the heiress married it would then be inherited by the husband’s male line. In these cases it was not unusual for a condition of inheritance to be that the husband adopt the wife’s surname.

Sir Harry’s property was not entailed and so we see Sir Harry’s dilemma: too old to father another son, he must either find a suitable husband for his daughter, one willing to adopt the name of Hotspur, or allow her to marry George. For an honourable man and one very proud of his lineage and good name, the latter was not an option Sir Harry was willing to consider.

Of all the characters, Emily was my least favourite.  I was surprised how quickly she fell in love with George. They met infrequently, yet she formed a deep attachment to him, dismissing his bad behaviour as normal for a man of his age, and believing her love would be able to change him.  Her inner dialogue often implied she was trying to convince herself that George could be reformed. Her vow to her father that if she couldn’t have George she would never marry could be construed as petulance, stubbornness or even blackmail and not the act of a dutiful and obedient daughter. I felt she did not consider her father’s feelings enough or share her father’s pride in their family name and lineage. However, to be fair to Emily she would have grown up expecting to be well provided for on her father’s death, but knowing that the title and bulk of the property would go to her brother. Suddenly finding herself the sole heir gave her power.

My favourite character was Sir Harry. I pictured him to be the perfect elderly gentleman and an indulgent father. I understood his problem, but like Emily, I did wonder whether Sir Harry had actually loved his son for himself and not because he was the heir to the great name of Hotspur. I admired his patience, too. Rather than alienate his daughter completely, he set about gathering evidence of George’s scandalous behaviour, presenting it time and time again, hoping that Emily would eventually see George’s true nature and give him up.

The story has a sad ending and Sir Harry’s final ordering of his will is poignant. It could be said that the only winner in this tragic tale was George Hotspur, who had his debts paid and carried on his life as before.

Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite was first published in 1871 in Macmillan’s Magazine. It received good reviews at the time: the Athenaeum described it as a “brilliant novelette”; the Spectator as “one of Mr. Trollope’s very best short tales”; and the Times as a book that “…. may do good to many of both sexes more advanced in life.”

This reader being “more advanced in life” certainly enjoyed her first Anthony Trollope novel and is looking forward to reading more. 

2 comments:

  1. I'm glad you enjoyed your first Trollope novel! I haven't read this book yet - I started with his six Barsetshire novels and am now working through his other series, the Pallisers. I'll look forward to reading this one eventually, though. Most of his books are very long so it will be nice to read one with only 250 pages!

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    1. I thought I'd leave his series for later and tackle his shorter stand alone novels first. It was a suprise to find Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite was so short. My next read is The Belton Estate.

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