Anthony Trollope, Cousin Henry
The Ten Commandments are written in stone and governmental laws are codified on paper, but many of those personal moral positions we take are more like lines in the sand, both arbitrary and temporary. For example, because of some slight, real or imagined, Person A refuses to speak to Person B, to which Person B reacts by refusing to speak to Person A. Both of them convince themselves they have taken a high moral stand.
Anthony Trollope explores this idea in his 1879 novel Cousin Henry about an elderly squire with no offspring to inherit his estate, Llanfeare. His choice for an heir comes down to a beloved niece, Isabel, who has lived with him and cared for him and whom all the servants adore, and a despised nephew, Henry, a clerk in London. His heart tells him to leave Llanfeare to Isabel, but his own line in the sand tells him he must have a male heir. And so he invites Henry to visit him, telling him the estate will soon be his. Yet the more he sees of Henry, the more he dislikes him, and so before he dies he changes his will without the benefit of his attorney. Although there are witnesses to the signing of the will, it cannot be found later.
Isabel tells herself and everyone else she has no objection if Henry gets the estate, but she decides that if she does not inherit it, she cannot marry Mr. Owen, the man she loves. Owen, meanwhile, draws his own line in the sand, saying he cannot marry Isabel if she does inherit Llanfeare.
As for Henry, he inherits the property on the basis of the existing will, then spots the missing will in a book of sermons the squire had been reading just before his death. He reasons, conveniently, that since he did not hide the will nor destroy it, he owns the high moral ground. He found it without looking for it, so let someone else find it if they want it.
The novel's hero, the only main character with a straight moral compass, is Mr. Apjohn, the attorney first for the squire and then for Cousin Henry. He behaves honorably toward everyone, but especially toward what is legal and honorable. And it is he who finally deduces where the missing will is to be found.
What makes this novel more interesting, at least to me, is that Trollope is never clear about why Henry is disliked by everyone, except perhaps his London employer, who keeps his job open for him during his long stay at Llanfeare. True, Henry proves far from honorable after he discovers the missing will, but he is despised long before that. Mostly, it seems, people dislike him because he is an unattractive introvert, not for anything he has actually done.
"He has been hardly used," Mr. Upjohn says of Henry late in the novel, and that is certainly true. His uncle invites him to Llanfare, telling him the estate will soon be his, then changes his mind. After Henry asks Isabel to marry him, arguing that this way both of them can inherit the property, she responds by telling him how much she hates him, when a simple no-thank-you would have sufficed.
Trollope shows us that when we draw lines in the sand, we often place ourselves anywhere but on high moral ground.