Can You Forgive Her? is the first of Anthony Trollope's six Palliser novels, of which I will be reading the next five, and in relatively short order. A Victorian novel set against the backdrop of English parliamentary politics may not sound promising but, in fact, it adds a great deal of nuance to the personal struggles of Trollope's various characters.
Not that his characters, at least in this novel, wouldn't have been nuanced anyway; in my short experience of his writing, I would like to proclaim that Trollope may have been one of the masters of characterization in the mid- to late-19th century. All the characters seemed really alive and entirely distinct from one another, and like real people, kept undermining my expectations of them by showing themselves to be entirely complex and full of contradiction.
Plot Spoilers in Abundance!
Alive Vavasor is the protagonist potentially in need of readerly forgiveness, for she has a tendency to make marital engagements and then break them. Of especial need of forgiveness is the way she continues to try to push away John Grey, the man she actually loves. Why she fears to marry someone she adores and who adores her is not as mysterious as, say, Isabel's shocking marital choice at the end of The Portrait of a Lady, but it's also not the simple matter that Alice's friends make it out to be.
Alice is frequently accused of having been spoiled for being allowed too much independence in her upbringing, for she finds herself frequently trying to avoid allowing her relatives to make all of her life choices for her. Making her own choices is important to Alice but it doesn't account for why she breaks her engagement with Grey for that was her choice, entirely; it does, however, in part account for why it takes her so long to reconcile herself to reforming the engagement.
No, I think she rightly feels that Grey, as much as he loves her, will in some metaphysical or spiritual way, consume her. In the end, she happily reconciles herself to this but it's not a painless reconciliation. She knows she's giving up something about her identity that is essential but the unhappiness that life without him would be is ultimately too much of a price for her to pay.
This is one of the things I loved about Can You Forgive Her? - there are conflicts and there are resolutions but those resolutions are neither easy nor, in fact, entirely complete. Trollope, I think, was more interested in the processes of complicated human interactions than in leading his narrative to the conclusions thereof.
This messy verisimilitude is best seen in the marriage of Plantagenet Palliser and Lady Glencora. Glencora has been forced by her family and friends to abandon Burgo Fitzgerald, the man she really loves, for a politically and monetarily advantageous union with Palliser. She struggles constantly with her dissatisfaction, with the coldness of her marriage, and with her husband's apparently sole focuses of interest - becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer and begetting a male heir - the latter of which, after almost a year of marriage, is quite terribly not forthcoming.
Burgo, because he is lazy, irresponsible, and profligate (as well as beautiful and irresistible) tries to convince Glencora to run away with him - and she almost succumbs to the temptation! Alice tries constantly to talk sense into her but it's Palliser's revelation of something of his unknown depths to her that keeps Glencora from making such a fatal move. Having revealed all her true feelings about Burgo and her marriage to Palliser, he responds thus:
Softly, slowly, very gradually, as though he were afraid of what he was doing, he put his arm around her waist. 'You are wrong in one thing,' he said. 'I do love you.'I did not expect this from Plantagenet, especially as he married Glencora for her money and the political ambition it would help him realize. Further, the combination of sentiment and sense in this interchange is part of what shocks Glencora into a silence reflective of how much more she could have in her marriage than she has hitherto imagined. I feel that in a Dickens novel, the answer to the question of trying to love would be definitive - yes or no, but definitive, and our readerly concern with the conflict would be pretty much at an end. With Trollope's characters, the work doesn't end here; rather, it's at this point that it only really begins!
She shook her head, touching his breast with her hair as she did so.
'I do love you,' he repeated. 'If you mean that I am not apt at telling you so, it is true, I know. My mind is running on other things.'
'Yes,' she said, 'your mind is running on other things.'
'But I do love you. If you cannot love me, it is a great misfortune to us both. But we need not therefore be disgraced. As for that other thing of which you spoke, - of our having, as yet, no child' - and in saying this he pressed her somewhat closer with his arm - 'you allow yourself to think too much of it; - much more of it than I do. I have made no complaints on that head, even within my own heart.'
'I know what your thoughts are, Plantagenet.'
'Believe me that you wrong my thoughts. Of course I have been anxious, and have, perhaps, shown my anxiety by the struggle I have made to hide it. I have never told you what is false, Glencora.'
'No; you are not false!'
'I would rather have you for my wife, childless, - if you will try to love me, - than any other woman, though another might give me an heir. Will you try to love me?' (Vol. II, p. 190)
If Can You Forgive Her? is representative, Trollope was the complete package - highly skilled in characterization, a great writer, and the creator of compelling plots. I read this book for about 5 hours straight on Sunday, which is a feat I don't often accomplish anymore. But it was just that good.
My mother asked me recently why Trollope isn't so widely respected amongst Victorians; I didn't have an answer as I hadn't heard that Trollope was in the dog house. But here's an article by Rohan Maitzen of Novel Readings which provides an excellent response to that question, not to mention more incentive to read Trollope if you haven't already.