Wednesday 21 October 2009

Where the work begins

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.'
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)
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!

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.


Anonymous said...

I'm a big fan of Trollope- he's both clear sighted and compassionate and his characters feel like old friends.

I'm just about to finish re-reading the Barset books and next year will do the same with the Plantagnet series. I'm glad to hear you have enjoyed the first.

(And yes, Rohan's article was excellent).

Unknown said...

His autobiography set his legacy back a good fifty years or so; too efficient in his writing for people who think that writing comes from a muse...

The relationship between Palliser and his wife is the background to the entire series of six (although it fades completely into the background at times), but it's the politics which the series is famed for. Some say the best description of political life ever (which is surprising as Trollope was very bitter after failing to get elected to Westminster himself!).

Rohan Maitzen said...

I'm glad you liked my article!

A couple of sabbaticals ago, I read the whole Palliser series straight through and it was a great experience--better, even, I think, than the Barsetshire ones, though they are also wonderful. I found it took a while to get into the pace, which is steady but never exhilirating, but after a while, like you, I just read and read and read! I especially liked The Prime Minister. Also, on my recent trip to London, my father (a long-time Trollope lover) took me on a special side trip to see the square where Lady Glencora and Plantagenet lived (why can't I remember the name of it now?? old age!). Somehow, you believe it all really happened there in the real world.

I took a chance (I thought) and included He Knew He Was Right in an undergraduate seminar a couple of years ago--as we were also reading Middlemarch and East Lynne, I thought they might rebel against all the long novels. But working through HKHWR was a great experience, including (I think) for most of the students. Some of them reported turning to it with great pleasure when they were done with their other work. I highly recommend it--when you are done with this series.

Teresa said...

I love Trollope and have every intention of reading this whole series eventually. I've already read the final book; in fact, it was my introduction to Trollope. I'm not sure what my professor was thinking in assigning the last book in a series, but I loved the characters so much that I want to go back and get their whole story.

Heidenkind said...

I actually have never read Trollope, although I have heard of him. But this novel sounds very juicy. :) I suppose it's a tome like most Victorian novels?

Bookphilia said...

adevotedreader: "clear-sighted and compassionate" - yes, that's it! I wish I'd said that.

Tony: Is his autobiography good? Perhaps after I've finished the Palliser novels I'll check that out.

Rohan: Yes, your article was wonderful AND I will take any Trollope recommendations you make. :)

Teresa: Hmm, frustrating that you were made to read the last book and none of the ones that preceded it! But it sounds like it's just as good as the first...which is making me even more eager to find and read the second one.

heidenkind: I don't know if "juicy" is the adjective I'd use for Can You Forgive Her? but it's really compelling. And yes, it's also very long, as the Victorian novels tend to be - the copy I read was about 800 pages.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Heidenkind - The Warden (first of the six Barsetshire novels) is genuinely short, and so good. My Signet Classic is less than 200 pages.

I haven't read the Palliser novels, but my reading of the Barsetshire novels was much like Rohan's. One just seemed to follow another, effortlessly, logically.