Sunday, July 24, 2011


For someone of my tastes in fiction, it's surprising that I've taken so long to get around to Anthony Trollope. Somehow, through an undergraduate English program and then a Master's program that was heavy on British fiction, Trollope was never on the reading list, and I kept filing him away for future reading. Well, finally, after finishing up the delightful Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, I decided to start with the first novel in one of the two major series that Trollope produced among his 47 novels. For someone so prolific, you need a plan.

Can You Forgive Her is the first of the Palliser novels, so called because one of the major characters figures significantly in all six novels -- the aristocratic and politically powerful Plantagenet Palliser. The major character, however, in CYFH is Alice Vavasor, and she requires forgiveness -- at least according to Trollope -- for her deplorable record in engaging and then jilting suitors. First, her ne'er do well cousin, George Vavasor, then the impossibly well-behaved John Grey, and then back again to George... But Alice is not a flighty, tempestuous, or shallow woman. She is just the opposite -- serious, thoughtful, and sensitive to her own shortcomings and what she owes to the man she will one day call husband.

While she is treated very sympathetically by Trollope, and is charged only with the fault of being overly"self-willed," her real problem is that she is a woman stuck in the limbo of gender roles in Victorian England. On the one hand, she is a sensitive and intelligent woman in the rare position of having a great deal of personal autonomy due to the fact that she commands her own fortune, but still facing an extremely limited array of roles that are considered to be appropriate to a gently bred young woman. She can marry or she can remain a spinster, but there is very little else open to her without an education, and anything but very basic education was certainly not the norm for most women of her time and class. (When Mary Anne Evans (George Eliot) wanted to learn German or Greek, or natural sciences, she either had to engage her own tutors or teach herself.)

With these limited options, the main drama of Alice's life boils down to choosing the "right" husband -- not just someone she can love and respect, but someone through whom she can gain the vicarious satisfaction of having done something meaningful with her life. She can't stand for Parliament herself, of course, so the only political power within her grasp is supporting a husband who has those ambitions.

This is the climate, richly detailed and peopled, by Trollope's imagination. The intrigues of love and marriage are mirrored in the world of politics, and there is just as much treachery, falsehood, pride, and ambition at play in the one as in the other.

Can You Forgive Her is a sprawling, 900-page novel in the true Victorian fashion, in which numerous characters, both major and minor, are fleshed out in full. I often wanted to throttle one or more of the protagonists for their stubbornness, selfishness, coldness, or downright villainy, but they were never boring.

One added pleasure of this novel was reading Trollope's witty description of a meeting of Parliament in light of the current machinations of Congress "negotiating" the debt crisis, and on the opposite side of the Atlantic, the agonizing histrionics surrounding the Rupert Murdoch scandal. Here is a snippet without further comment:

There is something very pleasant in the close, bosom friendship, and bitter, uncompromising animosity, of these human gods,—of these human beings who would be gods were they not shorn so short of their divinity in that matter of immortality. If it were so arranged that the same persons were always friends, and the same persons were always enemies, as used to be the case among the dear old heathen gods and goddesses;—if Parliament were an Olympus in which Juno and Venus never kissed, the thing would not be nearly so interesting. But in this Olympus partners are changed, the divine bosom, now rabid with hatred against some opposing deity, suddenly becomes replete with love towards its late enemy, and exciting changes occur which give to the whole thing all the keen interest of a sensational novel. No doubt this is greatly lessened for those who come too near the scene of action. Members of Parliament, and the friends of Members of Parliament, are apt to teach themselves that it means nothing; that Lord This does not hate Mr That, or think him a traitor to his country, or wish to crucify him; and that Sir John of the Treasury is not much in earnest when he speaks of his noble friend at the "Foreign Office" as a god to whom no other god was ever comparable in honesty, discretion, patriotism, and genius.

Trollope, Anthony (2009-10-04). Can You Forgive Her? (pp. 447-448). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.