Friday, October 22, 2010

Anthony Trollope's Can You Forgive Her?

Reading Trollope is like finding a secret treasure.  One wants to share it, but Trollope's very smoothness and modern ease of style masks his subtle brilliance and sometimes renders him mundane in the eyes of the uninitiated.  He is neither Dickens nor Hardy, lacking the former's baroque style and the latter's gloomy poeticism, but his novels are beautifully-written page-turners.   People are vaguely aware that Trollope wrote "classics," but Barchester Towers is the only one universally stocked at bookstores.   So who reads Anthony Trollope?  
Numbers of people online participate in discussions of Trollope.  There are approximately 550 members of two separate Trollope groups at Yahoo, Trollope19thCStudies,  run by Ellen Moody, and Trollope, founded by Elizabeth Thomsen. For those who believe he is not worth reading, these  groups of enthusiasts will strive to change your mind.

At the excellent website,, there is more evidence of reading.  4,756 people have participated in a poll about their favorite Trollope book.  The results?
31.6% Barchester Towers
12.5% Doctor Thorne
13.4% Can You Forgive Her?
16.7% Phineas Finn
10.5% The Way We Live Now
15.3% Dr Wortle's School 

It is a bit of an odd list, but I voted for Can You Forgive Her? And it is about Can Your Forgive Her? I want to write today.  

This will almost surely be my desert island novel.  It's very rare for me to want to start rereading a book the minute I reach the end.  Yet I feel I can't spend too much time in the company of heroines who can't forgive themselves: Alice Vavasour loves her Independence so much that she jilts John Grey, primarily because she can't face living in the country and hopes to support liberal politics; Kate Vavasour, Alice's cousin, who undermines Grey and tries to push Alice into a marriage to her brother, George, who is running for Parliament and needs Alice's money; and  Glencora Palliser, perhaps the wittiest and most original,  coerced by her family to marry a man she doesn't love, Plantaganet Palliser, but standing up for herself afterwards.

Known as one of six political novels, the first book of the Pallisers series, Can You Forgive Her?, is mostly about love.  But it also deals quite candidly with politicians who cannot handle their personal lives and who treat women badly.  The charming George Vavasour wants Alice's money. He is running for Parliament and can't raise all he needs for the campaign.  Some years earlier, he and Alice had been engaged.  She broke it off after he had an affair with another woman.  But now that she has broken her engagement to John Grey, he decides to take another shot.  His sister, Kate, who loves them both dearly, is a full-time campaigner for this marriage.

George's relationship with Alice is frightening.  She agrees to marry him, liking the idea of staying in London and being a political force.  But it soon becomes clear that he cares only about the money and when he becomes angry he physically abuses her.  Later, in another fight about money, he breaks his sister Kate's arm.  The two women are shocked, terrified, and  break off their relationships with him.  Alice cannot forgive herself for having broken with John Grey, and Kate cannot forgive herself for having brought George back together with Alice.

Plantaganet Palliser, the husband of Lady Glencora, a distant cousin of Alice,  is also a politician.  Unlike George, he is not abusive.  He is simply cold.  The relationship with Glencora means nothing to him except in terms of politics and insofar as she may be the mother of the heir.  Parliament is his whole life.  He is an up-and-coming young politician.  But Glencora longs for Burgo, the young scapegrace whom her family had prevented her marrying, and it is not until Plantaganet is forced to confront this fact that her love for Burgo is real that he finally changes his manner and courts his wife.  

Trollope's women in Can You Forgive Her? are strong and fascinating.  Oddly, the men are gray.  Even John Grey, Alice's lover, though handsome and decent, seems a bit lacklustre, and it is easy to see how she mistook George's vivacity and humor for kindness and love.  

This novel is beautifully written and compelling.  A perfect book for Trollope "newbies" to start with.


interpolations said...

On the strength of your good word, I'm climbing aboard the Trollope train - next year. Kevin

Frisbee said...

Great! Yes, next year is soon enough. Any year for Trollope is good.