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Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

“He talked non-stop about my beauty, as all men do. If a woman were hump-backed, and had only one eye, they wouldn’t be ashamed to tell her she was a Venus.”

I have a backlog of reviews–something I’m never that happy about–but this does grant room for choice, and I decided to make a Trollope review my first post of the year. Can You Forgive Her?, the first of six Palliser novels, stands at 830 pages in my Penguin Classics edition (a different edition from the one pictured below). I read just a few pages at night, and what a delightful read this is. It’s not often you go to sleep chuckling at the foibles of human nature, and this is one of those novels I was sad to see end.

Can You Forgive Her? was originally published in monthly parts, so in typical Victorian multi-plot fashion, this is a huge rambling tale with a vast cast of characters and various sub-plots set against a glittering society of 19th century England. This is a complex world and Trollope hints that the world of marriage and the world of politics have a great deal in common.  To some readers, that description alone is enough to reject the book, but for this reader, Can You Forgive Her? was a leisurely excursion into the trials and tribulations of three women–specifically on the issue of marriage. These are the days in which wealthy women, when married, were stuck with the behaviour of their husbands. Marriage was a serious, permanent choice, and women were under tremendous pressure to make ‘suitable’ alliances. This issue is at the core of Trollope’s novel, and through the labyrinth plot, we see the struggles of three women as they make–or live with–the choices they make. These women live in an age of not exactly ‘arranged’ marriages, but let us say it’s the age of ‘organised’ marriage–and this is, as Trollope shows us, rather a fine line.

The novel’s main heroine is 24-year-old Alice Vavasour, and she’s the one–as the title suggests–is in need of forgiveness. It’s true that Alice makes some horrible mistakes in the course of the story, and the underlying explanation of her actions isn’t entirely successful, but more of that later.  When the story begins, Alice, the only child of a London bureaucrat is engaged to be married to John Grey–a handsome, good-natured gentleman of substance. Grey adores Alice, but for her part Alice has reservations. She keeps delaying the wedding day and while her relatives approve of Mr. Grey–who’s literally a paragon, there’s an edge of discontent nagging away inside Alice. She knows that she loves Mr. Grey but can’t quite see herself  living as Mrs. Grey bundled off to his country estate near Cambridge. Trollope tells us that part of Alice’s problem is that she would like to be married to a ‘great man,’–perhaps someone in politics, and this isn’t Mr. Grey’s bag.

Another problem Alice must deal with is that she’s been engaged before to her cousin, the wastrel George Vavasour, the brother of her best friend, Kate. We don’t know quite what went wrong but we can speculate that it was something scandalous enough for her to brook family criticism when she broke this first engagement. According to the elderly Lady Macleod, “the fact was, Alice, that George Vavasour’s mode of life was such that an engagement with him would have been absolute madness.”

When the book begins, we can believe that George’s largest fault lies in the fact he has no money, but as the plot plays out, George’s more unsavoury characteristics are revealed, and in any other continent or class we’d call him an adventurer, but in the upper echelons of British society, George’s true nature is largely concealed, and this is due in so small part to the fact that he actively compartmentalises his true nature.

But back to the plot. The book begins with Alice engaged to Mr. Grey and beginning various delaying tactics to postpone the wedding. One of those tactics is to take a European holiday with Kate and George, and several of Alice’s relatives are alarmed by this action due to Alice’s prior history with George. Alice’s travels seal her decision to jilt Mr. Grey, and Alice calls off her engagement to Mr. Grey claiming that she finds him too perfect, and then she becomes re-engaged to George. A mess ensues with Alice not really being able to make her mind up while her relatives, with the exception of Kate, becoming extremely frustrated with her ever-changing choice of fiancés.

Ok so that’s more-or-less the plot, but obviously there’s a lot more to the book than that. Two other plots run parallel to Alice’s dilemma, and the characters involved serve to enervate her argument against marrying Mr. Grey. While Alice shies away from marriage to Mr. Grey (even though she says she loves him), she argues that she wants a public life. At one point in the novel, she goes to stay with Lady Glencora Palliser at Matching Priory, and while this should be an opportunity for Alice to enjoy politically important company, instead she is intimidated by the heavily-nuanced society in which she feels uncomfortable.

Lady Glencora, one of the greatest heiresses in the country, once loved her cousin, the impoverished Burgo Fitzgerald, and she was steered away from Burgo and into the arms of the eminently respectable, but overly staid Plantagenet Palliser–a promising young politician and the heir of the Duke of Omnium. Alice goes to visit Lady Glencora, and there’s some history here as Alice refused to participate in secret assignations between Glencora and Burgo before her marriage to Palliser. Lady Glencora invites Alice to visit her, and while the primary idea is that Lady Glencora will set Alice straight by example, instead Glencora confesses that she is still madly in love with Burgo and bored and unhappy with Palliser. Alice becomes a bystander to Glencora’s unhappiness:

If he [Palliser] was dull as a statesman he was more dull in private life, and it may be imagined that such a woman as his wife would find some difficulty in making his society the source of her happiness. Their marriage, in a point of view regarding business, had been a complete success, –and a success, too, when on the other side, that of Lady Glencora, there had been terrible dangers of shipwreck, and when on his side also there had been some little fears of a mishap. As regards her it has been told how near she went to throwing herself, with all her vast wealth, into the arms of a young man, whom no father, no guardian could have regarded as a well-chosen husband for any girl; –one who as yet had shown no good qualities, who had been a spendthrift, unprincipled, and debauched. Alas, she had loved him! It is possible that her love and her wealth might have turned him from evil to good. But who would have ventured to risk her, –and I will not say her and her vast inheritance, –on such a chance? That evil, however, had been prevented, and those about her had managed to marry her to a young man, very steady by nature, with worldly prospects as brilliant as her own, and with a station than which the world offers nothing higher.

But while disaster seems to have been averted by Glencora’s marriage to Palliser, this is not a formula for Glencora’s happiness. She’s bored and extremely unhappy. Her situation isn’t helped by the fact that she’s monitored by two of Palliser’s toadies, and she’s under constant surveillance by the sanctimonious Mrs Marsham, and the loathsome Mr. Bott. Trollope shows us that the upper echelons of British society protects its assets but with little provision for personal happiness.

The third subplot concerns Alice and Kate’s widowed Aunt Greenow (Arabella Vavasour)– a woman whose state of wealthy widowhood allows her more freedom than any other female in the novel. As an old maid, she was a burden to her relatives who dismissed her as an “old flirt,” when suddenly and unexpectedly she landed a wealthy, elderly husband in ill health. After Arabella became Mrs. Greenow, her currency increased measurably within the family. Now she’s a widow, and unfettered by matrimony and fueled with money, Aunt Greenow is out to enjoy life, and she does so with gusto–taking Kate along for the ride. It’s through this character that Trollope’s humour shines. At Yarmouth, Aunt Greenow is pursued by no less than two suitors–the impecunious Captain Bellfield and Mr Cheesacre–a gentleman farmer of Oileymead who’s known as Cheesy. Both Bellfield and Cheesy desperately court Aunt Greenow while she plays fast and loose, claiming mourning (and an ever-shifting time period since the death of her dear Mr. Greenow) as an excuse against making a commitment. Bellfield and Cheesacre–rivals in adversity–are driven to extreme lengths in their amorous siege of the stubborn widow. They are rather like dogs fighting for possession of a bone, and at one point, Cheesacre decides to invite Bellfield to the country thinking this will allow unfettered access to the widow Greenow:

Driven to despair, he at last resolved to ask Bellfield to come to Oileymead for a month. That drilling at Norwich, or the part of it which was supposed to be profitable, was wearing itself out. Funds were low with the Captain, –as he did not scruple to tell his friend Cheesacre, and he accepted the invitation. “I’ll mount you with the harriers, old fellow,” Cheesacre had said, “and give you a little shooting. Only I won’t have you go out when I’m not with you.” Bellfield agreed. Each of them understood the nature of the bargain; though Bellfield, I think, had somewhat the clearer understanding in the matter. He would not be so near the widow as he had been at Norwich, but he would not be less near than his kind host. And his host would no doubt watch him closely;– but then he also could watch his host. There was a railway station not two miles from Oileymead and the journey thence into Norwich was one of half an hour. Mr Cheesacre would doubtless be very jealous of such journeys, but with all his jealousy he could not prevent them. And then, in regard to this arrangement, Mr Cheesacre paid the piper, whereas Captain Bellfield paid nothing. Would it not be sweet to him if he could carry off his friend’s prize from under the very eaves of his friend’s house?

So Trollope shows us penniless men: Burgo Fitzgerald, George Vavasour, and Captain Bellfield and unleashes them on the women who have the means to provide for the lifestyles they crave. But even while I put these three men in the same bag, they are different and perhaps they don’t deserve to be lumped together. Burgo and Bellfield are good-natured men; Burgo has been brought up into life of privilege without the means to sustain this abundance, and poor Captain Bellfield lives off the meagre pocket money given to him by his sister. Of course there’s a great irony here as the women with money (with the exception of Arabella Greenow) are subjected to tremendous social pressure to conform–look at the tremendous wealth of Glencora, for example, who still couldn’t do as she pleased. Lest I give the wrong impression, I should add that some of the women in the tale come off as badly as the men–Lady Monk leaps to mind. She’s a woman who “had succeeded in marrying her daughter to the greatest fool in the peerage.” And what of Alice–I’d argue that Alice’s root problem is fear of sex and not all those other excuses she dreams up.

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