When the pressures of a four-day-a-week job and a psychotic cat become too much to bear, it’s nice to know you can take refuge in the classics. You usually know what you’re getting with a classic: it survived until the present day after all, which must constitute some type of literary merit. And word of mouth tends to filter down, so that you know to expect sly satire from Jane Austen; fabulously pithy epigrams from Oscar Wilde, and blunt, flat, autistic sentences about whiskey from Hemingway. It’s reassuring – particularly if you happen to be reading a nice, solid hardback with old-fashioned typeface on the cover and sketches of women in capes scattered throughout as I was.
I’ve just finished Can You Forgive Her? by the unfortunately named Anthony Trollope. If you’re anything like me, then you probably spent the better part of your life going around talking about Tro-lope, which sounds far grander and more aristocratic than Troll-op, pronounced to rhyme with ‘wallop’ or ‘dollop’ – a name better suited to a ruddy-cheeked market woman or bullfrog. You would have been wrong, however, given that the latter prounciation is the correct one.
Can You Forgive Her? is the first book in the Palliser Chronicles, a series often spoken of as Trollope’s ‘political novels’. The title refers to the heroine, Alice Vavasor, a principled, fervent, humourless sort of girl - a bit like Dorothea Brooke without all the frippery. Her situation is like that of so many Austen heroines: motherless and lacking the guiding counsel of an attentive father. And like Emma Woodhouse in particular, she is both stubborn and misguided.
Before the novel begins, Alice has just entered into an engagement with the quiet and gentlemanly John Gray, a match approved by both her father and her relatives. However, after going on a tour of Switzerland with her cousin, Kate, and Kate’s brother, George, who acts as male protector, Alice breaks off the engagement: though she loves John, she isn’t sure that their lifestyles are suited or that she is worthy of him. These are some of the reasons she gives herself at least, but really she seems to be acting almost fatalistically, plagued by vague, indefinable misgivings that not even she understands.
Some years before, Alice was engaged to George, but ended the engagement because of his wild and reckless ways. Kate blindly adores her brother to the point of being willing to sacrifice all of her meagre income to fund his political aspirations and has always longed for him and Alice to get married, and somewhat disloyally, takes advantage of Alice’s vulnerability to press for their reattachment (yes, I know – it’s all very complicated.) Alice no longer loves George, but in another despairing and self-destructive impulse, agrees to marry him. It isn’t clear what motivates her – perhaps a desire to lose herself in something greater than herself; a mistaken belief that George’s political campaigning will be a conduit to a wider, nobler world she instinctively craves. In this regard, she again reminded me of Dorothea who similarly saw her marriage to Casaubon as a pathway to a more spiritually expansive, less strait-jacketed life.
Foolishly going against all established conventions, Alice offers George the use of her money immediately, asking only that their wedding be postponed for a year. George initially doesn’t intend to accept her offer, but when his pride receives a blow from the realisation that Alice doesn’t love him, and his need for quick funds becomes dire, he starts to take out loans using her income as surety. It is up to faithful, dependable John Gray, who still inexplicably loves Alice, to find some way to save her from herself.
Intertwined with this narrative are the stories of two other women. Lady Glencora is a young vivacious heiress distantly related to Alice. In the past, she had come to Alice in desperation, begging for the use of her home to meet privately with her lover, the handsome but penniless Burgo Fitzgerald, whom her family views as a fortune-chasing opportunist. Alice refuses, and the overwhelmed Glencora yields to her family’s persuasion and breaks off her relationship with Burgo, instead marrying the cold, humourless and eminently more suitable politician, Palliser Plantagenet – and immediately regretting it. When Alice is thrown into Glencora’s orbit again, she finds her desolate and miserable – so much so that she is contemplating leaving her husband and returning to Burgo, an act which would make her a social outcast. Glencora, too, needs saving then…
The third woman in the novel, however, the wealthy widow Mrs Greenow, is perfectly capable of taking care of herself. Kate’s aunt by marriage, she is beautiful, coy and charming, despite the hindrance of black mourning crepe. Mrs Greenow greatly enjoys being fought over by two particularly persistent suitors: the rich but ill-bred farmer, Mr Cheesacre, who constantly vaunts his wealth and property (the wonderfully-titled ‘Oileymead’) ; and his rival, the dashing Captain Bellfield, who leaches shamelessly off Cheesacre and lies about the military action he’s seen – yet much to Cheeseacre’s teeth-gnashing consternation, seems to be the preferred suitor. Mrs Greenow, of course, is far too devoted to the memory of her dear husband (a coarse, pig-like man over twice her age) to even think of ever marrying again.
These almost Dickensian characters and their hilarious attempts to one-up each other as wooers add an element of farce to the novel that had me laughing aloud (ROFL, I’d say, were I the type of person inclined to roll around on the carpet in paroxysms of mirth.) Mrs Greenow’s adamant assertions to Kate that Mr Cheesacre is clearly very much in love with her (Kate), despite his complete inattention to her and his almost snivelling adoration of herself, were hilarious, and again reminiscent of Austen’s Emma and her misguided advice to Harriet. I also loved how Mrs Greenow kept flagrantly increasing the length of time since her ‘dear husband’s death’ to make her rampant flirting more acceptable:
‘Only think,’ she said , as she unpacked a little picture of the departed one, and sat with it for a moment in her hands, as she pressed her handkerchief to her eyes, ‘only think that it is barely nine months since he was with me.’ ‘Six, you mean, aunt’, said Kate unadvisedly.
‘Only nine months!’ repeated Mrs. Greenow, as though she had not heard her niece. ‘Only nine months!’ After that Kate attempted to correct no more such errors.
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. It was light and sparkling and easy to read, without that ponderous ‘worthy’ feel you often get from ploughing through a classic. And it was such a page-turner, unexpectedly: I’m dying to get the next part so I can see what happens to poor, despairing Alice. I’m really quite anxious about her, to be honest.
The novel also surprised me in that it revealed a far less circumscribed world than I’d encountered in other novels from this period – more cadenced, nuanced, and undemarcated. Yes, there were rules and social conventions to be observed, but characters flouted them quite frequently, and while they were usually frowned at for doing so, they did not become pariahs as a result.
The other thing which struck me was how psychologically insightful Trollope is: not something he seems to get enough recognition for. None of the characters were ‘a single proposition’, to quote Virginia Woolf, and it is remarkable how their actions could be so often inconsistent with their intrinsic selves, yet they could still come across as realistic and psychologically convincing. I’ve already discussed Alice and her numerous contradictions, but there’s also George. George is in many ways a typical rascal or cad or bounder – all of those words so popular in Victorian novels. Polite society certainly sees him as a no-good-nik: he’s behaved badly to Alice in the past, and does exactly what they all expect when he starts borrowing in her name. Trollope, however, presents him in such a way that even though his actions throughout the book are uniformly bad, we see his mercenary and exploitative behaviour as uncharacteristic, not what he’s really like. We don’t view him through Kate’s rose-tinted glasses, but we do like him, and can see that he has a deeper, more complex self than is acknowledged in the world of the novel. Kate similarly behaves treacherously, betraying the trust of Alice quite shockingly when you think about it objectively, yet Trollope again manages to reassure us that she’s fundamentally loyal and warm-hearted and good.
It’s a very kind, compassionate picture of humanity he presents us with. So of course I could easily forgive Alice – and the rest of them too.