Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope is the first of The Palliser Novels series. This is another book that I loved by Trollope. Like several of the author’s books, the narrative covers parallel, but interrelated, stories.
The book’s main protagonist, Alice Vavasor, is flawed but fascinating. Alice’s marital engagements and subsequent breaking of them comprises the novel’s main thread. The book opens several years after she has ended an engagement with her cousin, George Vavasor. George is a volatile young man. Though he eventfully descends into complete perniciousness, upon the book’s opening, he is not without some positive character traits. George’s sister, Kate, plays an important role as Alice’s confidante and an early advocate for Alice’s and her brother’s engagement.
At the story’s beginning, Alice is now engaged to John Grey, a man of high status and decency. However, he finds it difficult to express his genuine emotions. Over the course of the tale, Alice is persuaded to break her engagement with Grey and once again becomes betrothed to George Vavasor. George slowly descends into the dark depths of spite, greed, rage and violence. At one point, he physically assaults his sister Kate. As his personality spirals out of control, so does his relationship with Alice.
Another subplot involves Lady Glencora. Before the events of the novel, Glencora fell in love with Burgo Fitzgerald. Burgo lacks the social status and wealth of Glencora. He is also irresponsible and immature. Their subsequent engagement is broken up by wealthy and powerful family remembers. Glencora goes on to marry the stiff, but socially acceptable, Plantagenet Palliser. Trapped in a loveless marriage, Glencora stills pines for Burgo and eventually toys with plans to run away with him. However, as the plot develops, in typical Trollope style, we find that Plantagenet is not without his virtues.
A third subplot involves the clownish Mr. Cheesacre and Captain Bellfield in competition for the affections of Alice’s aunt, Mrs. Greenow. This thread is mostly humorous, but Trollope’s characters always manage to show complexity and exhibit real emotion, and this segment of the story is no exception.
I have previously read Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire series. This book was darker. It included themes of violence, suicide, tragically failed love affairs and characters’ descent into moral degeneracy. Along with these darker notes comes additional complexity. Even sympathetic characters commonly engage in questionable acts, with Alice’s tendency to enter in and out of engagements being a prime example.
There are so many fascinating charters and themes within this novel. I am tempted to write in detail about several. I find that the characters are even more multifaceted then they were in The Chronicles of Barsetshire. This is saying a lot. The interaction of these characters adds to the plot’s sophistication, and it is a joy to read.
Though there are multiple directions that one can go when pondering this work, I want to devote a few words to Trollope’s examination of the men of this era. This novel delves into the subjects of repressed emotions and actions as well as their wilder and darker personality traits in all sorts of interesting ways. In its depiction of men, it is in some ways contrarian to many other works of this era.
Early in the narrative, Trollope seems to mislead the reader bit. Based entirely upon Alice’s temporarily negative thoughts, as well as Kate’s negative statements about him, one suspects that Grey is cold and emotionless. He is indeed, like several other male characters, very reserved and not expressive of his feelings. However, as the story proceeds, we begin to discover that deep inside he experiences real emotions, including great pain when Alice breaks off the engagement.
The passage where he reads news that Alice is engaged to George Vavasor is very illustrative,
“I have said that he read Alice's letter with an agony of sorrow; as he sat with it in his hand he suffered as, probably, he had never suffered before. But there was nothing in his countenance to show that he was in pain.”
At another point, he is contemplating the effects of bowing out of Alice’s life. Again, we are shown how the tendency to conceal his feelings is built into him,
“Undoubtedly, had he satisfied himself that Alice's happiness demanded such a sacrifice of himself, he would have made it, and made it without a word of complaint. The blow would not have prostrated him, but the bruise would have remained on his heart, indelible, not to be healed but by death. He would have submitted, and no man would have seen that he had been injured. “
We see something similar, though not as strong, in Plantagenet. Early on, he is portrayed as dull, unaware of the feelings of others and polite, but at the same time a little callous. Yet, Trollope does what he does so well, and Plantagenet is humanized. After being told by his wife that she does not love him, he makes a great sacrifice for her as he gives up his cherished career. He proceeds to behave nobly and without malice towards her. We find that he does love Glencora, though he shows it with difficulty. Yet even at this point of the narrative, Trollope does not gloss over his flaws, they are just shown to coexist with what are significant virtues.
In contrast to John and Plantagenet, the personas of George and Burgo can be described as Byronic. They are romantic, attractive and have virtues, yet they have a sense of darkness about them. They are troubled and defiant. Vavasor is vengeful. Both cause understandable worry in the loved ones of the women that they are engaged to. With that, as it seems that in most Victorian novels, the virtues of such characters win out and they establish successful relationships with female protagonists. Something very unusual happens in this book, however. Unlike the fate of most such characters in literature, these two men experience moral collapse that they do not recover from. The last that we see of both men is their downward spirals into degeneracy and failure.
The stereotypical Victorian images of the cold, emotionless and privileged man is shown to be superficial in this book. Likewise, Trollope attacks the cliché of the dark Byronic character as being not so bad or as being redeemable. In fact, these troubled men are worse than how they are initially perceived.
I think that there are two ways to look at this. In one way, we can say that Trollope is defending the conventional men that society bestows its approval upon. We can also say that the author is reaffirming society’s distrust of the troubled and moody, but charming, outsider. This is a conservative view. Yet, as an author who often rises to defend other, often less empowered, groups, such as women, those who rebel against arranged marriages, etc., in his other books, we can also look at this story as Trollope rebelling against false and clichéd stereotypes of socially acceptable men.
Lest I paint too simplistic of a picture here, this is Trollope. He throws much ambiguity into the situation. Plantagenet, and to a lesser degree Grey, are shown in a critical light for being too repressed and, at times, repressive toward those around them. The men with darker personalities, especially Burgo, are portrayed at times, as possessing humanity, charm and other virtues. The world that benefits the privileged men is also seen in a critical light. For instance, there is real pathos shown when Lady Glencora reveals how her initially loveless marriage with Palliser was arraigned. The relatives who scheme to break up and arrange engagements to support their social system are portrayed in a harsh light.
There is a lot more to this book than I have touched on above. These themes are just a small part of many that are included within these pages. The role of women and women’s independence is explored. This novel is also an insightful critique of politics that is still relevant today. It is a well-written story that includes a fair amount of Trollope’s witty meta-fiction. The book is full of interesting characters who interact in fascinating ways. I highly recommend this work to anyone who enjoys the literature of this time period.