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.
I thought I should keep going with the Barsetshire novels (i've read three so far), but I'm tempted to jump over to the Pallisers. The exploration of the masculine image, especially some popular types in literature of the time, sounds very interesting.
Hi Lory - This was a great book. But the the Barsetshire series is well worth finishing.
One of these days, I will read something by Anthony Trollope. These characters sound complex and fascinating. I am interested to learn more about the role of women in this novel. Wonderful commentary, Brian Joseph!
Trollope's critique of the idea of the "gentleman" is one of his subtlest themes. The Barchester books have plenty on the theme, too. No need to jump to the Palliser books. What's new is the introduction of real rogues like George Vavasor. There are a series of con artists in the Palliser books (and The Way We Live Now) that form a new, darker variation in the gentleman theme.
Hi Tom - Trollope managed to analyze and explore whatever he wrote about in all sorts of subtle ways.
I plan to read all The Palliser books so I am looking forward to what you mention.
Hi Suko - I think that you would like Trollope.
I found the role of women in this novel to be a bit of a question. In The Barsetshire novels Trollope's attitudes seemed somewhat progressive. Here seems to suggest more traditional rolls. I have been thinking about devoting a seperate post to it.
Hi Brian! I have this book and have not read it yet so I sort of skimmed through your review. As soon as I read it I will eagerly come back because you're reviews are so good.
Have a wonderful week!
Great review. I truly enjoy Trollope with all his plots and sub-plots. However, I'm not sure I would enjoy this novel as much as the Barsetshire novels given the darker tone that you mention.
Great review as ever, Brian. Interesting to hear that this book is darker and more complex than some of Trollope's Barsetshire novels. I still need to make a start with this author. One day...
Very enticing review, Brian. I only started on Trollope earlier this year and have loved the Barchester Chronicles, which I found quite humorous in places - Mrs Proudie etc. I did attempt this book but it was an audio version & I gave up before I'd even finished the first chapter as the narrator drove me nuts. Now this is the second book you've encouraged me to try again!
Brian you make every classic you read sound so enticing. I never had any intention of reading Trollope, but now all of these books are on my list.
I've only skimmed your post as I plan to read this novel in January, but read enough to know that I am in for another excellent novel by Trollope. I'll be back to read you review more thoroughly in a few months!
Hi Sharon - Thanks for stopping by. That is why I put up the spoiler alert :)
Indeed, some not so great things come out of love affairs in this book. This is very different from the way that relationships were depicted in The Chronicles of Barsetshire.
Thanks Jacqui - I think that you would like Trollope. This book, as the first of the Palliser books, or The Warden, which is the first of the Barsetshire chronicles, are great places to begin.
Thanks for stopping by JoAnn. I think that you will really like this book.
Thanks CJ - I think that you will like Trollope.
Hi Carol - This one was very enjoyable. If you have not done so already, The Barsetshire Chronicles are well worth finishing also.
Trollope is one of my all-time favourites--a friend of mine once recommended him as an antidote to the 21st Century.
I read my first Trollope book this year (The Warden) and will no doubt read more by him. I'm not sure if I'll read the whole series, I may instead just pick some at random—this one sounds like it'd be a good choice.
I have not read Trollope yet in my life, but I definitely plan to. I know JoAnn over at the blog Lakeside Musing is continually reading and reviewing his novels. I'd like to read about the moral collapse of these men. Hmm intriguing. Thx for the review.
Hi Guy - In many ways Trollope's books do take me into another world. On the other hand the human frailties that he described are relevant to our current world.
Hi Johnathan - I would highly recommend that you read the book that follows The Warden, Barchester Towers. It is my favorite Trollope so far. I thought it was outstanding.
Hi Susan - Trollope is so good at portraying characters. His depiction of men falling into darkness is so well done.
JoAnn of Lakeside Musing and I seem to be on parallel Trollope tracks with our reading.
I don't think I have read this author but I have seen the name, will need to have a wee eye out for him, interesting thoughts as always.
This does sound much darker than the Barsetshire novels, but very intriguing with lots to think about. Glad to hear the narrator is still witty--one of the best parts of a Trollope novel, I think. I have one more Barsetshire to read and then on to the Pallisers.
Thanks for a great review that really whetted my appetite.
The only Trollope I have read is the first book in the Barsetshire series and I liked it but wasn't impressed enough to ever pick up another one. This series sound much more interesting!
I think that you would like Trollope. If you read him, I would love to know what you thought.
Hi Stefanie - I liked the first The Barsetshire book, The Warden a lot. However, I thought that the second book in that series, Barchester Towers, was outstanding and it is still my favorite Trollope novel.
Hi Jane - I loved the last Barsetshire book, The Last Chronicle of Barset, so I think that you are in for a treat.
I have no doubt that you will like this one too.
Not an author I have ever read or even necessarily considered reading but with the words 'the stereotypical Victorian images of the cold, emotionless and privileged man is shown to be superficial' you have me thinking I should.
Another thoughtful review Brian, thanks.
Hi Tracy - Trollope always surprises with the complexity of his characters. Even when it comes to the rich and powerful.
Great review as always. This story sounds fascinating :)
Thanks Reader's Tale!
I know you are a fan of Anthony Trollope, this one sounds good as well. Interesting that he portrays the Byronic characters in a different light. Also that he touches on women's role here.
Great post as always. Enjoy your weekend.
Trollope always digs deep into human issues.
May I put you on the spot? I have not read anything by Trollope. Where is a good place to begin?
BTW, I have "reinvented" myself with a different blogging-self at a new address, which you can find here:
All the best from the Gulf coast,
Thanks for the link RT. I will be visiting.
I tend to be a stickler for reading series in order. So you could begin with this book as it is the first in the Palliser series and it is excellent.
The alternative would be to begin with The Warden, which is the first boom in the Chronicles of Barsetshire Series. I thought that was very good and the books that follow it I found to be outstanding.
GREAT commentary as usual, Brian!
I can see that Trollope is one of your favorite writers, and he does sound so appealing, too! The fact that he examines human relationships as closely as he does makes me want to read his work, as I enjoy novels which explore character interactions in great detail.
I also like the fact that Trollope's characters are nuanced, and not stereotypical. From your descriptions, they're not sentimentalized, either.
I also like the fact that women's issues, as well as women's independence, are explored. I really need to start reading Trollope! I will probably start with the Barsetshire series, as you've mentioned that "Can You Forgive Her?" is darker.
Thanks for the fantastic review!! :)
Thanks so much Hi Maria.
I think that you would really like Trollope. In particular, I think that you would love The main character of the The warden, Septimus Harding.
In other books by Trollope, there seemed to be great sensitivity towards the plight of women in society. In this book Trollope, thigh not insensitive seems to portray some old fashioned, what we would call sexist, sentiments. While he does not disparage women, he seems to suggest that very conventional gender roles benefit both men and women. I have been thinking that I might devote a seperate post to it.
This is all fascinating material - making sense of people's true character in light of their social roles and the expectations other people place on them, and how much all of these elements combine to form the "self." Excellent commentary!
I'm now looking forward to that second post, Brian!! :)
I started with your Phineas Finn post today, but followed the link here instead as I recently finished Can You Forgive Her. Thanks for including it! As always, this is a thoughtful reflection on Trollope's work. Trollope certainly offers up fascinating contrasts in his male characters. By the end, there is nothing redeeming about George, but I was moved by Plantagenet's transformation. The display, and follow through, on his feelings for Glencora were a surprise. I'll skim over your thoughts on Phineas Finn now, but save commenting for later.
Thanks JoAnn - Indeed there were some surprises here in terms of the male characters.
I know that have not read Phineas Finn. I look forward to your thoughts on it when you have done so.
Story sounds really interesting with well woven plot and brilliantly treated characters Brain!
Alice sounds like a quite complicated character though Glencora has the sympathy in spite of her flaws .
i am writing this one down in the list of my "will read books"
Hi Baili - I think that you would like this book. Trollope’s characters are usually so very nuanced.
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