Teresa and I have decided to read all the Palliser novels together — our own little Trollope book club. (That is even more fun than it sounds.) I’ve read all the Barsetshire novels, and Can You Forgive Her?, the first of the Pallisers, is less ecclesiastical and more political than those. That’s what I expected. I also expected it to be wise about human nature, and it was. What I didn’t expect — though why didn’t I, now that I’ve read ten of Trollope’s novels? — is that it would be so funny.
Can You Forgive Her? entwines three storylines about the courtship, marriage, and decisions of three strong women: Alice Vavasor, Glencora Palliser, and Alice’s aunt, Arabella Greenow. Alice begins the novel by jilting her kind, gentle, and completely unexceptionable fiance, John Grey. Lady Glencora, who does not love her stiff-necked but equally perfect husband Plantagenet Palliser, considers leaving him for the utterly disreputable (but beautiful) Burgo Fitzgerald. And Mrs. Greenow, a recent widow, keeps two gentlemen — Mr. Cheesacre (Right but Repulsive), and Captain Bellfield (Wrong but Wromantic) — hilariously in suspense. Can you forgive them? Whom are we to forgive, and for what?
Teresa: I came to this having read The Duke’s Children—the final Palliser novel—way back in college. (I had a stuffed penguin that I dubbed Plantagenet the semester I read it.) So I had a sense of what the relationships among the characters would be like and some idea of the outcomes of at least a few of their dilemmas, but with Trollope a lot of the pleasure is in the little moments along the way. I found Mrs. Greenow and her suitors particularly funny, but I was impressed and a little surprised at how even in that comic story the question of who to marry ends up being treated seriously. Mrs. Greenow, with all her silliness, turns out to be pretty smart about her choices.
One of the things I found interesting is the way Trollope handles the idea of choice. Glencora is in a marriage she didn’t choose, and she’s unhappy. Alice gets the freedom to choose her husband, and she finds it impossible. Did you find any of the storylines particularly compelling—or frustrating?
Jenny: I thought Alice’s story and Lady Glencora’s were equally interesting, partly because Alice sees Glencora as a sort of cautionary tale. What will happen to her, she wonders, if she marries a man she loves and esteems, but who bores her? Will her love die a slow, strangulated death? Trollope is very good at showing Alice’s frustration with John Grey because of his lack of political ambition and the absence of romance in his life, though he may be perfect in other respects. (Though he has more heart than he shows her.)
Glencora’s story becomes what Alice fears for herself. If her love dies, will she become reckless, will she regret her marriage, will she forget what she owes to her husband, herself, and society? Glencora is not a bad woman, but she’s become weak because she is terribly unhappy. And she, too, sees her life bound up with Alice’s in some way. What did you think? Did you have to forgive one of these women?
Teresa: I didn’t feel a need to forgive either woman because I could understand both of their dilemmas. I was especially drawn into Alice’s situation. I found myself frustrated at her inability to decide, but I couldn’t be mad at her about it. It was more that I was frustrated at how difficult it was for her to choose and how so few people seemed to understand her fears, preferring to label her a jilt than to consider how high the stakes were.
Trollope’s characterization of Alice’s two suitors contributed a lot to my sympathy for her. It was easy to see that Grey is the better man but that doesn’t make him a better partner. At first, George seems more passionate and exciting, and his irresponsibility could be chalked up to youth. The revelations about his true character took my breath away. It was entirely predictable and all too common, even today, but this kind of thing is still unexpected when it happens.
Jenny: Yes — right — and to have so many people who are loyal to George, even at the end, because he was so private about his wickedness! Burgo Fitzgerald doesn’t get that ease, because he was still just honorable enough to be open about his disgrace, I suppose.
Still, Alice labels herself a jilt, as much as her relations do. Almost the whole problem, towards the end, is that Alice has been forgiven by everyone but herself. I think it’s an open question at the end of the novel whether she can ever be open-heartedly happy after what she’s been through. Glencora has decided to throw in her lot with her husband, and Plantangenet has made a sacrifice for her; who can say what their future happiness will be? I sympathized with all three women, and (as a 21st century middle-aged feminist) had nothing to forgive them. But Trollope is pointing out, among other things, the serious cost of going against societal expectations. The only one of the three who counts the cost and will certainly be able to pay it all is Mrs. Greenow, with her very slightly naughty second husband.
Teresa: And the whole issue of societal expectations goes right back to the question of choice, which so fascinated me. Mrs. Greenow has both a fortune and a lack of concern about what other people think. That gives her choices. Alice has a fortune and independence, but because she quite understandably cares about others’ opinions, she can’t choose her own course without being plagued by doubt.
I thought Trollope did a fine job at examining these women’s dilemmas with compassion and dashes of good humor. Although I have some vague recollections of where the story ends up from reading The Duke’s Children, I’m eager to take the journey to that ending.