Can You Forgive Her?

can you forgive herTeresa 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.

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11 Responses to Can You Forgive Her?

  1. Hi, ladies. Thanks for your informative and versatile dialogue. I really like this form from the two of you, and would willingly read more such dialogues. Do you know, I had never heard of “Can You Forgive Her?” before, but I thought by the title and only the title that it must be by Trollope, because it reminded me so forceably of the titles “The Way We Live Now” and “He Knew He Was Right.” I think I even recall reviews of those books on your site. Isn’t it funny that he would write the Barsetshire novels in such a different way, with such titles as they have, a collection of a different sort, folksy almost, and village-y, and then have the others (such as the ones I’ve named and the one you reviewed today) be so strongly rhetorical? He almost seems to have a literary split personality!

    • Teresa says:

      We love doing these posts and have another coming up soon!

      I think He Knew He Was Right is one of the best titles ever–and it’s such a great book, too. The other Palliser books don’t have such wonderful titles.

      • Jenny says:

        There’s another Trollope called Is He Popenjoy? though. That has to be in contention for best Trollope title, right?

  2. This is so fun, and I haven’t even read Trollope. I tried one once, many moons ago, and I didn’t get very far with it. (I haven’t given up, just set Trollope aside for now.) I’m looking forward to seeing more of your buddy-read posts on him in the future!

  3. Liz Mc2 says:

    I’m so delighted that you’re doing this, because I recently listened to this on audio and decided to listen to the whole series (in one year? Maybe longer). I read the first three years ago.

    Like you, I was really struck by the exploration of women’s marital choices–and the role that money plays in those choices, which is not always what you’d expect (more money doesn’t necessarily mean more choice). I came back to the book after a few years in which I’d read a lot of historical romance novels and it was interesting to see how differently he treated these subjects, and in particular how compared to most contemporary (female) genre writers, Trollope is much more aware of or interested in how high the stakes/risks of these choices were for women. I’ve just started Phineas Finn, which is more focused on male characters and their careers, but which still has already had a conversation between two female friends about their calculations of risk in marriage and the risks they will not take.

    Looking forward to more of your fascinating conversations!

    • Teresa says:

      We’ll be a bit behind you–we’re looking at reading one book every quarter (or so), so it’ll take well over a year. I’ll have to go back and look at your post on this one, now that I’ve finished!

      I really appreciate Trollope interest in women’s choices and how complex they are. Happiness matters, but Trollope doesn’t deny that happiness without financial security (or societal approval) is a tenuous sort of happiness. Yet he implores the potentially judgmental reader again and again to forgive these women for wanting something different. He seems to get the difficulty they’re in.

      That’s an interesting comparison to contemporary historical romance, which I don’t read much of. Is it that the practical side is under-emphasized?

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        Yes, I’d say the risks and practicalities are under-emphasized (although there are certainly notable exceptions, like many of Mary Balogh’s earlier novels). For instance, there is a lot, these days, of not considering the risks of sex outside marriage. And not a lot of the kind of desperation both Alice and Lady Glencora feel at various points because of their mistaken/forced choices–being miserable and trapped. There’s more sexy sparring.

        Even though everything works out happily for these women, I felt I was reading anti-genre romance. And I read other 19th century novels, like The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, in similar terms: it’s the opposite of a redeemed rake romance. I think part of the difference is genre, but part is also historical vs. contemporaneous fiction. For women writing 19th-century set romance today, the past can be largely a fantasy world they create.

  4. Liz, I think your description of Phineas Finn will change. The balance shifts as the novel goes along. The number of proposal scenes in Phineas Finn is insane.

    The books stay funny. Eustace Diamonds was at least as funny as this one. Funniest yet, says me. It is also an anti-genre romance, even on Trollope’s own terms, like a self-parody.

    • Jenny says:

      I read The Eustace Diamonds a couple of years back (it stands well on its own) and also thought it was very funny. Apparently G.K. Chesterton called him the “lesser Thackeray.” There’s some sense to that — as Rohan already knew, with her comparison between the two.

    • Trollope even wrote a monograph on Thackeray, with whom he was friends. He owes so much to Thackeray. He might have called himself a lesser Thackeray. All of the meta-fiction – it is Thackeray who gave Trollope the license to do that.

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