Yesterday I wrote about my experience of reading hundreds of pages of this novel on the last day (yes, I did finish it in bed at midnight!) and today I’m writing more of a review for the Classics Circuit Trollope Tour, or as I’m beginning to think of it, just sharing a few of my thoughts and reflections on it, as right now it’s rather intimidating to think of reviewing a massive 800 page book I only finished late last night! (Thankfully this is not university.)
Can You Forgive Her? is the first of Trollope’s political Palliser series, which seems to be slightly less popular than the more churchy Barsetshire books, but as I’ve only read the Palliser books (my intro to Trollope took place earlier this year, in an emergency room with The Eustace Diamonds, book 3 of the Palliser series although it stands well on its own and has a nice mystery by the end), I like them better and am now quite committed to moving on with the whole series. It can be intimidating to look at his two long series which contain most of his best known (but quite thick) books, but once you start, you’re hooked in (at least I am) and then the pleasure of watching the characters develop over time begins. (This is also one of the great things about Proust and I will say again, despite how intimidating both authors may look, they do have good stories!)
The story begins with Alice Vavasor, who starts off engaged to the noble and kind (maybe too much so) John Grey, but then is talked into breaking off her engagement because despite loving him, she doesn’t want to be trapped at his quiet country estate and never do anything worthwhile with her life beyond the traditional womanly duties. She doesn’t want to live in London to go to society parties and gossip like most women, she wants to be involved in politics (although Trollope cautions: “She was not so far advanced as to think that women should be lawyers or doctors, or to wish that she might have the priviledge of the franchise for herself; but she had undoubtedly a hankering after some second-hand political manoeuvering.”), she wants to be a politician’s wife. And who should also be interested in becoming a politician but her cousin, George Vavasor, to whom she was once engaged years ago… Alice swears she’s only going to help him get elected since she has money and he doesn’t and that she’s not going to become involved with him again (she was the one who broke off their engagement before because he was up to some sketchy behaviour), but her cousin Kate, George’s sister, is determined to do anything to bring George and Alice back together. John Grey, however, has not given up on Alice either.
Then there’s also Lady Glencora, another cousin of Alice’s, who has been forced to marry the boring rising politician star Plantagenet Palliser instead of the man she really loves, whose name is (hee) Burgo Fitzgerald. Between Glencora and Alice, Trollope plays with his themes of what does true love really look and more importantly act like; women who long for a purpose in life but are caught by society’s expectations; can rather boringly good men make good husbands or is it better to go for the dashing and dangerous choice? Burgo (heehee, he’s described as some kind of Adonis but really) is trying to entice Glencora to run away with him and she is slowly succumbing to the idea as her husband ignores her late each night to prepare for Parliament (they are obviously not making babies or any marital closeness there) and only comes out of his political discussions to scold her when she behaves imprudently by driving her horses too fast, waltzing too recklessly or walking out in the snow too long during a full moon! Glencora was a very rich heiress, but the weight of her money has pulled her down as all the old society ladies try to tell her exactly how to behave properly and though her spirit longs to fly away, she is caught up in what seems a loveless marriage. Is there hope for all these people with their funny names?
Trollope also weaves in a third couple to further work on his themes, this time comic. Kate and Alice’s aunt Mrs. Greenow married a rich old man and since he died she’s got the cash and despite all of her constantly crying into black lacy handkerchiefs, she somehow ends up with not one but two suitors, Captain Bellfield and Mr. Cheeseacre, a prosperous farmer at Oileymead. (Yes I’m giggling.) Mr. Cheeseacre is the safe bet, he’s got lots of money as he is constantly reminding everyone, but Captain Bellfield has that touch of romance and a pile of debts. Mrs. Greenow continues to declare they’re courting her niece not herself as she pretends to mourn her dead love, but she’s got enough vivacity to housebreak either one of them when she chooses.
I loved this book more than I expected because of the sensitivity and insight Trollope shows in developing his characters, especially those quiet decent men who are sometimes infuriatingly proper, with everything for their wives and life all planned out. (My dad’s like that and so’s my husband sometimes, so perhaps it was especially meaningful to me.) I also think, despite the one quote above about Alice not wanting to be a lawyer or doctor or have the vote, that Trollope is very sympathetic to these women who want some measure of control and voice in their lives, who want a purpose and just a little more than calm and quiet affection. And I will hint that things end up better for Glencora and Alice because they dare to voice their true feelings. Trollope is a realist about romantic relationships (there’s even one scene of physical abuse in the book), but somehow he’s comforting too.