Archive for the ‘anthony trollope’ Category

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Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

4 September 2013

It’s been far, far too long since I posted a book review to this blog. To encourage myself to get back in the spirit of things, I’m planning to tackle a series of reviews about Trollope’s Barsetshire novels (which I have just finished) and his Palliser novels (which I am still working my way through). Ideally, I suppose I should start the reviews with the first of the Barsetshire novels, since they technically come before the Palliser novels in chronological order, but apparently I have strong enough feelings on the first Palliser novel to want to make a start with it here.

Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

The general plot of Can You Forgive Her? revolves around the love and matrimonial choices made by three women: Alice Vavasor, her aunt Arabella Greenow (née Vavasor), and her cousin Lady Glencora Palliser (née M’Cluskie). Alice is engaged to the quiet, kind, and dependable John Grey — whose name almost summarises his general character — but she is faltering at the thought of subsuming her personality and interests to her husband’s opinion of what a good wife should be. Lady Glencora, a young heiress who at her extended family’s insistence was all but shoved into marriage with the colourless Plantagenet Palliser, still finds herself in love with her former beau, the handsome but dangerously spendthrift Burgo Fitzgerald. Only Arabella Greenow seems to find some enjoyment in her life — as a rich widow just on the point of middle age, she keeps up an almost theatrical level of mourning for her late husband even as she stakes her claim to the affections of two rival suitors. As all three women teeter on the edge of making and un-making up their minds about their relationships, and risk placing themselves in the hands of men who might not be best suited to their temperaments or positions in life, Trollope shows the financial and political effects of their choices and their struggles to make the best of their varied (but not entirely dissimilar) situations.

This book, the first in the Palliser series of novels, sets up the personal and political milieu that will span the full six-volume series. As a reworking of Trollope’s unsuccessful play The Noble Jilt, Can You Forgive Her? is comparatively light on politics, at least when it comes to the substance of parliamentary debates and Cabinet-level wheeling and dealing, though it does touch on the difficulty of securing a Commons seat without ready money to spend on courting the voters. All the same, the Houses of Parliament overshadow many of the characters’ actions and decisions, particularly when Plantagenet Palliser must make a bold decision to save his marriage at the (possible) cost of his rising political career. (Of course, since this is only the first book in the series, the modern reader will know that the decision is not quite so life-or-death as it seems to the characters.) And it touches on a theme that will recur, with variations, in later novels: the role that women have in political life, and the spheres in which they can attempt exercise their power to help or hinder the men in their lives.

Though it’s plain that Trollope doesn’t think well of his three heroines’ attempts to stake some claim to personal independence and self-determination, it’s worth noting that the meaning of the book’s title can be read two ways. On the most obvious level, “Can you forgive her?” may be asking the reader to pardon his heroines’ faults, to forgive their trespasses because of their weak, womanly natures. But on a more subtle level, “Can you forgive her?” asks the question “Can you blame these women for wanting to find their own happiness, for seeking out more than the restricted domestic life that awaits them, and for rebelling at being subject to the whims of their bullying or neglectful families?” Can we forgive Arabella Greenow for stringing her suitors along for as long as it takes to judge their characters, taking refuge in the respectability of wealthy widowhood to avoid ending up in another marriage to an uncaring, domineering man? Can we forgive Lady Glencora, under severe domestic pressure to produce an heir, for wanting to run away and give her husband an excuse to divorce her so that he might find a woman who can give him a son? And can we forgive Alice Vavasor, a victim of wanting more control over her own life than a woman of her time and social position might expect to have, for accepting her eventual husband’s proposal almost out of exhaustion with her increasingly unwelcome options? The modern reader may be more likely to ask and respond to the second question, for all that it overlaps the first. And even for a book where Trollope-the-Author voices his objections to his own heroines’ actions, Trollope-the-Writer has created a far more sympathetic portrayal of them than he might have understood.

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The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope

27 January 2009

A book by Trollope, finally posted to To Bed With a Trollope? It had to happen sometime, you know.

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope

‘Lie back and think of England’ may have been the genteel advice supposedly passed down from long-suffering mothers to newlywed daughters in Victorian England, but for certain strata of polite society even this suggestion glossed over the fact that marriage was often less of a joining of two hearts and minds and more of an outright financial contract. The moneyed sought the social legitimacy that a title or a family estate could provide, and the peerage and gentry looked for the heir or heiress (most often the latter) who could bring a sizeable sum to prop up their position in society. Often-cited real-life examples of this mercenary approach to marriage include American heiresses Consuelo Vanderbilt and Jennie Jerome, both of whom married into the family of the Dukes of Marlborough and whose successes encouraged others to look very carefully at prospective suitors or eligible ladies to determine whether a marriage was financially or socially suitable enough to be blessed by both families. More than a few contemporaries writers considered the marriage market to be a prime example of the moral bankruptcy of their age, and few writers attacked it and other social flaws of their day as skilfully and savagely as Anthony Trollope did in his 1875 novel The Way We Live Now.

One of the two main plot threads of The Way We Live Now centres on the ups and downs of the Carbury family: the widowed Lady Carbury, her handsome but odious son Sir Felix Carbury, and her trodden-upon daughter Henrietta Carbury. Lady Carbury, left in precarious financial straits upon the death of her abusive husband, is desperate to see her children settled in suitable marriages. She hopes that Felix, who inherited his father’s baronetcy but squandered the small amount of money left to him, will be able to use his good looks and family name to snare an heiress — and also hopes that Henrietta will see sense and agree to marry her older cousin Roger Carbury, in spite of the fact the girl is in love with Roger’s young ward Paul Montague. The Carburys’ domestic troubles are to some extent entwined with the other main plot: the financial fortunes of the fabulously rich (and possibly foreign) Augustus Melmotte. Melmotte is alternately loathed and worshipped by London society — the duchesses who clamour to attend his parties openly talk scandal about the source of his great wealth, and gentlemen who would refuse to accept Melmotte at their clubs are eager to invest sums they cannot afford in his scheme to build a new railroad in the American southwest. What is more, Melmotte’s daughter Marie is the prize of the season for every lord and gentleman who could use a £50,000 marriage settlement to settle a few unpaid gambling debts or tradesmen’s bills. Add in the complications caused by Felix’s attempt to seduce a young country woman and the unexpected arrival in London of an impulsive but warm-hearted American widow, and the plot threads become increasingly tangled to the point where it seems that none of the characters are likely to end the story happily. But as the story draws to a conclusion, the one thing that is most certain is that Trollope has raked every character over the coals and exposed all of their flaws and failings, and in doing so has highlighted the moral weaknesses of human beings at all levels of society.

The Way We Live Now is one of Trollope’s stand-alone books, mostly unrelated to either of his six-volume connected works, the Chronicles of Barsetshire or the Palliser novels. Trollope considered it to be a satirical commentary on the grossness of the commercial excesses that he saw in London society, the financial scandals and marriage brokering and outright deceit in everything from politics to relationships. Almost none of the characters are truly sympathetic or in some cases even likeable: Felix Carbury and his friends are drunken dissolutes, nearly all of the women are sneering hypocrites or weak-willed enablers of the vices of others, and even Trollope’s clergymen range from a genial but practically agnostic bishop to a pious but tactless Roman Catholic priest. The only characters who seem to emerge relatively unscathed by Trollope’s pen are the aforementioned American widow Mrs Winifred Hurtle, and to a lesser extent a Jewish banker named Ezekiel Breghert, who maintains his dignity in the face of exceedingly virulent English anti-Semitism. (Trollope is not exactly free of anti-Semitic tendencies himself, but he is at least more willing to acknowledge his prejudices for what they are.) The book is good about tossing the action back and forth among the main plots and a string of subplots, and even if some of the arrangements seem a little too coincidental to be believed they keep the story moving along to the end.

For a work of satirical fiction, The Way We Live Now has any number of unsettling echoes to the present day. In 1875, the British Empire was on top of the world and had nowhere to go but down. In The Way We Live Now, Trollope illustrates the factors that he thought would be the harbingers of imperial downfall, from the rise of American power and prestige to the poverty and dissipation of many privileged young men who ought to be leading the nation. But replace railroad speculation with dot-com stocks and subprime mortgages, compare gambling debts to credit card balances, and substitute trophy wives for heiress chasing, and it is difficult to deny that Trollope’s novel presents a very unforgiving picture of the way we live now.