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.