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Can You Forgive Her? (Penguin Classics) Paperback – June 30, 1975
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About the Author
Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) was born in London to a bankrupt barrister father and a mother who, as a well-known writer, supported the family. Trollope enjoyed considerable acclaim both as a novelist and as a senior civil servant in the Post Office. He published more than forty novels and many short stories that are regarded by some as among the greatest of nineteenth-century fiction.
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Anthony Trollope’s’ Can You Forgive Her, is book 1 of his 6 book Palliser series. It works as a standalone piece. Trollope walks you through several variations of what how much of 18th Century British Society is tied to and defined by money. Starting at the edges of ‘respectability’ it becomes clear how much of a person’s life depends on 500 Pounds per annum. More and a person has independence, very little less and a comfortable life is unlikely. Virtually all of his women are strong and strongly portrayed. The men are individual. Both sexes make decisions balancing their need for love against their duties to family and more so the need to have money. Initially Trollope is very doll. Eventually humor gives way to a narrative that ranges from very serious to Laurel and Hardy funny. The book is overly long but worth it. It is family friendly. Finding the younger reader with the patience for it is the only limit to my recommendation.
Starting with my only objection, Trollope will include narration obviously intended to insure stuffiest length to cover contractual requirements for the right number and length of serial installments. There is a long description of a Fox Hunt. It is a master piece of writing. From the mater of the hunt to a rider who fails to understand the philosophy of riding - characters are vivid. Some descriptions are too deep in the jargon of the hunt to mean much to a modern, city dweller but it is all exciting. It is also pointless. Later we are given pages of narration about the different living quarters of a major character and of the county side around his grandfather’s aging manor. Much of the imagery is wonderful but none of it moves the story forward. As a novel, rather than a serial, many of the 700 pages are unnecessary.
What I admire most about Can You Forgive Her is the almost scientific way Trollope takes his central theme, the degree to which money and class can direct decisions of the heart and moves through a number of variations basing them around different characters.
At the highest extreme we have the Pallisars. Lord Plantagenet Omnium – Omnium figuratively ‘lord of everything “and his wife Lady Glencora. (Pay attention to names, often fun and descriptive). Each came into their marriage extremely wealthy and with the full family support. Lady Glencora could have married for love and instead begins the book an unhappy and susceptible newlywed. He is a leading Member of Parliament and destined for the Chancellor of the Exchequer. As a Husband he begins as much less than Omnium (all that).
At another extreme we have a wealthy widow, also a merry widow for all her tears, Mrs. Greenow. She is now in the green because her much older husband died leaving her well off. Being well off, she is wooed by the comic duo of wealthy farmer Mr. Cheeseacre and his impecunious, wily friend Captain Bellfield. Through all the comedy it is clear that the widow is nobody’s fool and very capable of directing those who might woo her then picking her man for her reasons.
A major aspect of this novel is the way women learn to and already have control of their lives. Certainly none has go to work, but above the magic 500 Pound per annum work is not the issue. Instead they all have or get their ‘voice’ and in so doing get to make their own decisions.
Of the other romantic paring the one involving Alice Vavasor is the first one we meet and might be considered as most central to the plot. We are lead to believe that she is the one we are asked to forgive. Alice will spend much of the book dithering over to which of two suitors she should wed. The rest of her time in the book will be her making pronouncements in favor of the conventional as the absolute controlling factor in all her friends’ decision making. At best she reminds me of the self-important and blustery Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest.
She is conventional to distraction. Including distracting to herself, her two suitors and many readers. I found myself thinking that intentionally or otherwise Trollope was using her to prove that a woman should have some ready access to drunkenness, lechery or other escape from the socially correct. She has paced a stick up where one should not be and needs to loosen up , A Lot.
More as a caution than as a spoiler. The ending can be somewhat unsettling. It looks like a clean sweep win for love and family. Nothing in the book prepares us for tragedy. Is there something else besides victory and defeat? Part of appreciating what Trollope has accomplished is to understand just how nuanced he can be.
Stephen King quipped about this Trollope novel, "Can you possibly finish it?" I'm certain that he did, and I did too, but be forewarned: Trollope was being paid by the word to write weekly installments for a Victorian serial, and it shows. Can You Forgive Her is the question he asks the reader during his recounting of the choices of Alice Vavasour, an Englishwoman of small but independent means who is engaged to a seemingly bland country gentleman when the novel opens. Although Alice is clearly the central character, the stories of two other women also feature in the novel, her cousin Glencora Palliser, the richest heiress of the day, and her aunt Arabella Greenow, a wealthy 40-something widow. Through the stories of Alice and Glencora, Trollope details the competing demands on well-born women, including family and society expectations, with Alice struggling to choose between two suitors in a choice that will lead to very different lives for her and Glencora struggling to reconcile herself to the man she's chosen and make a life for herself without the man she loves. The background to the struggles of both women is a combination of the challenges of inherited wealth (or its lack) and politics, and Trollope's depiction of England's Victorian Era politics shows it to have been every bit as sordid as our own in 2012. The story of the merry widow, Mrs. Greenow, is thrown in for comic relief and gets rather tedious. Trollope is renowned for his realism, and one thing that will undoubtedly strike contemporary readers is the reticence in the behavior of these courting, engaged, and married couples, a stiffness and distance which seems almost unbelievable from our perspective 150 years later.a That may put off some readers, but if you want to know what life was really like for the upper classes in England in 1864, read Trollope, who knows how to tell a good tale.