Series: The Pallisers #1
Published by Penguin Classics on January 1, 1865
Genres: Classics - Victorian
Source: Purchased: print book
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Alice Vavasor cannot decide whether to marry her ambitious but violent cousin George or the upright and gentlemanly John Grey - and finds herself accepting and rejecting each of them in turn.
Increasingly confused about her own feelings and unable to forgive herself for such vacillation, her situation is contrasted with that of her friend Lady Glencora - forced to marry the rising politician Plantagenet Palliser in order to prevent the worthless Burgo Fitzgerald from wasting her vast fortune.
In asking his readers to pardon Alice for her transgression of the Victorian moral code, Trollope created a telling and wide-ranging account of the social world of his day.
So, it had been my plan to read all of the Palliser novels in 2016. Like many of my plans this year, this one was a flop. I read precisely one of the Palliser novels in 2016. This one. And it wasn’t even a book I hadn’t read before – I actually made it this far in the Palliser novels once before, in college. I am a Palliser failure.
It’s interesting as well, because even though I theoretically prefer the idea of political novels, being a bit of a political junkie, in reality, I had a much easier time with the Chronicles of Barchester – which are thematically ecclesiastical and countrified. I read all six of them last year and loved the heck out of them.
But, to return to the burning question of whether or not I can forgive her, let’s talk about this book. Trollope follows the courting and marital fortunes of three young ladies: Alice Vavasor, Kate Vavasor and Glencora Palliser nee M’Cluskie. Alice is really the primary character – and when we meet her she is engaged to John Grey, a thoroughly worthy man whom she professes to love. I think she does love him, but she’s sort of an idiot about it, to be quite honest. Kate shames her into breaking up with Mr. Grey so that she can get re-engaged to Kate’s brother (Alice had jilted George before the novel begins), who is also Alice’s cousin (eww), George Vavasor. This goes badly because George Vavasor is an abusive, violent ass who belongs in prison.
Simultaneously, we have Lady Glencora Palliser who is married to the incredibly dull Plantagenet Palliser, or Planty Pall, a political whiz kid who is being tapped as the Chancellor of the Exchequer because he is so ineffably dull and trustworthy that everyone wants to put him in charge of Britain’s treasury (and how lovely it, given the current situation with the recent U.S. election, is to think of the guy in charge of the national treasury being dull and trustworthy. I’m sure that Plantagenet Palliser would be capable of running his twitter account like an adult. But, I digress). Glencora was an heiress who fell in love with a wastrel – the handsome, lazy and not terribly bright Burgo Fitzgerald, but was convinced by her family to marry the boring guy instead. Glencora is pining for Burgo and his fine, manly form, Trollope being willing to openly acknowledge that women feel sexual attraction as well as men. Burgo is a man with an eye to the main chance, so he decides to try to persuade Glencora (and her money) to run away with him.
So, the full question of Can You Forgive Her would be, I suppose, Can You Forgive Her For Being So Incredibly Stupid? The answer is yes, provisionally. Alice is a rather modern young woman who wants a life that is more interesting than wife of a staid country squire, and her attraction to George was counter-productive but understandable. George needed Alice (and her money) to run for Parliament – and she found that a very worthy use for her inheritance. She – at the end – does the smart thing and marries John Grey, and because of her friendship with the Pallisers, John Grey is asked to run for Parliament. In essence, Alice gets exactly what she wants. Glencora,on the other hand, entirely lacks substance, so Trollope knocks her up and giving birth to the future Duke of Omnium provides her with a bit of gravitas. Poor Burgo just can’t win.
There’s a whole additional plotline about a widow named Mrs. Greenow and her two competing suitors – the unctuous, self-satisfied and revolting Mr. Cheesacre, and the flashy, acquisitive but less revolting, Captain Bellfield. I don’t have time for that plotline, though, so I’ll just mention it in passing. It is mostly hilarious to watch Mrs. Greenow play the two men like a pair of trouts on the line, as they are all the while thinking that they have the upper hand on her.
Trollope is at his best with his female characterizations in Can You Forgive Her. One of the things that he does best – as well as any of the Victorians and far better than most (cough, Dickens, cough), is write women who are complex, interesting and who feel like they could’ve authentically existed within the period. His writing is satirical and humorous, but not over the top so, and he clearly feels affection for his female characters. Alice and Glencora, for all that their fates remain consistent with his cultural reality, step far outside of the path that society intends for them at various times. Trollope, thankfully, does not punish them for these transgressions, but allows each to prosper in her own way.
Will Glencora ever fall in love with Plantagenet? Unlikely, but she seems to have gained some sense of contentment and maturity before the end of the book. Alice, on the other hand, has as good a chance at genuine happiness with John Grey as any female character in any Victorian novel ever. Only Kate, who remained true to the Victorian female ideal of slavish subjugation to an unworthy man through the entire novel, ends with a truly questionable fate – although I choose to think that Alice found her a wonderful man in the manner of Mr. Grey (although it is also entirely possible that Kate Vavasor was a lesbian, and that she was using fidelity to her brother to avoid the responsibility to marry a man, which would make the fact that her brother is such a thoroughly bad lot all that much more tragic).
So, I can recommend Can You Forgive Her, but I still significantly preferred pretty much everything in the Chronicles of Barsetshire. Ultimately, I preferred the country and the simple to the urban and political. Nonetheless, I still plan to read the rest of the Palliser novels, but I have no idea when that will happen. Maybe 2017?