There’s nothing I like better in the dark part of the year than a Victorian doorstopper and a mug of hot chocolate, and there’s no Victorian author I like better as a whole than Anthony Trollope. Miss Mackenzie was one of the most formative books I read as a teenager – though I have been too nervous to read it since then, in case it lets me down – and The Way We Live Now seems likely to stay a favourite for the rest of my life. I started Can You Forgive Her?, the first of Trollope’s famous Palliser series, over the Christmas holidays. I’ve only been able to read it in dribs and drabs since then. At least, until Storm Eunice arrived, and then Storm Franklin on her heels, giving me a good excuse to spend a couple of days curled up with a book.
“She, whom you to are to forgive, if you can” is introduced to us in the opening lines as Alice Vavasor, a young woman vascillating between two potential love interests – her cousin, the disreputable but very charming George Vavasor, to whom she was once engaged; and her fiancé, a kind man who is nonetheless rather paternalistic and boring. (I mean, in the grand tradition of characters in mid-Victorian novels having relevant names, he’s literally called Mr Grey). I’m not the ideal audience for love triangles, especially not this kind – I tend to root for the worthy square and find the handsome rogue quite irritating. This is normally the opposite of what the author intends. Trollope is much more interesting than the average writer, of course: he allows the reader to see early on that Vavasor is rotten to the core, irrespective of his humour and affection for Alice; while the fiancé gets a much better showing than these characters typically do.
In turn, that reflects better on Alice: the reader can see both why she is drawn to George yet has rejected him, and why she dreads the thought of a life married to her fiancé. I am inclined to agree with Alice, who, underneath it all, would probably prefer singleness and a profession if that were an option for women of her period and class. Not that she thinks of it in those terms, of course, not having those terms available to her, but it’s impossible to read the novel without thinking that what Alice really needs is a job and a cosy little flat of her own. In fact, at one point she says she would be happiest living alone – and is immediately shouted down by those around her. Trollope gives his female characters nuance and complexity that male novelists of the time did not typically manage. If I recall correctly, I looked him up after reading Miss Mackenzie to see if he was a woman writing under a pseudonym.
As with many books of this nature, a lot depends on whether the intrusive narrator seems to be writing sincerely, or taking aim at the reader’s own preconceptions. I think Trollope is trying to address to double standards between men and women, but if you take everything that the narrator says at purely face value, you will go away with a very different idea of the novel than I did. For instance, this (which could be about either man at various points in the story, and which therefore does not seem like a spoiler to me):
She had done very wrong. She knew that she had done wrong. She knew that she had sinned with that sin which specifically disgraces a woman. She had said that she would become the wife of a man to whom she could not cleave with a wife’s love; and, mad with a vile ambition, she had given up the man for whose modest love her heart was longing. She had thrown off from her that precious aroma of delicacy, which is the greatest treasure of womanhood. She had sinned against her sex; and, in an agony of despair, as she crouched down upon the floor with her head against her chair, she told herself that there was no pardon for her. She understood it now, and knew that she could not forgive herself.
But can you forgive her, delicate reader? Or am I asking the question too early in my story?
Obviously, if you read that passage straight, then you end up wanting to knock some sense into Trollope (or at least I hope you do). In the context of the way he writes Alice and the other women in the novel, though, I think the author’s tongue is firmly in his cheek when he writes this, though the narrator may be serious. Alice is easily the most compassionate, thoughtful character in the novel, so when she wrestles with this question, I think Trollope is drawing attention to the fact that Alice has been taught to think this way about herself, about women, and that’s why she’s in this dilemma in the first place. Look at what he writes about Alice’s cousin, Lady Glencora, for instance:
There were many things about this woman that were not altogether what a husband might wish. She was not softly delicate in all her ways; but in disposition and temper she was altogether generous. I do not know that she was at all points a lady, but had Fate so willed it she would have been a thorough gentleman.
On top of that, there’s always so much else going on in Trollope that the love triangle doesn’t take up too much space within the plot. Trollope was at his best when writing about corruption and political machinations, and the moment the plot moves to Matching Priory, home of the Pallisers, things really get going on that front. Plantagenet Palliser (yes, really), recently married to fun but flaky Lady Glencora, is in the Mr Grey mode of husband: quiet, reserved, diligent, fond of his wife but disinclined to show it. She wants a baby (er, but definitely shouldn’t have one until she’s grown up a bit); he wants to be Chancellor of the Exchequer. Their house is therefore full of MPs. Coincidentally, George Vavasor wants to be an MP – not for any special reason, just because. Apparently Trollope himself cherished never-realised political ambitions, but despite that, you can tell that he remained clear-eyed about the corruption and selfishness that characterises some politicians. The scenes both at Matching Priory and in the Houses of Parliament are acutely and brilliantly observed. In particular, all the stuff about rotten boroughs is depressing but also very funny – and rotten boroughs, at least, are something that we have successfully done away with in the intervening 170 years.
We have not necessarily done away with all the other political ills of the time. One of the most memorable moments in the novel is of a politician – Lord Middlesex, I think – who is genuinely interested and invested in improving the lot of Catholics in Ireland. He prepares carefully, he practices his speeches, he is across the detail of the policies being proposed – and nobody listens to him because he’s too well-researched and too thorough and, well, I guess they’d had enough of experts? Many of the people in the House sneak out during his speech to go to the bar. Honestly, I spent half the book thinking “thank goodness everyone can vote now” (the ballot being one of the things so hotly debated at time of publication), and half the book thinking “people being able to vote does not seem to have materially improved politics in Britain”. It has, of course; it’s just that the disdain for expertise, corruption, and hypocrisy of many of the politicians could have been ripped from the papers. I was particularly struck by the fact that George Vavasor develops intense opinions about costly and unwise London infrastructure projects, in which he promptly loses interest once they have achieved their political purpose. The more things change, etc.
Now, all this starts about 150 pages in, so you have to be willing to put up with some love triangle shenanigans before then. Even this, though, is interspersed with a very funny side plot about wealthy middle-aged Widow Greenow, who is trying to milk the attentions of two bachelors for all they’re worth, while actually pushing them to marry her niece so she can retain her independence. There are a few bits that don’t translate quite as well to modern-day readers – I don’t mean in terms of isms or slurs, of which Trollope’s work is largely free*, but in terms of missing context. I had to spend some time, for instance, looking up the Manchester school of politics to understand the many allusions. There’s also a chapter about a foxhunt that I suspect was giving me lots of important information about the characters buried in the subtext, but because that whole world is so alien to me, I couldn’t pick up on it. There were various other things – not least the sheer volume of self-flagellation Alice undergoes over her various mistakes – that date it firmly in the 1860s. Even so, it still felt quite contemporary in many places.
It’s impossible to cover a novel roughly the size of a brick in a single review – even a very long one like this. Here is the best recommendation I can give it: when I’m reading a big chunky novel like this, I tend to leave it at home and carry an ereader in my handbag so I can alternate with mysteries or short stories. In contrast, I carried Can You Forgive Her? with me everywhere for about a month, just in case I could sneak in a chapter. I took it on the train with me to Scotland, I took it to work to read with lunch, I read it while waiting for friends in cafés. I even tried to read it while recovering from labyrinthitis, and it is not the book’s fault that I couldn’t. It still took a long time to read, because work has been very busy and so has life in general, but it’s rare for a novel of this size and this era to be anything close to unputdownable – and this certainly is.
*There is definitely some antisemetism in the depiction of one of the money-lenders – but that’s literally on two pages out of 692, which is pretty good going for the time. Doing my background reading for this review, I discovered two fascinating things. Firstly, Trollope spent some formative years of his adolescence living on a commune in the US that tried (unsuccessfully) to promote values of egalitarianism and interracial harmony with a view to ending slavery – which is pretty progressive for the 1820s. Secondly, his family seems to have been kept afloat by his mother’s earnings as a writer and businesswoman while his father flannelled about making a mess. This goes a long way towards explaining some of his attitudes. Also, now I want to read a biography of Frances Trollope, who appears to have been quite an interesting person!