The Folio set of Trollope political novels has been sitting on my shelves unread for, what, 15 years. Just to look at the 6 meaty volumes, and even though I am after all retired, it seemed a daunting prospect. However I have read and re-read the Barchester Chronicles by Trollope several times, so I thought let’s give it a go. ‘Can You Forgive Her?’ is the first in the series. Although long (even ardent admirers and critics have said so) , the chapter lengths are such that one can easily get through 2 or 3 just before sleep. That is because, like Dickens, he wrote for serial publication in the first instance.
Here is the plot summary by eminent literary critic Prof John Sutherland…
‘Alice Vavasor is a 24-year old mature woman of character and beauty (with a mere fortune of £400 p.a.). She has two suitors. One is her Byronic cousin, George Vavasor – a ‘wild man’. The other is John Grey, an honest but unexciting ‘worthy man’. Which should Alice accept?
George killed a break-in burglar as a child, and has a Cain-like scar on his handsome face. Alice was earlier engaged to the wild man but jilted him, thinking him (rightly) too wild. He has loosely conceived political ambitions and is a ‘radical’.
Alice, engaged to John as the novel opens, declines to ‘name the day’. It will be the most important day of her life, but also the day on which her ‘freedom’ will end. She, and all her property, will, thereafter, belong to her husband along with that declarative ‘I do’ (the Anglican wedding service, at this period, contained the woman’s promise to ‘obey’).
Alice, after an ill-advised holiday with George in Switzerland, jilts John. But George, in the ensuing long engagement, goes entirely to the bad. His business and political ambitions fail. He is disinherited and brutally assaults his sister, Kate, who has devoted her life (and her own chances of marriage) to advancing his career. He attempts to murder Grey and finally skulks out of England, a ruined man (he is revealed to have had, all the time he was engaged to Alice, a common mistress). John reassumes the fiance’s role.
A parallel plot follows the affairs of Plantagenet Palliser, heir apparent to the Duke of Omnium, and Lady Glencora McCluskie, heiress to a Scottish industrial fortune. Their arranged marriage is doubly threatened. First by childlessness and more seriously by Glencora’s infatuation with the ‘godlike’ Burgo Fitzgerald. Burgo drinks, gambles, and is penniless. But he is ‘beautiful’ and Plantagenet is anything but beautiful. The fact that he is a good man does not outweigh that fact. Burgo sets up an elopement which Plantagenet foils in a dramatic ballroom scene.
On a lower, comic, level Alice’s aunt, Arabella Greenow, also has her two suitors. One is a stolid Norfolk farmer, the other a raffish military man. She chooses the latter ‘because he is better looking’. The narrative examines, from three angles, permutations of marriage for prudence or marriage for passion. Always the woman’s choice. At the end of the novel the three heroines are happily married and Plantagenet has an heir for the duchy of Omnium.’
John Sutherland thinks this novel is all about ‘power’. I think it is, as so often with Trollope, about weak and strong personalities, social position, money problems and ‘will she or won’t she?’ It is also very much about the importance of England itself at this time. Here is John Sutherland again…..
The opening sentence of Can You Forgive Her?, with its relaxed ‘clubman’ tone, conveys the sense of a novelist serenely confident about where power in England resides:
Whether or no, she, whom you are to forgive, if you can, did or did not belong to the Upper Ten Thousand of this our English world, I am not prepared to say with any strength of affirmation.
Ten thousand people in England – the most powerful nation in the world – have the levers of power, prestige, and patronage in their hand. ‘Big People’, Trollope calls them. Trollope was, he felt, not yet a ‘big person’, but not far off it.
It was a matter of authorial pride with Trollope that (unlike, say, his fellow novelist Wilkie Collins), ‘when I sit down to write a novel I do not at all know, and I do not very much care, how it is to end.’ He let his fiction happen, in his famous ‘before breakfast’ early morning stints.’
I have to report that, as I suspected but was unwilling to test for so long, this was just as involving as Barchester. I was gripped with the characters and their development and didn’t mind the lack of plot as such. Really, really, really if you want to know about the tight-knit world of Victorian upper middle-class and high society, Trollope is your man. Great stuff. And I was only a little surprised to hear that lead singer of the Pet Shop Boys, Neil Tennant, wrote the song Can You Forgive Her? in 1992 after reading Trollope’s novel whilst on holiday.
So, whilst Stephen King might poke fun at the book’s length, joking that for modern audiences a more appropriate title might be Can You Possibly Finish It?, I beg to differ. It’s a book I couldn’t put down.