Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

This is probably my favorite Trollope novel, if you can say that when you’ve only read a fraction of his prodigious output. I picked up the audiobook in a sale a couple of years ago, and I finally listened to it because listening to Anthony Powell reminded me of Trollope’s big canvas and the way his series follow characters over years, and because of the news about a new, expanded edition of The Duke’s Childrenthe last of the Palliser novelsCan You Forgive Her? is the first. I don’t think I’ll spring for the £195 Folio Society edition of The Duke’s Children; I’ll hope for Oxford, Penguin, or Broadview to bring out a classroom-priced edition. But I do now want to listen to or read the whole Palliser series, even if the final novel isn’t in the author’s preferred form (I’ve read the first three in the past).

My version of Can You Forgive Her? is read by Simon Vance, who also reads Powell’s Dance to the Music of time series. I may choose a different narrator to get the rest of my Palliser fix, because much as I like Vance, that seems like a lot of one narrator. I also own the next three books in print; this one is mysteriously missing from my Trollope shelf, so I have some shopping to do.

Although no one would mistake Trollope for a contemporary feminist, and his statements about Women as a class sometimes had me rolling my eyes, Can You Forgive Her? is very much a novel focused on questions of love, marriage, and female agency–and the role money plays in all of them. The title refers to Alice Vavasor and her vacillation between two suitors; her cousin Lady Glencora and aunt Arabella Greenow are also choosing between two men. Though the Palliser novels are usually described as Trollope’s “Parliamentary Novels,” in this story, the political fortunes of the male characters take a narrative backseat to the courtship stories–and in Lady Glencora’s case, her husband sacrifices his political ambitions (at least temporarily) to save his marriage. The novel is more about sexual/gender politics than the national kind–and it reflects on the way women’s only access to national politics at the time was through marital alliances and influence on the men in their lives. In romance genre terms, we get a second-chance at love story, a marriage of convenience/marriage in trouble story, and, well, I don’t know that Mrs. Greenow’s is a trope, but she’s a widow able to please herself and trying to decide what kind of future will please her best.

And now I’ll be spoilery, because I’m thinking anyone reading this who hasn’t read the book is unlikely to. But if you’d rather not know, stop here.


Alice breaks off her engagement to John Grey both because she thinks she’s not good enough for him and won’t make him happy, and because his taste for quiet life doesn’t suit her ambitions. She becomes re-engaged to her cousin George, not because she’s in love with him again, but because she wants to use her fortune to help him run for election. In the end, she decides she can’t bear to marry him, but still owes him the money, and the various ethical judgments from other characters and the narrator on this are quite interesting. When she returns to Grey, Palliser persuades him to go into Parliament, and Trollope is quite clear that though Grey is a truly admirable man, his taste for a quiet life over Palliser’s public service is a less noble philosophy–yes, Palliser has personal ambition, but he also cares about serving the common good (unlike George Vavasor, whose drive to satisfy personal ambition at all costs makes him a straightforward villain by novel’s end). What makes Alice’s rather unmaidenly actions forgivable in Trollope’s eyes in that she, too, puts the good of others over her personal happiness in all her faulty choices.

Mrs. Greenow, Alice’s aunt, is the widow of a much older man who left her comfortably well-off. Now she’s got two suitors, the penniless but charming ne’er-do-well Captain Bellfield and the prosperous farmer Mr. Cheeseacre. It’s obvious that she never intends to take Cheeseacre–she keeps aiming him at younger friends and relations who need his money–but her consideration of whether to marry Captain Bellfield is fascinating. She doesn’t love him, exactly, but she enjoys his company. Is she better off alone? Can she manage him well enough to keep their marriage from being a disaster? She’s largely a comic figure, but her clear-eyed approach to marriage and control over her own life are explored sympathetically.

Then there’s Lady Glencora, the great heiress–she has something like £40,000 a year, as I recall. Where Mrs. Greenow’s £40,000, and even Alice’s £10,000, make them desirable marriage choices and give them some control over their choice–or not–of husband, Lady Glencora’s vast fortune does the opposite: her family is determined that she not throw herself away on the wastrel Burgo Fitzgerald, whom she loves (and who, to be fair, is a drunk and a gambler and a terrible marriage prospect, even if he is gorgeous and sweet-natured). Instead, she’s steered into a marriage of convenience with the ducal heir and rising politician Plantagenet Palliser. Burgo, hoping some of her money will stick to her, tries to persuade Lady Glencora to run away with him, and she, convinced she can’t make her husband happy or give him an heir, thinks this would be the best thing she can do (like Alice, she’s treated sympathetically in part because she’s considering this immoral act for unselfish reasons). Mr. Palliser may be bad at expressing love–and may not feel it deeply–but I find his self-sacrifice one of the most moving parts of the novel: finally waking up to just how deep the trouble in his marriage goes, and how unhappy his wife is, he gives up a chance at being Chancellor of the Exchequer to take her abroad. This is an unromantic portrait of a marriage of convenience, in the sense that it will never become a grand passion, yet by the end you can see the Pallisers on the way to a partnership that will serve them well.

This is a very Victorian book, perhaps, in its criticism of romantic passion. Bad Boys are definitely Bad Bargains. But I love it for its reflections on the various ways people find happiness in marriage, and in its sympathetic look at how important and difficult finding that happiness is for women who have no other good choices in life–and ultimately, how important it is even to the happiness of ambitious men who do have careers beyond private life.

This entry was posted in fiction, review and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

  1. lawless says:

    This is a very Victorian book, perhaps, in its criticism of romantic passion. Bad Boys are definitely Bad Bargains.

    I find this very realistic, which is why, despite being “unromantic,” I prefer Victorian novels over most genre romance fantasies. (And the vast majority are on one level or another, whether they’re PNR, histrom, or contemporary.) That may also have something to do with my feeling that there’s an overemphasis on passion, especially of the physical kind, in today’s romances. I feel that it’s the sense of partnership, wherever it comes from, that can be relied on long-term, not passion. That may also tie into my lack of enthusiasm for HEAs; I think of them all as HFNs because no relationship is static.

    *cue long dissertation on the purpose of fantasy and escapism in romance* — My short answer is coping with patriarchy. I’d rather read something that critiques, analyzes, or otherwise engages with it instead.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I don’t know if I’m just more temperamentally suited to Victorian novels, or that I read so many in my formative college/grad school years that they shaped my temperament in some ways! But I do usually seek out in my genre romance the less fantasy-oriented books, for some of the reasons you say. Marriage of convenience is my favorite plot/trope, because I’m interested in seeing the characters work out a partnership in difficult circumstances. My enjoyment of courtship plots in 19th-century novels is definitely what drew me to reading romance, but 19th-century novels are often far less “romantic” in their depiction of relationships. It’s an interesting tension. It’s also true, though, that when I first started reading romance I liked the fantasy elements and OTT passion. That palled on me, though, after a while.

      • lawless says:

        Victorian novels were the mainstay of my litfic reading from the time I was old enough to read them until I graduated from college, and at the time my reading mostly consisted of litfic and mysteries. I like marriage of convenience for the same reason you do. I also like marriage in trouble stories if they’re well done. But because of my general outlook on life and the purpose of literature, I prefer the more “unromantic,” realistic view afforded by 19th century literature. Nowadays, writers seem to fall into two camps: totally bleak (sometimes true of life, but not always) or unrealistically (or shallowly) optimistic and sunny. I like that sweet spot in the middle.

        Somewhat off topic: How would you classify, say, Amy Tan’s writing? Middlebrow? Aspiring to lit fic but not quite making it? While it has some of the same concerns as what’s commonly known as women’s fiction, I don’t think it fits there, either. Gale Godwin? Wally Lamb?

        For some reason, Salman Rushdie — maybe because he writes magical realism, maybe because of the fatwa — is pretty consistently considered a litfic writer even though I don’t see tons of differences between him and these others. In the meantime, I puzzle over the popularity of Marilynne Robinson. I tried reading one of her novels — either Home or Gilead — and just could not get through it, as there was no cohesive narrative and it meandered all over the place. Yet she is continually praised! Sure, the writing’s good, and she may have a great understanding of the human spirit, but tell me a freaking story, please, that I don’t have to work so hard to piece together. (That’s assuming it actually could be pieced together if I’d read the whole thing.) Books by litfic writers are often the ones I most easily decide to stop reading.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          I don’t think I really ran across the term “literary fiction” until I started reading a lot of genre fiction blogs. And I know some people argue lit fic is a genre, but I don’t buy it–I have never seen a list of identifiable generic features that convinced me. It’s not a term I really like for precisely the reasons you raise: where is the line between general fiction and literary fiction? Is it based on prose style? Amount of plot? How much the book bores someone? I don’t think these lines are possible to draw, or everyone would draw them differently, and really, who cares? Unlike “romance” or “mystery” it doesn’t seem like a helpful way to guide a reader towards a particular kind of reading experience. And I really hate phrases like “literary fantasy” or “literary thriller” (I take it to mean “not crap like most of that stuff” or “surprisingly good!” and wonder why publishers are denigrating the genre books they publish by promoting some of their output this way).

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      PS, Someone on Twitter pointed out Jo Goodman’s comments on Bad Boy heroes in her interview at AAR, and she basically said she doesn’t write them because “they’d make terrible husbands/partners.” It made me want to read more of her books!

      • KeiraSoleore says:

        Do give Jo Goodman a try. I really, really enjoy her romances: they have high drama, but very believable, nuanced drama.

      • lawless says:

        I saw that too while looking through the AAR website to see if Dabney had written anything about the Jane/Jen controversy because of the questions she’d asked Sarah of SBTB. I totally agree! I will keep that, and KeiraSoleore’s rec, in mind.

  2. Rohan Maitzen says:

    Lovely post. I think “He Knew He Was Right” (which is, at least intermittently, my own favorite Trollope novel) is also very interesting in exploring a lot of different variations on relationships, and never forgetting that money and power are part of the context of any ‘romantic’ possibility. Even though there is a lot of Victorian suspicion of Bad Boys, don’t you find it interesting that they also almost always (if necessarily obliquely) insist that at least the possibility of passion is required for that HEA? The challenge often seems to be figuring out how to make it unthreatening.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thanks, Rohan! That’s another of my favorites, too.

      I think you are right about the unthreatening passion. For instance, I’ve always wondered about how, when the Pallisers finally tell each other the truth and go off to the Continent (although with Alice, not alone), when Glencora has decided she won’t choose passion with Burgo, THAT is when the heir appears. I know they were trying before but maybe now they’re doing a better job.

      I think, too, that the part of the reason Alice reject John Grey is clearly that she sees him as sexless–there’s all that stuff about brandy vs. bread and milk, for instance. George is certainly not sexless, and she’s physically repelled by him when she goes back to him, because she doesn’t love him; that repulsion definitely has a sexual dimension. I think Alice’s ending is not quite satisfying to me in part because I’m not sure the passion is going to be there. But it seems more possible later. Mrs. Greenow, though, she knows what she’s choosing!

      Hmmm. Now I’m thinking about a lot of Victorian novels with an eye to this issue.

    • KeiraSoleore says:

      I agree with this in the context of the traditional Regency romances, too. The possibility of passion has to be there, though it’s more subtle and less overt, thus less “threatening.” Again, money and power play a huge part in attraction. And Bad Boys in general aren’t viewed favorably.

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        Yes, this is probably why I like them so much.

      • lawless says:

        What is the definition of a traditional Regency romance? Or, to put it another way, how would I know a book falls within that category?

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          A number of publishers had Regency romance lines–Signet is probably the best known, but there was also Fawcett and Zebra (and someone who knows more can chime in). They tend to be lighter/more comic in tone, though there are certainly angsty ones, and most are closed door, and they’re usually on the short side–essentially it’s a category romance line. Many books from the 80s and 90s have now been re-released as ebooks, self-published or from Belgrave House (or in the case of writers still going strong like Mary Balogh, by a big publisher).

          There’s a list of traditional Regencies at Goodreads that could be a good place to start, or check out or — I can’t think of the name of the site that does a ton of Regency reviews; maybe someone else will have suggestions.

  3. KeiraSoleore says:

    I have always been meaning to read Anthony Trollope. It’s such a big gap in my reading history. I have to admit that the sheer size of his books has been daunting. However, everyone who’s been a reader for a few decades recommends at least one go at Trollope. I read through all your spoilery review, and it looks like “Can You Forgive Her?” is probably the one I should go with, unless there’s a smaller, easier one you could also recommend? 🙂

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      THE WARDEN is definitely shorter (the first of the Barsetshire chronicles) but I think it is less fun than this one. On the other hand, I haven’t read it in years, and one thing I remembered listening to this is that Trollope is generally more humorous and less moralizing than I think of him as being. He does like to torture his characters with long-drawn-out agonizing moral dilemmas that can seem to us to be about nothing (Alice’s guilt over her multiple jilting of men can strike a modern reader that way).

      In general, though, Trollope is dauntingly long. But he’s not particularly dense and has less of the exposition that someone like George Eliot employs, which can be off-putting to many readers. He’s not HARD to read, I don’t think.

      • KeiraSoleore says:

        I’ve put The Warden on hold at my library. If I enjoy his style, I’d like to try FORGIVE. Thanks for the rec.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          If you like it you have to read the remaining 5 (hulking) Barsetshire books! Trollope offers readers nothing if not Projects and Challenges! 🙂

      • KeiraSoleore says:

        Nooooo! Don’t scare me away. I see how this is: He lures you in with a small book, and then once you’re in, he drowns you in one BFB after another.

      • Sunita says:

        I agree; long but not difficult. I read all the Barchester and Parliamentary novels in high school and I while they’re discursive, they’re very accessible. And they really draw you into their worlds.

        The later books are longer than The Warden, but I don’t remember the non-Barchester-titled ones feeling particularly endless.

  4. Sunita says:

    I love this post! The first time I read the book I was quite young and totally focused on the romance, so I wanted all the Bad Boys to get the girls. Rereading after I was older and had read the whole series, I appreciated Planty Pal much more. Now I want to go back and read from the beginning again, and see how I experience them at my current advanced age. 😉

    I immediately thought of The Warden in response to Keira’s question as well. I agree it’s not as fun, but Septimus Harding is such a wonderful character. And the relatively compactness and brevity of the story make it easier as an introduction to the author. Keira, I think you’d appreciate the themes, too.

    • KeiraSoleore says:

      Thank you for this, Sunita. Based on yours and Liz’s comment above, I’ll give this one a go.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think by the time I started them I was versed enough in Trollope not to root for the bad boys. But I still hope Burgo gets saved by some other lady’s love! Also, Trollope seems to me to have gotten much more fun out of the devilish George and his overly-symbolic scar than out of the godlike John. The passage about Grey’s philosophy is quite impatient in tone.

  5. Barb in Maryland says:

    Thank you for reminding me how much I enjoyed the Pallisers and friends. I came to the books via the excellent maxi-series (22?24?? episodes) in the mid 1970s. After watching the series, I decided to read the books and quite enjoyed them. I’ve always meant to re-read them–but in these 30+ years, I’ve never managed to.
    Too many books, too little time….

    If you ever decide to try the tv series, you’ll be treated to glimpses of a young Derek Jacobi, Jeremy Irons, and Anthony Andrews as Glencora and Planty’s eldest.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      What a great cast! I wonder if I can get hold of that somewhere. A few years ago (actually, I think it was the early 90s, so, um, more than a few) the BBC did a production of HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT that I really enjoyed. But the Pallisers would make a great TV saga–intrigue of many kinds.

      • Barb in Maryland says:

        I’ve hesitated to track it down because I have such good memories of it and I would hate to find that the suck fairy had paid it a visit! But It was as faithful to the novels as a video adaptation can be and the actors physically seemed to match up with Trollope’s descriptions. My favorite story arc was the one involving Phineus Finn–a well deserved happy outcome.
        Hmmm, maybe I can find time to squeeze in a re-read…

      • Sunita says:

        It was an amazing show. Better than The Forsyte Sage, even. I saw it when it aired, like Barb, and it opened up a whole new world of books for me.

        Nothing to add, really, except What Barb Said.

  6. clarissah says:

    Great discussion! Can You Forgive Her and Barchester Towers are my two Trollope favourites. I see why readers might view the relationships in Victorian novels as unromantic, especially in a discussion focussed on Trollope. If you widen the scope to other Victorian authors, though, there are plenty of romantic, passionate relationships: Jane Eyre and Rochester, Eliot’s Dorothea and Will, Hardy’s Jude and Sue or Clym and Eustacia (though of course one can’t expect HEA from Hardy!). From the novels that come to mind right now, I think Victorian women authors put more emphasis on the passion than the men do. I could be wrong, though . . . what do others think?

    I also agree with Rohan about “unthreatening” passion being required for the HEA in Victorian novels. The passion is there in many cases, but it’s very subtly rendered.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I was wondering about male vs. female Victorian authors, as well, though I hesitate to make generalizations about sex-based differences. JANE EYRE is an interesting example, because the passion–or Rochester–is definitely tamed at the end (or would you say not?). All the untrammelled/unrestrained passionate relationships I can think of end in tragedy. But I’ve hardly read everything Victorian there is to read! Of course, those tragic endings are not always the fault of the passion; sometimes they are the fault of social resistance to it and attempts to restrain it, I think.

      I’d say this is one way in which genre romance (historical romance) is ahistorical: passion tends to be a good, a sign that things will work out; desire is something to follow. It’s rewarded. I get the standard line that this is a kind of recompense for the way female desire is so often punished and vilified in 19th-century (and other) narratives, ending in disaster. (And I wouldn’t say that isn’t valuable). But I think what we overlook in 19th-century novels is that male passion isn’t generally exalted or unpunished either. There may well have been a social double standard, but there is not so much a narrative one; true, the fate of a female sinner is often worse, but many narratives are aware of the injustice of that double standard, too.

  7. clarissah says:

    Well said. A very good example of male passion being punished is Hardy’s Jude. Wow, is he punished! I don’t think the passion in JANE EYRE is tamed, though. For me, the sexual tension is very much alive in that wonderful exchange at the end when Rochester is so jealous of St. John Rivers, and Jane revels in torturing him!

  8. sonomalass says:

    I managed to avoid Trollope somehow, but now you’re all making ,e want to read him sigh.

  9. Teresa says:

    I’m glad I remembered to come back and read this now that I’ve finished the book! Your point about the central women being forgivable because they’re seeking someone else’s happiness is a good one that I haven’t thought of. I thought they, especially Glencora, were engaging in some self-justification to excuse their betrayals, so I wasn’t sure how seriously to take those motivations. However, I think one reason I found Mrs Greenow so refreshing was that she didn’t do that. She was out for what would make her the most happy at the least cost.

    Regarding marriage of convenience novels, have you read Georgette Heyer’s A Civil Contract? It was the first Heyer I ever read, and I adored it. As I was reading this, Glencora and Plantagenet’s story reminded me of that book, but with the roles reversed.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I have read that Heyer, though not for a long time. That’s a good comparison. It’s a love story, but not necessarily a romantic one. More recent genre-romance reworkings of that kind of marriage of convenience story are Mary Balogh’s A Christmas Promise and Rose Lerner’s In for a Penny (which is explicitly inspired by the Heyer and an attempt to write a more “romantic” version of that story). I enjoyed them both and I think all these books are good about making this kind of marriage work.

Comments are closed.