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 Children, the last of the Palliser novels—Can 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.