Monday, 28 June 1999

Anthony Trollope: Can You Forgive Her? (1864)

Edition: Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library
Review number: 277

The first of Trollope's series of Palliser novels which attempt to do for the political scene of the early Victorian period what his Barset novels did for the ecclesiastical, Can You Forgive Her? is actually closely related to the earlier series. Its main subplot brings up to date the subplot of The Small House at Allington, and several other characters in London society are shared with the earlier series.

The main plot concerns Alice Vavasour, who lives on the fringes of genteel London society. She shares a rather bland character with several of Trollope's other heroines; this unwillingness to give real personalities to women is one of the reasons why he is a minor novelist compared to (say) Dickens and Thackeray. She starts the book engaged to the worthy John Grey, after a short affair with her cousin George. To a romantic girl, George Vavasour is everything John Grey is not; he is wild and dangerous, but the problem is that the danger is not just on the surface, and the men who know him consider him a scoundrel.

Soon after the beginning of the story, Alice commits the act for which the reader is asked to forgive her: she jilts Grey to become engaged to George. From a worldly perspective, this is obviously an extremely foolish act; for George is not only penniless but also about to go deeply into debt to finance a campaign to become a Member of Parliament. As George is brought to realise that his worldly ambition is in fact empty - it doesn't bring him the respect of others - he becomes violent and it is not too long before Alice also realises that she has made a serious mistake.

At its root, Can You Forgive Her? is a sexist novel; only to the irrational women in the story is it not clear that George Vavasour is a villain. By turning the conventions of the romantic novel on their head - for George could be made into a Byronic hero without too much difficulty, and then redeemed by the love of the right woman - Trollope has created a story which is shackled to the conventional ideas of his day.

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