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Anthony Trollope - Can You Forgive Her? Legolas Send a noteboard - 19/02/2011 12:55:21 AM
I seem to be making a habit of starting off my reviews by mentioning the reason I decided to start reading the reviewed book, reasons which sometimes are not exactly the best conceivable ones. Certainly it would sound better if I claimed that all my choices of books to read and review were well-informed and carefully considered ones... but then, surely one of the hallmarks of the real book-lover as we have so many at this site is his/her ability to fall in love with a hitherto completely unknown book?

Either way, in the case of this book, it was not so much the somewhat unusual title in itself that drew me (what with the direct question to the reader), as the marvelous Pet Shop Boys song that immediately started playing in my head as my eyes glanced over the cover of the book in the library. If it had been merely that, perhaps I'd have moved on, but I'd heard of Anthony Trollope before, and figured at some point I should give him a try. I only realized belatedly that Trollope was a Victorian writer (I had a vague idea of him as first half of the twentieth century, but evidently I was wrong), but if anything that made him more interesting, rather than less. Opinions will differ on that, no doubt, as they will on Trollope himself. But we'll get to that in due time.

Can You Forgive Her? is, as the introductions informed me, the first of Trollope's "Palliser novels", telling the story of the rise to power of British politician Plantagenet Palliser. However, in this book at least, Palliser is not the protagonist, and his political career is merely one of several plot threads in the novel. The actual focus, and the woman whom Trollope regularly asks his readers to forgive, is Alice Vavasor, a young woman in her twenties with rather strong convictions, that don't necessarily stroke with those of her friends and family. As the novel starts, Alice is engaged to an annoyingly perfect man called John Grey, having previously been briefly engaged to her cousin (yes, it sounds incestuous now, but evidently not to Victorians) George Vavasor, who is pretty much everything John Grey is not. If you think you can predict the rest of the story from there, well, you're most likely not entirely wrong, but fortunately there's a bit more to the plot than that.

Besides the main plot of Alice's engagement troubles, there are a few side-plots focused on the most important secondary characters, including one involving Alice's eccentric widow aunt, Mrs. Greenow, and her two rival lovers; and one about the aforementioned Plantagenet Palliser, and his young wife, the fabulously wealthy orphaned heiress Glencora M'Cluskie. The relevance of those side-plots to the main plot is at times difficult to see, and one might be justified in wondering if separate, shorter novels would not have been better, but on the other hand the variation does help in making the novel a smoother read. Mrs. Greenow's chapters in particular add some welcome levity and humour.

Even with the side-plots, though, I think it's fair to say that Trollope just doesn't have enough plot to justify the length of the novel. The book would have been better at a few hundred pages less, if you ask me. I immediately want to add that I was never actually bored, or felt like I was dragging myself through the book, but others might have a different experience on that.

It is not the plot that makes this novel worthwhile, then, but the characters and the themes which Trollope explores. These - characters and themes both - are perhaps more interesting to discuss now than they were at the time of publication, because our views on women and their place in society have changed so much since Victorian times. Trollope makes it abundantly clear that as far as he is concerned, his readers should indeed forgive Alice for making a mess of her love life while rather upsetting her fiancé and most everyone else she knows in the process. But a modern reader will look at the matter rather differently, and may not think there is much to forgive. Trollope's ideas were not exactly progressive even by the standards of his age, and the dénouement of the novel has a few passages that will raise eyebrows even among those who do not consider themselves particularly feminist.

The funny thing, though, is that for all Trollope's sexism and conservatism, he's remarkably good at writing those women and their emotions. Some readers may find Alice Vavasor irritating and her agonizing boring (Henry James answered the question in the title with "Of course we can, and forget her, too, for that matter" ), but she is well-written and three-dimensional all the same - certainly not some kind of Fanny Price. Lady Glencora is a delightful character, a complicated but entirely believable mixture of youthful exuberance and extravagance, past emotional trauma and the desire to grow as a person. Kate Vavasor, Alice's cousin and George's sister, is also an interesting character, and probably the one who's closest to what one might call a modern woman, as shown in her rather strongly-worded rant about the word "indelicate". And Mrs. Greenow, to round off the quartet of female heroines, is a very clever manipulator, toying with her two lovers and trying to arrange things for her friends in the meantime, who yet somehow manages to remain a sympathetic character.

The men in the novel aren't remotely as interesting as characters, excepting the villain George Vavasor. I won't go as far as to say that Palliser and Grey have no depth whatsoever, but they certainly aren't very memorable. I guess one might argue that that only makes it more offensive to read Trollope's views about how their respective love interests should submit to them, but I would prefer to read it as a - quite possibly subconscious - nuancing of Trollope's explicitly expressed views.

A theme that Trollope does not explicitly discuss or mentions directly to his readers, but which is very much present in the novel regardless, is that of obstinacy and how one bad action will lead to another, if one doesn't have the courage to reverse one's course, as painful or humiliating as that may be. Alice is the most obvious example, but many, perhaps most characters have to make such decisions at some point in the novel. George's gradual degradation into absolute villainy is shown as a direct consequence of his refusal to cut his losses (in more ways than one) and give up his path.

So you see, there is much good to be said about this novel, whereas in my opinion there are only two significant negative points: the author's view of women and their role in marriage, and the novel's somewhat exaggerated length (while we're quoting famous writers, Stephen King apparently joked at one point that this book should be called "Can You Possibly Finish It?", which just goes to prove that there's a good reason why authors generally don't use questions as the title of their book: it makes it far too easy for the critics). I personally do not feel those outweigh the good which I have mentioned in terms of character depth and thematic strength, but I am well aware that some will disagree. So in the final verdict I have to add some reservations to my recommendation of the book, and say it might take some patience, and the ability to read sometimes rather offensive views (there's one passage with some casual anti-Semitism that was quite as bad as Dickens' in Oliver Twist, as well) without hurling the book across the room.
This message last edited by Legolas on 19/02/2011 at 12:56:04 AM
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Anthony Trollope - Can You Forgive Her? - 19/02/2011 12:55:21 AM 7917 Views
Thank you for putting the Pet Shop Boys in my mind. - 19/02/2011 02:23:12 AM 1385 Views
I'm not sure if that was sarcastic or not. - 19/02/2011 01:24:34 PM 1565 Views
Partially yes, partially no. - 19/02/2011 08:52:56 PM 1423 Views
I've yet to read any Zola. - 19/02/2011 11:34:44 PM 1325 Views
Au Bonheur des Dames was good - 20/02/2011 05:57:27 PM 1374 Views
Trollope's sexism - 19/02/2011 09:56:23 PM 1412 Views
No, but that's fairly amusing. *NM* - 19/02/2011 11:35:52 PM 701 Views

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