these are the abstracts of my time
Review: Anthony Trollope, Can You Forgive Her?
I’ve spent over a week labouring through this Victorian tome and I have to admit that the first four hundred pages were a bit of a chore. I found it hard to understand or like the heroine (Alice Vavasor) or her cousins (Kate and George), who seemed wearisomely humourless. Maybe I’m being too twenty-first century about this, but the motives of these characters were really quite impossible to fathom.
Alice, having plenty of money but precious little that she can do with it because she is a woman, sets about choosing whether to settle down quietly in the country with a man who has no apparent ambition, or to use her money to finance the political career of her cousin, George. This part of the plot is really the least entertaining and it is a puzzle why Alice makes such hard work of it.
The second love triangle in this book is that of Plantagenet Palliser, a man whose only interest and ambition is to be Chancellor of the Exchequer, and his young and flighty wife, Glencora, who cannot get over her longing to have married her previous love, the waster, Burgo Fitzgerald.
On reflection, I think this book is chiefly about the constricting social rules and obligations placed upon the middle and upper classes in Victorian Britain. The women live lives of utter triviality and boredom and so much hangs on their choice of husband (possibly the only serious choice that they are ever allowed make in their entire lives) that they suffer disproportionately when they try to make it. But the problem I have is over characterisation. Alice’s prospective suitors are both unbelievable: Mr Grey fully lives up to his name, while George is nothing but a pantomime villain. Glencora is also struggling over a boring goodie and an implausible baddie. I’m disappointed that, having the luxury of 800 pages to tell his tale, Anthony Trollope didn’t do something a bit more nuanced with these characters.
The third strand of the plot, on the other hand, is a comic gem. Alice’s aunt, Mrs Greenow, a rich widow, also has plenty of money and a choice of husbands, but her method of choosing is altogether more enjoyable and proactive than Alice’s. Instead of sitting at home and beating herself up about … er … even now I don’t know what Alice was beating herself up about… but any way … instead of that, Mrs Greenow feigns the grieving widow and in the meantime sets about auditioning a pair of rival suitors that would have done credit to the imagination of Charles Dickens. I laughed out loud. Mrs Greenow single-handedly redeems the reputation of Victorian womanhood by ensuring that she enjoys the fun of courtship and then makes a sensible and pragmatic choice about the man with whom she will most enjoy married life.
I think that I may have found the second half of this book more enjoyable than the first because I had given up trying to understand the motives of Alice, Kate and George and instead settled down to enjoy the antics of Mr Cheesacre and Captain Bellfield. I also warmed to the impish humour of Glencora.
What I enjoyed most about this book was its comedy: Trollope is so strong when he is in humourous vein. But his laboured attempts at serious psychological insight fall flat.
I am definitely going on to read the next of the Palliser novels, but, please, dear Reader, if you are looking for a woman struggling to find her purpose in the Victorian world, what you need is Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch. Alice Vavasor is too insipid and vacillating to be interesting enough to carry the main plot thread of this book.