It has been too long since I made time to read, but I finally made time, and it was so good to get back in the swing of things. Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope, is a novel which was written in 1864, when the U.S. was right in the thick of the Civil War. But this book was set in England and includes no reference to the war whatsoever. That alone was interesting—the same hoopskirts, the same point in time that we have all studied in detail…a very different experience.
I first discovered Anthony Trollope by watching the Julian Fellowes-directed Doctor Thorne, which was based on Trollope’s book by the same name, on Prime. Fellowes would cozily appear before each episode began to tell us about his love for Trollope and his characters. I had a hunch, given my love of Fellowes’s Downton Abbey, that any novelist whom he liked, I would like also.
As I was looking for a Trollope book to start, I was first intrigued by the title, which seemed very tongue-in-cheek and a little daring. I would describe Trollope’s overall tone as just that, with added ingredients of compassion and a sweet, bouncy narrative form. He starts out the book breaking the fourth wall by babbling something along the lines of: “The thing for which I am going to ask you to forgive her had not yet taken place…” It made me smile immediately. Every once in a while, he breaks the wall to have a little chat with the reader. “I for one am inclined to forgive her… In any event, you must forgive her before the end of this narrative…”
The story follows Alice Vavasor, a young lady who is engaged at the start of the book but can’t really decide whom she wants to marry for various reasons. I don’t want to try to capture Alice here because Trollope draws her as being exquisitely complex. We get so deeply into her head and learn all about her introspection, strength, morality, goodness, insecurities, and stubbornness. Going to that level of understanding a woman felt very modern; you completely forget that it was written during the Victorian Era. There was almost nothing he had to say about women that would make modern readers cringe because Trollope both loves women and never forgets the most important part of writing fiction: to remember the humanity of all. Alice reminds me, more than any character I have ever read, of myself, but it occurred to me that a lot of women might feel the same because Trollope just gets women. He has a way of conveying with clarity the creatures that they are—exquisite and nuanced—so perfectly onto the page that you are shocked to reflect they are not real characters.
This is saying a lot for a book written in 1864 when this level of psychological understanding and exploration was somewhat less than ubiquitous. But psychology seems to be where Trollope shines most in this book. He understands women, he understands how they interact with men, and he understands men. Character after character is portrayed honestly, but always with a dash of compassion, of understanding, in the way of seeing through their eyes—even the villains.
Everyone in Alice’s life gets some airtime. Trollope is meticulous to explore each of his characters’ personalities and motivations in details. Particularly interesting was the marriage of Plantagenet Palliser and Lady Glencora. Trollope explores the unhappiness of Glencora, Alice’s cousin, who is a young wife who was forced into marriage with a man she doesn’t love. He frankly (and scandalously for the time period) explores the possibility of Glencora leaving her husband for another man, and then sensitively fights hard for the marriage. The Palliser couple forms the link for the succeeding Palliser series, apparently. (I am not sure whether I will read the rest because they appear to have an emphasis on political rather than romantic storylines, but I have ordered another book from a different series.)
Another character with a lot of airtime is Alice’s cousin, George, the true villain in the story who even commits violence against a woman, a scene which Trollope doesn’t shy away from putting right on the pages (again, unusual for the time). That being said, even George’s motivations are explored sensitively, and not without a certain measure of sympathy, even if Trollope does have very clear notions of the way things should be and of how people should behave.
Other female characters are Alice’s wealthy aunt and her cousin, Kate, whose lives and personalities are explored in detail along with Alice’s and Glencora’s. Because of this, the book actually felt in some respects like modern women’s fiction. Somehow, I have to imagine that this level of attention to women was ground-breaking in the 1860s. But Trollope does it with a respect for social conventions also that would have made it more palatable to the Victorian reader than if he had tried something more revolutionary.
But the men are not given short shrift either. I particularly liked the character of John Grey, who is a very strong character who made for a romantic plot that moved the story along.
There were some parts that were a bit boring, usually dealing with George’s financial matters, that I did skim over. I would recommend doing that because those parts have the potential to bog the reader down. All in all, however, I really enjoyed the book and feel like I discovered a new author to stand alongside my favorite English historical authors.