After two and a half weeks of reading pleasure, I’ve finally closed the pages on the dramas and dilemmas of the Vavasors and Pallisers. Can You Forgive Her? was my first Trollope, and despite having to turn 1000 pages, I’ll certainly be back for more. You don’t get more Victorian than this; dastardly rakes, unscrupulous money lenders, diffident husbands, chivalrous men, ditzy heiresses and opinionated new women, all brought together amidst the dingy streets of Victorian London, the popular resorts of Europe and several country piles. Chapters of comedy relief intersperse the those filled with terrible tidings of awful misdeeds; what’s not to like? Trollope’s a cheerful Dickens!
The ‘Her’ of the title is Alice Vavasor; when the novel opens, she is engaged to the kind and generous and clever and handsome Mr Grey, but she’s having doubts. She doesn’t think the quiet life he leads would make her happy, even though she loves him. So, to get some space before she makes up her mind, she goes on holiday with her beloved cousins Kate and George. Now, here’s the tricky part; Alice and George were engaged before Alice got engaged to John Grey, but family opposition to George’s rakish ways drove them apart. Both still hold each other in high esteem, but neither has made an attempt to rekindle their romance. However, Kate, who loves both Alice and George, believes that they should get married for both of their own happiness, and she is determined to make this happen, suggesting and scheming and laying doubts in Alice’s mind until Alice has decided that she can no longer marry Mr Grey. On their return to London, Alice throws over Mr Grey, much to both his distress and that of Alice’s illustrious relations. Alice then finds herself to be considered a very proud and foolish girl indeed, and she leaves London to stay with an aunt while the dust settles.
Meanwhile, Kate has gone to stay with her Aunt Greenow, sister of both her and Alice’s fathers. Recently widowed after the death of her conveniently very elderly and very wealthy husband, the still pretty and youthful Mrs Greenow is sitting on a very nice nest egg and is being fought over by two gentlemen, much to her delight, and Kate’s disgust. Captain Bellfield, a poverty stricken yet handsome out of work solider, is going head to head with his wealthy and landowning friend Mr Cheesacre, whose portly figure and unfortunate habit of constantly mentioning his financial situation puts him on the back foot in Mrs Greenow’s eyes. Which will Mrs Greenow choose, if she can manage to stop crying crocodile tears into her black edged handkerchiefs?
While Kate’s back is turned, George proposes to Alice and, after some dithering, she accepts, believing she can help him turn his life around. George’s great ambition is to get into parliament, and Alice promises him all the financial help she can give. However, she doesn’t anticipate just how nasty George can become in the pursuit of his goals, and it’s not long before she starts to regret her decision as his personality becomes more and more unpleasant.
While Alice is in turmoil, she becomes close friends with her cousin, the richest heiress in England and recent bride of one of the country’s most promising young politicians, Lady Glencora Palliser. Glencora is young and pretty and says exactly what she thinks, much to the disdain of her stiff and proper husband, Plantagenet. It soon emerges that Lady Glencora was persuaded to marry Plantagenet by the same relations that denounced Alice’s broken engagement, and really she is in love with the handsome and dastardly Burgo Fitzgerald. Glencora’s marriage is not turning out to be a success, and she is terribly tempted to run off with Burgo. Can Alice persuade her not to? And what will Alice herself do now that George has turned into a monster and John Grey doesn’t appear so dull after all?
Trollope does a marvellous job of bringing together the stories of three very different women, all of whom must decide which paths they will take in the face of competing male affections and familial disapproval. How does one come to a decision about the future, and which is more important – personal happiness, the happiness of others, or doing the right thing in the eyes of society? Each woman must make up her own mind, and learn to be content with the path she has chosen. As such Can You Forgive Her? is a rich feast of remarkable characters, who are all brilliantly drawn with a pen that can bring shock and sorrow just as well as it can laughter and joy. The terrible waste of both George and Burgo is juxtaposed with the antics of Mr Cheesacre and Captain Bellfield, and the serious Alice is wonderfully foiled by the high spirited and melodramatic Glencora, who is ready at any moment to scale the Eiffel Tower or throw herself into the River Thames, dependent on her mood. Trollope is such a witty and amusing writer, and he is also wonderfully descriptive. It’s the little things, finely drawn, that form the reader’s impressions of his characters. Mrs Greenow’s expensive and elaborate silk widow’s weeds, George’s gaping facial scar, Glencora’s bobbing golden curls; all of these details build up a multi dimensional, living picture of his wide cast of fascinating, enthralling, amusing and sometimes repulsive characters, all of whom make the many, many pages of this novel just fly by. I’m not sure that I could forgive Alice – her decision making abilities left a lot to be desired! – but I certainly loved this rollicking doorstop of a drama and I absolutely cannot wait to read the next in the series. If you’ve never dipped into Trollope before, I implore you – don’t put it off any longer! You can’t afford to miss this!