Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

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!

31 comments

  1. Just read this book absolutely loved it, my first Anthony Trollpe book, now I am ridint the small house from him.

    Annie v

  2. I’m so glad you liked this so much, Rachel – it’s one of my all-time favourites. Loved your review, too – you have described the plot just about perfectly. (Mr. Cheesacre! Glencora!) You’ll be pleased to know that the rest of the series is just as good as this one. You have a treat in store!

    1. I can’t believe it took me so long to discover, Caroline! Thank you – I’m pleased I did such a magnificent book some justice! I am so excited about the rest of the series…though I think Alice doesn’t feature anymore which is a shame…she might have been annoyingly indecisive but I did like her!

  3. I read the final Palliser book in college (I still can’t figure out why my professor assigned the last one). I loved it, but I never have gone back to read the earlier books. I really must do that, as I’ve enjoyed all the other Trollopes I’ve read. (He Knew He Was Right is my favorite so far.)

    1. Reading back to front?! How peculiar! I suppose that’s a bit of a shame as you know how it all turns out now, but still…worth going back I think! I’m looking forward to exploring more…I want to read He Knew He Was Right but I feel like I have to finish the series I started first…oh well, only 5000 pages to go!

  4. Oh Rachel, I just love your enthusiasm! I only started reading Trollope this year and I knew within a few pages that he was going to be one of my favourite authors. I’m just starting on the Barchester books and am looking forward to spending Christmas with Barchester Towers.

    1. Thanks Claire! Your enthusiasm has been a big influence on me! I bet those Barsetshire books are wonderfully cosy…enjoy your Christmas with Barchester Towers!

  5. I have never read any Trollope so this review has really drawn me in together with the other commenters – up near the top of my list now, although there is also Winifred Holtby and Dorothy Whipple…………thanks to you and Jane Brocket!

    1. Oh well…you are missing out and need to get started! But you MUST get to Dorothy first…and also Winifred! My goodness you have so much reading pleasure in store!🙂

  6. That painting was the only one I really loved when I went round the Edinburgh National Gallery! Although I have lost my postcard…

    I am not in the mood for Trollope yet, but I’ll give him a go when I am…

    1. Is that where it is?! For some reason I thought it was in the National Portrait Gallery…silly London centric me!

      You’ll love him when you get around to him Simon, I promise!

  7. Glencora is my favourite Trollope character. So passionate in her loving as well as her ambition.
    I much prefer Trollope to Dickens. He was as humane as CD but more believable. Both have their place though.

    Do you think that revelations about beloved authors’ reputations should put us off loving their work? I feel torn between sympathy for Dickens’s horrible childhood and his even crueller treatment of his wife. Trollope (as far as I’ve read – and I may be very wrong) seems to have led a fairly blameless life.

    Congratulations on fitting 1000 pages of reading into your very busy life!

    1. I love Glencora! She’s fantastic, even though she has a silly name. Absolutely – the idea of reading more Trollope excites me but Dickens always feels like a bit of a chore.

      I do find Dickens’ personal life a little troublesome, I must admit…though none of us are perfect. I do find his treatment of his wife a little unsavoury and that does colour my perception of him somewhat. I don’t know much about Trollope and I am pleased to hear he had no skeletons in his closet…makes me like him even more!

  8. I stumbled on this blog this weekend via Jane Brocket, I think its a lovely one, I particularly like the picture at the top, don’t know why I just want to gaze at it, its so lovely. I find 19th c novels so heavy going and I can utter a heresy? I don’t think Persephone books are as great as everyone thinks they are, the whole Persephone thing is not quite what it is cracked to be, there I have said that to the world, I wonder if there is anyone out there that agrees with me?

    1. Hello Mavis! How lovely to hear from you. I’m so pleased you find me and that you like what you found! 19th century novels are heavy going, indeed – I don’t read as many of them as I used to, I must admit. I’ve got far more into lighter early and mid 20th century novels since my university days.

      Oh really? Well I think Persephone caters to a certain taste – and if it’s not to your taste then that’s totally fine! I’m sad that you don’t love them though as they have brought me so much pleasure!

  9. I love that Sargent portrait! I like to drop in and admire it if I’m ever in Edinburgh. My mum is a big fan of Trollope. Must try some, I’ve come to enjoy a massive Victorian romp as I’ve got older. Hard work carrying them around though! x

    1. Me too – though I’ve never seen the original. Must remedy that! Trollope is worth the lugging – if you buy the old hardback oxford world’s classics editions they are tiny hardbacks with wafer thin paper – not so bad to carry to work!

      1. Booksnob, I’m a Trollope fan of many years: you must read the Barchester series, beginning with the wonderful The Warden, but I also love How We Live Now ( a stand-alone novel) and Miss Mackenzie (cleverly chosen on radio as a neglected classic, which I hadn’t read and loved). But I also have a tip. This may seem sacrilege, but… I now own a Kindle, and when I’m traveling and on the move I find my place in whichever Trollope I am reading, and just take the Kindle! It lacks the charm of the beautiful copy you may own, but t allows you to keep on reading. Happy New Year!

      2. Thanks Andrew – I am so excited to have discovered Trollope and I appreciate your tips – I need to get collecting his books! I know what you’re saying about the Kindle…but I’m just not sure if I can do it!

  10. Hi Rachel: Hope you are eating lots of great clementines and chocolates! I love your blog and keep reading your posts carefully to pick up tips on writing great “reviews.” A few posts ago you wrote about discovering Trollope which inspired me to pull “The Warden” and “Barchester Towers” off my shelves and read them. I posted about them here: http://yearofreadingmybooks.wordpress.com/tag/anthony-trollope/

    I loved them both! And look forward to continuing in the Barsetshire series. Also, I got my first Dorothy Whipple from Persephone (Someone in a Distance http://yearofreadingmybooks.wordpress.com/2011/12/23/someone-at-a-distance-by-dorothy-whipple/) and devoured it very quickly – what an amazing book, what a ride! She’s fantastic and it is such a shame she’s not better recognized these days, but hey, now that Persephone has reprinted her work and so many book bloggers love her, hopefully we’re changing that.

    Thanks for your excellent blog,
    Happy Holidays, Kathy

    1. Hi Kathy, hope you had a lovely Christmas and are still enjoying the holidays! How lovely you are – I am so glad to hear that you enjoy my blog, that really means a lot to me.🙂 Great Trollope reviews – isn’t it wonderful to find a new author you love?!

      And fantastic news about Dorothy Whipple – I am delighted to have introduced you to her!

      Thank you for being such an enthusiastic and supportive reader -I hope to continue to entertain you next year!

  11. Thanks for the tip-off – I’m picking our next book club book and it’s been a while since we did a ‘classic’ so Trollope might just be my man…

    And I’m glad you enjoyed Kent too – my grandma lives in Sevenoaks so I’ve got fond memories of the town, and also of Riverhead and Seal. Happy Christmas, and all the best for 2012.

    1. Oh yes, please pick him! He’s so much fun to read and the characters are definitely ones that polarise the affections so you’ll have a lot to discuss!

      Oh wow, what a coincidence! My sister lives in Dunton Green so I’m always in Riverhead…do you ever go to the Danish Collection shop?!

      Have a lovely New Year to you too! Hope your 2012 will be wonderful!🙂

  12. Hi Rachel, it’s been too long since I stopped by here *waves* and I see that I have missed your Trollope review. I am craving vic lit at the moment (just finished a Hardy) and I have never read any Trollope and have been wondering which one to start with than a book containing “dastardly rakes, unscrupulous money lenders, diffident husbands, chivalrous men, ditzy heiresses and opinionated new women”.

    I’m going to check this one out. Thanks for the great review🙂

    1. Hello, lovely to see you again! You MUST start yourself on Trollope – he is brilliant and I can’t believe I left reading him for so long. You’re going to love him, and Can You Forgive Her is a real Victorian indulgence!🙂

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