Alice Vavasor cannot decide whether to marry her ambitious but violent cousin George or the upright and gentlemanly John Grey - and finds herself accepting and rejecting each of them in turn. Increasingly confused about her own feelings and unable to forgive herself for such vacillation, her situation is contrasted with that of her friend Lady Glencora - forced to marry the rising politician Plantagenet Palliser in order to prevent the worthless Burgo Fitzgerald from wasting her vast fortune. In asking his readers to pardon Alice for her transgression of the Victorian moral code, Trollope created a telling and wide-ranging account of the social world of his day.
“What's a woman to do?” (Ch 6)
Indeed! Trollope introduces a delightful cast of women in Can You Forgive Her, all of whom have their own ideas as to the age-old dilemma. Heroine Alice Vavasor cannot make up her mind at all as to what a woman should do. Twice engaged to her cousin George Vavasor, and twice engaged to John Grey, she eventually marries. But she could not possibly have made the decision more complicated. Kate Vavasor, cousin to Alice, is firmy of the mind that her role is to manage the affairs of others, in particular those of her cousin and her loathsome brother, George. Unfortunately for all concerned, Kate seems not qualified to manage her own affairs, never mind those of others. Lady Glencora Palliser, also cousin to Alice a wealthy heiress, does what a woman in her position was expected to do: marry a title and yet more wealth. Alas, she is in love not with her husband, Plantaganet Palliser, but with the worthless Burgo Fitzgerald. And Arabella Greenow, Alice’s aunt and an impressively forward thinker, determines that a woman’s best course of action is to marry young to a wealthy old man, wait out the “old,” secure the “wealthy,” and then enjoy the luxury of doing precisely as she pleases!
“Her marriage for money had been altogether successful. The nursing of old Greenow had not been very disagreeable to her, nor had it taken longer than she had anticipated. She had now got all the reward that she had ever promised herself, and she really did feel grateful to his memory. I almost think that among those plentiful tears some few drops belonged to sincerity.” (Ch 47)
Trollope’s staple political landscape is inhabited by Plantaganet Palliser, John Grey, and George Vavasor. Palliser, heir to the enormously wealthy Duke of Omnium and wholly preoccupied with politics, aspires to be Chancellor of the Exchequer. Grey, a well-educated gentleman of modest means, seeks the parliamentary seat at Silverbridge. And finally, George Vavasor, a disinherited, despicable, scoundrel, and the perfect foil to both Palliser and Grey, hopes to secure any seat he can, by any means he can.
I adored Can You Forgive Her! Hands down, my favourite character is the charming and irrepressible Lady Glencora. She is Trollope at his absolute finest, and I often could not help but laugh aloud at her spirited chatter. I read the Barsetshire series last year and loved them, but, if Can You Forgive Her is any indication, I’m going to absolutely treasure the Palliser novels! Highly recommended.
I couldn't help comparing Alice to both Anne Elliot in Jane Austen's Persuasion and Lily Dale in Trollope's The Small House at Allington. Both Anne and Alice are motherless with fathers who have largely abdicated their parental responsibilities. Anne follows the guidance of a family friend in deciding whether to accept or reject a suitor, while Alice refuses to be guided by any but her own inclinations. Neither course of action works out well for these women. Alice is better suited for Lily Dale's life than is Lily Dale. She has money of her own and would not be a burden to other family members if she chose not to marry.
Aunt Greenow, recently widowed by a much older wealthy husband, provides comic relief. While she is the master of every situation and everyone does her bidding, she manages to make people think it's their idea to do what she wants them to do. The suspense for the reader is not in what might happen, but in how it will unfold.
Lady Glencora is my favorite of the three women. She may not know much about politics, but she understands people and she isn't easily fooled. My affinity for Lady Glencora is probably proof that I wouldn't have been cut out to be a society wife in Victorian England either.
I read this years ago but remembered very little of it. I was probably too young to appreciate it the first time around. Now I'm eagerly looking forward to discovering the pleasures ahead in the remaining books in the Palliser series.
Making up for her shortfalls is the feisty Lady Glencora who, even though we are in the Victorian Age, is not afraid to leave her husband, a rising star in Parliament by the name of Palliser, and her fortune in order to be with the man she should have married, the ne'er do well Burgo Fitzgerald. But my favorite has got to be Aunt Arabella Greenow who married a very wealthy (and very old) man first and now that he's gone and she's rich she doesn't mind taking up with a penniless former military man over the wealthy farmer, Mr. Cheesacre.
But this is Trollope so it is all great fun. Layered between the love stories are the inklings of the political story that will be developed in the subsequent volumes, the intricacies of which are merely hinted at.
Totally delightful, just as I've come to expect from Trollope.
Alice’s reputation is sorely damaged, yet she remains oblivious to this and insists on providing financial support to George as he runs for parliament, even though they are not yet married, the sums are significant, and he proves himself to be a cad of the highest order. John Grey, meanwhile, is never far away and continues to have feelings for Alice. Cora finds solace in friendship with Alice as her husband largely ignores her and enlists others to keep Cora in check as he focuses on his work.
In an unusual move for the time, the story is told almost entirely from a female perspective. The women are strong characters with money and opinions of their own. However, Trollope cannot envision a world free from Victorian conventions, so naturally the only successful outcomes involve marriage. Still, I can forgive Trollope for being a product of his time, and I can forgive the eponymous heroines whose actions, both scandalous and annoying, made for a very good story.
CYFH? does what really, really great literature does: asks very difficult questions about life, but in such a way that you don't realize they're being asked, because the thing is just so entertaining. The question, in a much less entertaining form, is not whether you can forgive Alice Vavasour for turning down the genial John Grey; it is whether you ought to or ought not to enter public life, how you ought to think about public and private life in general, and, in the end, why we put up with a world that allows the rich to get all the best things, and shunts the poor off to its margins.
Grey prefers private life, and is very rich. Palliser prefers public life, and is very rich. George prefers public life, and is very poor. Fitzgerald prefers private life, and is very poor. George and Palliser share an idealism about politics, but the realities of their private lives are different enough that (plot spoiler!) Palliser triumphs in private and public, while George loses out in both. Fitzgerald and Grey are both idealistic about private life, but the rich Grey can basically afford to be, while the poorish Fitzgerald cannot, and suffers for it.
By the twentieth century, this plot would have presented George and Fitzgerald as wonderful, kind men trodden down despite themselves by the system; Palliser and Grey would have been evil, evil, evil capitalists. But Trollope knows what should be obvious to anyone with any social conscience: poverty destroys people, and makes us worse than we could be. So George and Fitzgerald (who aren't really that poor in the grand scheme of things, as Trollope is careful to show us) suffer and become vicious; Grey and Palliser do not suffer, and become better men. Just in case you miss the point, the poor man who *does* get the lady ends up as a better person after she starts paying for all his stuff. That's how it works. Stories of virtuous, proud, upstanding impoverished men and women are nonsense.
And that's without even touching on the other side of the three marriage plots, the women, and their own follies, braveries and self-indulgences. And also without touching on Trollope's clear eyed presentation of late Victorian society: there's no need for ideological trickiness here. Everyone pushes in the direction of straight cynicism, because that's what happens when you live these kinds of lives.
One of the best nineteenth century novels I've read--imagine Pride and Prejudice with an extra marriage plot and a greater balance between the problems of men and women.
Now I can read more Pallisar novels and not be missing any background.
(Oh, Lady Glencora is also a wonderful, fully developed character. Burgo Fitzgerald is the handsome neer do well who almost wins the girl.)
I read this on Nook and listened to Timothy West on Audible. My question is: Had I not listened on audio, would I have ever finished a straight "reading" of the text? I wonder. Audio gets one through even the most boring parts effortlessly.
This volume, however, concerns itself with one Alice Vavasor, the woman mentioned in the title. Feeling rather proto-feminist, she throws over the kind, yet rather dull country gentleman John Grey (she's engaged to him). She does so after taking a trip to Switzerland with her cousins Kate and George. She used to be engaged to George, but broke it off for rather murky reasons, but it hints that he was a bit angry and gruff. Kate, however, is bent towards hooking the two up. So when Alice gets back to London and breaks up with John Grey and tells him that it has nothing to do with him or anyone else but herself, it's a little irritating. Especially when she agrees to become re-engaged to George, who is endeavoring to run for a seat in Parliament. She is pestered by a great deal of people to change her mind, and refuses to do so. But she also refuses to discuss the matter at all, threatening to leave the room or similar bratty behavior. It's certainly no one else's business, and when she gave it to a couple old biddies I was thrilled, but at other times she was really getting obnoxious about it.
There's also a subplot about Kate, who goes with a rich relation to the seaside. The relation, a melodramatic widow, quickly becomes the target of two rather different men, one a farmer, the other a spendthrift. I really liked this part--it was quite comic, and the two men would fight over all these ridiculous trifles, like who got to open the wine at a picnic, because whoever did so would be complimented on said wine. There's also ANOTHER subplot about this bore, Plantagenet Palliser and his "smile-brilliantly-until-it-hurts" wife Glencora. They are badly suited for each other...actually they ended up married because the man Glencora loved, Burgo Fitzgerald, would have run through all her money and left them both penniless. He wasn't trying to hide the fact, though, and is a not-unlikeable character.
I had really mixed feelings about this book. Maybe Dickens spoiled me and made me used to more excitement--Trollope mocked his (occasionally) syrupy drama by calling him Mr. Popular Sentiment--but I enjoy Thackeray, and he's not bouncing up and down like Dickens. Trollope is just...there are too many bores. And if they're not bores, they spend quite a while being unlikeable. Maybe I'm just cranky and short-tempered, though. The book resolves into a fairly happy ending, and Alice Vavasor does change quite a bit, but damn, it's not a short book.
There was a wonderful section involving a fox hunt, which Trollope did wonderfully. And the book wasn't boring, it was just a sort of lusterless gossip, like the kind of gossip you might hear your grandmother whisper to you about her various acquaintances. It's amusing and passes the time, but once you kiss grandma goodbye, the stories quickly melt into a puddle and go right down the drain.
And while I do think that Trollope is more understanding than Eliot--Eliot would have sent Alice off to supervise the building of poorhouses in Limehouse or something, singing secular hymns all the way--Eliot has a dry sense of humor that manages to alleviate her horrible Victorian earnestness. Though I find her stuff pretty unreadable, excepting Middlemarch. Both Trollope and Eliot were widely read, so I fail to understand how they neglected to incorporate the lessons of Jane Austen into their work: just because a character goes against the grain, or is feisty, or meddlesome, or anything besides a stereotypical female character of the time, doesn't mean they have to be a burden that the reader must carry through to the end of the book. Actually, I have a vague feeling George Eliot didn't really like Jane Austen, either. And then what about the Brontes? They manage to handle female characters in a supple, independent fashion while giving us their sympathy all the while. Hell, even Becky Sharp was at least entertaining.
I think I'll give Barchester Towers a whirl--Harold Bloom recommends it, and I understand it's quite funny. If I fail to appreciate THAT, I suppose I will have to stick to my Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens and William Thackeray and M.E. Braddon.
A third comic subplot features rich widow Mrs. Greenow being courted by broke but handsome Captain Bellfield and annoying, wealthy Mr. Cheesacre. This reminded me of the also comic love triangle plot in He Knew He Was Right with Mr. Gibson and sisters Camilla and Arabella. Unfortunately, a lot of the story was told from the point of view of Mr. Cheesacre who was extremely irritating. Mrs Greenow is Kate and Alice Vavasor’s aunt who married a rich older man - only for the money, some think. Still, she was a good wife and has been mourning a bit excessively now that he’s dead. She’s courted by the two in several humorous scenes. Both propose to her multiple times, even right after they meet her. I feel she could have had more choice if she'd looked harder - someone with less debts and suspiciousness.
Kate also plays an important role in Alice’s story. Her brother, George, and Alice had a romance before George spoiled it with his relationship with another woman. George had ambitions to be a member of Parliament, but was thwarted in his first attempt and lost all his money. Alice later became engaged, to the eminently polite and perfect John Grey. She's been putting off the wedding for a while – she isn’t too thrilled at the idea that she’ll just go and do what John does, living his quiet life. One thing she did like about George was his ambition – she thinks Parliament a worthy goal. John has no such ideas.
Modern readers can certainly see Alice’s discontent – her marriage as a loss of self. On a trip abroad, Trollope paints George as lively, interesting and sympathetic. It’s a sign of his success in character development that at first the ‘nice’ men – John and Palliser – are seen as unattractive and stifling but are later the best husbands for Alice and Glencora. No one would ever mistake Burgo Fitzgerald for a smart choice, but one can understand the high spirited, emotional Glencora’s feelings. George does try to make himself amenable to Alice at first, but eventually descends into one of Trollope’s worst characters. A lot of times, the heroine will choose the more dramatic partner over the ‘safe’ guy and it’s shown to be the right choice. However, here Trollope has both women choosing the dull option (Palliser is described as one of the dullest men around) and this is shown to be the best choice. He takes a lot of time to develop their unhappiness – Alice imagines John will be boring and thinks he’s so unemotional and controlled as to be almost dead inside, and Glencora similarly finds a want of sympathy, feeling and understanding in her husband.
Alice admits she does not want to get married – though she says she won’t marry anyone else – but finds it hard to delineate the reasons. Partly because she thinks she’s the only one sacrificing, partly because Kate and George convinced her that her life would be dull and intolerable, partly because she can hardly name a fault of his. She spends most of the book vacillating between the two which can become grating.
The Mrs. Greenow love triangle was bothersome because of Mr. Cheesacre, but it readily fit into a theme running through the other two plots – the intersection of love and money. In many of his books, Trollope provides a nuanced look at the different, often complicated relationships between the two. Mr. Cheesacre, the annoying fool, is an all-out mercenary even though he’s wealthy. He tries to propose on the first outing and considers Mrs. Greenow’s money his own. Certainly he later came to appreciate her good qualities, but was desperate to get her money away from the Captain. The captain himself was also mercenary, but because he needed it more, Mrs. Greenow was able to control him. After Kate inherits, Cheesacre suddenly pretends he’s interested in her. The anomalous situation between Alice and her father was caused by her inheritance of her mother’s money, while he was left with a – shocking – job! Alice’s relationship with John was beneficial to both, but since both were well off, money wasn’t a concern. John is willing to sacrifice some of his money to George, hoping that George will dump Alice and she can marry him. It’s clear that George needed Alice’s money for his election, but Trollope notes that he also wanted the luxury of love. He never would have proposed if she didn’t have wealth, and maybe also not if he’d needed it less, but he wanted the whole package – money, revenge against John, Alice’s good opinion and love. If he hadn’t pressed her for it – things might not have gone so horribly awry. Glencora’s fabulous wealth merely added solid stability to Palliser, whose ambitions will eventually take him to Prime Minister. But Glencora hardly thinks about her wealth, and, even though she occasionally has fantasies, she knows that Burgo would have squandered it but still wants to be with him. Her money was something of a burden – made her the target of gold diggers, she had to marry early to keep them at bay. Burgos’ feelings, it is noted, are a mix of need for money, revenge on Palliser and having someone who loved him as much as she did. Although he’d initially chosen her for her wealth, he eventually came to care about her and was depressed on losing her. He remained hung up on her, even trying the wife-stealing. Another well developed Trollope – start of another series.
To an extent, that's an endorsement of the writing: they're all fully formed characters, flaws and all, and none of them are either entirely sympathetic or unsympathetic. And I did, in particular, feel sympathy for the situations that both Alice and Glencora found themselves in, but Alice's vacillation and Glencora's childish wilfulness were terribly grating at times.
Not that the men were any better. John Grey, so noble and patient... and then he goes and spoils it all by saying something stupid like "If you love me, after what has passed, I have a right to demand your hand. My happiness requires it, and I have a right to expect your compliance." At least Captain Bellfield and Mr Cheesacre were supposed to be ridiculous...
All in all, I think I liked Kate best.
I continue to be amazed at Trollope's enlightened attitude toward his female characters, his awareness of the rights they give up by marrying, his willingness to recognize their intellect.
I did note that I was very interested in Lady Glencora's story, which figures prominently in this book. She appears as a minor character in Phineas Finn, and had I been more aware of her back story, I might have enjoyed her more.
"I do not know that she was at all points a lady, but had Fate so willed it she would have been a thorough gentleman."
In answer to the title question - no, I never really understood why Alice broke things off with Mr Grey, although her dealings with George made more sense in a twisted sort of way. I thought Plantagenet was an excellent character - perfect in a crisis, but obtuse in so many ways. I also enjoyed Alice's father, who was a straight and honourable man, apart from his extreme laziness. I'm not sure that Trollope was exactly saying this, but a lot might have been avoided if Alice could have stood for Parliament herself
Trollope is one of my favorite writers of his period. He takes us deep into the characters, and helps us to see them from several directions at once. He shows us not only the surface action and dialog, but the inner dialog and the objective view as well. He does this with a gentle sense of humor, seeing the ridiculous when we take ourselves too seriously.
All that being said, I'm afraid I haven't the patience for long absorbing reads any more. I ended up skimming many of the scenes which were not focused on the characters I cared about. By the end of the story, I did not care much for any of the women in it. Probably a fault of the time it was written in and what was expected of women then. I wish I knew how women received this story when it was written. Not one of these women seemed to have a lick of common sense. They were ready to throw away all they had without thought of their future on the romantic idea of helping the user men around them. I hope, I really hope that has changed, although I am afraid it is a trait of women to want to "save" men.
And there is Alice Vavasor, getting old to be single. She has two prospects in marriage: her cousin George, who by primogeniture is the heir of their grandfather. Or, Mr John Grey of Nethercoats near Ely. Who will it be?
Can George forgive Alice?
Can John Grey forgive Alice?
Can her father forgive Alice?
Can Alice forgive her cousin/friend Kate?
Can Alice forgive her relative Lady Midlothian?
Can Mr Cheesacre forgive Mrs Greenow?
Can Plantagent Palliser forgive his wife, Lady Glencora?
Can the reader forgive any of them?
And the ladies aren't the only ones behaving badly.
*Mr Grey lives near Ely, and catches the train there. I have taken the train to and from Ely. When this book was written and when it takes place, my 3rdgreat grandfather was still living in Welches Dam outside Ely. He could see the cathedral every day. Also, having been an agricultural laborer his entire life, he did not live in a home like Nethercoats. Welches Dam is best known for an 1849 cholera outbreak, due to poor living condition.
The political plot, with three pre-1867 elections and a few parliamentary scenes, is only rather thinly sketched in: the main interest of the novel is really with the two subsidiary plotlines, the (potentially) tragic Lady Glencora story and the comic wooing of Mrs Greenhow by Cheesacre and Belling. Either of these would be sufficient justification for picking up the novel and putting up with the limitations of Alice and Kate.
One thing that struck me — in contrast to the Barchester novels — was how mobile the story is in terms of locations. Characters are forever hopping on trains and dashing off to distant parts. Norfolk, Westmoreland, Switzerland, Germany, ... — we're never in London for more than one or two chapters at a time. Not that we ever get more than a bare minimum of description of those places: apart from the Westmoreland fells, which he obviously had an affection for himself, Trollope doesn't seem to be very interested in landscape.
Feminist, but at the same time, very hard on women for the choices that they do make. I have to admit to a bit of disappointment that Alice's reconciliation with John Grey can only come about through her defeat and subjugation. That sucks, even if it does make her happy. I mean, to answer the titular question, yes, I can forgive Alice Vavasor; the men around her are maddening and imperfect in unappealing ways. But forgiving her cousin, her father, or even forgiving John Gray for his smug condescension--well, that's another matter.
I think I prefer a novel that is more balanced between the "women's concerns" and the political intrigue. There's not much politics in this one, and it ust becomes tiresome waiting for the stupid chicks to board the clue bus. Bring back Mr. Slope!
The Way We Live Now is still my favorite Trollope, or the Warden, but you cannot have a totally bad time in the hands of the master.
Cora is naughty, and lights up the pages. But Alice seemed so humourless and reticent I really couldn't be bothered to 'forgive her' or not, and I certainly didn't understand her.
Trollope's genial intrusive narration though may make me pick up the next Palliser novel sometime in the future, in the hopes it will concentrate more on the delightfully indiscrete Cora.