Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope
Read in September 2012
Stephen King quipped about this Trollope novel, “Can you possibly finish it?” I’m certain that he did, and I did too, but be forewarned: Trollope was being paid by the word to write weekly installments for a Victorian serial, and it shows. Can You Forgive Her? is the question he asks the reader during his recounting of the choices of Alice Vavasour, an Englishwoman of small but independent means who is engaged to a seemingly bland country gentleman when the novel opens. Although Alice is clearly the central character, the stories of two other women also feature in the novel, her cousin Glencora Palliser, the richest heiress of the day, and her aunt Arabella Greenow, a wealthy 40-something widow. Through the stories of Alice and Glencora, Trollope details the competing demands on well-born women, including family and society expectations, with Alice struggling to choose between two suitors in a choice that will lead to very different lives for her and Glencora struggling to reconcile herself to the man she’s chosen and make a life for herself without the man she loves. The background to the struggles of both women is a combination of the challenges of inherited wealth (or its lack) and politics, and Trollope’s depiction of England’s Victorian Era politics shows it to have been every bit as sordid as our own in 2012. The story of the merry widow, Mrs. Greenow, is thrown in for comic relief and gets rather tedious. Trollope is renowned for his realism, and one thing that will undoubtedly strike contemporary readers is the reticence in the behavior of these courting, engaged, and married couples, a stiffness and distance which seems almost unbelievable from our perspective 150 years later.a That may put off some readers, but if you want to know what life was really like for the upper classes in England in 1864, read Trollope, who knows how to tell a good tale.