A review of Can You Forgive Her by Anthony Trollope

Reviewed by Tom Frenkel

UNDER MY RADAR

For many of my reading years, I have to admit that Anthony Trollope was, you might say, under my radar. He never figured in my school literary assignments. I had one friend who repeatedly mentioned him, but ashamedly I did not consider her as much of a “literary” person. No one in my own (well-read) family ever mentioned reading him, as I recall.

I think this state of affairs has something to do with the customary attitude that critics have had toward Trollope (whose dates are 1815-1882). He seems to be (or at least, used to be) somewhat dismissed, due in part to the sheer size of his literary output. Also he worked on a self-imposed regular schedule, contrary to the romanticized notion of a creative artist being suddenly struck with “the muse”. And, to top it all, AT freely admitted that he wrote for money! [1]. (Actually, he had a close-to-home model for this in his mother, Frances (“Fanny”) Trollope, who had to support her family by means of her writing.)

COMFORTABLE

Anyway, in the last few years, I’ve made up for lost time with Trollope; I’ve so far read THE WAY WE LIVE NOW, THE WARDEN, BARCHESTER TOWERS [2] … and now, of course, CAN YOU FORGIVE HER (first published serially, 1864-65). What has made me take to this writer in such a committed way? Perhaps the key to the matter is that I find AT to be such a *comfortable* writer … in setting up a framework for his story. Trollope certainly had comfort on his mind … witness the memorable line already quoted in my review of THE WARDEN:

What on earth could be more luxurious than a sofa, a book and a cup of coffee? [chap XVI]

I know that to many (even to myself in a way), the idea of “comfort” somehow doesn’t jibe with the notion of any kind of significant literary experience. But remember that Matisse (in my opinion the greatest artist of the 20th century) said in 1908 that his dream for art was that it would be like an easy chair!

To look at this matter of comfort from the obverse side: When we read AT, we don’t have to reckon with, e.g., Jane Austen’s acerbic wit; or with Charles Dickens’ social crusading, not to mention his parade of sentimental or grotesque characters. Please don’t think I am impugning the genius of either of these writers … but some things they do certainly don’t provide a relaxing experience!

What are some of the factors that feed into this “comfortable” feeling? We could start with the simple fact that AT was so prolific … isn’t it comforting to know that one can come back time and time again to drink at the fountain of his literary output?

And not only can we get comfortable with the writer over the long term; we can do the same with his characters and his settings — since many of his novels belong to one of two series, each series featuring returns of familiar personages in familiar places. Writing in series seems very unusual for serious novelists. Balzac did it, but one of the few other

writers of English-language novels who engaged in this is … none other than Fanny Trollope herself, [2a] once more serving as a model for her offspring! [3]

The “Barsetshire” series (which starts with THE WARDEN) has a cast belonging chiefly to the clerical world. (A later writer, Angela Thirkell (1890-1961) must have found AT’s Barsetshire quite comfortable, for most of her novels are set in this fictional region as well! [4])

The other of AT’s big collections is the “Palliser” series, of which CYFH, the book under present review, is the first installment. Here the focus is on politics rather than religion … though fortunately for this reader who feared too deep an immersion in obscure Victorian political intrigues, the political angle is (happily) quite “soft-pedaled”, and in proportion with other novelic features.

Another aspect of AT’s imparting of comfort involves an even more dangerous word than “comfort”: Conservatism. Though this word admittedly makes me want to shudder, consider for now the sense of “conserve” contained therein: the notion of “Why change something, when it is working so well?” A clear sense of this can be seen in AT’s THE

WARDEN (incidentally a good book of AT’s to start with, since it is short, plus being the entree into the Barsetshire series). The Rev. Harding’s comfortable (that word again) relationship with the men in his “hospital” is thrown into disarray by the “reformer” John Bold, who perhaps has some right on his side in a narrow sense … but so what? Nowadays, we may have to get used to a writer, such as AT, who can accept the existing governmental and religious structures as basically sound and good, because I think we have gotten very used to writers who are UN-comfortable with them!

MY “EDITION”

As you might imagine, a writer as “comfortable” as AT can be good to read in bed before sleep … which is what I indulged in, thanks to my discreetly illuminated Palm handheld PDA, which I could read after lights-out without disturbing my sleeping spouse. I did go through a mini-crisis, though, when I lost my trusty (long discontinued) monochrome Palm m500. Without much confidence, I bought an up-to-date Palm z22 to replace it; and I must say that it has won my affection … though requiring some changes in my methodology. (I plan to write, separate from my book reviews, a guide to reading literature on a handheld PDA … stay tuned!) [5]

My digital “edition” of CYFH was from the indispensable Project Gutenberg [6] and I must compliment the preparer, Joseph E. Loewenstein, M.D., for making such an error-free text. I was also happy to see italics rendered _like this_, rather than THIS WAY, when one can easily misconstrue them as actual upper-case text. I must confess disappointment, however, that this “edition” was not (and is still not) listed on the Online Books Page [7], in which I used to have implicit faith as a complete listing of all literature available for free

download via the Web.

A TRIANGLE OF TRIANGLES

Despite the comfort of AT’s approach, the actual *story* of CYFH is most intense. (Well actually, maybe it can be so intense *because* the framework is so comfortable?) Although the plot seems anything but mathematical when you read it, one could step back and call it “a triangle of triangles” — 3 “threesomes” linked by common characters.

The principal triangle includes Alice Vavasor, the protagonist of the novel. (Perhaps the depth and sensitivity of AT’s rendering of Alice stems from the fact that her character had been on the author’s mind since at least 1850, when he wrote an (apparently not successful) play called THE NOBLE JILT, which contains a prototype of Alice’s character.

[8]) At the beginning of CYFH, Alice is engaged to John Grey, basically a worthy individual, but one who is limited by his over-controlled self-centered, and “too perfect” nature. Understandably, Alice’s attention drifts elsewhere, in the person of George Vavasor, her first cousin, with whom she had had a romantic relationship in the past. (Yes, in Victorian times love and marriage between cousins was considered perfectly normal!) [9] One source of Alice’s interest in GV (a much less savory type than is JG) is that he has political aspirations; she would like to marry such a man so that she could lend him support. Here we see AT as a product of his Victorian times … depicting a woman having as a goal such a supporting role. But what lends the dynamism to the story is that Alice is at least as much a *rebeller* against her times, as she is an acquiescer to them. She is doubtful enough about her relationship with JG to actually break off their engagement; apparently in Victorian times this was an unheard-of thing for a woman to perpertrate. And AV shows her independence in manifold other ways as well … being an endless irritant to the relatives and friends around her.

The second of the 3 triangles encompasses Lady Glencora, a rich and titled — but most lively — young woman who is a good friend of Alice’s. Lady G is married to a gentleman with the imposing name of Plantagenet Palliser. Palliser, whose name gives the title to AT’s series — of which this is the 1st volume — is a member of the House of Commons, and has even higher aspirations for the future. We see AT’s conservatism (and try to remember that this might sometimes not be a bad word!) in his praise for men such as PP being in political life; AT clearly sees Palliser’s upper-class position — and the wealth that goes with it — as beneficial to his standing as a member of Parliament.

The third element of this triangle is Burgo Fitzgerald, a dashing but dissipated individual who Lady G knew before her marriage — and still has (too much) affection for. In the last of the 3 triangles, we see Mrs. Arabella Greenow, a rich widow, being pursued by the military man Capt. Bellfield, and the farmer Samuel Cheesacre. Frankly, this sub-plot I found a bit tedious. But then I managed to see a positive side: The broad comedy and relative shallowness of the chapters devoted to this triangle, provide a kind of salutary contrast to the depths and nuances of the other 2 triangles. For most of the book, the Greenow/Bellfield/Cheesacre story is told more or less by itself. Toward the end, these characters mingle more with the others … along with additional new juxtapositions of

characters. This is a tricky maneuver, but I think basically succeeds in infusing more energy into things — just when one’s attention might flag from seeing various issues resolved.

THE POLITICAL SCENE

There is quite a political focus in CYFH (though fortunately, as I mentioned, it doesn’t outweigh the more personal events going on). But it should be noted that AT’s evident basic love for the British political system by no means precludes his expounding upon certain foibles that are part of that system. Memorably, AT contrasts 2 individuals who are Parliamentary members. The eminently respectable but terminally boring Lord Middlesex gives an oration that almost all the members walk out on. But, as AT says:

Early on that same day Farringcourt had spoken in the House,–a man to whom no one would lend a shilling, whom the privilege of that House kept out of gaol, whose word no man believed; who was wifeless, childless, and unloved. But three hundred men had hung listening upon his words.

LEAST AUTHORIAL AUTHOR

Despite AT’s affinity for a “conventional” world, he is perhaps the least “authorial” author I have ever encountered; that is to say, he engages in practices that other writers tend to avoid. You would not think such a writer would be able to convey such a feeling of comfort. But then again, perhaps some of OUR comfort stems from sensing the AUTHOR’S making himself so comfortable, by indulging his wishes? Well, at any rate, below I will give some examples of this from CYFH.

We can start with the title itself: “Can You Forgive Her?” Quick literary trivia question: How many novels can you name that have a QUESTION for a title?

Then — AT finds the environment of his book so comfortable, that he has no hesitation about putting himself right into it! It seems a pretty safe guess that “Mr Pollock the heavy-weight literary gentleman” has more than a little to do with AT himself (say “Pollock, Trollope, Pollock, Trollope”). He especially is featured in a lengthy hunting

scene, where he is quoted: “I had to leave Onslow Crescent at a quarter before eight [A.M.], and I did three hours’ work before I started” — a not-so-subtle reference to AT’s self-imposed working regimen. It seems that AT, in real life as well, was a hunting aficionado [10], another instance of his conservatism that does not chime in too well with our politically-correct 21st-century attitudes.

And perhaps AT’s mother, author Fanny Trollope, who was known for a “caustic wit” [11], might figure in CYFH as well, as Mrs. Conway Sparkes,

a literary lady, who had been very handsome, who was still very clever, who was not perhaps very good-natured

AT also runs counter to general authorial practice in his liberal sprinkling of his personal observations throughout the novel. Take his comment on the gate to the House of Commons … bearing in mind that in real life, AT ran unsuccessfully, for a seat there: [12]

Between those lamps is the entrance to the House of Commons, and none but Members may go that way! It is the only gate before which I have ever stood filled with envy,–sorrowing to think that my steps might never pass under it. There are many portals forbidden to me, as there are many forbidden to all men; and forbidden fruit, they say, is sweet; but my lips have watered after no other fruit but that which grows so high, …

AT admits to not understanding his characters. While this may first seem a sign of authorial weakness, it ultimately strikes me as quite a tribute … to create figures that develop lives too complicated to be fathomed by their creator. Example:

I wonder how he felt when [she] gave him his first five-pound note, and told him that he must make it do for a fortnight?–whether it was all joy, or whether there was about his heart any touch of manly regret?

AT sees the pluses and minuses of his characters; he promotes the complexity of not having any character all good or all bad. Take the case of Alice, who is usually sound in her judgment of those she knows. But if there is variation from this, AT makes no bones about speaking out:

She [AV] did not doubt his [JG’s] love, but she believed him to be so much the master of his love,–as he was the master of everything else, that her separation from him would cause him no uncontrollable grief. In that she utterly failed to understand his character.

Finally, AT’s “writing style” — if you can even call it that — is to avoid all pretension. No Dickensian grandeur for him! He seems to take the advice he gives to a member of the House of Commons:

There are many rocks which a young speaker in Parliament should avoid, but no rock which requires such careful avoiding as the rock of eloquence.

The writing is colloquial, and often has a contemporary feel:

Early in that conversation which Mr Vavasor had with his daughter, and which was recorded a few pages back, …

… she sat down to write without speaking to her father again upon the subject. It was a terrible job;

That is AT “speaking”. When his characters speak, it also can sound curiously modern:

“It so happens that no one gave me that; I bought it at a stupid bazaar.”

Then he told me I was heartless;–and I acknowledged that I was heartless. ‘I am heartless,’ I said. ‘Tell me something I don’t know.'”

CONCL

Although CYFH seems not to be one of the most famous of AT’s novels –he himself said “I do not know that of itself it did very much to increase my reputation” [13] — I think (as you’ll perhaps have guessed by now) that it is very much worth reading. It is the first book in the Palliser series, so that if you want to tackle this one of AT’s two novel-sets, you should start here. And it is a probing and sensitive study of a woman struggling to find her own way, in a society where this was really unheard of, and where it took much more of a battle than it would today.

A recent article [14] speaks of Trollope as “the prolific author of novels that once seemed more minor than they do now”. In line with this sentiment, I think I’ve decided that if I would ever have to choose just one writer to take with me to a desert island, Trollope would be the one! For starters, AT’s prodigious output would mean that I wouldn’t have to worry about being rescued too quickly. 🙂 And then there is AT’s unique combination of comfort and excitement, of stability and innovation. One could apply to AT’s writings, what AT himself says about the politicians of his native England:

Mr Palliser was one of those politicians in possessing whom England has perhaps more reason to be proud than of any other of her resources, and who, as a body, give to her that exquisite combination of conservatism and progress which is her present strength and best security for the future.

NOTES

Abbreviations:

WIKI = online Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page

[1] AT admits he wrote for money: “Anthony Trollope”, WIKI

[2] My reviews of AT’s novels: Go to my home page (address below) and click on “book reports”.

[2a] Fanny Trollope’s Widow Barnaby trilogy, “possibly her greatest work”, is of course a “series”. “Frances Trollope”, WIKI

[3] Novels in series: Anthony Powell’s A DANCE TO THE MUSIC OF TIME is a later example.

[4] Angela Thirkell’s novels set in AT’s Barsetshre: Verlyn Klinkenborg in Editorial Observer — “Life, Love and the Pleasures of Literature in Barsetshre”. New York Times, 04jan2008

[5] My as-yet-unrevised instructions for reading literature on a handheld PDA: Go to my home page (address below) and see “my guide to reading literature on a handheld”.

[6] Project Gutenberg “edition” of CYFH: eBook #19500, accessible via http://www.gutenberg.org/wiki/Main_Page

[7] Online Books Page: http://digital.library.upenn.edu/books/

[8] AT’s play THE NOBLE JILT, though written in 1850, was not published until 1923. Perhaps due to copyright considerations, this play is not downloadable via the Web.

[9] Surprisingly (at least to me), marriage between even first cousins is legal in many jurisdictions … including my home state of New York. Enter “cousin marriage” (without the quotes) into Google for more information.

[10] AT as hunting aficionado: “Anthony Trollope”, WIKI

[11] Fanny Trollope’s “sharp and caustic wit”: “Frances Trollope”, WIKI

[12] AT ran (unsuccessfully) for House of Commons: “Anthony Trollope”, WIKI

[13] CYFH didn’t increase AT’s reputation: so states AT in his Autobiography.

[14] AT’s novels “once seemed more minor”: V. Klinkenborg — see [4] above.

Tom Frenkel

email: frethoa AT aol DOT com

website: http://members.aol.com/frethoa

 

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