Published 1864, Approximately 317,000 words. Available for free at Project Gutenberg.
Can You Forgive Her? is the first of the six Palliser novels. Here Trollope examines parliamentary election and marriage, politics and privacy. As he dissects the Victorian upper class, issues and people shed their pretenses under his patient, ironic probe.
Alice Vavasor cannot decide whether to marry her ambitious but violent cousin George or the upright and gentlemanly John Grey—and so finds herself accepting and rejecting each of them in turn. She is increasingly confused about her own feelings and unable to forgive herself for such vacillation—a situation contrasted with that of her friend Lady Glencora, forced by “sagacious heads” to marry the rising politician Plantagenet Palliser in order to prevent her true love, 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.
Between Dickens and Trollope, my preference is for Dickens, who I think had a better command and love of the language, and a much sharper pen. But Trollope had one advantage over Dickens: his characters might not be as lovable, irascible, memorable, or larger-than-life as Dickens's, but they were more real.
Can You Forgive Her? is the first book in Trollope's Palliser series, and it runs to about 900 pages. This is the book that Stephen King said might be titled "Can You Possibly Finish It?" I'm being neither mocking nor inaccurate when I say this is a soap opera, and if you like soap operas and Victorian writers, then this is the book for you. I much preferred The Way We Live Now, which was a stand-alone epic Trollope wrote later in his career and which had a lot more social satire in it, but Can You Forgive Her? is a good book in that every character gets a complete, fully-developed arc. It's mostly Victorian marital wangsting, and an excellent study of the attitudes of the time (among a certain class, which is to say the well-to-do class for which "poor" meant "Having to actually work for a living"), and notable also in that this book has several primary female characters; the plots revolve mostly around them. Trollope could write women as flesh-and-blood people with virtues, foibles, ambitions, and personalities that made them likeable and annoying at the same time, whereas Dickens's women you generally either love or hate, period.
That is not to say that Trollope was more enlightened than Dickens. He perceived the Victorian social code of conduct very clearly, in all its complexity and hypocrisy, but unlike Dickens, while he has some sympathy for those who transgress against it, he never really questions it, and his women still pretty much live to do their womanly duties.
The question asked by the title of this book refers primarily to the main character, Alice Vavasor. Alice has two suitors, boring Nice Guy John and bad-boy cousin George. Alice was once engaged to George but broke it off, and is now engaged to John. When she and her cousin Kate, George's sister, go on a trip to Switzerland and take George along, Alice decides to break off her engagement with John and renew her engagement with George.
A vacillating single girl who can't decide between two lovers ("lovers" in the Victorian sense, of course -- nothing improper is ever more than hinted at in the book) is pretty tame stuff nowadays, but in the time Trollope was writing about, being a "jilter" was a Very Bad Thing, and a woman who jilted not one fiance but two was practically anathema. So Alice isn't quite a scarlet woman, but she's way outside the bounds of Victorian propriety, which is why the critical question of the book is whether or not the poor woman can be forgiven for having the audacity to change her mind more than once about who she wants to marry.
Was she to give herself bodily,—body and soul, as she said aloud in her solitary agony,—to a man whom she did not love? Must she submit to his caresses,—lie on his bosom,—turn herself warmly to his kisses? "No," she said, "no,"—speaking audibly, as she walked about the room; "no;—it was not in my bargain; I never meant it." But if so what had she meant;—what had been her dream? Of what marriage had she thought, when she was writing that letter back to George Vavasor? How am I to analyse her mind, and make her thoughts and feelings intelligible to those who may care to trouble themselves with the study? Any sacrifice she would make for her cousin which one friend could make for another. She would fight his battles with her money, with her words, with her sympathy. She would sit with him if he needed it, and speak comfort to him by the hour. His disgrace should be her disgrace;—his glory her glory;—his pursuits her pursuits. Was not that the marriage to which she had consented? But he had come to her and asked her for a kiss, and she had shuddered before him, when he made the demand. Then that other one had come and had touched her hand, and the fibres of her body had seemed to melt within her at the touch, so that she could have fallen at his feet.
She had done very wrong. She knew that she had done wrong. She knew that she had sinned with that sin which specially disgraces a woman. She had said that she would become the wife of a man to whom she could not cleave with a wife's love; and, mad with a vile ambition, she had given up the man for whose modest love her heart was longing. She had thrown off from her that wondrous aroma of precious delicacy, which is the greatest treasure of womanhood. She had sinned against her sex; and, in an agony of despair, as she crouched down upon the floor with her head against her chair, she told herself that there was no pardon for her. She understood it now, and knew that she could not forgive herself.
But can you forgive her, delicate reader? Or am I asking the question too early in my story? For myself, I have forgiven her. The story of the struggle has been present to my mind for many years,—and I have learned to think that even this offence against womanhood may, with deep repentance, be forgiven. And you also must forgive her before we close the book, or else my story will have been told amiss.
If 900 pages of Victorian moralizing does not appeal to you, then you might want to think twice about diving into Can You Forgive Her?, which is all about the moralizing. Its saving grace is the clearly delineated motivations of each of the female protagonists, who are given fuller treatments than their male counterparts. Besides poor Alice Vavasor, already mentioned, there is also Lady Glencora, a young bride who was browbeaten by her family into marrying the much older and extremely wealthy Plantagenet Palliser, whom she does not love. Lady Glencora is still carrying a torch for her old boyfriend, Burgo Fitzgerald, a very handsome but basically penniless and worthless cad who is not above trying to get her to ditch hubby and run off with him. Lady Glencora was actually more interesting than Alice, because while Alice is extremely right-thinking and virtuous (indecision about who to marry aside) and thus torments herself with her "sin," Lady Glencora is a spoiled brat who does nothing but whine about how much it sucks to be married to rich nobleman who dotes on her every wish. What sympathy we might feel for her for being stuck in a marriage she didn't really want is kind of worn away by her bad choice in men and her childishness. After she tells her husband outright that she doesn't love him and she's miserable, he bends over backwards to try to make her happy (remember, this is 1864; divorce wasn't something you just did because you weren't happy), and even gives up a lifelong political ambition for her, but it takes her a long time to even try to meet him halfway.
Lastly, there is the widow, Alice's aunt Mrs. Greenow, who also has two suitors who are mostly after her money. Of the three women, Mrs. Greenow is the most independent and unconflicted: she gleefully plays her two suitors off against one another while she's deciding which one she's going to settle for.
I enjoyed Trollope's rather straightforward writing, authorial addresses to the reader and all, and the way he follows every character to his or her denouement. This really was a predecessor of the modern soap opera but with good writing. All of the characters are wealthy (or at least members of the wealthy class, albeit some of them are actually broke, which was merely an inconvenience to the gentry and aristocracy as long as they could get people to keep giving them credit), so if you'd rather read about the working class, you might try Trollope's Barchester series, which is what I will probably try next. I will return to the Pallisers eventually (so I can watch the 1970s BBC series), but I'd like to see how Trollope does when he's a little bit closer to Dickens territory.
Verdict: A long Victorian social drama, played straight without satire or comedy, so perhaps not to everyone's taste, but if the premise itself doesn't bore you, the novel won't either. Trollope is eminently readable, and thoroughly plumbs his characters and their marriages. If you're not already a Trollope fan, though, this is not the book I'd start with.
Also by Anthony Trollope: My review of The Way We Live Now.