08 February 2019

A Maiden, a Widow and a Wife

Can You Forgive Her?
Anthony Trollope
Penguin, 1986
1st Edition: London, Chapman and Hall, 1864-5. 2 vol.
848 pages, including 39 pp introduction and 17 pp notes

"Can You Forgive Her?" is the first novel in Anthony Trollope's sextet known as the Palliser novels. Despite being quite long at almost 800 pages, I enjoyed reading this book. To me it never seemed to drag on, as I was always very interested in the characters and what was happening to them. However it did take a few chapters to get used to the "dear reader" writing style where the omniscient narrator comments on the events that they are describing, sometimes at length.


There was one long scene about fox hunting which didn't add much to the development of the characters or the plots. Later I learned that Trollope was crazy about fox hunting and participated in it as often as he could, despite being overweight and unfit for the sport. He even placed a surrogate fox-hunting writer in the scene. I found it an interesting but nonessential little story island within the book.

Because there are three main stories being told simultaneously, there are a lot of characters to keep track of plus several settings in and out of London. I will confess to having made a family tree for the Vavasor family that bridges the three stories, which helped until I became more familiar with everyone. Wikipedia has a list of characters in the Palliser series, but there might be spoilers in there such as who marries whom and resultant children.

Written and set in the 1860s, the interconnected stories concern three women and their choices in life and men. In chapter 11 the central character, a single young woman named Alice Vavasor, asks "What should a woman do with her life?" Respectable women could not have careers, which left them to either marry and live conventionally or remain spinsters. Of course the issue was complicated by money or lack thereof. A further issue in Alice's mind was whether to choose a man with ambitions in the world, and be devoted to helping in his worthy cause, or to choose a man without ambitions and be devoted to home and hearth. She agonizes over this choice for most of the 800 pages, jilting both men at some point, and she is the one the title asks us to forgive.

Trollope has given us a range of upper-class women to think about. Alice Vavasor, 24, single, with a modest income. Lady Glencora, 20ish, married, fabulously wealthy. Arabella Vavasor Greenow, 40-something widow, with a large income. They all are deciding between two suitors, in each case between a nice guy and a bad boy. So this attraction some women have for the bad boy is nothing new! Another interesting parallel with modern day romance is reflected in this quote from Alice:

[she] had begged him to treat her simply as a friend. 'In spite of everything, I hope that we may always be friends, - dear friends' she said.

The three stories contrast in many ways including the personalities of the women. Alice is rather serious and a bit grave, looking for meaning in her life. Glencora is frivolous and gay, and wants romance. Arabella is wise and witty, in search of companionship; she gives the book quite humorous interludes that provide a break from the more serious concerns of Alice. Some critics have panned Arabella's inclusion in the book, but I think she is my favorite character of all.

I knew practically nothing about Anthony Trollope or his novel "Can You Forgive Her?" when I began reading it at the whim of the Classic Club's Spin #19, the chunkster challenge. But I thoroughly enjoyed it and have started the next in the series, "Phineas Finn".


Wikipedia has a list of characters

The Trollope Society
"The Trollope Society exists, with a world-wide membership, to promote and publish the works of Anthony Trollope, to provide a forum for the exploration of all aspects of his life, and to encourage the reading and enjoyment of his fiction for future generations." Plot summaries and character biographies are online for all his works, and many Trollope quotes.

A Maiden, a Widow and a Wife
Title of a 1956 painting by Max Ernst


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