Usually when it comes time to write my thoughts about a book I’ve read, I have no trouble putting things into an “enjoyment” category of some kind, whether that is because I both enjoyed reading it and liked it or because I didn’t like it at all or because there was value to reading it even though I didn’t actually like the book.
My first Anthony Trollope novel kind of transcends “enjoyment” categories. Even having finished it, I can’t decide what I think of it. It’s not that I disliked it, and in fact towards the end I did find myself incredibly interested in how things were to be resolved. I liked Alice. But I likewise can’t say that Can You Forgive Her? (published 1864-1865) was an enjoyable or even worthwhile read. Even on retrospect I feel rather blasé toward the novel. I don’t hate it, although I feel that I should hate it, given the frustrating Victorian attitudes in it.
Note that, although I try to avoid them, there may be spoilers in these thoughts. (Everyone has a different definition of “spoiler.”)
I think that, maybe, I don’t understand the politics behind the novel? I am not familiar with British politics at all, and I don’t really know how the Crown relates to Parliament. The Palliser series by Anthony Trollope all focus to some extent on the politics of Parliament. In the first of them, Can You Forgive Her?, Alice Vavasor believes that working in Parliament is a most worthy and worthwhile goal, and she hopes to convince her fiancé to stand in Parliament, since she, as a woman, obviously cannot.
I suppose the other reason this ambition feels so foreign to me is that in Alice’s day, the alternative to going into Parliament is to do nothing: her suitor John Grey is independently wealthy, and he need not have any career. Alice is bored at the thought of marrying a man who has no further ambitions.
But beyond my disorientation with nineteenth-century British politics, I had other issues with the narrator, who I realize I should not automatically name as Trollope but nonetheless still sounded like the author. Maybe I misunderstood the basic premise of the novel. Maybe the narrator’s comments are out of context.
At any rate, the entire premise of the novel seems to be that we need to forgive Alice Vavasor for not being sure who she wants to marry. Why must Miss Vavasor, who was also independently wealthy, having 10,000 pounds at her disposal, marry someone in the novel? Is this the story of a “strong woman” or not? The narrator suggests that because, as an independent woman in the 1860s, Alice tried to make her own decisions and it had negative repercussions, she is in need of our forgiveness. Now, I seriously liked John Grey. I wanted there to be happiness. I wanted a love story if possible. But I hated Alice’s submission to Victorian attitudes in the novel, even though she claims she is happy. In the end, Alice humbles herself and realizes that she cannot make her own decisions:
And there must now, she acknowledged, be an end to her pride,—to that pride which had hitherto taught her to think that she could more wisely follow her own guidance than that of any other who might claim to guide her. She knew now that she must follow his guidance. She had found her master, as we sometimes say, and laughed to herself with a little inward laughter as she confessed that it was so. She was from henceforth altogether in his hands. … She had taken her fling at having her own will, and she and all her friends had seen what had come of it. She had assumed the command of the ship, and had thrown it upon the rocks, and she felt that she never ought to take the captain’s place again. It was well for her that he who was to be captain was one whom she respected as thoroughly as she loved him. (Chapter 75)
Such comments as these thoughts of Alice’s and the narrator’s asides such as “Ah, my male friend and reader” (Chapter 45) seriously irked me and reminded me that Can You Forgive Her? is a Victorian novel with irritating Victorian attitudes. From a modern female perspective, it seemed obviously dated. I didn’t hate Alice, and I didn’t think she needed my forgiveness. But oh, that narrator was horrid! I don’t think I can forgive him!
Further, how I despised the era of laziness! When I discussed Great Expectations the other day, I mentioned briefly the economic disparities in Victorian England, how one person can earn less than 50 pounds in a year while another spends more than 5,000 pounds in the same year. The only employment the wealthy Palliser family and Alice Vavasor were expected to have seemed to be sitting around. In the course of the novel, which covered about two years, Alice traveled Europe three times. They had nothing more pressing to do. In that respect, I seriously felt for Alice. She is stuck in a horrible society in which she and everyone she knows is completely idle. I don’t blame her for wanting her husband to do something. It was evident that the political Plantagenet Palliser was much happier when he was working, and I don’t blame him. What a horrid society! What a horrid life! Can You Forgive Her? illustrated to me just how much I do not want to live in Victorian England.
Can You Forgive Her? is not just about Alice. There are two other wealthy women making decisions in the novel: Alice’s widowed aunt Arabella Greenow, who wants to remarry, and her cousin Glencora Palliser, who is bored in her childless marriage and wants to run off. I liked all three women, but I don’t know that any of them were strong women. I disliked the narrator’s portrayal of women in general in the novel. I wished we could see things from a true woman’s perspective; I just didn’t trust the perspective I was getting, and I suspect that was because it was so very Victorian.
The Wikipedia entry for this book suggests titling the book Can You Stand Her?, given Alice’s indecision. Personally, I liked her more than others. She wanted so much to find satisfaction and purpose in her life. Is it a love story for anyone? No, I don’t think so. I think it was an overwhelmingly Victorian story. The women, Alice included, were conquered by their times.
I’ve titled this a “non-review.” Technically, I think few of my afterthoughts on books I’ve read are “reviews” in so many words. In fact, I’m not a fan of the typical book summary type review. I want to think about what I’ve read a bit more than simply state whether or not it’s worth your reading time, besides the fact that my poor opinion does not qualify me to make general quality statements. Mr. Trollope’s novel was not a favorite for me, but I wonder how much of that is my misunderstanding, how much is the reflections of Victorian England, and how much is truly Mr. Trollope’s fault.
I will say I’ll give Trollope another chance. This novel, at least, certainly seemed reflective of the era. Since I am someone who wants a better understanding of the Victorian era and the Victorian novel, I think Trollope has a place.