Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope
This is the first of six political novels that follow the fortunes of Plantagenet Palliser (“Planty Pall” behind his back). Interestingly, though, this one focuses almost exclusively on domestic politics—particularly as money and position in society affect women and families. The main character is Alice Vavasor, a cousin of Palliser’s new wife, Glencora, a very young heiress who was pressured to marry him rather than the handsome drifter Burgo Fitzgerald (who is, if not actually a fortune hunter, clearly in need of her fortune—which is considerable). Alice is engaged to John Grey, a respectable gentleman with an estate in Cambridgeshire, but while she loves him, he seems too perfect for her—and maybe a bit too dull; she’s still drawn to her reckless cousin George Vavasor, having been engaged to him but broken it off presumably because of his unfaithfulness. In addition, her “best friend”, her cousin Kate, George’s sister, is pressuring her to give up Grey and marry her brother. There’s a third Vavasor female, Arabella, the aunt of both Alice and Kate, who figures as comic counterpoint. She’s a well-off widow who moves to
Lady Glencora seeks out
Encouraged by Kate, Alice tells John Grey that she won’t marry him and accepts her cousin George instead, thinking it will be interesting to help him in his ambition to become an MP, though the minute she sees George, she begins to doubt. In addition she’s wracked with guilt for jilting Grey, one of the major sins a woman can be guilty of—of course much worse because she has no “good reason” and because it shows “willfulness”, definitely not a desirable quality in a Victorian woman. It turns out George really only wants her money, though she’s not as rich as Glencora was, she does have a fortune from her late mother and she’s completely independent of her father so can do with it as she pleases—and marry whom she pleases. But she counsels Glencora against running away with Burgo. The women, both with minds of their own, forge a partnership.
The society in which Alice and Glencora live is sexist and elitist. Young girls are not outright given to men as wives; they presumably have a choice, but family and societal pressures are considerable, especially if there’s money involved. For a woman it’s a matter of selecting the best “lord and master”, difficult for women with spirit and will like these two.
Trollope is charming as usual—and funny. He clearly understands women—and I’m not sure most Victorian novelists did.