Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope (19th Century Classic)

John Grey with Alice Vavasor, BBC TV 1974

I just loved this book! 

Anthony Trollope was an established author when he published “Can You Forgive Her?” as a serial in 20 monthly instalments in 1864 and 1865. There followed a two volume book version later in 1865. The reader is called to attention immediately with the question in the title. Those early readers must have started to ponder immediately…

Even the 80 “Chapter Titles” must have whetted their appetite for each monthly instalment at the cost of a shilling each.

  1. Mr Vavasor and His Daughter
  2. Lady MacLeod
  3. John Grey, The Worthy Man
  4. George Vavasor, The Wild Man
  5. The Balcony at Basle
  6. The Bridge over The Rhine
  7. Aunt Greenow ………etc to Chapter 80

The illustrations of Hablot Knight Browne (also Charles Dickens essential illustrator), are wonderful. All, along with those of Miss E Taylor, who illustrated Volume 2, are available for perusal at

I was a novice in terms of reading any of Trollopes works; however, I have been a repeat watcher of The Palliser series made by the BBC in 1974.

I decided to “read” the book as an audiobook – 33 hours of listening to David Shaw-Parker narrate so well, altering his voice and accent to reinforce which character was which. He gives Glencora Palliser née Macluskie, a soft Scottish accent, which I wasn’t expecting. I also wasn’t expecting how contemporary the language style is – not stilted or overly complex.

The story focuses on three women, all related in the extended Vavasor family, who, by force of the social context of the day, need to choose between two suitors. Alice, about 24 years old, is the main intended of the question to the reader. She vacillates repeatedly between her cousin George, temperamental and imprudent, and the steadfast and patient John Grey. She has frustrated and annoyed readers down the years due to this. I whole-heartedly forgive her. I think the pressures were great on young women, to choose, or have chosen for them, their marriage partner. The unfolding circumstances revealed the deeper and truer natures of each of these men. 

“Can You Forgive Her?” was the first of the six Palliser novels, also known as The Parliamentary novels. Plantagenet Palliser had previously been introduced to the reader as a minor character in The Small House at Allington, one of the Barsetshire Novels. In this first Palliser Novel, we are introduced to his future wife, Lady Glencora, who, from hereon in the rest of the book series, is a major and important character, acknowledged as one of English literatures most scintillating. She is only seventeen when pressured by guardian aunts and social morés, bent on protecting her large fortune, to abandon her first and most passionate love, the handsome but wastrel Burgo Fitzgerald, for the rising and wealthy Parliamentarian, and heir apparent to the dukedom of Omnium. The title question might well be posed by Plantagenet of his wife’s early inability to engage with him in the marriage due to her distraction by Burgo. (He never considers there is anything to forgive – “It does not signify”. I found his constancy for her breath-taking, a portent of his solidity and his ability in his Parliamentary life.

Before God, my first wish is to free you from the misfortune that I have brought on you. Wood Engraving by Miss E. Taylor for the First Edition, Volume 2.
Softly, slowly, very gradually, as though he were afraid of what he,was doing, he put his arm round her waist. Llewellyn Thomas for The Folio Society version 1989.

I did enjoy the dalliance that Aunt Greenow makes of choosing her next husband in short order after the passing of Mr Greenow. She is a connecting character with the extended members of the Vavasor family. The losing suitor may not have felt forgiving of Aunt Greenow in her final choice. 

There were the earliest stirrings in society in thinking and writing regarding inequality in marriage. Trollope was widely travelled in his day job in the Postal Service, and he later travelled to the continent, the USA, Australia twice, and New Zealand. In the context of the day, I felt that Trollope was empathetic to the plight of women, whether consciously or unconsciously. Harriet Taylor Mill had already published her work, The Enfranchisement of Women. Her husband John Stuart Mill would publish his essay, The Subjection of Women in 1869. Trollope wrote in An Autobiography, “But it must ever be wrong to force a girl into a marriage with a man she does not love—and certainly the more so when there is an other whom she does love”.

Trollope had role-modelling in his own life of a strong, capable, adventurous woman in his own mother, Frances Milton Trollope. Mrs Trollope was also a prolific writer, able to support her family with the proceeds. Hence, it is not surprising that his meeting maverick American journalist and lecturer, Kate Field, at his mother’s home in Florence in 1860 was the beginning of a long warm and deep friendship with many meetings and correspondence between the two. Both these women would have given him a broader perspective on the place of women in marriage and society. Alice asks the question “What should a woman do with her life?”

As the book proceeds, there is the feeling of being immersed with the characters, with growing fondness for them. Previously, I have felt this fondness for characters in a family in the early books of The Forsyte Saga (also pertaining to the same period of time as this novel). My mother had read The Forsyte Saga repeatedly through her life, and indeed needed to read it again, “One more time!” before she died, as “they”, the old Aunts, had all become her friends. It was interesting to hear Trollope express this same attitude to the Characters in Can You Forgive Her? “Of Can you For give Her? I can not speak with too great affection”.

More from An Autobiography:

 “In these personages and their friends, political and social, I have endeavoured to depict the faults and frailties and vices,—as also the virtues, the graces, and the strength of our high classes; and if I have not made the strength and virtues predominant over the faults and vices, I have not painted the picture as I intended. Plantagenet Palliser I think to be a very noble gentleman,—such a one as justifies to the nation the seeming anomaly of an hereditary peerage and of primogeniture. His wife is in all respects very inferior to him; but she, too, has, or has been intended to have, beneath the thin stratum of her follies, a basis of good principle, which enabled her to live down the conviction of the original wrong which was done to her, and taught her to endeavour to do her duty in the position to which she was called. She had received a great wrong,—having been made, when little more than a child, to marry a man for whom she cared nothing;—when, however, though she was little more than a child, her love had been given else where. She had very heavy troubles, but they did not over come her……….Lady Glencora overcomes that trouble, and is brought, partly by her own sense of right and wrong, and partly by the genuine nobility of her husband’s conduct, to attach herself to him after a certain fashion. The romance of her life is gone, but there remains a rich reality of which she is fully able to taste the flavour. She loves her rank and becomes ambitious, first of social, and then of political ascendancy. He is thoroughly true to her, after his thorough nature, and she, after her less perfect nature, is imperfectly true to him.”

My enjoyment of this book is reflected in the 4 versions which I have acquired during the “reading” (perhaps after MY less perfect nature, I MUST have FOUR versions!):

The audio version listened to within my Scribd subscription app, read wonderfully by David Shaw-Parker.

The free book at eBooks@Adelaide.

A paid-for version at Amazon Australia Kindle which has all the original illustrations.

Oxford World’s Classics version with annotation by Dinah Birch.

This last version includes Dinah Birch’s introduction which “discusses the relationships at the heart of the novel and elucidates the complexities of the text. An emphasis on issues of gender, social and economic change, and politics in the introduction clarifies the novel’s place in contemporary life. The edition reflects recent critical revaluations of Trollope’s significance as a major novelist, including the influence of the new economic criticism, and new interests in Victorian liberalism. Invaluable appendix outlines the political context of the Palliser novels and establishes the internal chronology of the series and the relationship between fictional and actual political events, providing a unique understanding of the series as a linked narrative. Biographical Preface provides a compact biography of Anthony Trollope, and a Chronology charts his life against the major historical events of the period. Explanatory Notes elucidate cultural, literary and political allusions”.

Can’t wait for this version to arrive………