Friday, April 06, 2007

Can You Forgive Her?

When winter makes a surprise reappearance, is there anything more pleasant than sinking into a big Victorian novel? For the past week, I've been immersed in Anthony Trollope's Can You Forgive Her? (1865), which has one of the best titles in the history of the novel. Years ago, a favorite English professor introduced the book to me by saying, "Of course you can forgive her! She's the most forgivable creature ever!" The "her" of the title is a young woman, Alice Vavasor, who spends the novel vacillating between a pair of starkly different suitors: John Grey, a quiet, respectable, impressively steadfast country gentleman to whom she has been engaged in the past, and her cousin George Vavasor, an ambitious, fiery sort who, though without means, hopes to make his way in politics. From our vantage, her sin--uncertainty and an unwillingness to be trapped into a marriage, and a life, about which she's unsure--seems at worst minor, but Alice herself, seeing the deep contradictions of her nature, her fear of living with the consequences of a decision, feels that she is unworthy of the forgiveness that John Grey unstintingly offers.

Trollope offers none of the high drama, energy, or, most obviously, the inventively captivating prose of Dickens; the action of the book is mostly domestic and staid. While he is frequently funny, his humor is essentially gentle, neither the caricature of Dickens nor the vicious, even hateful, satire of Thackeray. And, though he is not afraid to speak up and comment as a narrator, he is not given to the sort of pronouncements about human nature that make George Eliot's work so fascinating. Instead, Trollope focuses closely on the individuals in his story, suborning general ideas to particular people and circumstances, and, most importantly, being willing to present his characters' motivations as a very real jumble of frequently contradictory impulses, deeply rooted in half-understood, half-rational desires. No one is entirely clear, to himself or to us, and, Trollope presents that understanding with gentle irony, an acknowledgment that we all suffer from these failings to some extent.

A good example of Trollope's willingness to allow his characters the full range of their contradictions is in this description of one of the novel's most unpleasant characters, Mrs. Marsham, who serves as an unasked-for spy on the behavior of one of Alice's impulsive friends, Lady Glencora Palliser. In true Victorian narrative style, Trollope introduces her by laying out, in detail, the basics of her character--but he does her the courtesy of beginning with her good qualities:
Mrs Marsham was a woman who had many good points. She was poor, and bore her poverty without complaint. She was connected by blood and friendship with people rich and titled; but she paid to none of them egregious respect on account of their wealth or titles. She was stanch in her friendships, and stanch in her enmities. She was no fool, and knew well what was going on in the world. She could talk about the last novel, or — if need be — about the Constitution. She had been a true wife, though sometimes too strong-minded, and a painstaking mother, whose children, however, had never loved her as most mothers like to be loved.

The catalogue of her faults must be quite as long as that of her virtues. She was one of those women who are ambitious of power, and not very scrupulous as to the manner in which they obtain it. She was hard-hearted, and capable of pursuing an object without much regard to the injury she might do. She would not flatter wealth or fawn before a title, but she was not above any artifice by which she might ingratiate herself with those whom it suited her purpose to conciliate. She thought evil rather than good. She was herself untrue in action, if not absolutely in word. I do not say that she would coin lies, but she would willingly leave false impressions. She had been the bosom friend, and in many things the guide in life, of Mr Palliser’s mother; and she took a special interest in Mr Palliser’s welfare. When he married, she heard the story of the loves of Burgo and Lady Glencora; and though she thought well of the money, she was not disposed to think very well of the bride. She made up her mind that the young lady would want watching, and she was of opinion that no one would be so well able to watch Lady Glencora as herself.

Trollope's interest in complexity of motive--and his resulting willingness to accept that there are many different ways to approach the business of life--makes him particularly capable of studying the complicated realities of marriage. Can You Forgive Her? presents not only the indecision surrounding Alice's marital decision, it accompanies that situation with two other tales of relationships, one presented as comedy and the other beginning what would become Trollope's greatest project, the series of Palliser novels. The comic relationship concerns Alice's aunt, a wealthy widow who is choosing between a pair of goofy suitors who all but trip over each other in their race for her wealth. Trollope's generosity to the trio raises their scenes, which could easily be a distraction, from mere comedy to an actual reflection on the reasons and rewards of marriage. The other marriage presented is that of Lady and Lord Palliser, about whom Trollope would eventually write five novels.

From the moment the young, impulsive, vivacious Lady Palliser enters, she is the heart of the novel. Deeply tempted by a former lover to leave her upright husband--whom she was, essentially, forced to marry by her wealthy family--we watch as she is brought to realize and understand her husband's love for her, quiet and unspoken as it is. Her husband's character is slower to reveal itself, but Trollope's presentation of him is no less profound, and the testing of their marriage is compelling and believable. I've not read the later Palliser novels, but I am certain to do so now. Trollope, having already in this single novel shown his deep understanding of these characters, is sure to be fascinating on the ways that people--and the bonds between them--change and grow with time.

The following passage, though I think it carries more than a hint of disingenuousness, is a good way to end, focusing as it does on Trollope's sense that the human heart is a changing thing, and that though what we think we want today may not be quite what we want tomorrow, we are also inherently flexible, accommodating beings--if we will only remember that.
People often say that marriage is an important thing, and should be much thought of in advance, and marrying people are cautioned that there are many who marry in haste and repent at leisure. I am not sure, however, that marriage may not be pondered over too much; nor do I feel certain that the leisurely repentance does not as often follow the leisurely marriages as it does the rapid ones. That some repent no one can doubt; but I am inclined to believe that most men and women take their lots as they find them, marrying as the birds do by force of nature, and going on with their mates with a general, though not perhaps an undisturbed satisfaction, feeling inwardly assured that Providence, if it have not done the very best for them, has done for them as well as they could do for themselves with all the thought in the world. I do not know that a woman can assure to herself, by her own prudence and taste, a good husband any more than she can add two cubits to her stature; but husbands have been made to be decently good — and wives too, for the most part, in our country — so that the thing does not require quite so much thinking as some people say.

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