|Alice Vavasor -Hablot Knight-Browne (Phiz) and E.Taylor reproduced from the first edition 1864|
Commenting on it in his review of the novel in September 1865 Henry James declared in answer to the question it posed: 'Of course we can forgive her - and forget her too'. It was an uncharacteristically churlish response from a writer who himself specialised in the analysis of complex problems of moral conduct. This, of course, was very much Trollope's forte too, but none of his other novels announced the fact so directly and immediately, informing us that we are going to be called upon to make judgments before we have even read a line of the novel itself. When once we are caught up in Alice's dilemma, though, it is difficult to understand how so discerning a critic as James should have thought it easy to forget, so complete does our absorption become.
This is all the more remarkable in view of the fact that there are aspects of the case which are either irrelevant or repugnant to the modern reader, who is likely to have no difficulty whatsoever in forgiving Alice. Why, after all, shouldn't an intelligent and spirited young woman break her engagement to John Grey because she values her independence, and that to her cousin George Vavasor because she realises she has made a terrible mistake, as any human being is liable to do? But such a response belongs to our own age, in which a woman's right to make her own choices is, if still often grudgingly, taken for granted.
For Trollope, writing over a century ago, it was very different. It is true that to some extent he was hampered by an idee fixe, in that the plot of Can You Forgive Her?was, as he admitted in his Autobiography, 'formed chiefly' on that of his costume play The Noble Jilt, which he had written in 1850, and for which, although it never reached the stage or deserved to, he retained a stubborn and irrational affection, so much so that his first intention was to use the same title for the novel. The attempt to transpose a story set in the year 1792 about a noble Flemish lady (together with much of the comic sub-plot) to mid-Victorian England could not be altogether successful, and in part it explains some of the weaknesses in the characterisation of Alice.
Trollope's attitude towards her nevertheless belonged basically to his own time. 'What should a woman do with her life?', Alice asks herself - and it is a question that is echoed in one form or another by all the other women in the novel, from Lady Glencora down to the sixteen year old prostitute who accosts the scapegrace Burgo Fitzgerald. It was a highly topical question in the 1860s, in part because of the surplus of women in the population, and one to which the nascent women's movement was addressing itself. Trollope himself joined in the debate, with his lecture 'The Higher Education of Women' (1868) in which he strongly opposed any attempt in the educational sphere or any other, 'to assimilate men and women', arguing that the existing disposition of the sexes proceeded 'direct from nature, - or in other words from the wisdom of an all-wise and all-good Creator'. Clearly Trollope was no feminist, and although he insists that he 'forgives' Alice and calls upon his readers to do likewise, he is in no doubt that in rejecting John Grey, in spite of the fact that she loves him, she had been guilty of 'that sin which specially disgraces a woman'. He has no doubt, either, as to the nature of the sin - that of nursing her pride, he tells us, as a result of an 'overfed craving for independence', so that 'her mind had become filled with some undefined idea of the importance of her own life'. He concurs with John Grey's view that her behaviour is the 'hallucination of a sickened imagination', and it is on this ground alone that he can forgive her. Alice's complaint to her aunt Lady McLeod that as a woman she doesn't have much of her own way in any case, and that if she married John Grey she 'whouldn't have it at all' struck Trollope as simply perverse: in his view a woman must be prepared to submit to the control of a husband, and the refusal to do so is inevitably a formula for disaster.
These obstacles to the modern reader's enjoyment of the novel, however, soon melt away. Trollope possesses the ability of the great writer to persuade us to accept the mores and conventions of a society very different from our own, so that to a large extent we experience a willing suspension of our own opinions. This is because in some degree he is able to suspend his own. No matter how much he disapproves of Alice's conduct he cannot help himself from entering into her mind. One of his most attractive features is his tenderness towards his women characters. He understands instinctively the appeal a 'wild man' like George Vavasor has for Alice, and that her earlier love for him represented a romantic dream that cannot be easily eradicated. He understands why his ideal Victorian gentleman John Grey should seem tame to Alice by contrast. It is true that he insists that she was mistaken in assuming that John Grey lacked passion and that his refusal to accept 'No' to his suit was merely the result of obstinacy based on a conviction of his own rightness. But he also stresses his almost abnormal calm and self-control, and there is a deep psychological perception in Trollope's recognition that this 'imperturbed security' in love should at times make Alice 'afraid' of him.
Moreover, Trollope allows George to put his finger on the crux of Alice's predicament in the context of Victorian marriage when he remarks that if she were to accept John Grey he would 'make an upper servant of her; very respectable no doubt, but still only an upper servant'. And when eventually Alice does yield to John Grey and he cries 'the battle is over now, and I have won it! 'there is a decidedly ambivalent note in Alice's response 'You win everything - always', and we feel little sense of triumph as far as she is concerned. If intellectually Trollope cannot feel sympathy for Alice in her rebelliousness, as a creative artist he can, and does, experience empathy.
Another way of putting this is that Trollope always strives to play fair with his characters in their particular circumstances. He refuses to present black-and-white portraits, often leaning over backward to do justice to them. John Grey, for instance, might have emerged as something of a stuffed shirt, but with his undoubted charm and tolerance he doesn't - even George admits that his rival 'doesn't talk like a prig'. As for George himself, he is one of Trollope's most thoroughgoing villains, but his creator is at pains to bring out his reckless courage and his moments of genuine compunction and emotion. Wickedness, he explains, had not come to him naturally: he had, rather, ,educated 'himself to it with his eyes open'.
A similar even-handedness attends the presentation of Burgo Fitzgerald. Though 'born in the purple', as Trollope puts it, we are left in no doubt that he is a worthless representative of his class, a man who 'lived ever without conscience, without purpose'. At the same time Burgo is shown to be capable of selfless generosity, as when, on the verge of ruin himself, he buys the half-starved young prostitute a meal and Trollope comments 'A sweeter tempered man than he never lived - nor one of a kinder nature'.
What, though, does Burgo really feel about Lady Glencora? A certain inconsistency perhaps enters into Trollope's characterisation here. On the one hand, he has Burgo declare, when he is plotting to elope with Lady Glencora, 'I want money bad enough, but I wouldn't take away another man's wife for money'. But on the other Trollope tartly comments that when Burgo's engagement to Lady Glencora has been broken, on the intervention of her horrified relatives, who had steered her instead into a far more 'suitable' marriage with Plantagenet Palliser, he had felt the loss more than the loss of Lady Glencora's fortune 'for a few hours' only - and he makes it clear that if Burgo had succeeded in persuading Lady Glencora to come away with him he would soon have squandered whatever money she managed to salvage from her fortune, and that his 'love' would have been of short duration.
For Lady Glencora herself, of course, her continuing romantic infatuation for Burgo is the great crisis of her life, and one that is central to the Palliser sequence as a whole. There were critics who accused Trollope of being so determined to make use of the material of The Noble Jilt in concentrating on Alice Vavasor that he had clumsily yoked two plots together and produced a hotch-potch. It can just as well be argued, though, that Can You Forgive Her? is representative of that preoccupation with complex form that, after the comparatively simple narrative methods of the Barsetshire novels, marked much of Trollope's fiction from 1860s onwards. In this respect even The Noble Jilt can be said to have a positive value, insofar as it at least bore witness to Trollope's interest in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, with its juxtaposition of plot and sub-plot, tragedy and comic relief. He certainly failed to benefit from it in his play, but its influence bore fruit in his later novels, Can You Forgive Her? among them.
In addition, whereas most of the Barsetshire novels are suffused with the sunset glow of a way of life that had already largely disappeared, Can You Forgive Her? exemplifies Trollope's growing concern with the health and stability of contemporary society. This, indeed, is one of the reasons why the question of women's behaviour, in courtship and in marriage, upon which in his view social order so greatly depended, occupied such a salient position in the novel. And surely the stories of Alice and Lady Glencora are effectively integrated, with the one continually counterpointing the other.
It is true that Lady Glencora's situation is different from that of Alice, in that she had been virtually forced into marriage with a man she doesn't love, whereas Alice has voluntarily given up the man she does love. But the two women are natural confidantes and both rail passionately against the dictates of a man-made society. Lady Glencora's 'sin' of course, is , potentially at any rate, much greater than that of Alice. According to those dictates Lady Glencora should not have so openly confessed to Alice her dissatisfaction with her husband and her yearning for Burgo; she should not have waltzed so enthusiastically with Burgo at Lady Monk's party; she should not have kept his letter proposing that she run away with him; and, above all, she should not have encouraged him, up to the last moment, to hope that she might do so. Several contemporary critics accused Trollope of impropriety in depicting Lady Glencora in these terms, and he himself was well aware that he was 'walking, no doubt, on ticklish ground' (as he admits in his Autobiography). He makes some amends by having Lady Glencora declare to Alice, when she is on the verge of yielding to Burgo's importunities, 'I loathe myself, and 1 loathe the thing that 1 am thinking of. He even has Alice wondering whether Lady Glencora was perhaps a little 'vulgar'. But he was shocked when one clerical critic accused him of creating 'a vicious sensation' by allowing the reader to remain in suspense for so long as to whether she really would run away with Burgo, indignantly declaring that he had never for a moment seriously contemplated her doing so.