Where to even start on 'Can You Forgive Her' - it's a monster of a book, thanks to small print my copy is squeezed into about 900 pages (it also weighs 1lb 5oz) and none of that space (or weight) is wasted. Apparently Stephen King once referred to this book as 'Can You Finish It?' but I always think the challenge is in starting, there's a point somewhere in the first 100 pages when you know you've been hooked and after that finishing is only a matter of time. In this case it took me about 10 days, most of that steady holiday reading, and that's another thing, a book like this doesn't want to be finished quickly; it contains a whole world covering a period of time akin to the 18 months over which it was first published in serial form, rush and you'll miss things and though I'd honestly love to read this book again who knows when I'll next find the time, so why rush the opportunity whilst I have it (also my copy is exceptionally battered after it's trip round Scotland, pages are even trying to escape)?
First impressions of the Palliser series are overwhelmingly positive; 'Can You Forgive Her?' is my favourite Trollope so far, I like him best with a big multi stranded story, it leaves less scope for repetition, and where it does occur it's useful. The central plot concerns Alice Vavasor and how she'll dispose of herself in marriage; there was once an understanding with her cousin George but it didn't prosper and as the book opens she's engaged to another man - John Grey but has her doubts about him too. She loves him but having spent her adult life enjoying an unusual amount of independence (an uninterested father plus her own money) she's frightened of giving that up, more especially because Grey is generally unbending in his opinions (he insists on treating Alice's attempts to separate herself from him as some sort of temporary brainstorm which can be cured by a change of scene). Alice's cousin, and George's Sister, Kate is determined to bring the two back together she worships George and considers that Alice, along with her money, would be good for him.
George is a curious character, a talented drifter with a mixed reputation and a determination to get into parliament. Initially his character is ambiguous, there's a ruthlessness about him that's not unattractive, it seems he could offer Alice a marriage of equals and one moreover where she would keep her own name. However as the novel develops he becomes a darker character until by the end he's a full blown villain estranged from all who have cared for him.
Meanwhile Kate and Alice's aunt has been left a wealthy young widow after the death of an elderly husband. She takes herself off to Norfolk with Kate and soon has a pair of potential suitors; the impecunious but attractive Captain Bellfield, or the altogether well off, but rather unattractive, farmer Cheeseacre. Mrs Greenow can afford to do what she likes but whatever she does she determines that she'll keep the purse strings in her own hands. Kate who has no fortune has determined to live for her brother and not pursue marriage as an option.
The third strand of the novel is taken up with Lady Glencora and Plantagenet Palliser. Plantagenet is a rising star in parliament, tipped as the next chancellor of the exchequer but to get there he needed access to a fortune even vaster than his own considerable expectations as the heir to a Dukedom. The answer is Lady Glencora, heiress to fabulous wealth. Glencora's money doesn't give her independence, the husband she would have chosen has already wasted his own fortune, her family do not consider him suitable and she's been all but forced into marriage with Plantagenet. He finds himself happy with his wife but she isn't as content and her former love is still a tempting proposition.
'Can You Forgive Her?' refers to Alice and her supposed crime in jilting John Grey. For the modern reader it's difficult to see why she should need forgiveness, when marriage meant giving up property rights and divorce was socially unacceptable you wouldn't want to make a mistake, nor does Trollope make it feel like a crime. What I didn't expect was a book that dealt so much with women's choices, marriage is still presented as the only legitimate career for a woman but I don't think Trollope is blind to the negative side of that particular bargain even whilst he obviously approves of the status quo - after all he observes:
...Lady Glencora shrugged her shoulders, and made a mock grimace to her cousin. All this her husband bore for a while meekly, and it must be acknowledged that he behaved very well. But, then, he had his own way in everything. Lady Glencora did not behave very well,- contradicting her husband, and not considering, as, perhaps, she ought to have done, the sacrifice he was making on her behalf. But, then, she had her own way in nothing.
It's a wonderful book with so much going on in it, never mind that it's the gateway to the rest of the Palliser series which looks like being even better than the Barchester chronicles. Victorian Geek wrote about 'Can You Forgive Her?' here and should you have missed her post go and read it.