Anthony Trollope, Can You Forgive Her? Oxford World’s Classics, 1991. First published 1864-65
Here I am, back again after another long silence. Work again kept me away from reading and posting. The work project is now finished, and there’s a slight pause before the next one begins, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to catch up. Particularly while the world is going crazy; here in the UK we’re fast approaching lockdown because of the Covid-19 crisis.
I don’t want to summarise the plot, as that’s not the most exciting or original feature of this first in the series of Palliser novels. Its interest lies mainly in Trollope’s dealing with the theme of women’s powerlessness, especially in their marital position (pretty much the only kind of social relation open to them at the time). In brief, there are three linked marriage stories, all of them involving women making potentially unforgivable choices. Alice Vavasor breaks off two engagements, first to an amoral swine, her cousin George, who betrays her in every conceivable way, and then to upstanding but dry John Grey.
More interesting is the story of Lady Glencora, trapped in a loveless arranged marriage with the emotionally arid Plantagenet Palliser, heir to the dukedom of Omnium, who first appeared in the Barsetshire novel, The Small House at Allington, about which I posted here. She’s still attracted to another caddish swine, the admirably named Burgo Fitzgerald, with whom she had a love affair before her marriage. He’s a beautiful, reckless parasite: ‘Every man to himself’ is his motto. Like George with Alice, he’s desperate to get his hands on this woman’s money.
Third is Alice’s lively middle-aged aunt, courted by, yes, another contrasting pair, a dull braggart miserly landowner-farmer and a dashing, amoral waster. You can see how these women’s dilemmas in choices of men produce the title of the novel; each choice they make is largely determined by the contrasting impulses of heart and head, in that context of their subservient positions socially.
Alice muses what a woman should do with her life; women lacked power and agency in an English world still decades away from universal suffrage, and everyone lacked political agency in a Parliamentary system that’s skewed to favour the wealthy males of the landowning and aristocratic classes. Trollope shows some interest in the plight of women in the sexual politics of the era, but like Gissing in The Odd Women, his sympathy for them in their desire for independence and autonomy is limited. But he’s not entirely incapable of sympathy for the disadvantaged, as we shall see.
What I want to focus on here is perhaps the best scene in this very long, prolix novel (the fox-hunting scene is too tedious for words). In ch. 29, the mercenary cad Burgo has been thwarted in his attempt at a party to lure Glencora into eloping with him. As he walks home his thoughts centre as usual on himself. He feels sorry for himself, as he sees his chances of netting the wealthy prize slip away. But he also starts to feel something resembling remorse: ‘He thoroughly despised himself.’ Could there possibly be, even for him,
…some hope of a redemption…some mode of extrication from his misery?
He even realises that despite the allure of her money, he’d learned to love Glencora. His misery is almost real. He even strives to justify his attempt to persuade her to commit adultery with him by framing it as saving her from a miserable life with a man she doesn’t love. He persuades himself that her husband has less right to her love than he does, who truly loves her (insofar as he’s capable).
As he walks home from the party, he crosses into Oxford Street, in central London, where:
A poor wretched girl, lightly clad in thin raiment, into whose bones the sharp freezing air was penetrating, asked him for money. Would he give her something to get drink, so that for a moment she might feel the warmth of her life renewed?
Burgo is about to pass her by without a thought, well used to such a ‘petition’,
But she was urgent, and took hold of him. ‘For love of God,’ she said, ‘if it’s only a penny to get a glass of gin! Feel my hand – how cold it is.’ And she strove to put it up against his face.
He sees that she is very young, perhaps sixteen at most, and had been ‘very lately…exquisitely pretty.’ A look of the ‘pure innocency’ and faith that she must have had until just a year ago still lingers in her eyes.
And now, at midnight, in the middle of the streets, she was praying for a pennyworth of gin, as the only comfort she knew, or could expect!
Even though that exclamation mark probably reflects Burgo’s point of view, as he’s the focalisation at this point, I think that this is the bluff clubman narrator’s voice, the one that’s usually so urbane and aloof. Can Trollope possibly be expressing some compassion here for the urban poor – and a girl who’s probably soliciting men who look rich for money in return for sexual favours – in a manner we tend to associate more with Dickens? It seems so.
For Burgo stops to talk to her:
‘You are cold!’ said he, trying to speak to her cheerily.
‘Cold!’ said she, repeating the word, and striving to wrap herself closer, in her rags, as she shivered.
I don’t read this gesture of hers as seductive, but more an instinctive attempt to gain some animal warmth (and kindness) from the well-wrapped gentleman.
‘Oh God! If you knew what it was to be as cold as I am! I have nothing in the world – not one penny, not a hole to lie in!’
‘We are alike then,’ said Burgo, with a slight low laugh. ‘I also have nothing. ‘You cannot be poorer than I am.’
‘You poor!’ she said. And then she looked up into his face. ‘Gracious; how beautiful you are! Such as you are never poor.’
He laughs again, but in a different tone – surely one less cynical, self-pitying and callous. He says he will give her money provided it’s for something to eat. And he takes her to a pub for something to eat and drink.
I hope you agree that this is a touching scene, and better crafted than Trollope’s usual dashed-off narrative technique. Burgo is shown as a more complex, sympathetic character. By that I mean in his sympathy for the girl (the etymology of ‘sympathy’: sharing her suffering, unselfishly for once), and my feeling a touch of fleeting sympathy for him (it doesn’t last). He redeems himself for a short time in this scene.
And it seems to me achieved by Trollope in a less melodramatic, sentimental way than Dickens, usually Trollope’s superior as a novelist in every way, would have done it (and they do have radically different novelistic intentions and styles). Trollope rarely depicts the poor with any kind of profound understanding, sincerity or fellow-feeling, but he manages it here.
Next time I want to say a little more about that pub, and gin.