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Authors: Anthony Trollope

Can You Forgive Her?


was born in London in 1815 and died in 1882. His father was a barrister who went bankrupt and the family was maintained by his mother, Frances, who resourcefully in later life became a bestselling writer. His education was disjointed and his childhood generally seems to have been
an unhappy one.

Trollope enjoyed considerable acclaim as a novelist during his lifetime, publishing over forty novels and many short stories, at the same time following a notable career as a senior civil servant in the Post Office.
The Warden
(1855), the first of his novels to achieve success, was succeeded by the sequence of ‘Barsetshire’ novels
Barchester Towers
Doctor Thorne
Framley Parsonage
The Small House at Allington
(1864) and
The Last Chronicle of Barset
(1867). This series, regarded by some as Trollope’s masterpiece, demonstrates his imaginative grasp of the great preoccupation of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English novels – property – and features a gallery of recurring characters, Archdeacon Grantly, the worldly cleric, the immortal Mrs Proudie
and the saintly warden, Septimus Harding. Almost equally popular were the six brilliant Palliser novels comprising
Can You Forgive Her?
Phineas Finn
The Eustace Diamonds
Phineas Redux
The Prime Minister
(1876) and
The Duke’s Children
(1880). Among his other novels are
He Knew He Was Right
(1869) and
The Way We Live Now
(1875), each regarded by some as among the
greatest of nineteenth-century fiction.

is an Emeritus Fellow of Keble College, Oxford, and edits the quarterly journal
Essays in Criticism.
His publications include
Trollope and Character
(1988) and
Charles Dickens: A Critical Anthology
(1970). He has also co-edited Dickens’s
Little Dorrit
for Penguin Classics.


Can You Forgive Her?

Edited with an Introduction
and Notes by



Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London
, England
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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London
, England

First published in 1864-5
Published in Penguin English
Library 1972
Reprinted in English Classics 1986
Reprinted with a new Chronology and Further Reading 2004

Introduction, Notes and Further Reading copyright © Stephen Wall, 1972, 2004

Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject
to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent,
re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s
prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in
which it is published and without a similar condition including this
condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser

EISBN: 978–0–141–90483–2


Can You Forgive Her?
begins the series of novels which contain the
most sustained exercise of Trollope’s imagination. During its course the marriage of Plantagenet Palliser and Lady Glencora, at first sight so shaky, becomes established firmly enough for Trol-lope to be able to develop it – intermittently but with complete confidence – throughout the so-called political novels which he was subsequently to write. The reader who follows the history of the Pallisers
Phineas Finn
(serialized 1867–9), The Eustace Diamonds (1871–3), Phineas Redux (1873–4), The Prime Minister (1875–6), and
The Duke’s
Children (1879–80) will have traced the course of one of the most sensitively presented and profoundly understood relationships in nineteenth-century fiction. Palliser himself appears as a secondary character in The Small House at AHington (serialized 1862–4),
where his affair – if that is not too warm a word for what never appears as more than a frigid predilection – with Lady Dumbello is treated as semi-comic relief to the main business of the novel, the loves of Lily Dale, Adolphus Crosbie and Johnny Eames.
Can You Forgive Her
?, begun only six months after The Small House was finished, develops Plantagenet into a character to be taken seriously;
by the end of the novel the basis for Trollope’s claim that ‘Plantagenet Palliser stands more firmly on the ground than any other personage I have created’ becomes apparent

This, at any rate, is what Trollope thought when he wrote his autobiography, in the winter of 1875–6; he began the final episodes in Palliser’s career (described in The Duke’s Children) immediately after finishing his memoir.
The character was still much with him. Indeed the series of novels which
Can You Forgive Her?
initiates could not have been sustained without this sort of continuous presence in Trollope’s consciousness of their principal personages. Trollope’s remarks in
chapter 10
of the Autobiography are a moving indication of both the intensity and the continuity of his imaginative life: ‘By no amount of description
or asseveration could I succeed in making any reader understand how much these characters (the Pallisers) and their belongings have been to me in my latter life…’ It is sad that testimonies of this kind, which occur several times in the
, have attracted less attention than Trollope’s apparently suicidal revelations about his working methods – his early rising, his writing against
the dock, his habit of starting the next novel as soon as its predecessor was finished, and so on. Trollope could hardly have written so continuously and so consistently had his inner life not been so active and so accessible. It was rooted in the fantasies he evolved as a protection from the miseries of his boyhood and adolescence: ‘I learned in this way to maintain an interest in a fictitious story,
to dwell on a work created by my own imagination, and to live in a world altogether outside the world of my own material life.’ In Trollope’s view the novelist can only make his characters real if

he knows those fictitious personages himself, and he can never know them unless he can live with them in the full reality of established intimacy. They must be with him as he lies down to sleep, and
as he wakes from his dreams. He must learn to hate and to love them. He must argue with them, quarrel with them, forgive them, and even submit to them. He must know of them whether they be cold-blooded or passionate, whether true or false, and how far true, and how far false. The depth and the breadth, and the narrowness and the shallowness of each, should be clear to him. [
chapter 12

Trollope’s extraordinary achievement in maintaining and deepening his knowledge of the Pallisers over the best part of fifteen years was made possible by just the kind of knowledge and intimacy that he here describes.

But the story of Alice Vavasor – she whom the novel’s title asks us to forgive – had also been in his mind for a long time. Trollope’s first attempt to present her situation had
been in a play written thirteen years earlier, in 1850, called
The Noble Jilt
. At that time he had just written a historical novel of very little interest entitled
La Vendée
; the success of
The Warden
was still to come. The comedy was party in prose and party in blank verse; Trollope
sent it to George Bardey, a well-known actor who was a friend of his mother’s. Bartley’s reasoned rejection of
the piece was felt by Trollope as ‘a blow in the face’, although he fully accepted its justice. That he should not, after this, have abandoned the play’s material altogether, is a good illustration of the remarkable tenacity of Trollope’s imagination, once it had grasped something that seemed to him to be true. It is clear that at the heart of The
Noble Jilt
there was for him a human reality that
he felt deserved expression, one way or another.

The correspondences between the play and the novel are considerable: the play’s heroine jilts her impeccable lover, as does Alice, not because she doesn’t love him but because she feels he will be too contemplative for her active spirit; she is encouraged to renew her relationship with an old lover more engaged in public life – as Alice does with
George Vavasor – by his sister; he lets her down, and the heroine returns after much self-criticism to what in
Can You Forgive Her?
is called the worthy man. There is also a comic sub-plot involving a widowed aunt, hesitating between a substantial burgomaster and a swaggering captain. These become in the novel Cheesacre, the farmer from Oileymead, and the sold-out Captain Bellfield. Many of the
widow’s characteristics – her frequent references to her departed husband and her flagrant use of mourning, for example – also survive. The major difference between the play and the novel is that the former is historical and the latter contemporary.
Like La Vendée, The
is set in the 1790s, and the action is bound up with the after-effects of the French Revolution;
Can You Forgive Her?
is a novel of the present day.

Trollope’s gifts were essentially for the modern and the familiar; unlike some of his contemporaries, he did not tend to place his stories in a period about a generation back from the time of writing. The fidelity with which he reproduced normal life was sometimes compared by early reviewers to the then relatively new art of photography. They recognized what Henry
James called Trollope’s ‘complete appreciation of the usual’. As James said in a notice of
The Belton Estate
, the novel which followed Can You
Forgive Her?
, the characters in it ‘do, in short, very much as the
reader is doing out of it’. This realism is particularly apparent in Trollope’s dialogue, which, at its best, uses a selection of the language really used by men with great expressiveness.
The blank verse and period setting of
The Noble Jilt
cut him off from these resources. Any psychological truth Trollope may have perceived in the play’s situation is unable to get past the obstructions which the diction places in its way. In this extract Margaret, the heroine, is rejecting the ‘worthy man’, Count Upsel:

Sir, I know I’ve wronged you much,

deceived you past all pardon, injured

most foully. ’Twas in loving you I did so;

‘twas when I took the hand you proffered me,

and made the promise which I now must break.

(Exit Margaret)


I am amazed, and beyond my wont

put past all sober thinking. What, not mine!

Not be my wife, my friend, my soul, my all!

are naught, and nothing can be trusted.

The earth is all one hell, peopled with angels;

fairest are the furthest fallen from heaven.

Why, she has sworn she loved me, till her vows

were countless as the stars; has hung on me,

as tho’ she drew her life from out mine eyes;

has clung around me with such pretty love,

as well becomes a maiden bride betrothed,

but else were lewdness and rank harlotry.

[Act II, Scene Two]

Not much can be conveyed in the broken-down and diluted Shake-spearianism
of this idiom.

But by the time he came to write
Can You Forgive Her?
Trollope had had ten years of literary recognition and had published ten novels, including all the Barsetshire series except
The Last Chronicle of
Barset. According to the National
for January 1863, Trollope had become ‘almost a national institution’. ‘So great is his popularity, so familiar are his chief characters to
countrymen, so wide-spread is the interest felt about his tales, that they necessarily form part of the common stock-in-trade with which the social commerce of the day is carried on… The characters are public property.’ As Trollope moves from the relatively restricted scope and comparatively immature technique of the Barset novels to the greater world and larger possibilities of the Palliser
series, he is clearly a writer in command of his manner and in possession of his audience. It is an indication of his position that he gained ­3’525 by
Can You Forgive Her?
, the largest sum he ever received for a novel.

The title of the novel is itself in an odd way an indication of his confidence. It is as if he felt he could ask the question because he had himself become clear about the answer.

But can you forgive her, delicate reader? Or am I asking the question too early in my story? For myself, I have forgiven her. The story of her struggles has been present to my mind for many years, – and I have learned to think that even this offence against womanhood may, with deep repentance, be forgiven. And you also must forgive her before we close the book, or else my story will have been
told amiss. [
Chapter 37

To a present-day audience, of course, Alice’s ‘offence against womanhood’ is not likely to seem very dreadful, and even some of the first reviewers of the novel felt that Trollope was fussing rather. But to be called a jilt seems to have been a hard thing for a proper-minded mid-Victorian woman to take, and – however Alice’s conduct is viewed-it must be conceded that
she behaves badly. Even if it might now be felt that the ‘penance’ she is made to undergo at the end of the novel is a bit much, it is clear that she has made two bad mistakes – breaking off her engagement to John Grey, and re-engaging herself to George Vavasor – which (given the moral tendency of mid-Victorian fiction) she ought to pay for. But if we are to ‘forgive’ Alice as Trollope asks, it will
not be because we are satisfied that moral justice has been meted out to her but because we have come to understand why she acted as she did, why she was – given her nature – bound to act as she did. For Trollope was, as usual, much more interested in the particular case than the general principle. Any authorial comments that he
makes about the moral life and social convention tend to be of the
kind illustrated in the second paragraph of

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…

The tone is a curious but typical mixture of the tentative and the bluff,
and the attitude that emerges is of commonsense rescued from prejudice by observation. The conclusions are not insensitive, but neither are they strikingly intelligent; the generalizing gravities that give such weight to George Eliot’s authorial voice are not found in Trollope’s style, and he did not try to supply them. In fact, Trollope was a devoted friend of George Eliot, and his attitude to her
work was deeply respectful; he made few claims for the durability of his own fiction, but a letter written to George Eliot just before he began
Can You Forgive Her?
assures her that
‘will live after you. It will be given to very few latter-day novels to have any such life’. Nevertheless Trollope did feel that George Eliot was apt to write over her readers’ heads, and part of the conventionality
of the authorial comments in his novels must be attributed to his respect – for it was a respect rather than a subservience – for the feelings of his public.

Trollope, then, has no intention of challenging the moral code which made the question whether Alice Vavasor can be forgiven a real one. Nor does he underline in a less orthodox but no less rigorous way the remorseless moral consequences
of wrong actions, as George Eliot might have done. Alice is really let off very lightly: apart from a few lectures from Lady Midlothian and some other tickings-off, she is rewarded in the end for her errors by a husband who comes round to doing the very thing that he earlier enraged her by refusing to consider. John Grey stands for Parliament – and under much more favourable auspices than were ever
available to George Vavasor. However, what happens to Alice
in the end
is not what interests Trollope most; indeed, the final chapters of many of his novels are as predictable, and one might almost say as
perfunctory, as they are in this case. What, surely, kept Alice’s situation in Trollope’s mind for so long was not the way in which she finally resolved her dilemma, but what it was in her nature
that precipitated it.

Like an interestingly large number of Trollope’s central characters, Alice is a vacillator. The question why Trollope was so fascinated by people who change their minds is a large one, but it is obvious that to follow the processes by which a person first comes to, and then reverses, a decision must be to discover a good deal about their personality. The reasons for vacillation
will vary according to the individual case. Alice’s changes of mind might seem, in summary, very similar to those gone through by Clara Amedroz, the heroine of
The Belton Estate
, which immediately followed
Can You Forgive Her?
, Clara hesitates between a physically urgent cousin who is a gentleman farmer, and a correct, eligible, but cold M.P.; it is clear that she really loves the former, but
she feels that she ought to marry the latter – a decision she later regrets and retracts. But the situation of the later novel is only superficially like that of the earlier; in fact, the experience offered by the two books is quite different, partly because the two heroines are quite different. And it is in what makes the difference that the fictional interest lies.

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