Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Anthony Trollope, Can You Forgive Her? (1864)

...well, can ya, punk?

This is the first of Trollope’s Palliser novels, centering around one Plantagenet Palliser—unfathomably wealthy politician, and heir to the Duke of Omnium; his wife, Glencora; and (in future volumes) their offspring.  Plantagenet first appeared in a tiny, superfluous subplot in The Small House at Allington; he was contemplating trying to have an affair with a married woman, then didn’t, was quickly married off, and that was that.  I suppose it’s possible that Trollope was consciously setting up this spin-off series, but I have my doubts.  I think it was just more of his sometimes-maladroit way of filling up pages.

In any case, the Plantagenets play a secondary role in this novel.  The primary one is played by Alice Vavasor (or Vavasaurus Rex, as I couldn’t not think), trying to decide between two possible suitors: John Grey, her current fiance as the novel opens, who’s steady but kinda boring, and her cousin George Vavasaurus (and yeah, first cousins getting married in nineteenth-century novels will never not seem weird, but you gotta just go with it), whom she’s previously been engaged to until he had an affair of some sort (predictably, the novel is kinda vague on this), who is kinda wild and unstable.  A bad boy type, I suppose I am compelled to call him.

According to wikipedia, Punch magazine styled the novel Can You Stand Her?  Sick burn, Punch, and a to-the-point question.  The fact is, while I suppose I can forgive her (if it’s necessary for me to forgive fictional characters, which I doubt), that doesn’t mean I’m particularly interested in reading about her dumb problems.  So here’s what happens—that there are spoilers here should surely be implicit: she decides she’s not going to marry Grey, because...well, you’d THINK because he’s boring; that would be psychologically realistic, but apparently—we’re meant to think—because she just doesn’t feel she would be a good wife to him.  Bah.  Then she decides she might as well go ahead and marry George, even though she’s not really passionate about him, but then when she meets him, it suddenly turns out that she can’t STAND him, and this is obvious to everyone, but the engagement isn’t broken off, because she’s DEAD SET on giving him money to support his run for Parliament, and if she breaks it off, she can’t do that, and oh how she loves Grey, but she can’t marry him because, like, it would make her look dumb, and also because SHE CAN NEVER FORGIVE HERSELF for becoming involved with her cousin, who—though he seemed kind of sympathetic at first—becomes a ridiculously over-the-top villain (who constantly fantasizes about murdering people) pretty quickly, BUT NONETHELESS ALICE AND HIS SISTER KATE ARE DETERMINED TO GIVE HIM MONEY, and also she’s determined that if she has to she’ll COMMIT SUICIDE rather than marrying him, but no no no she still can’t go back to Grey.

When I describe it like that, I kind of feel like I’ve gone insane, but that’s how it goes.  The situation seems like it could be kind of interesting at first, but once it becomes clear that there’s actually no real doubt that Alice will end up with Grey the non-entity, you just want to tell her, for fuck’s sake, get over yourself.  This is tedious.

Well, there’s also the subplot with Plantagenet and Glencora, which is somewhat more interesting.  The idea is that Glencora was very rich even before marrying; she was going to marry a handsome but dissipated man named Burgo Fitzgerald, but her relatives coerced her into marrying Plantagenet instead—a much better match.  He’s a decent man, very serious-minded at hard-working, but not passionate, and he gives the impression of not really caring about his wife at all, so she still pines over Burgo.  Trollope is actually quite perceptive on the psychology here:

I think she might have learned to forget her early lover, or to look back upon it with a soft melancholy hardly amounting to regret, had her new lord been more tender in his ways with her. . . She wanted the little daily assurance of her supremacy in the man’s feelings, the constant touch of love, half accidental half contrived, the passing glance of the eye telling perhaps of some little joke understood only between them two rather than of love, the softness of an occasional kiss given here and there when chance might bring them together, some half-pretended interest in her little doings, a nod, a wink, a shake of the head, or even a pout.  It should have been given to her to feed upon such food as this daily, and then she would have forgotten Burgo Fitzgerald.  But Mr. Palliser understood none of these things; and therefore the image of Burgo Fitzgerald in all his beauty was ever before her eye.

The question: is she going to abandon her husband and go to live with Burgo?!?  Well, if you know anything about the series, you already know that no, she isn’t, but what the hey.  The moral horror of both Trollope and his characters may make us roll our eyes a bit (or me, at least—I must admit I could not get into the Victorian mindset to the necessary extent), but it’s actually...okay.  Not great, but certainly better than the main plot.  Actually, ol’ Burgo is probably the most compelling character to me, as he’s slowly forced to admit that his hopes and dreams are doomed.  One will probably not be terribly edified when one learns that Glencora’s and Palliser’s relationship is “fixed” by her pregnancy.  Don’t take relationship advice from Trollope, foax.

Oh, and there’s a THIRD plot, which involves a rich widowed aunt of Alice’s whom two different men—a pompous gentleman farmer and a ne’er-do-well army captain—are vying to marry.  It’s vaguely amusing, but there’s very little to say about it.

So I know I’m on record as being in favor of long novels, but I have to admit, the almost nine hundred pages here do WEIGH on one.  It’s just too fucking long, people.  There’s no way to deny it.  I’d say, firstly, that the Mrs. Greenow business should’ve been axed entirely.  Yeah, it’s not terrible, but it’s the most obvious example of a plot that exists solely to pump up the length, and it is NOT worth the book being as big as it is.  There’s also a fox-hunting scene fairly early on where I suspect a lot of people bail on the book; getting offended by fox hunting in a Victorian novel makes about as much sense as objecting to whaling in Moby-Dick, but it’s just super-boring and has absolutely no relevance to anything else in the novel.  Trollope coulda learned a thing or two from Tolstoy when it comes to writing fox-hunting scenes.  Well, maybe he couldn’t’ve, inasmuch as this Can You Forgive Her? significantly predates Anna Karenina.  Also, wait, is there a fox-hunting scene in Anna Karenina?  I could've sworn, but now I think I might be wrong.  There's definitely some kind of hunting scene, though. WHATEVER, DUDE.  And let’s not forget—or, rather, let’s--the political scenes.  Maybe those were more compelling to Victorian readers—though I have my doubts—but to me, they’re a rather brutal endurance test.

So that’s the first problem; the second is that there really aren’t any notably sympathetic characters.  I mean jeez, even the weaker Barchester novels, with their under-developed lovers, did a better job than this does.  Not unsympathetic, really; just kinda blah.  It’s impossible to care about Alice’s idiotic problems, and while Glencora’s problems may be a bit more compelling, she herself really isn’t up to much.

So...did I like Can You Forgive Her?  NOT REALLY!  More so than The Last Chronicle of Barset, probably, but that is a low bar to clear.  But there are several obvious unanswered questions that I feel must be addressed.  First, why, when my year of reading women ended, did I immediately return to friggin’ Trollope, of all people?  And why, in spite of my less-than-positive feelings about this one, am I nonetheless likely to read the rest of the Palliser novels at some point?  It’s not because I’m an insane completionist, I’ll tell you that much (well...not just because of that).  These two questions are related.

As for the first one, I’ll tell you: the motherfucking elections happened, and suddenly, familiarity and stability came to seem intensely desirable.  And secondly, it’s because, indeed, Trollope novels are familiar and comfortable.  The appeal of pre-modernity comes through loud and clear.  They may sometimes be enraging, but they can also be deeply comforting.  I think that’s the thing that people respond to the most in them, and also the reason I keep reading them.  Trollope certainly isn’t a great novelist, but he’s a good one in the context of his limitations, and it really appears to be becoming increasingiy apparent that I actually like him more than I think I do.  I dunno.  I’ll tell you this, though: even though stability remains a value that I crave, I still feel almost euphoric that I’m now able to move on to something a li’l more challenging.  And, uh, shorter.  Not to be TOO hard to Trollope, but a year of reading nothing else sounds truly hellish to me.

The nineteenth-century version of Behold a Pale Horse, perhaps? dept.:
...and then Alice offered to read, and die read to her aunt many pages from one of those terrible books of wrath, which from time to time come forth and tell us that there is no hope for us.

Weirdest prejudice ever dept.:
Of all tradesmen in London the tailors are, no doubt, the most combative,—as might be expected from the necessity which lies upon them of living down the general bad character in this respect which the world has wrongly given them.

Cunning Plot dept.:
George Vavasor cursed the City, and made his calculation about murdering it.  Might not a river of strychnine be turned on round the exchange about luncheon time?

Dubious Simile dept.:
A beautiful woman without discretion is like a pearl in a swine’s snout; but a good wife is a crown of glory to her husband.


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