Can You Forgive Her? is built from three love triangles, each featuring one fellow who is a solid citizen, wealthy and dullish, and the other indigent, dangerous, but perhaps more fun, at least for a time. In the main story, the A plot, sensible Alice Vavasor does not just waver between the two types, but gets engaged to them, or keeps becoming engaged and then breaking the engagement. The entire interest of the story comes from the fact that Alice is not flighty or careless, but rather the reverse, yet she still makes a series of serious errors in the way she deals with her two suitors.
This plot shows Trollope at his best as a psychological novelist. I might wince as Alice makes a mistake, but I have spent enough time in her thoughts to understand her decision. The reader who finds her choices false will likely find much of the novel a failure, and even a snooze. Why spend so much time hashing through Alice’s thoughts and emotions if none of it makes any sense? But I thought the story of a rational woman wrestling with her pride made sense.
I doubt too many readers today feel the social weight of her dilemma too much anymore. Here Alice is with her grandfather:
“And that's the meaning of your jilting Mr. Grey, is it?”
Poor Alice! It is hard to explain how heavy a blow fell upon her from the open utterance of that word! Of all words in the language it was the one which she now most dreaded. She had called herself a jilt, with that inaudible voice which one uses in making self-accusations; – but hitherto no lips had pronounced the odious word to her ears. Poor Alice! She was a jilt; and perhaps it may have been well that the old man should tell her so. (Ch. 32)
“Jilt” is obviously not a dirty word, since Trollope can use it in a Victorian novel, but it had no weight for me. Jilt a half dozen more men, what do I care. The conflict that is still meaningful is the internal one.
The B plot is not introduced until a quarter of the way into the novel. A quarter is 200 pages, so it took its time. Young, beautiful, emotional Lady Glencora is not only regretting her marriage to a perfect gentleman, but is even tempted to run off with her dissolute first love, Burgo Fitzgerald (apparently not meant to be a silly name), even if he gambles her money away, runs around with other women, and in the end breaks her heart.
I think this is the first time in Trollope that I have encountered a mercenary marriage from the inside. Minor characters were previously allowed to marry for money, but not anyone I was supposed to care about. Lady Glencora is easily the most lively character in the novel, and the one most likely to say something interesting. So I will abandon her here. She will reappear in later Trollope novels.
The final triangle, the C plot, is comic relief, the romance of a newly widowed woman, now rich, trailing a pair of ridiculous men behind her. I read an old Oxford University Press edition of the novel which has a 1948 introduction by Sir Edward Marsh, who I think might himself be a Trollope character. He calls the battle between Captain Bellfield and farmer Cheesacre for the hand and bank account of Mrs. Greenow
a blot on the novel – farce at its lowest, and even if it were amusing, quite out of keeping with the other two; but luckily it is easily detachable, and I strongly advise anyone reading the book for the first time to skip it ruthlessly. (bold mine, first page of Preface)
Anyone with a sense of laughter will say nuts to that. Marsh hates the silly names, too. Why would you have someone with no sense of humor write the introduction to a Trollope novel?