Power in Can You Forgive Her?

Professor John Sutherland examines how Can You Forgive Her?, Anthony Trollope's first novel in the Palliser series, explores the theme of power through the prisms of politics and gender.
Anthony Trollope was riding high in the mid 1860s. He was, after 20 years, among the best paid novelists in England. Can You Forgive Her? brought him £3,525 (around £200,000 in modern value).

Can You Forgive Her? by Trollope, with illustrations by H K Browne

Can You Forgive Her? by Trollope, with illustrations by H K Browne

Front cover for the first instalment of Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope, January 1864. The novel was originally published in serialised parts.

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He had by now established the Trollopian ‘method’- rising early in the morning and doing a set number of words before going out into the 'real world' to carry out 'real work'. 

Real work was going well. He was now in his late forties - the prime of life. He had reasonable hope of rising to the top the Civil Service’s Post Office Division - a second Rowland Hill.[1]

The world's first postage stamp

The world's first postage stamp

Created in 1840, the Penny Black postage stamp revolutionised communication in Britain, making it far cheaper to send post.

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Power in England

He had still higher hopes of becoming a Member of Parliament: the highest honour, he believed, to which any educated Englishman could aspire.   

His status as a rising man was confirmed when he was elected to the Athenaeum Club in 1864 - the most exclusive gentleman’s club in England.[2]

The opening sentence of Can You Forgive Her?, with its relaxed ‘clubman’ tone, conveys the sense of a novelist serenely confident about where power in England resides:

Whether or no, she, whom you are to forgive, if you can, did or did not belong to the Upper Ten Thousand of this our English world, I am not prepared to say with any strength of affirmation.

Ten thousand people in England - the most powerful nation in the world - have the levers of power, prestige, and patronage in their hand.[3] ‘Big People’, Trollope calls them. Trollope was, he felt, not yet a ‘big person’, but not far off it. 

It was a matter of authorial pride with Trollope that (unlike, say, his fellow novelist Wilkie Collins), ‘when I sit down to write a novel I do not at all know, and I do not very much care, how it is to end.’[4] He let his fiction happen, in his famous ‘before breakfast’ early morning stints.[5]

But before embarking on the writing of his novels he always had some large theme in mind. For Can You Forgive Her? that large theme was ‘power’, in two contexts. First, as the title signals, what power did women have in England of the 1860s?[6] The power to make their own minds up, even if it displeased men?

Women and freedom

The mid-1860s was a period in which ‘feminism’, a demand for independence and equality, was stirring in England. The ‘her’ of the title, Alice Vavasor, is what Trollope liked to call a ‘noble jilt’. A woman who, having consulted her heart and her conscience, goes back on her word, and breaks engagements. Alice has two long premarital engagements in which she jilts two men. But is she for that reason a bad woman? Or merely a woman asserting her ‘freedom’?

Trollope’s views on womanhood at this stage of his life were in flux. Politically he was he said, ‘an advanced conservative liberal’. So too with sexual politics. His ‘conservative’ prejudices had recently been shaken by a very ‘liberal’ young American, Kate Field, whom he met in Florence (where his mother and brother lived) in 1860.

He fell in love with her. The relationship, over the following years, was, most biographers tell us, platonic, and no great threat to the Trollopes’ marriage. Kate was an American feminist and actress, 25 years his junior. She shook up his views about women.

The 1860s may have been a period in which feminism was stirring. But they were, paradoxically, a period in which women of Alice Vavasor’s (and Kate Field’s) class were most imprisoned by dress designed, of course, to please the male eye and discomfort the female body. Fashion dictated the chignon (‘switch’, or added hair), the bustle, the waisted corset designed to amplify the bosom and, most imprisoningly the crinoline, its expensive fabric stretched over a whalebone ‘cage’.

Can You Forgive Her? by Trollope, with illustrations by H K Browne

Hablot Knight Browne's illustration of Alice Vavasor, left, portrays typical mid-Victorian fashions for women: a corsetted bodice, a large cumbersome crinoline, and the chignon hairpiece. From the January 1864 issue of Can You Forgive Her?.

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Alice is a ‘strong woman’ - capable of asking the radical question - ‘what should a woman do with her life?’. Her thoughts about independence have been influenced by ‘learned women’ with advanced ideas. Influenced, but not entirely convinced. ‘She was not so far advanced as to think that women should be lawyers and doctors, or to wish that she might have the privilege of the franchise (i.e. the vote) for herself’ (Chapter 11).

Nor is she, as Trollope would see it, ‘unwomanly’. Note, for example, the chignon, and hugely impeding dress Alice is wearing in the above illustration.[7]

Power and Parliament 

The other locus of power Trollope examines in Can You Forgive Her? is Parliament. This is the first of Trollope’s ‘Palliser’ sequence novels. The six massive works were not, he insisted, ‘political’ (leave that to propagandist novelists, like Disraeli, whom Trollope detested) but ‘parliamentary’. They concern themselves with the parliamentary ‘machine’.


To get a sense of the wholeness of Can You Forgive Her?'s design, it is helpful to summarise the novel:

Alice Vavasor is a 24-year old mature woman of character and beauty (with a mere fortune of £400 p.a.). She has two suitors. One is her Byronic cousin, George Vavasor - a ‘wild man’. The other is John Grey, an honest but unexciting ‘worthy man’. Which should Alice accept?

George killed a break-in burglar as a child, and has a Cain-like scar on his handsome face. Alice was earlier engaged to the wild man but jilted him, thinking him (rightly) too wild. He has loosely conceived political ambitions and is a ‘radical’.

Alice, engaged to John as the novel opens, declines to ‘name the day’. It will be the most important day of her life, but also the day on which her ‘freedom’ will end. She, and all her property, will, thereafter, belong to her husband along with that declarative ‘I do’ (the Anglican wedding service, at this period, contained the woman’s promise to ‘obey’).

Alice, after an ill-advised holiday with George in Switzerland, jilts John. But George, in the ensuing long engagement, goes entirely to the bad. His business and political ambitions fail. He is disinherited and brutally assaults his sister, Kate, who has devoted her life (and her own chances of marriage) to advancing his career. He attempts to murder Grey and finally skulks out of England, a ruined man (he is revealed to have had, all the time he was engaged to Alice, a common mistress). John reassumes the fiance’s role.

A parallel plot follows the affairs of Plantagenet Palliser, heir apparent to the Duke of Omnium, and Lady Glencora McCluskie, heiress to a Scottish industrial fortune. Their arranged marriage is doubly threatened. First by childlessness and more seriously by Glencora’s infatuation with the ‘godlike’ Burgo Fitzgerald. Burgo drinks, gambles, and is penniless. But he is ‘beautiful’ and Plantagenet is anything but beautiful. The fact that he is a good man does not outweigh that fact. Burgo sets up an elopement which Plantagenet foils in a dramatic ballroom scene.

On a lower, comic, level Alice’s aunt, Arabella Greenow, also has her two suitors. One is a stolid Norfolk farmer, the other a raffish military man. She chooses the latter ‘because he is better looking’. The narrative examines, from three angles, permutations of marriage for prudence or marriage for passion. Always the woman’s choice. At the end of the novel the three heroines are happily married and Plantagenet has an heir for the duchy of Omnium.

All readers will have their favourite scenes. Trollope’s favourite chapters, one can confidently guess, were 16 and 17, centred on the ‘Edgehill meet’. Riding to hounds was for Trollope (the ‘novelist who hunted the fox’, as Henry James called him) a microcosm of life. No novelist writes about it better or, when the tally-ho blew, enjoyed it more.

Doors on to other worlds

There are two other supremely revealing episodes in Can You Forgive Her?. One, mentioned above, is that in which a door in the narrative suddenly opens, to reveal George’s secret mistress (see Chapter 71, ‘Showing How George Vavasor Received a Visit’). There is, one glimpses, always more to Victorian life than Victorian fiction feels free to show us. 

The other, in Chapter 29 (‘Burgo Fitzgerald’), is worth quoting at a little length. Burgo is accosted, just off Oxford Street, by a common prostitute: 

He looked round at her and saw that she was very young, - sixteen, perhaps, at the most … “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 - “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."

We see, again momentarily, another world. 

Trollope did not, in 1864, foresee the gigantic, six novel achievement which would grow out of Can You Forgive Her?, culminating 16 years later with The Duke’s Children (1880). Nor did he foresee, as yet, where the centre of interest - his narrative spotlight - would eventually settle: on Plantagenet Palliser, the dull man, who will go on to be Prime Minister and Duke of Omnium - second only in rank and power to the Queen herself. Read the first and you are sure to read them all.

Phineas Redux by Anthony Trollope

Phineas Redux by Anthony Trollope [page: front cover]

Front cover for Phineas Redux by Anthony Trollope, the fourth novel in the Palliser series, 1874.

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In An Autobiography (Chapter 10) Trollope wrote: ‘Of Can You Forgive Her? I cannot speak with too great affection’. An unaffectionate Stephen King suggests the novel should be re-titled: ‘Can You Finish It?’. He is, one suspects, in a minority.


[1] It was Rowland Hill who introduced, with the assistance of a junior Trollope, the penny post in 1839 - an innovation which revolutionized communication in Victorian Britain. Trollope is given credit for introducing the postal pillar box.

[2] Both these hopes were dashed later in the 1860s. Trollope found himself stalled in his civil servant career and resigned in 1867. He stood as Liberal candidate at the Beverley election of November 1868 and was defeated in an egregiously dirty contest immortalised in Ralph The Heir (1871). He was a more bitter man thereafter.

[3] The population of the United Kingdom in the 1860s was just under 30 million.

[4] Anthony Trollope, An Autobiography (London, 1883), Chapter 13, ‘On English Novelists of the Present Day.’

[5] Can You Forgive Her? was written between 16 August 1863 and 28 April 1864. It was published in twenty monthly ‘numbers’ (installments) between January 1864 and August 1865, on the pattern established by Dickens.

[6] Trollope stresses, in a number of places, that the setting of Can You Forgive Her? is contemporary. ‘The Way We Live Now’ was not just the title of one of his best known works but a description which fits all his fiction.

[7] Trollope would go on to satirise the ‘unwomanly’ feminist in the mustached Baroness Banmann and bosomless Dr Olivia Q. Fleabody of Vermont, in his later, bad tempered, novel Is He Popenjoy? (1878).

  • John Sutherland
  • John Sutherland is Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus at UCL. He has taught principally in the UK, at the University of Edinburgh and UCL, and in the US at the California Institute of Technology. He has written over thirty books. Among his fields of special interest are Victorian Literature and Publishing History. He is a well known writer and reviewer in the British and American press.

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