Friends of long standing know that Vivian de St. Vrain, alter ego and nom de blague, makes two boasts that go a long way toward the establishment of a substantial worldly identity: a) I've never eaten a McDonald's hamburger, and b) I've read all forty-seven of Anthony Trollope's novels. Old info for old friends, but for you internet pilgrims who've just stumbled upon this website, I know what you're thinking -- what a fascinating personality is Vivian de St. Vrain!! What a heady and disorienting combination of discipline and indulgence and whimsy!!!! What a guy!!
And not only all of Trollope's novels, but most of them multiple times. In facy, I've just now re-read Can You Forgive Her?, the first 800-pager of the six Palliser novels. This would be either my third or fourth reading -- and almost certainly, considering my "maturity," my ultimate passage. And what is my mature judgment, you ask?
I love Lady Glencora more and more. The poor dear was sandbagged into an arranged marriage but she has spunk and grit. She's attracted to the handsome sexy guy from the other side of the tracks and she's not going to let go easily. Trollope doesn't say so in so many words, and perhaps can't admit it even to himself, but she's locked in the classic D. H. Lawrence situation. She's married to a precious dry article in Planty Pall, a refrigerator of a man who can't be much fun in bed, no fun at all we think, and she has yearnings. If it were a Lawrence novel, Lady G. would leave the future Duke and run in the woods with Burgo, thread her mound with flowers, live on berries and celebrate her release in overblown purple prose. But because it's the middle of the nineteenth century, she is saved from disgrace -- narrowly -- and learns to renounce her proto-Lawrencian stirrings. Not without pain. If there's a miracle in the novel, it's that she gets herself pregnant, and by her husband. A deus ex machina last-minute rescue. But we readers wonder, how did that happen? Plodding Planty Pall doing his duty, meeting his sense of obligation to his forebears and descendants? We're surprised that the old stick had it in him, even though, we're repeatedly told, he's not yet thirty years old.
Trollope loves his rebellious women, as long as they don't rebel too much, and as long as they remember their subordinate places. And also, that they not do much reading or acquire learning.
And yet, at the same time, I can't help but think how George Eliot would have taken the same situation and turned it into more than a novel of manners. She would have transformed it into a critique of the entirety of Victorian culture. Trollope does not know enough or doesn't care enough to engage the larger issues But then, no one, except George Eliot, could do so. Well, there's also Tolstoi.
The novel has its dry spots, but the brilliant parts are absolutely brilliant. The conversation between Plantagenet and Glencora after the ball, after Lady G. doesn't run off with Burgo, is utterly scintillating. Trollope is a novelist's novelist.
He's also good with Alice Vavasor, who like Glencora, goes up to the line but never crosses it. I think Trollope overdoes it when he turns George into an out-and-out villain. It's unnecessary and melodramatic. He should have trusted Alice, and trusted his readership also. We knew that George was a rotter long before his resort to violence.
And what shall we say about John Grey, Alice's long suffering on-again, off-again fiance and patient Griseldo. He's just too good for words -- so good that he becomes otherwordly, allegorical. Can a man be so passive and still be admirable and marriageable, even in an era in which renunciation was the virtue of virtues. All in all, John Grey is not credible. Not as a character, not even as an ideal.
Question of the day for Dr. M? Should he go on with Phineas Finn and his Irish friends, or should he stop now?
I think I'll wait and see if I can get someone to tread this path with me. I don't know that I want to go it alone. Some pleasures should be shared.