“By rights Lady Glencora is the heroine of the book” — Henry James.

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ames opens his savage review of Trollope's Can You Forgive Her? with the observation that “this new novel of Mr. Trollope’s has nothing new to teach us either about Mr. Trollope himself as a novelist, about English society as a theme for the novelist, or, failing information on these points, about the complex human heart” (1317). Treating James as if he were a novel writing machine, James instructs us, “Take any one of his former tales, change the names of half the characters, leave the others standing, and transpose the incidents, and you will have “Can You Forgive Her?” One part of the problem lies in the fact that the novelist has “only one manner,” another that “for so thick a book, there is certainly very little story.” Yes, James admits, the book has “less than three different plots,” and promptly proceeds to summarize them. Basically, the main female character, Alice Vavasor, breaks off her engagement to John Grey to become engaged to her villainous cousin, then rejects him, and subsequently comes back to Grey. “The question- is, Can we forgive Miss Vavasor? Of course we can, and forget her, too, for that matter,” because these matters are so small, some trivial, so essentially unimportant.

What does Mr. Trollope mean by this question? . . . What are we to forgive? Alice Vavasor’s ultimate acceptance of John Grey makes her temporary ill-treatment of him, viewed as a moral question, a subject for mere drawing-room gossip. . . . Since forgiveness was to be brought into the question, why did not Mr. Trollope show us an error that we might really forgive—an error that would move us to indignation? It is too much to be called upon to take cognizance in novels of sins against convention, of improprieties; we have enough of these in life. We can have charity and pity only for real sin and real misery. We trust to novels to maintain us in the practice of great indignations or great generosities. Miss Vavasor’s dilemma is doubtless considerable enough in itself, but by the time it is complete unfolded by Mr. Trollope it has become so trivial, it is associated with so much that is of a merely accidental interest it is so deflowered of the bloom of a serious experience that when we are asked to enter into it judicially, we feel almost tempted to say that really it is Miss Vavasor’s own exclusive business. [1318]

The only way to avoid the “flagrant anti-climax which the work now presents” been to make the novel serious, something that Trollope does not seem to know how to do. Had the novel led to catastrophe and Alice Vavasor ended up sad and alone, “then the world’s forgiveness would have been of some importance to her. Now, at one for ever with her lover, what matters our opinion? It certainly matters very little to ourselves” (1319). In other words, “to a real novelist’s eye, the story on which it depends is hardly begun; To Mr. Trollope, it is satisfactorily ended” (1321).

Then, there is the matter of the villainous cousin. “Here, says James, “was a chance for Mr. Trollope to redeem a thousand pages of small talk; the wretched man should have killed himself . . . For Mr. Trollope anything is preferable to a sensation; and incident is ever preferable to an event. George Vavasor simply takes ship to America” (1321-22). James in his review with an emphasis on the novel’s anti-climax. A few pages earlier he had epigramically remarked (almost in the matter of Oscar Wilde) that “Mr. Trollope’s book presents no feature more remarkable than the inveteracy with which he just eludes being really serious; unless it be the almost equal success with which he frequently escapes being really humorous. . . . . We are for ever wishing that he would go a little further, a little deeper” (1319).

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James, Henry. “[Review of] Can You DForgive Her?” in Literary Criticism. New York: The Library of America, 1984. 1317-22. This essay originally appeared in the September 1865 Nation.

Last modified 25 April 2020