Alice Vavasor is torn between a risky marriage with her ambitious cousin George and the safer prospect of a union with the formidably correct John Grey. Her indecision is reflected in the dilemmas of her friend Lady Glencora, confined in the proprieties of her life with Plantagenet Palliser but tempted to escape with her penniless lover Burgo Fitzgerald, and of her aunt, the irreverent widow Mrs Greenow, who must choose between a solid farmer and an untrustworthy soldier as her next husband. Each woman finds her choice bound up with the cold realities of money, and the tension between public expectation and private inclination in Anthony Trollope’s classic Can You Forgive Her?. Here is a letter from George to Alice.
‘The time was when the privilege was mine of beginning my letters to you with a warmer show of love than the above word contains, — when I might and did call you dearest; but I lost that privilege through my own folly, and since that it has been accorded to another. But you have found, — with a thorough honesty of purpose than which I know nothing greater, — that it has behoved you to withdraw that privilege also. I need hardly say that I should not have written as I now write, had you not found it expedient to do as you have done.
‘I now once again ask you to be my wife. In spite of all that passed in those old days, — of all the selfish folly of which I was then guilty, I think you know, and at the time knew, that I ever loved you. I claim to say for myself that my love to you was true from fi rst to last, and I claim from you belief for that statement. Indeed I do not think that you ever doubted my love.
‘Nevertheless, when you told me that I might no longer hope to make you my wife, I had no word of remonstrance that I could utter. You acted as any woman would act whom love had not made a fool. Then came the episode of Mr Grey; and bitter as have been my feelings whilst that engagement lasted, I never made any attempt to come between you and the life you had chosen. In saying this I do not forget the words which I spoke last summer at Basle, when, as far as I knew, you still intended that he should be your husband. But what I said then was nothing to that which, with much violence, I refrained from saying. Whether you remember those few words I cannot tell; but certainly you would not have remembered them, — would not even have noticed them, — had your heart been at Nethercoats.
‘But all this is nothing. You are now again a free woman; and once again I ask you to be my wife. We are both older than we were when we loved before, and will both be prone to think of marriage in a somewhat different light. Then personal love for each other was most in our thoughts. God forbid that it should not be much in our thoughts now! Perhaps I am deceiving myself in saying that it is not even now stronger in mine than any other consideration. But we have both reached that time of life, when it is probable that in any proposition of marriage we should think more of our adaptability to each other than we did before. For myself I know that there is much in my character and disposition to make me unfit to marry a woman of the common stamp. You know my mode of life, and what are my hopes and my chances of success. I run great risk of failing. It may be that I shall encounter ruin where I look for reputation and a career of honour. The chances are perhaps more in favour of ruin than of success. But, whatever may be the chances, I shall go on as long as any means of carrying on the fight are at my disposal. If you were my wife to-morrow I should expect to use your money, if it were needed, in struggling to obtain a seat in Parliament and a hearing there. I will hardly stoop to tell you that I do not ask you to be my wife for the sake of this aid; — but if you were to become my wife I should expect all your co-operation; — with your money, possibly, but certainly with your warmest spirit.
‘And now, once again, Alice, — dearest Alice, will you be my wife? I have been punished, and I have kissed the rod, — as I never kissed any other rod. You cannot accuse my love. Since the time in which I might sit with my arm round your waist, I have sat with it round no other waist. Since your lips were mine, no other lips have been dear to me. Since you were my counsellor, I have had no other counsellor, — unless it be poor Kate, whose wish that we may at length be married is second in earnestness only to my own. Nor do I think you will doubt my repentance. Such repentance indeed claims no merit, as it has been the natural result of the loss which I have suffered. Providence has hitherto been very good to me in not having made that loss irremediable by your marriage with Mr Grey. I wish you now to consider the matter well, and to tell me whether you can pardon me and still love me. Do I flatter myself when I feel that I doubt your pardon almost more than I doubt your love?
‘Think of this thing in all its bearings before you answer me. I am so anxious that you should think of it that I will not expect your reply till this day week. It can hardly be your desire to go through life unmarried. I should say that it must be essential to your ambition that you should join your lot to that of some man the nature of whose aspirations would be like to your own. It is because this was not so as regarded him whose suit you had accepted, that you found yourself at last obliged to part from him. May I not say that with us there would be no such difference? It is because I believe that in this respect we are fitted for each other, as man and woman seldom are fitted, that I once again ask you to be my wife.
‘This will reach you at Vavasor, where you will now be with the old squire and Kate. I have told her nothing of my purpose in writing this letter. If it should be that your answer is such as I desire, I should use the opportunity of our re-engagement to endeavour to be reconciled to my grandfather. He has misunderstood me and has ill-used me. But I am ready to forgive that, if he will allow me to do so. In such case you and Kate would arrange that, and I would, if possible, go down to Vavasor while you are there. But I am galloping on a-head foolishly in thinking of this, and am counting up my wealth while the crockery in my basket is so very fragile. One word from you will decide whether or no I shall ever bring it into market. ‘If that word is to be adverse do not say anything of a meeting between me and the Squire. Under such circumstances it would be impossible. But, oh, Alice! do not let it be adverse. I think you love me. Your woman’s pride towards me has been great and good and womanly; but it has had its way; and, if you love me, might now be taught to succumb.
‘Dear Alice, will you be my wife?
‘Yours, in any event, most affectionately,