Frances Huggart presented a paper in which she discussed the principal characters of Can You Forgive Her? and speculated on the possible location of Vavasor Hall, a key location in the novel.
The presentation focussed on the Vavasors, relegating Lady Glencora’s romance to a secondary consideration because the Vavasors were “more interesting” – a controversial view with which to open.
Frances suggested that Trollope at the time of writing the novel was taken up with women’s issues and held a conservative position. He lectured against the over-education of women as potentially making them unfit mates for their men. Yet he understood the tedium of womens’ lives that were reduced to endless letter writing in lieu of active engagement in the world as their husbands, brothers and fathers could do. Frances cited Trollope’s next novel, Miss Mackenzie, and the short story Mrs General Tallboys, both of which feature somewhat unconventional and liberated women as central characters as further evidence of Trollope publicly working through his ideas on the topic.
Frances mounted a defence of Kate Vavasor, often seen as almost the villain of the novel for her subterfuge in promoting her brother George’s interests to her cousin Alice when they are, to the reader, patently contrary to Alice’s own best interests. Kate, she argued, was a loyal sister and george, had she succeeded, might not have made as bad a husband as we might think. Indeed, George, she argued, was painted blacker than he deserved in the reader’s memory. His greatest fault was being quick to anger when thwarted and Frances felt that this had been overdone by Trollope when he descended to almost melodrama by having George confronting his rival John Grey with a loaded pistol after discovering that Grey has been behind the loans he had been under the impression had come from Alice.
Frances then went on to describe her attempts to locate Vavasor Hall. She had even, with her daughter Jess, retraced the routes walked by principal characters in order to test her theories. In this she had been somewhat thwarted by changes that had taken place in the landscape: stonewalls repaired that now blocked the footpath; the footpaths themselves having disappeared and reverted to undifferentiated moorland; Manchester City Council’s damming of Hawes Water to irrevocably change the landscape of its valley (though she showed interesting pictures of how the drowned valley had reappeared in the drought of 1976).
The open discussion touched on a number of other issues including an intriguing question as to whether the name of the novel worked against its popularity in the reading public more accustomed to novels taking the title from their central character – think Trollope’s own Phineas Finn, or Dicken’s David Copperfield. Trollope’s title apparently laid him open to criticism from Thackeray that “Yes, he could forgive her, and also forget her.” Witty but harsh, I feel. But Trollope adopted this approach on a number of other occasions, with titles such as He Knew He Was Right, The Way We Live Now and Is He Popenjoy? In this respect he was perhaps ahead of the herd, anticipating the modern approach to more abstract titles that give potential readers a steer as to the likely direction the story may go.