All Trollope aficionados are periodically asked The Big Question: Which of Trollope's books should a newcomer read first? With 47 novels to choose from it's difficult to answer that question. I think you have to have read all of Trollope and be re-reading him before you truly appreciate his books. But of course you have to start somewhere.
Can You Forgive Her? should be the place to start. It has everything that makes Trollope so beloved. There's a love story in which a young woman has to choose between marrying the man she loves or the man her family wants her to marry. In fact, there are two such love stories, with very different women making very different decisions. There's a hunting scene, one which is exciting to read and which throws light on one of the love plots and on two of the characters involved therein. There is an election story, where the candidate we are following must put a lot of money into the hands of questionable lawyers and innkeepers in order to bribe the voters.
There is not one but two trips to Switzerland. Trollope liked to send his characters abroad to places he had recently visited and use the scenes and atmosphere of those places to enhance his stories. There's a wonderful inheritance plot, always interesting and important in Trollope novels. There's political negotiating for important jobs in a new government, if there is to be a new government. And there are house parties where the characters get to like one another - or in some cases to loathe one another.
Most important in Can You Forgive Her? the reader is introduced to one of literature's most scintillating characters, Lady Glencora Palliser, the richest woman in Britain aside from the Queen, who is in love with one man but must marry another because she is too young to fight the countesses and marquesses who are her guardians. What she makes of that marriage and how is, in my opinion, one of the finest stories in Victorian literature.
What about the title? Whom are we being asked to forgive and for what? Ostensibly we are judging Alice Vavasor, who breaks her engagement (a serious sin in itself) with the man she loves and becomes engaged to her cousin because she can't face the boring life she would lead with her beloved in Cambridgeshire, a place Trollope apparently felt was the most cheerless in England. By accepting her cousin's proposal she feels she can be part of his political campaign and have some interest in life aside from housekeeping and babies. And those dreary fens.
But we are also asked to judge Lady Glencora who marries a man she doesn't love, the worst sin in Trollope. She then obsesses on the possibility of running away with the man she really loves. This is almost beyond possibility in Trollope as in most Victorian novels. Whether she elopes with this other man or not, can the reader ever really forgive her for even thinking of it?
All of these delights make Can You Forgive Her? the ideal Trollope novel for a beginner except for one thing. It is about 1,000 pages long. Perhaps 50 years ago you could hand this to a reader inexperienced in the 19th century novel. But today could you seriously expect someone with no feel for the measured language and slow pace of the book to enjoy it - or even to finish it? Do you think they would forgive you for recommending it?
Most recently read in January and again in Sept 2012. This July 2016 reading is my ninth reading of the novel. It's my favorite Trollope novel.