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Rhetoric and courtship in 'Can You Forgive Her?'

Subtleties! my dear Miss O'Carroll. I am sorry to find you participating in the vulgar error of the reading public to whom an unusual collocation of words, involving a juxtaposition of antiperistatical ideas, immediately suggests the notion of hyperoxysophistical paradoxology.

- Thomas Love Peacock, Nightmare Abbey

Alice Vavasor's circuitous path to matrimony in Can You Forgive Her? is summarized by her father: "I do call it square. It has come round to the proper thing."(1) The geometric illogicality implied by his figures of speech - a round route that results in a square figure - is more vividly expressed by Mr. Grimes, the aptly named political operative who protests that he is "as round as your hat, and as square as your elbow" (CYFH, 1:130).(2) Grimes's avowal of integrity is subverted by the figurative paradox through which it is expressed. Indeed, the misshapen publican contorts himself to fit the political mold - round or square - of whichever party - Conservative or Liberal - will "come down with the stumpy" (CYFH, 2:317), that is, supply the ready cash. While Alice does not share this mercenary bent, her marital plans are at least as changeable as his political allegiances. The "noblest jilt that ever yet halted between two minds" (CYFH, 2:355) is alternately engaged to two men a total of four times.(3) The novel ends, however, basically where it began, with Alice's betrothal to John Grey. Thus despite much circumambulation, she seems merely to have returned to square one. Her re-engagement may justify her father's assessment that things have come round to be square, but another oxymoron is needed to describe Alice's character - the laudatory adjective, "noble," applied to the "odious word," jilt (CYFH, 1:338).(4)

Trollope is, of course, better known for a comfortable relation to readers and to his craft than for an interest in rhetorical paradox and linguistic complexity. His goal as a novelist is plainly stated in the Autobiography:

Language should be so pellucid that the meaning should be rendered without an effort of the reader; - and not only some propositions of meaning, but the very sense, no more and no less, which the writer intended to put into his words. . . . The language used should be as ready and as efficient a conductor of the mind of the writer to the mind of the reader as is the electric spark which passes from one battery to another battery.(5)

The commonplace and commonsensical view of Trollope's style as "uniformly easy, flowing, clear, plain, unlaboured, unaffected, unmannered, and above all businesslike" suggests that he achieved his objective.(6) C. P. Snow among many others has observed that Trollope is not "much given to rhetoric."(7) This direct and self-effacing style, however, tends to obscure his subtle insinuation of questions of rhetoric into the conduct of romance.

When Glencora Palliser says, "Romance and poetry are for the most part lies. . . . I have seen something of them in my time, and I much prefer downright honest figures," she seems to express Trollope's view of fictional discourse.(8) Nevertheless, the Palliser novels exhibit a pervasive interest in the rhetoric of courtship and seduction, both of voters and of lovers. The former is epitomized by Sir Timothy Beeswax's "pseudo-patriotic conjuring phraseology" (DC, 165), the latter by George Vavasor's professed deprecation of "romantic phraseology" (CYFH, 1:389). By focusing on the language of romance, I hope to clarify the seeming paradox of Trollope's shunning in style precisely that to which he is attracted in subject. This tension leads to a consideration of two rhetorical figures: one, oxymoron, is illustrated by the title originally considered for the novel, The Noble Jilt; the other, rhetorical question, is exemplified by that ultimately chosen, Can You Forgive Her?.(9) Together these titles imbricate eros and erotesis, and while Trollope may never be accused of the "hyperoxysophistical paradoxology" with which Peacock satirizes Coleridge, he is more than a little interested in the "collocations of words" with which courtships are conducted.

Each of these rhetorical devices is associated with a specific speech act. Oxymorons call attention to the process of which they are a part, that is, naming. The nominative function in Can You Forgive Her? resembles that of which Kate Croy reminds Merton Densher in The Wings of the Dove: "Don't think, however, I'll do all the work for you. If you want things named you must name them." In naming the scheme to acquire Milly Theale's wealth, Merton is forced to connect understanding with action. His hesitant admission, "Since she's to die I"m to marry her?," has an unexpected impact on the normally impassive and self-controlled Kate:

Now that he was in possession moreover she couldn't forbear, strangely enough, to pronounce the words she hadn't pronounced: they broke through her controlled and colourless voice as if she should be ashamed, to the very end, to have flinched.(10)

His naming seems in turn to coerce her voice, and these utterances have a dramatic psychological impact. Neither confronts the meaning of his or her behavior until both have named it and, in so naming, promised to complete that which has begun seemingly without their volition. Whereas James analyzes the functions of naming in a private and largely secretive world, Trollope shows names at work in a public and highly visible setting. Within the regimented structure of Victorian courtship and marriage, he singles out pejorative social labels, such as "jilt" or "flirt," in order to suggest that such appellations may accomplish more than merely identifying criminal conversationalists. By introducing new names, such as "noble jilt" - which Mr. Flosky might describe as "a juxtaposition of antiperistatical ideas" - Trollope goes beyond depicting the workings of social convention to challenge fundamental assumptions about language itself. This example of his own "romantic phraseology" demonstrates that language may change rather than merely confirm behavior, as it seems to do for Kate Croy and Merton Densher. For the Pallisers as well as the Greys, the act of naming promotes self-analysis and fosters a more general consciousness of words as pragmatic and not merely semantic entities.

The second trope analysed in the novel is the rhetorical question; its correlative speech act is promising. Even more than the oxymoron, the rhetorical question engenders contradiction, for it is subject to mutually exclusive interpretations - one literal and one figurative, as Paul de Man has demonstrated.(11) The narrator's repeated assurances that he has forgiven Alice for her less-than-direct journey to marriage suggest that the question posed by the novel's title is purely figurative. If so, it is less an interrogative than a declarative, perhaps even a disguised imperative. But the title may be interpreted literally as well as figuratively. Such a reading transforms the nature of Alice's transgression from a breach of social decorum into a disclosure of linguistic necessity. Viewed in these terms, the answer to, "Can you forgive her?," may well be, "No" - less because Alice misuses language than because she exposes readers to its inevitable, even when unintentional, unreliability. Trollope suggests that even an apparently unequivocal and direct question like, "Will you marry me?," is subject to contradictory logic. On the one hand, this explicit proposal is also an implicit promise; it is simultaneously question and statement. On the other hand, this question is clearly rhetorical when used manipulatively, as it is by George Vavasor, or when acceptance is presumed, as it is by John Grey. Irrespective of the speaker's intentions, however, proposals of marriage and their acceptances must be construed as "rhetorical promises." This phrase may appear to be another oxymoron insofar as promises would not seem to admit the contradictory logic of rhetorical questions. But engagement entails a complexity belied by a simple "yes" or "no." Its significance is clearly social and conventional, yet it should also be personal and figurative - alluding to the emotions and intentions of the co-promisers, in addition to initiating a dialogical process between them. Reconstruing betrothal in these "oxymoronic" terms enables Trollope to suggest why "noble jilt" need not be what Mrs. Carbuncle calls "a contradiction in terms."(12)

The first of the tropes analyzed in Can You Forgive Her?, oxymoron, is an appropriate figure for one of Trollope's favorite novelistic situations, that of wavering between two suitors.(13) Both the trope and the topos assert duality but assume unity, entail conflict but enjoin harmony. The process by which semantic and romantic unions are achieved, however, is quite different. Speakers possess a flexibility denied to lovers by the covenances of courtship and the canons of marriage. Only in words can mutually exclusive possibilities be happily wedded. In love, rivals are not so neatly managed; harmony can be achieved only hegemonically. Hence Alice's two minds become one only when one of them has been suppressed and the corresponding lover banished. As Jeannette explains to Mrs. Greenow, who cannot decide whether Captain Bellfield or Mr. Cheesacre is to be made the happiest man alive: "There's some things as you can cry halves about, but there's no crying halves about this" (CYFH, 2:67). While the oxymoron may be described as a form of "crying halves," it has little in common with the process of courtship, where the wrong choice of a spouse may well produce a crying (in the sense of tearful) half. In general, this commonsensical and seemingly democratic norm proves to be neither. Its additive logic is inconsistent with synthetic language and circumstance; its communal ethos is inappropriate to a monogamous institution like marriage. "Crying halves" provides little assistance to lovers trying to reconcile either contradictory utterances and feelings with a monolithic cultural logic, or supple rhetoric with unyielding social circumstances.

The oxymoron further points to the complexity of naming itself. The Palliser novels reveal the intricate workings of social names in particular. Highly charged labels act as checks upon behaviors threatening to transgress accepted boundaries of propriety and decorum. These names are usually general rather than personal and descriptive rather than designative, like "flirt" and "jilt." While sometimes used punitively, such labels tend to be a measure of last resort because they are more often disruptive than corrective. Mrs. Greenow's failure to take the accusation of flirtation seriously - in fact, she defends it - is proof of her incorrigible character and excludes her from polite society. Among characters more refined than Mrs. Greenow, however, the specter of being named is much more threatening, and its consequences are much more drastic.

"Duenna" and "prude" exemplify the unsettling but ultimately corrective effects of naming in Can You Forgive Her? Chafing under the propriety of married life and suffering from the absence of romantic love, Glencora calls her husband's observant acquaintances "duennas." Alice Vavasor feels that Glencora "should not have allowed the word duenna to have passed her lips in speaking to any one; but, above all, she should not have done so in the hearing of Mr Palliser's cousin" (CYFH, 1:287). When the word does slip past Glencora's lips with Plantagenet himself, and is subsequently replaced by the even more pointed term, "spies" (CYFH, 1:90, 2:187), Palliser is forced to confront the realities of his loveless marriage and his wife's desire for Burgo Fitzgerald. Even though he logically disproves the literal correctness of her terms, they possess a painful figurative power that initiates the serf examination ultimately making both husband and wife more clear-sighted.

For her part, Alice chafes under the label Glencora assigns her, especially when it is implied that in being a prude she is also a duenna (CYFH, 2:289). In her own defense, she calls attention to an issue fundamental to naming: "If you consider it prudery on my part to disapprove of your waltzing with Mr Fitzgerald . . . you and I must differ so totally about the meaning of words and the nature of things that we had better part" (CYFH, 2:224-25). The problematic relation of "the meaning of words" and "the nature of things," of course, lies at the heart of Can You Forgive Her?, as Juliet McMaster has recognized.(14) But, beyond questions of reference, representation, and truth, scenes such as this one reveal that the act of naming, irrespective of accuracy, possesses powerful pragmatic force. At stake is less the truth of the name than the nature of the action that follows upon its utterance.

"Prude" is a particularly interesting example because of its contrast to the primary label applied to Alice, "jilt." The terms are both pejorative, but a prude pays too much attention to social propriety and a jilt too little. When Glencora insults Alice, however, the injury is done to her character more perhaps than to Alice's, for in calling her friend a "prude," Glencora in effect labels herself a "flirt" or, worse, "what she did not dare to name even to herself" (CYFH, 2:21-22). Trollope's readers may have been helped to a conclusion of this sort by Richard Chenevix Trench, whose highly popular work, On the Study of Words (1851), offers "prude" as an example of those words that "bear the slime on them of the serpent's tail."(15) Formerly a term of rectitude,

in a dissolute age, and one disbelieving the existence of any inward purity, the word "prude" came to designate one who affected a virtue, even as none were esteemed to do anything more; and in this use of it, which, having once acquired, it continues to retain, abides an evidence of the corrupt world's dislike to and disbelief in the realities of goodness, its willingness to treat them as mere hypocrisies and shows. (T, 35)

Glencora evokes the word in a cause, her illicit love of Burgo, of which both Trench and Trollope would surely disapprove. The latter, however, is less concerned with etymological ethics than with discursive practice, and the oxymoronic situations in which he is most interested are disallowed by Trench's diachronic logic. For Trollope, "prude" is less significant for what it says of an individual or of her society than for the actions its utterance might incite.

Throughout the Palliser novels, courtship and marriage are disrupted by the use of single nouns of overdetermined significance. Words of this kind, and the various adjectives associated with them, are the pillars of an elaborate social structure. Oswald Chiltern and Violet Effingham, for example, break off their engagement when she suggests "that his life was discreditable - and, of course, no man would bear such language."(16) Chiltern labels this word (which he misremembers as "disreputable") as "the harshest word that you could use in all the language" (PF, 2:324). This is very much the sentiment of Glencora Palliser when her husband in effect accuses her of vulgarity - "There was no other word in the language so hard to bear as that" - as it is of Mary Palliser when her father applies another "ugly name," in this case "disgraceful" (DC, 40), to her surreptitious engagement.(17) Although the consequences of invoking words like "discreditable," "vulgarity," and "disgraceful" are neither automatic nor invariably consistent with speakers' intentions, they can have an ameliorative impact upon individuals and upon the system of manners itself. The former is shown by Chiltern's confronting his recklessness and Glencora's reconsidering her ostentatious political parties. The latter is clear from Mary Palliser's instigating an overhaul of the social machinery by redefining the situations to which "disgraceful" may apply. In applying "a violent word" (DC, 40) to his daughter, Palliser painfully discovers the unintended violence of his own utterance. Whether one names or is named, therefore, the resulting process may renew rather than reify social relations.

It is not simply the case that the world of the Pallisers is obsessed with violations of social codes of behavior. Nor is Trollope's interest in Victorian linguistic practice a matter of showing, as Trench attempts to do, that language itself is proof of humankind's fallen state.(18) Rather, against the background of a highly articulated system of manners and social practice, language can be recognized as a salient form of action. What is less obvious but nonetheless clear from Trollope's analysis is that words have far-reaching psychological ramifications that go well beyond the social judgments implicit in their use.

The primary social action of Can You Forgive Her? is, of course, not naming but promising marriage. For an introduction to the role of promises in courtship, we might again turn briefly to the comic subplot involving Mrs. Greenow. When Trollope's mechanicals hold an outdoor fete, one of them describes the occasion by alluding to Shakespeare's "Venus and Adonis": "Bid me discourse, I will enchant thine ear, / Or like a fairy trip upon the green, / Or like a nymph, with long dishevell'd hair, / Dance on the sands, and yet no footing seen" (CYFH, 1:77; only the final line is cited in the text). This gravity-defying promise does not refer to a future action. As a part of the process of enchantment, such promises are not meant to be kept; their premise is pragmatic not cognitive; their force is figurative rather than literal. As Trollope's narrator comments: "It was all very well for Venus to make the promise, but when making it she knew that Adonis would not keep her to her word" (CYFH, 1:93). In the language of love, promises can be merely strategies of seduction; they often have little to do with the promised act. They are, therefore, analogous to names, which also have less to do with the thing named than with actions following upon the naming.(19)

Making and breaking promises are also the central actions of the main plot. Given the narrator's repeated answers to the question of whether Alice is to be forgiven for breaking three engagements (CYFH, 1:114, 384; 2:311, 418), there would seem to be only one possible answer, exasperatedly supplied by Henry James: "Can we forgive Miss Vavasor? Of course we can, and forget her, too, for that matter."(20) Yet the narrator's compulsive return to the issue of forgiving the jilt signals an interest in this question and in rhetorical questions generally that the formally minded James may have overlooked. Unlike James's celebrated examples of pronominal ambiguity, Trollope's title is hyperbatonic, delaying the antecedent until the first paragraph of the novel where Alice is identified as "she, whom you are to forgive" (1:1). While the "who," therefore, seems comparatively unproblematic, the title simultaneously initiates a process of (pro)nominal slippage: her = Alice = the noble jilt.(21) Pronoun and noun are purely designative; the noun phrase, on the contrary, is descriptive. The question now becomes not who but what is to be forgiven. In substituting a rhetorical question, "Can You Forgive Her?," for an oxymoron, "The Noble Jilt," Trollope sustains the focus on the logic of contradiction while significantly complicating the hermeneutic and moral action that lies at the heart of his work, whether that action is described as acquiring a name or as acquiring a spouse.

In the latter regard, the novel's title perhaps should be Can You Forgive Him?, in which case the pronoun refers with equal justification to George Vavasor and to John Grey, that is, to Don Juan and to John Bull.(22) Trollope goes to some lengths to demonstrate that for Alice breaking promises need not be incompatible with nobility, but that for her suitors keeping promises is no guarantee of nobility. Her vacillation between them is not simply a matter of choosing between milk and brandy, as George puts it (CYFH, 1:53). When Kate Vavasor implies that her brother is Hyperion to Grey's Satyr, Alice's response is only apparently rhetorical, "And which is the Satyr?" (CYFH, 1:64). This question must be taken in earnest, for it takes both terms to describe each of her lovers. While "the worthy man and the wild man" (CYFH, 1:20) seem to be dialogical opposites, their courtships evince fundamental similarities: both are conducted by mystification and characterized by monologism. The former is evident from George's Byronic seduction of Alice in Switzerland and from John's magically "wav[ing] his hand over her" in England (CYFH, 1:154).(23) In both instances, hypnotic rhetoric lulls Alice into acquiescence and quells her voice.(24) The latter is evident from the fiances' inconsistent treatment of betrothal. The social norms surrounding engagement are either selectively ignored or rigidly insisted upon as each man sees fit. George, for instance, maintains a mistress despite his engagement to Alice; thus "he had not only promised falsely, but he had made such promises with a deliberate, premeditated falsehood" (CYFH, 1:25). Intentional deceit is not part of Grey's courtship, but he does consciously ignore Alice's expressed intentions. Admitting that he should no longer pursue her after his "dismissal," he nevertheless persists, saying, "I don't know that I care much about such rules" (CYFH, 1:159). But he cares very much for them when it is in his interest to do so. At different times, both suitors maintain that betrothal is tantamount to marriage. George heeds neither the confused verb tense of his remark, "Alice, you are my wife now. Tell me that it will make you happy to call me your husband" (CYFH, 1:361), nor the contradictory nature of the claim that he is her "affianced husband" (CYFH, 2:331). In the same manner, Grey selectively treats engagement as if it were marriage. In the midst of trying to make Alice become his wife, he argues, "You are my wife" (CYFH, 1:117; emphasis added). Of course, the very circumstance in which he makes this claim disproves its validity.

As with naming, however, the process of promising, despite its inconsistent use, does hold some hope for rhetorical/behavioral change. For example, having for the second time secured Alice's promise to marry him, Grey inquires about their future mode of living. Alice responds with what appears to be a rhetorical question: "Oh, John, what right can I have to say anything?" (CYFH, 2:380). Having previously stated that as "a fallen creature" she has forfeited the right to criticize him (CYFH, 2:355), she seems to imply that she can have no voice in their future. A rather different reading of this scene and question, however, is possible. Given Grey's characteristic monologism, she may justifiably ask what her role in this marriage can be. He has heretofore shown very little need of the counselor he claims to seek in her. His question appears to be literal but may actually be figurative: her question appears to be figurative but may actually be literal. In posing it, she both asserts her right to speak and asks that he begin listening rather than, as Kate describes it, "ignoring all that you said, suggesting that you were feverish or perhaps bilious, waving his hand over you a little, as though that might possibly do you some small good, and then taking his leave with an assurance that it would be all right as soon as the wind changed" (CYFH, 1:137).

To the extent that Grey's question may be literal and not merely figurative, he does seem to have learned a lesson. His renewed proposal implies a nascent dialogism in the relationship parallel to that in the Pallisers'. Furthermore, his modest concession to dialogical exchange is sufficient to elicit from Alice the kind of verbal enthusiasm that has not heretofore characterized her speech. It is to be remembered, for instance, that although Vavasor talks her out of an engagement with Grey, he cannot talk her into "speak[ing] to him soft winning words of love" (CYFH, 1:362). And up to this point, the narrator tells us, her love for Grey "lacked romance. Its poetry was too hard for romance. There was certainly in it neither fun nor wickedness" (CYFH, 2:298).(25) But with this small encouragement, Alice begins to resemble the more exuberant and romantic Glencora Palliser. Her excitement leads to utterances of "more vehemence than discretion" - an "out-spoken enthusiasm" (CYFH, 2:381) not typical but indicative of the extent to which Alice's voice will be heard after her marriage.

The social function of both speech acts, naming and promising, is most clearly revealed when conventional discursive practices are breached. Deviant speakers, of course, become subject to scandalous names like "liar" and "jilt," but this is not to say that lying or even promise-breaking is inevitably prohibited. Absolute fidelity to the truth is widely held to be unnecessary, indeed undesirable, in social and romantic affairs. Glencora Palliser especially is prone to the social fibs that even the prudish Alice condones: "Everyone makes excuses of that kind" (CYFH, 1:244). This license is especially sanctioned in courtship: "Jove smiles," apparently with equal grace, "at lovers' perjuries" (PF, 1:145) and at Venus's promises. Indeed, the most egregious fault in lying or promise-breaking is often not in the doing but in the naming. One may be expected to lie, but to identify the "palpable lies" (PM, 1:332) of another is to commit a serious breach of courtesy. Glencora observes: "The world tells lies every day, - telling on the whole much more lies than truth, - but the world has wisely agreed that the world shall not be accused of lying" (PM, 1:178).(26) Beyond simply violating the norms of polite society, naming the lie is a self-reflexive act that redounds upon all language use. The real crime is less a matter of misuse than of exposing the fragile structure of language upon which society depends. Similarly, the accusation of jilting not only implies the dishonesty associated with lying but also threatens such Victorian ideals as the purity of women, the sanctity of marriage, and the inviolability of one's "word." A jilt may be either deceitful or merely fickle, but the person naming her recalls to all the troubled relation between language, desire, and social practice.

The Palliser novels contain several examples of the cataclysmic effects of calling someone a liar. Robert Kennedy creates a greater sensation by accusing Lady Laura of lying than by doubting his wife's sexual conduct. When she tells Phineas Finn that her husband has called her a liar, he is shocked:

"What! - with that word?"

"Yes, - with that very word. He is not particular about his words, when he thinks it necessary to express himself strongly. And he has told me since that because of that he could never believe me again." (PF, 2:244)

Kennedy's reaction may be disproportionate to Lady Laura's social fib, but in calling her a liar he provides the justification that she requires in order to leave him. She has, of course, lied to her husband, but that he confronts her with this charge is unsupportable.

Lucy Morris's good-natured innocence of the decorum of mis-statement rivals Kennedy's obsessive intolerance of it. She does not understand that the accusation of dishonesty can be more calamitous than lying itself. Her difference of opinion with Lord Fawn is not technically a matter of either's being a liar. They merely disagree as to the character of her fiance. But speaking the "terrible words" that indict Lord Fawn, she unwittingly invokes a formula that demands a response: "If you [Fawn] say that he [Greystock] is not a gentleman, it is not true" (ED, 1:245). Put in these terms, the nexus of their disagreement shifts from Greystock's character to Fawn's, and, more to the point, from the expressed issue of character to the tacit question of linguistic practice. Even setting aside the perceived disrespect of a governess's contradicting the head of the household, Lucy violates "all rules of good breeding . . . . [U]nder no circumstances could a lady be justified in telling a gentleman that he had spoken an untruth" (ED, 1:248).(27) Nor, as Lady Laura would attest, should a gentleman accuse a lady of lying.

A double standard, however, does apply to discursive practice. Its function is intimated by Roger Carbury, who in claiming that a man may "break a promise and yet not tell a lie," exempts men from the dishonor of falsehood in a case of broken promise.(28) He may or may not be right, but clearly no such exemption exists for women, who suffer severe social sanctions when failing to keep a promise of marriage. This judgment seems to have been fully inculcated in Alice, who accuses herself of having "sinned with that sin which especially disgraces a woman. . . . She had sinned against her sex" (CYFH, 1:384). When she is first confronted with this "grievous reproach" (CYFH, 1:353), the narrator writes, "It is hard to explain how heavy a blow fell upon her from the utterance of that word! Of all words in the language it was the one which she now most dreaded" (CYFH, 1:336). A chorus of women's voices reinforces this verdict. Lady Macleod tells Alice: "And is not your word pledged to him? . . . I don't see how it is possible you should go back. Gentlemen when they do that sort of thing are put out of society, - but I really think it is worse in a woman" (CYFH, 1:152). Lady Midlothian even more pointedly invokes the concept of a woman's honor:

My dear Miss Vavasor, can this be true? There are things in which a young lady has no right to change her mind after it has been once made up; and certainly when a young lady has accepted a gentleman, treat is one of them. He cannot legally make you become his wife but he has a right to claim you before God and man. (CYFH, 1:193)

The failure "to carry out an engagement . . . [that] is in all respects comme il faut" (CYFH, 1:194) has far worse practical consequences for women than for men. Men generally could avoid the disgrace of having been jilted: as George Meredith's witty socialite, Mrs. Mountstuart Jenkinson, says, "No young man is ever jilted; he is allowed to escape."(29) In Kept in the Dark (1882), for instance, Trollope shows how Sir Francis Geraldine is able to manipulate public opinion in his favor:

But there came upon him as he rode home an idea that the world would say that he had been jilted. Of course he would have been jilted, but there would be nothing in that except as the world might speak of it. It was gall to him to have to think that the world of Exeter should believe that Cecilia Holt had changed her mind, and had sent him about his business. If the world of Exeter would say that he had ill-used the girl, and had broken off the engagement for mere fancy, - as she had done, - that would be much more endurable. (KD, 19)

Sir Francis's "infernal lies" (KD, 168) are given wide credence, even by Cecilia's husband, and as a consequence, she pays dearly for her errant journey into matrimony.

Cecilia, like women generally, can appeal the charge neither of being a jilt nor avoid the dishonor of having been jilted. Lacking alternatives to the marriage market, the woman associated with the term "jilt" was often sentenced to solitary confinement.(30) She could, of course, turn to the legal system, but to be engaged in a court action was itself a dishonorable experience. An essay in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1874, in fact, refers to Trollope in order to suggest the unsuitability of legal redress to a jilted woman: "To a lady of delicacy, and one whose feelings have been deeply wounded, it would simply be an insult to talk of pecuniary compensation. Imagine, for instance, Lily Dale bringing an action of this nature against Adolphus Crosbie.(31) Only someone already beyond the pale of polite society like Lizzie Eustace, also known as "Lizzie the Liar" (PR, 2:292), is likely to have recourse to the courts. Even were the bias of polite society against public litigation to be discounted, the judicial system proved itself inadequate to the complex issues that Trollope was interested in exploring. Factors complicating the application of rules to circumstances were likely to be dealt with by the courts as Mr. Jaggers deals with a client on the verge of tears: "Now, look here my man. . . . Get out of this office. I'll have no feelings here."(32) For example, the judge in a trial of 1893 commented that "love is not a necessary element in a breach of promise case."(33) This statement succinctly demonstrates the limitations of the courts, which typically took up the letter of the law and considered promises independently of their contexts. Neatly separating intention from utterance, the legal system trivialized a central concern in Can You Forgive Her? Refusing this legalistic expedience, Trollope highlights the issue of women's place in society and under the law by reversing the expected gender roles of breach of promise, at least as it had been conventionally conceived. Whereas breach of promise laws were reputedly designed to protect women from unscrupulous Don Juans, Trollope offers the case of a woman who conceivably could be the defendant in such a case. In considering such a situation, he reaches a conclusion inaccessible to the courts and unacceptable to many contemporary social arbiters: a broken engagement should not be the equivalent of a social death sentence, and a noble jilt is not a contradiction in terms.

Attitudes toward betrothals were indeed changing in Trollope's day, but none of the several bills introduced in the House of Commons to eliminate legal redress for breach of promise was passed in his lifetime. The failure of Parliament to change breach of promise laws suggests that, irrespective of its legal status and despite gradually changing sentiments, this violation of the social code continued to carry substantial consequences. These consequences, already sounded by the likes of Lady Midlothian, are also commented on by Mrs. Carbuncle. After attending a performance of The Noble Jilt (the title of a play written by Trollope but never produced outside the pages of The Eustace Diamonds), she announces:

A noble jilt . . . is a contradiction in terms. There can be no such thing. A woman, when she has once said the word, is bound to stick to it. The delicacy of the female character should not admit of hesitation between two men. The idea is quite revolting. . . . [W]hen she has once given herself there can be no taking back without the loss of that aroma which should be the apple of a young woman's eye. (ED, 2:109)

Mrs. Carbuncle's credentials as a theater critic are called into question, if not by her name, then by the mixed metaphor with which her critique is expressed (one wonders what this visible scent might be).(34) Even more to the point, however, her qualifications as a moral and social advisor are entirely discredited by her role in enforcing the reluctant Lucinda Roanoke to keep her engagement to Sir Griffin - a coercion that ultimately leads to Lucinda's insanity. Although no more qualified as a moral or social arbiter, Lizzie Eustace provides a pragmatic counterpoint, in the vein of Mrs. Greenow, to Mrs. Carbuncle's viewpoint: "It's all very well to talk of aroma, but to live with a man you don't like - is the devil!" (ED, 2:110), as the case of Lucinda painfully proves.

Alice Vavasor takes the idea of jilting a lover much more to heart than does Lizzie. Foundering under the weight of this charge, she labors to defend "modern" attitudes to engagement, telling herself that "she had no husband; - not as yet. He [Grey] spoke of their engagement as though it were a betrothal, as betrothals used to be of yore; as though they were already in some sort married. Such betrothals were not made now-a-days" (CYFH, 1:23-24). Reversing the rhetorical ploys of her suitors when they take betrothal to be tantamount to marriage, Alice attempts to dismiss the significance of engagement altogether. The narrator, however, does not endorse the relativism of this position and calls Alice's reasoning "those very poor arguments which she had used in trying to convince herself that she was still free if she wished to claim her freedom" (CYFH, 1:32).

Her logic, however, is not entirely a matter of convenient rationalization. Trollope returns to the question of eroding values in The Eustace Diamonds. Lady Fawn, aghast at the inconstant engagements of her son and of Frank Greystock, laments the changed times:

when she was told that under the new order of things promises from gentlemen were not to be looked upon as binding, that love was to go for nothing, that girls were to be made contented by being told that when one lover was lost another could be found, she was very unhappy. She could not disbelieve it all, and throw herself back upon her faith in virtue, constancy, and honesty. She rather thought that things had changed for the worse since she was young, and that promises were not now as binding as they used to be. (ED, 2:184)

Her nostalgia is more than the outmoded sentiment of one old lady; it is certainly more than the intransigent conservatism of another (Lady Midlothian). Lady Fawn's lament suggests that while promises may no longer mean what they once did, they do count for something.

What that something is becomes apparent when Trollope's portrayals of naming and promising are viewed together. In effect, promising can be seen as a kind of naming. The promise of marriage labels and conjoins the private world of love and desire, on the one hand, and the public world of social principles and practices, on the other. Promising is furthermore of that class of self-reflexive names that calls attention to the use of words themselves. By the action of language alone, lovers assume a new name and a new place, albeit a transitional place, within an elaborate social structure. Promising also functions analogously to rhetorical questions in carrying both literal and figurative force. Literally, the speaker agrees to marry; figuratively, the promise questions the question to which it is a response. The promise to marry should engage the betrothed in an analysis of what they have said in relation to how they must live. The result of that process may be marriage or separation, but it should entail the self-examination that makes either act meaningful. Viewing promising in these terms enables Trollope to suggest that, irrespective of logical definition, self-knowledge can transform a jilt into a noble jilt and, irrespective of legal opinion, love is a necessary consideration in a breach of promise case.

State University of New York, Albany


1 Anthony Trollope, Can You Forgive Her?, 2 vols. (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1989), 2:283. All future references are from this edition and are cited parenthetically in the text as CYFH.

2 Charles Dickens uses the same locution in Bleak House (New York: Norton, 1977), calling attention to its curiousness: "'I had confident expectations that things would come round and be all square,' says Mr. Jobling, with some vagueness of expression, and perhaps of meaning, too" (248). For another example, see George Meredith's Diana of the Crossways (New York: Norton, 1973), in which the protagonist mocks the logic of English juries who comfortably conclude: "Well, ma'am, there always were scapegoats, and always will be; we find it come round pretty square in the end" (131). It should also be noted that Alice herself threatens to go to her lawyer, Mr. Round, to make things square with her cousin George (CYFH, 2:210).

3 Alice at one point denies her initial engagement to George Vavasor: "Three years ago I told him that under certain conditions I would become engaged to him. But my conditions did not suit him and no engagement was ever made" (CYFH, 1:18). But the general consensus seems to be that there was an engagement (CYFH, 1:36, 1:329-30), and Alice herself refers to jilting three lovers, which would mean that George has been jilted twice.

4 A variation on this oxymoron occurs when Alice is angered "by the application of that odious word respectable" (CYFH, 1:13) to her marriage prospects with John Grey. Similarly, her cousin Kate professes to hate the word "indelicate": "If any word in the language reminds me of a whited sepulchre it is that; - all clean and polished outside with filth and rottenness within. . . . Delicacy with many women is like their cleanliness. Nothing can be nicer than the whole outside get-up, but you wouldn't want to answer for anything underneath" (CYFH, 1:64).

5 Anthony Trollope, Autobiography (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1987), 235; hereafter cited parenthetically in the text and abbreviated A.

6 John W. Clark, The Language and Style of Anthony Trollope (London: Andre Deutsch, 1975), 18. Even postmodern readings stress his eschewal of rhetorical flourish. Walter M. Kendrick, for example, argues that for Trollope writing possesses "no value in itself, and the only value it can ever assume is that of complete transparency. . . . [W]hen language completely conveys its meaning, it disappears and only meaning remains." The Novel Machine: The Theory and Fiction of Anthony Trollope (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1980), 8, 46. Various interpretations of Trollope's style are discussed by Ruth apRoberts in The Moral Trollope (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 1971).

7 C. P. Snow, Trollope (London: Macmillan, 1975), 113.

8 Trollope, Phineas Redux, 2 vols. (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1988), 2:327. In The Duke's Children, her husband presents a slightly different version of these sentiments: "But this skill of tongue, this glibness of speech is hardly an affair of intellect at all. It is - as is style to the writer - not the wares which he has to take to market, but the vehicle in which they may be carried" (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1987), 201; all future references are to this edition and are cited parenthetically in the text as DC.

9 In his autobiography Trollope acknowledges that the novel is based on his play, The Noble Jilt. He writes, "I was afraid of the name for a novel, lest the critics might throw a doubt on the nobility." He chooses instead a title "more of tentative humility" (A, 180).

10 Henry James, The Wings of the Dove (New York: Norton, 1978), 308.

11 Paul de Man, "Semiology and Rhetoric," Diacritics 3 (Fall 1973): 27-33.

12 Trollope, The Eustace Diamonds, 2 vols. (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1977), 2:109. All future references are from this edition and are cited parenthetically in the text as ED.

13 The two suitor theme is discussed by Jean E. Kennard, Victims of Convention (Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1978). Also see Deborah Denenholz Morse, Women in Trollope's Palliser Novels (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Research Press, 1987).

14 Juliet McMaster, Trollope's Palliser Novels (London: Macmillan, 1978), 26. I would argue that Trollope does not seem finally to question the ability of words to express "the nature of things," and that Glencora does come to her senses: "She was no longer in a dream, but words and things bore to her again their proper meaning" (CYFH, 2:106).

15 Richard Chenevix Trench, On the Study of Words & English Past and Present (London: J. M. Dent, 1927), 35; hereafter cited parenthetically in the text as T.

16 Trollope, Phineas Finn, 2 vols. (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1973), 2:306; all future references are to this edition and are cited parenthetically in the text as PF.

17 Trollope, The Prime Minister, 2 vols. (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1987), 1:177, 178.

18 In addition to tracing the moral decline apparent from etymological study, Trench suggests that we have only to "open a dictionary, and cast our eye thoughtfully down a few columns, and we shall find abundant confirmation of this sadder and sterner estimate of man's moral and spiritual condition. How else shall we explain this long catalogue of words, having all to do with sin, or with sorrow, or with both?" (T, 25).

19 For an elaboration of this point, see Shoshana Felman, The Literary Speech Act: Don Juan with J. L. Austin, or Seduction in Two Languages, trans. Catherine Porter (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1983).

20 Review article, Nation (New York: 28 September 1865), reprinted in Trollope: The Critical Heritage, ed. Donald Smalley (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969), 249-50.

21 This point would not be conceded by Robyn Warhol, who argues that "her" could refer to any of the following: Alice, Glencora, Mrs. Greenow, the jilt, or the flirt. See Gendered Interventions: Narrative Discourse in the Victorian Novel (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1989), 135-36.

22 And, of course, insofar as the fault for which forgiveness is requested concerns language rather than courtship, the pronoun refers to Trollope as well. My re-wording of the title has been used by George Levine in a different context. See "Can Your Forgive Him? Trollope's 'Can You Forgive Her?' and the Myth of Realism," Victorian Studies 18 (1974): 5-30.

23 For a discussion of Trollope's indebtedness to Byron, see Donald D. Stone, The Romantic Impulse in Victorian Fiction (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1980). For related discussions, see John Christopher Kleis, "Passion Vs. Prudence: Theme and Technique in Trollope's Palliser Novels," Texas Studies in Literature and Language 11 (1970): 1405-14; David R. Eastwood, "Romantic Elements and Aesthetic Distance in Trollope's Fiction," Studies in Short Fiction 18 (1981): 395-405; and L. J. Swingle, Romanticism and Anthony Trollope: A Study in the Continuities of Nineteenth-Century Thought (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1990).

24 As Peter K. Garrett puts it: Alice "can find no terms to express her dissent. . . . With both men she can define her individuality only in the negative terms of resistance, refusing the expected response." The Victorian Multiplot Novel: Studies in Dialogical Form (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1980), 186-87.

25 Glencora, on the contrary, is described as possessing "a gleam of poetry, a spice of fun . . . a dash of devilry and an aptitude almost for wickedness" (CYFH, 2:297). George Levine (note 22) remarks of Glencora's and Alice's habits of speaking: "The irony of the relationship is that though Alice obeys the verbal rules, she has in fact violated a rule of behavior in breaking with John Grey. Glencora, though she persistently violates the verbal rules, has not quite broken the rules of behavior" (20).

26 This formula is given a different twist by Dick Ross in Trollope's Kept in the Dark. Not wanting to offend his patron, but at the same time wanting to expose his untruths, Dick says: "Lies are a sort of thing which are very commonly told, and are ordinarily ascribed to the world at large. The world never quarrels with the accusation. The world has told most infernal lies to this man about his wife. I don't suppose the world means to call me out for saying as much as that" (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1992), 168; hereafter cited parenthetically in the text as KD. Plantagenet Palliser is proud that he "never yet gave the lie to a gentleman, and I hope I never may be driven to do so" (DC, 39).

27 Fawn is less aggressive with Lizzie: "The word 'lie,' itself, was offensive to him, - offensive, even though it might not be applied directly to himself; but he still quailed, and was unable to express his indignation, - as he had done to poor Lucy Morris, his mother's governess" (ED, 2:204). Although Frank Greystock says, "Lizzie, do not use such a word [lie] as that to me," he is nevertheless impressed by "her courage, her power of language, and her force" (ED, 1:290).

28 Trollope, The Way We Live Now (London: Trollope Society, 1992), 223.

29 George Meredith, The Egoist (New York: Norton, 1979), 28. In this novel, Willoughby Patterne's case is more extreme than John Grey's. Whatever Mrs. Mountstuart Jenkinson might say, faced with the "hag's shriek of 'twice jilted'" (288), Willoughby is propelled into a loveless marriage with Laetitia Dale.

30 Mary Lyndon Shanley comments: "The plight of a woman who did not marry, who in the parlance of the age was 'left on the shelf,' could be economically as well as socially disastrous" (Feminism, Marriage, and the Law in Victorian England, 1850-1895 [Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1989], 9-10).

31 "Damages for Breach of Promise of Marriage," reprinted in The Albany Law Journal 10 (1874): 342-43.

32 Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965), 427.

33 J. Dundas White, "Breach of Promise of Marriage," The Law Quarterly Review 10 (1894): 141. This view seems to be the typical one. According to W. J. Brockelbank, "In particular the courts have turned a deaf ear to defenses based on incompatibility or tastes and temperament or the defendant's opinion that the marriage could not be a success, that the parties fail to respect or have ceased to love each other. . . . In short, all the facts may point realistically to the near certainty that, if the marriage were ever solemnized, it would either be very unhappy or end in divorce, yet the corts do not bar the action" (Illinois Law Review 41 [1946]: 9).

34 In announcing, the "play, as a play was a failure" because the central "character afforded no scope for sympathy" (ED, 2:109), Mrs. Carbuncle, however mistaken her values, echoes the criticism of the play that Trollope received from the actor to whom he first sent The Noble Jilt for a reading. See Michael Sadleir's "Preface" to The Noble Jilt (London: Constable, 1923).
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