Valentine's Day: Victorian rivals in love

Can You Forgive Her? 
by Anthony Trollope

published 1864/5 chapter 8

Captain Bellfield … was got up wonderfully, and was prepared at all points for the day's work. He had on a pseudo-sailor's jacket, very liberally ornamented with brass buttons, which displayed with great judgement the exquisite shapes of his pseudo-sailor's duck trousers. Beneath them there was a pair of very shiny patent-leather shoes… His waistcoat was of a delicate white fabric, ornamented with very many gilt buttons… His array was quite perfect, and had stricken dismay into the heart of his friend Cheesacre, when he joined that gentleman… 

Cheesacre, too, had adopted something of a sailor's garb. He had on a jacket of a rougher sort, coming down much lower than that of the captain, being much looser, and perhaps somewhat more like a garment which a possible seaman might possibly wear. But he was disgusted with himself the moment that he saw Bellfield. 

[The captain said:] "my fellow sent me this toggery, and said that it was the sort of thing. I'll change with you if you like it." But Cheesacre could not have worn that jacket, and he walked on, hating himself.

observations: Or, Can You Possibly Finish It? as (apparently) Stephen King said. The person in need of forgiveness is young Alice who, when pulling out of one engagement (she gets through 3 in the book, 4 if you count the one that actually leads to marriage, this is a real Valentine's Day massacre) tells her fiancé that to marry him

will be to me as though I were passing through a grave to a new world
- it is hard to imagine a more horrible comment, although any sensible man would consider such a bride well-lost. Her father (not otherwise an admirable character) comes out with the very modern-sounding ‘I never heard such trash in my life’ when she tells him how she feels, and the reader feels like cheering.

So we’re abandoning her and going back to the wonderful Widow Greenow  – apart from anything else, Trollope gives her and her suitors extensive and interesting wardrobes, whereas the younger characters are left sadly undescribed. Bellfield and Cheesacre are competing for her favours throughout the book - clothes are just part of it – and their scenes are hilarious. Here, they are going for a day-long outing and picnic on the beach, and it is a laugh-out-loud funny setpiece. There is a brilliant knowing touch when Mrs Greenow tidies up her clothes and appearance later in the day, having brought along a secret bag hidden away for the purpose, to the great annoyance of all the other women.

Later Captain Bellfield pursues his love to the Lake District, where he is too cold in this outfit:

He had on his head a jaunty little straw-hat, and he wore a jacket with brass buttons, and white trousers.

His rival follows him, and the farcical scene develops: Cheesacre stops off to talk to the Widow while

Bellfield, who was sent on to the house, found Alice and Kate surveying the newly arrived carpet bag. "It belongs to your old friend, Mr. Cheesacre…”

By this time the reader is on the floor laughing, I promise you, however unlikely that sounds. 

So yes, the book is worth finishing: Trollope sounds like a lovely man – knowledgeable about people’s foibles, but comfortably forgiving, as befits the title. A long read but a great one, and actually a surprisingly modern look at love of many kinds.

Two portraits of real sailors: 
Admiral Eustache Bruix by Jean-Baptiste Paulin Guérin from The Athenaeum websiteand Admiral Joseph Sydney Yorke, painted by Henri Pierre Danloux. The third picture is a photo from the National Library of Wales.

For more entries on this book, and more from Trollope, click on the labels below.


  1. I don't think you will ever convince me to try Trollope, but this time you came close.

    1. My mind boggles when I think of just how much he wrote, and how much I haven't read: because if I like an author I like to read them in an orderly fashion. I think you're somewhat the same, so I don't blame you for not even starting!

  2. Moira - This certainly sounds like love going all the wrong way until the end. And sometimes those premises can lead to lots of good laugh-out-loud scenes. And I do like the comment you've shared from Alice's father. Well, whether I ever read this or not, I do think it's a fun choice for Valentine's Day.

    1. Thanks Margot - I do like his modern attitudes, and that he certainly has something still to say to us about love, and the relations between men and women.

  3. 2nd time lucky? Trollope......really? I was tuning in today hoping to see something on the St. Valentine's Day massacre. That Al Capone was a sharp dresser!

    1. Sorry to disappoint you, but then I wouldn't have got your Valentine message, which really made me laugh...

  4. Trollope's books are really good soap operas. They aren't dry and boring at all.

    1. Absolutely agree with you, they are great books to lose yourself in. And he wrote so many we will never run out.


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