This review will contain a modicum of spoilers, so all who do not wish to know the contents of the book had better not read any further.
I think the actual question in regards to this book, the first of Anthony Trollope’s Palliser Novels, is “Can you relate to her?” The “her,” in question, is primarily Alice Vavasor, the protagonist, but also her cousin, Kate. Both women have had independence forced upon them from a very early age, and both women are wealthy enough that they don’t absolutely require a man’s income for sustenance (Kate, in fact, is no closer to marrying anyone at the end of the book than she was at the beginning). However, both Alice and Kate are emotionally vulnerable, needing some vent for their ambitions and emotions, and they both initially centered themselves and their lives on George Vavasor, Kate’s brother.
In the course of the book (or books, depending on which version you read), Alice and Kate both come to question their emotional alliances. Alice is the first, having broken off her initial engagement to George due to his interactions with another woman. She begins to resort to only trusting herself and her opinions, and the book begins with her questioning yet another engagement, this time with quite a different man, John Grey. (Some have argued that Mr. Grey is too perfect, which was Alice’s concern. She knows herself well enough to know that she is imperfect, and she thus considers herself to be unfit to marry Mr. Grey.)
Both Alice and Kate have lacked meaningful relationships in their lives, relationships that didn’t disappoint or abandon them, and this book explores their interactions with relationships—their fears, their pride, their self-sufficiency. In the end, both Alice and Kate are humbled by the realization that the people they have most depended on—Alice herself and George, respectively—have let them down, and they must choose how to respond to life after such a humbling experience.
The character who is the least understood, I think, is Mr. Grey. Many readers seem to fall into the same misunderstanding as Alice does about him, seeing him as perfect, flawless, and completely independent of anyone. In truth, though, he is just better than most at hiding his vulnerabilities. His life is turned upside-down by his pursuit of Alice, and he becomes a different man than he was at the beginning. He sets out with certain prejudices and opinions and, by the end of the book, not only entertains but promotes completely different opinions in certain areas of his life. He cares so much for Alice that he is willing to see himself ruined rather than allow her to sacrifice her own fortune to the avariciousness of her cousin, and he is very nearly killed for his trouble. He knows his life will be an empty shell without the woman he loves, and he is willing to risk all he has—his money, his reputation, and his time—in winning her back.
While we, as readers, may have trouble believing such depth of love can exist, it is that love that makes him look perfect. Every other complaint regarding him seems to stem from this dilemma; if we cannot accept the depth of his love and forgiveness, we cannot accept him as a laudable hero. We see him as flat or dull…but then, in a world where “bad” is seen as appealing, this reaction should not surprise us. Shades of gray are seen as more intriguing than radiant whiteness because, without help, our eyes are unable to distinguish the colors hidden within its purity.
Copyright 2014 Andrea Lundgren