- 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: [End Page 217]
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...