Despite a decreasing popularity throughout his career, Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) has become one of the most notable and respected English novelists of the Victorian Era. His penetrating novels on political, social and gender issues of his day have placed him among such nineteenth century literary icons as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and George Eliot. Trollope penned 47 novels in his career, in addition to various short stories, travel books and biographies. A newfound interest in politics led to the publication of "The Prime Minister" in 1876, one of a group of novels sometimes called Trollope's parliamentary novels. This novel tells of the successes, troubles, and eventual failure of what the author calls the completed picture of a statesman, who should have "rank, and intellect, and parliamentary habits, by which to bind him to the service of his country . . . he should also have unblemished, unextinguishable, inexhaustible love of country" (from Trollope's Autobiography).
When the Liberal government falls, the Duke of Omnium agrees, against both his wishes and his better judgment, to head up a Coalition government. But the Duke is “not by nature gregarious or communicative, and is therefore hardly fitted to be the head of a ministry." (27) What’s more, he is much too thin-skinned, and perceives all opposition to his rule to be a personal affront. The Duchess, on the other hand, is thrilled with both her husband’s and her own new position. Money being no object for the Pallisers, she is determined to use all of her social graces to rally supporters for her husband and his government. Thus she sets down a path of unending and often indiscriminate hospitality at both Matching Priory and Gatherum Castle, declaring that, “The new Prime Minister and the new Prime Minister's wife should entertain after a fashion that had never yet been known even among the nobility of England.” (5) But her actions distress the unwavering Duke, who finds there to be a “vulgarity” about the over-the-top hospitableness. Nonetheless, the charming Lady Glen is not to be dissuaded. Indeed, her political ambitions rival those of Lady Macbeth!
“He's Prime Minister, which is a great thing, and I begin to find myself filled to the full with political ambition. I feel myself to be a Lady Macbeth, prepared for the murder of any Duncan or any Daubeny who may stand in my lord's way. In the meantime, like Lady Macbeth herself, we must attend to the banqueting. Her lord appeared and misbehaved himself; my lord won't show himself at all, – which I think is worse." (11)
Running parallel to this main plot, is the story of Emily Wharton, the daughter of a wealthy barrister, and her disastrous marriage to Ferdinand Lopez. Her attraction to Lopez, much below her social station, is scandalous: “a man without a father, a foreigner, a black Portuguese nameless Jew.” (16) What’s worse is that in order to take up with Lopez, Emily has thrown over Arthur Fletcher, a well-bred young man she has known and loved since her childhood. Indeed, both the Fletcher and Wharton families have long expected their engagement. Alas, her father, fearing to lose her altogether, eventually succumbs to her marriage. But is immediately apparent that Lopez has an eye only for the purse of his father-in-law, his wife’s happiness of no concern to him whatever. A blackguard, a liar, a reckless speculator, a failed would-be political figure – eventually, Lopez will destroy himself. Emily’s shame is consummate, and understandably so. But
her wallowing becomes maudlin and her grief selfish (much to my annoyance); and at last she will be accused by he who still loves her that the time has come to sacrifice “ the luxury of your own woe.” (79)
I’ve read that critics consider The Prime Minister to be the weakest of Trollope’s Palliser novels, but I do not share the sentiment. I enjoyed this one just as much as the others and have found myself so taken with the series that I’ve read al of the novels consecutively. Now, with only the final one to go, I begin to miss the characters and their intendant stories of love, power, corruption, and diamonds already! As to Simon Vance, I cannot imagine that a narrator his equal exists.
Nonetheless, if one closes one's eyes to the less than credible high politics, this novel has Trollope's typical virtues. No other author has so excelled at making the ordinary run of humanity vivid and fascinating. In real life, Planty Pall would have been a dull stick, Duchess Glencora a shallow, sexually frustrated meddler and Fernando Lopez a transparent fraud. On these pages, they command our interest.
The Prime Minister is the weakest of the Palliser series, which means that it is merely in the upper two percent of English literature.
Plantagenet Palliser, the Duke of Omnium, was Prime Minister!
He headed a coalition government, and he had risen not so much as the result of his own charisma and ambition, more because there was no other candidate acceptable to all of the parties and willing to do the job. Now to rise to such a position is a great thing, but I feared for the new Prime Minister. He was too honest, too sensitive, and too unwilling to compromise his principles. Wonderful qualities in so many ways, but qualities you would want in a right-hand man, that would make you want to pick him for your team or hold him up as a role model; but not qualities that would make him a great leader of men.
The Duchess of Omnium – the erstwhile Lady Glencora Palliser – on the other hand was in her element. She would entertain, she would socialise, she would intrigue. She would play her part to the full, and she was in so many ways a far better politician that her husband. Never was it clearer that they loved each other but they would never quite understand each other.
It was lovely to watch them and to listen to them. And, maybe even better, were the conversations between the Duchess and her dearest friend Mrs Finn – the erstwhile Madame Max. That friendship is so well balanced and so well drawn.
The stories of the Duke and Duchess are set against – and entangled with – the stories of Ferdinand Lopez and Emily Wharton.
Ferdinand Lopez was a handsome adventurer of Portuguese-Jewish descent. It was clear from the start that he was to be the villain of the piece, and he plotted and schemed to acquire wealth and rise up through society. He was determined to secure the hand of Emily Wharton, the daughter of a wealthy and successful barrister. Mr Wharton was firmly set against the match, and determined that his daughter would only marry the son of an English gentleman. He favoured Emily’s childhood friend Arthur Fletcher, but Lopez had her heart.
The deadlock was broken when Lopez, apparently, saved the life of Emily’s brother, and her father reluctantly consented to the marriage.
It was then that Lopez’s campaign escalated. He used his wife to extract significant sums of money from his father-in-law to fund speculations, he exploited – and cheated his lower class business partner. He has some successes but he had more failures, and put more and more pressure on his wife to extract more funds from her father. His attempt to enter the House of Commons, to established him as an English gentleman, fails and Arthur Fletcher takes the seat. he blames everyone but himself.
That had consequence for the Duchess of Omnium – who had been charmed by Lopez and so gave him her support – and in turn for the Prime Minister, who could not, would not, allow his wife’s name – or his principles – to be compromised.
Mr Wharton realised that when he dismissed Lopez’s suit he had neglected to consider other things that would make him an unsuitable husband for his daughter. He did what he could, Emily knew that she had to accept the consequences of her decision; the arc of the relationship between father and daughter was one of my favourite things about this novel.
As Lopez made his determined rise and when he came tumbling down he did a great deal of damage. When both his business and his marriage collapsed around him he made the most dramatic of exits. The repercussions of his actions though would be felt for a long, long time.
His end was inevitable, but the gap that he left was huge, he was such a fascinating, charismatic character. It took the story a while to re-establish itself without him.
But there is a whole world in this story, and the world continues to turn. I loved watching so much going on, at Westminster, in the town, in the country. The scope of the story is vast, and the author’s command of it is magnificent.
There are themes that are horribly relevant today – the consequences of coalition government, and the role the fourth estate – represented here by Mr Quintus Slide …..
There are many things that can be said about this book. I have come to see that Trollope accepted society’s norms and believed that they would continue to hold sway; that he could draw a good villain but he clearly gave much more time to the great and the good; that he gave consideration to how a gentleman should live and behave, and of the consequences of their social position and above all of marriage for women ……
Above all this is a wonderfully rich human drama.
The world that Trollope has created in the Palliser novels and the people that live in it are so very, very real.
I find it easy to simply accept it for what it is, and I love spending time there.
"What is it that you fear? What can the man do to you? What matter is it to you if such a one as that pours out his malice on you? Let it run off like the rain from the housetops. You are too big even to be stung by such a reptile as that." The Duke looked into her face, admiring the energy with which she spoke to him. "As for answering him," she continued to say, "that may or may not be proper. If it should be done, there are people to do it. But I am speaking of your own inner self. You have a shield against your equals, and a sword to attack them with if necessary. Have you no armour of proof against such a creature as that? Have you nothing inside you to make you feel that he is too contemptible to be regarded?"
"Nothing," he said.
"Cora, there are different natures which have each their own excellencies and their own defects. I will not admit that I am a coward, believing as I do that I could dare to face necessary danger. But I cannot endure to have my character impugned,---even by Mr. Slide and Mr. Lopez."
"What matter,---if you are in the right? Why blench if your conscience accuses you of no fault? I would not blench even if it did. What;---is a man to be put in the front of everything, and then to be judged as though he could give all his time to the picking of his steps?"
"Just so! And he must pick them more warily than another."
"I do not believe it. You see all this with jaundiced eyes. I read somewhere the other day that the great ships have always little worms attached to them, but that the great ships swim on and know nothing of the worms."
"The worms conquer at last."
Lots of recurring appearances from our old friends, which have gotten to be my favorite parts of this series.
Conventional and "happy" in the end. Not sure who has won. But I do like Glencora. And her friend--now Madame Finn. The best of soap opera can be found in the Palliser cycle.
I really enjoyed reading this installment and was so caught up in it that the nearly 700 pages seemed to fly by. I have just one Palliser novel left to read and will miss them when I’m done.
All in all, a good read on a rainy day when you have a craving for a work of British literature that you haven't read before, but not memorable for characterisation or narrative style.
A secondary plot concerns Emily Wharton, the only daughter of a wealthy London gentleman who is determined to marry Ferdinand Lopez over her father's objections. Mr. Wharton objects to Lopez because he's not an English gentleman. (In other words, he's foreign and has Jewish ancestry.) Emily quite rightly objects to her father's prejudice. Unfortunately, while they're focused on Lopez's ancestry, they both fail to note that his primary occupation of futures trading will not provide the necessary financial stability to support a wife and family. The results are both tragic and predictable.
In a way, this is a story of frustrated ambition and of two unhappy marriages. The Pallisers' temperaments make them ill suited for each other, with seemingly incompatible goals. Plantagenet wants to be useful, while Glencora wants to be important. Plantagenet is unhappy when he's in an important position without useful work. Insufficient income seems to be at the root of the Lopez's marital problems, but as the Pallisers' situation proves, it takes more than money to make a happy marriage.