Monday, December 6, 2010
Review: The Prime Minister
This review of The Prime Minister is part of the Trollope Tour, hosted by The Classics Circuit.
One of the deep pleasures of reading Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) is the complete universe Trollope creates in his series books. The Barsetshire series focuses on life in a cathedral town, and is known as the "ecclesiastical" series. The Palliser series is known as Trollope's "political" series. The Prime Minister was Trollope's thirty-third novel, and was the fifth book in the series of six, beginning in 1864-5 with Can You Forgive Her? and finishing with The Duke's Children in 1879-80. The Prime Minister was published in parts from November 1875 to June 1876.
There are two main stories in The Prime Minister. One concerns the intrusion of Ferdinand Lopez, an outsider, into London society. He falls in love with Emily Wharton, daughter of a London barrister, and a member of English squire-archy (Trollope's favorite class of characters). Emily return's Lopez's affections, but refuses to marry Lopez (or anyone) without the blessing and permission of her doubtful but loving father. Eventually Lopez marries Emily, and is almost immediately revealed as an adventurer, a speculator, and irredeemably corrupt. Emily's plight elucidates the thralldom that was marriage in the 1870's. Although some laws had been changed, there was little that could be done to protect a woman from her own husband. Some of the most enthralling scenes of the novel are those in which Lopez attempts to corrupt his young wife.
In a second storyline, Plantagent Palliser, who became the Duke of Omnium in Phineas Redux, is named Prime Minister of England in a coalition government. Palliser is Trollope's perfect gentleman: honest, morally scrupulous, English to his core. The Duke is married to the energetic and vivacious Lady Glencora; she throws herself into the creation of her own "cabinet" by entertaining on a vast scale. Where the Duke is thin-skinned, sensitive, and scrupulous, his wife is thick-skinned and resilient. The political games and maneuverings of government are paralleled by a power struggle between husband and wife.
It is all very entertaining: the politics, the petty posturing and bickering, the jockeying for position. Characters from the previous Palliser novels make appearances: Phineas Finn, who had two full novels to himself (Phineas Finn and Phineas Redux) appears as a trusted adviser to the Prime Minister; the old Duke of St. Bungay; the despicable journalist Quintus Slide makes his usual slanderous appearance.
The theme, a recurring one in Trollope's novels, of the role, manners, and moral duty of a "gentleman" appears in The Prime Minister. This was a subject on which Trollope wrote often, and the importance of the idea of the gentleman in Trollope cannot be overemphasized. Another recurring theme, the vulnerability of women in English society, is also important in The Prime Minister. Trollope's portrayal of Emily Wharton's marriage, and her complete thralldom to an ill-chosen husband, seem like an implicit criticism of the position of women and the institution of marriage.
Another topic creates a troubling question for Trollope's contemporary readers. How much of his portrayal of Ferdinand Lopez, and the characterization of Lopez as "foreign" and "other" and possibly Jewish reveals the real attitudes of Trollope the writer, and how much reveals the attitudes of Trollope's characters? Lopez is a troubling character: certainly his insidious decline into corruption, his attempt to carry his wife with him, and his odious treatment of Emily are some of the darkest and most compelling scenes in the novel. The Prime Minister is a complex novel, and one that does not easily reveal the answers to these questions: is Trollope subversive--is he criticizing the English fear of the outsider? Is Trollope's sympathetic rendition of Emily Wharton's predicament a criticism of the legal position of women? Certainly Trollope had strong women surrounding him in his wife Rose, and his mother, Fanny, who rescued her family from bankruptcy and privation by becoming a renowned novelist in her own right.
I found The Prime Minister to be compelling and engrossing reading, but I am an admitted Trollope fanatic. Trollope provides the deepest sort of reading pleasure for this reader: real narrative drive, complex and entertaining plots, vital and interesting characters, all set in a complex moral universe. Trollope occupies the reader's mind and imagination, and to my mind there is hardly a better read to be found in English literature. There may be more wit and sentiment in Miss Austen (by the way, Pride and Prejudice was one of Trollope's favorite novels), but Trollope had the advantage of being able to write knowledgably about the worlds of politics, law, and the church--worlds that were only glimpsed in Miss Austen's novels.
I have a certain affection for Trollope's story, too. His harrowing treatment at public school, the family's shameful bankruptcy, and Trollope's rise within the British Post Office. And of course, what could be more charming than the vision of Anthony Trollope, sitting down at 5:30 every morning, to write with his watch in front of him. He set himself to write 250 words every fifteen minutes for about three hours--after which he would go to work at the Post Office.
I have a vague lifetime goal of reading all forty-seven of Trollope's novels (I'm trying to read them in chronological order, but let's not get crazy). A secondary goal is to perhaps convert other readers to the joys of Trollope.
If you have not read the other Palliser novels, I don't know that I would begin with The Prime Minister. Begin with Can You Forgive Her? If you like that novel, you will enjoy the drama and naughtiness of Lizzie Eustace in The Eustace Diamonds. Then it is on to Phineas Finn and Phineas Redux.
Much as I loved the Barestshire novels, I now find myself firmly in the Palliser fold, and would recommend the entire series to anyone who wants to spend some time in Victorian England.