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the prime minister

15 march 2015

My memory of my Trollope phases in the 1980s and 90s was good enough to establish that I'd never read his masterpiece The Way We Live Now, but I didn't remember that I'd never read The Prime Minister; I thought I had read all the Barsetshire and Palliser novels, but the fifth of the latter series had somehow escaped me. With the help of my iPhone and a lovely old library book, I remedied this lapse over Spring Break.

There are only two plot strands in The Prime Minister, as opposed to what seem like dozens in The Way We Live Now, which appeared just a year earlier. The Palliser novels are sometimes dubbed "semi-political," and the half-and-half balance in The Prime Minister is stark. In the title strand, Plantagenet Palliser, the Duke of Omnium, is sent for by the Queen and forms a coalition government. In the private strand, young Emily Wharton makes a disastrous mistake by marrying the wicked Ferdinand Lopez.

Trollope enjoyed lampooning the vilest anti-Semitism on the part of his English aristocrats. Melmotte, in The Way We Live Now, is despised because he may be Jewish; the same goes for Lopez in The Prime Minister. The narrator never actually says whether either villain is a Jew; they are both nominally Anglican enough, and indeed English too for all anyone knows. Yet they are both evil characters, and the noblest thing either one does is commit suicide. As a result, we get to hate some of Trollope's satirically-depicted upper-class idiots for their prejudices, but we get those prejudices confirmed at the same time, just in a more genteel way. The reader may be a hypocrite too. So may the writer. As often in Trollope, the world is an uglier place than its surface blandness reveals.

Emily Wharton, an heiress from a consitutionally conservative class, rejects the cousin she's destined to marry, a peach of a fellow named Arthur Fletcher. She loves Arthur, but as a childhood friend. She explains bluntly of her love for Ferdinand Lopez, "there is that [love] which a woman gives to a man when she would fain mate with him" (Chapter 59). Lopez has presentable manners, presumable money, and he and Emily make a good-looking couple. Of course their marriage is a catastrophe. He's a chancer and a tyrant and a money pit. He smokes cigars in the dining room and says the word "d___." And as much as he's able to imitate a gentleman, he can never really manage to do the right thing.

But Lopez is encouraged, both by his wife and by the Duke's wife. Lady Glencora, the Duchess of Omnium, finally has a grand stage for her social theatrics when Planty becomes Prime Minister. She engineers all sorts of magic among a constant stream of guests to her castles. She takes up young favorites, and even hints that she can get Ferdinand Lopez into Parliament. That venture, soon nixed by the Duke, becomes the one scandal of his administration, as Lopez resents the Duke's withdrawal of support and eventually bilks him out of £500 for election expenses that his father-in-law has already paid.

But the scandal blows over. What the Duke's regime cannot survive is his subsequent edict to Cora never to invite hordes of political visitors to Gatherum Castle again. He ultimately blames her for his political downfall, and both Duke and Duchess are bitter about it. He sees her as a meddler and a fool. In fact, though Trollope is implicit on this point, she is a better politician than he is. If he'd just made small talk and allowed her to keep up her guest list, he'd have been Prime Minister for ten years instead of three.

Semi-political, then, but Trollope's view of politics is extremely blinkered. For all his fascination with Westminster and the minutiae of government, for all his Liberal sentiments (and his heroes are all Liberals), he deeply believes any policy measures to be foolish, and thinks that the nation is best governed that is simply left alone, churning along in its inevitable prosperity, untroubled by partisan bickering or reform measures. His stock joke is that the only thing that the Duke really cares about is decimal coinage. And that'll never happen. (Well, the Duke is also interested in the metric system, and that still hasn't happened, so Trollope may have a point.)

To read Trollope, you'd think that nothing went on in 19th-century British politics. It's all just a shell game of who's in and who's out. The Corn Laws and Reform Bills are long past and Irish Home Rule only distantly on the horizon, and India just a place to order tea from.

Yet to take him on his own terms, Trollope may have had a deeper point about politics; even the most epic legislative battles are mere noise compared to more fundamental relations among people and classes that are also political, but in a sense unamenable to elections and factions. At a key juncture, the Duke tells his old ally Phineas Finn:

Men's intellects are at present so various that we cannot even realize the idea of equality, and here in England we have been taught to hate the word by the evil effects of those absurd attempts which have been made elsewhere to proclaim it as a fact accomplished by the scratch of a pen or the chisel of a stone. We have been injured in that, because a good word signifying a grand idea has been driven out of the vocabulary of good men. Equality would be a heaven, if we could attain it. How can we to whom so much has been given dare to think otherwise? How can you look at the bowed back and bent legs and abject face of the poor ploughman, who winter and summer has to drag his rheumatic limbs to his work, while you go a-hunting or sit in pride of place among the foremost few of the country, and say that it is all that it ought to be? You are a Liberal because you know that it is all not as it ought to be, and because you would still march on to some nearer approach to equality; though the thing itself is so great, so glorious, so godlike,—nay, so absolutely divine,—that you have been disgusted by the very promise of it, because its perfection is unattainable. (Chapter 68)
Suddenly we find ourselves with a new perspective on one of the most topical debates of the year 2015, the concern over widening inequality in the United States, and the dilemma of how to counteract that inequality, socially and politically as well as economically. For all his fascination with upper-class manners, Trollope really did "know that it is all not as it ought to be," though he hadn't the first clue what to do about it.

About that lovely old library book: it was a hardbound World's Classics "double" from the early 1960s, smaller if much thicker than a Kindle, perfectly holdable and legible. And of course 934 pages long, given its dimensions, but printed on thin resilient paper that compensated somewhat for its bricklikeness. It's an example of a book designed by people who had some idea of what it's like to read books.

Trollope, Anthony. The Prime Minister. 1876. London: Oxford University Press, 1961. [The World's Classics]