Saturday, March 21, 2020

Burrowing into Books - "The Prime Minister," by Anthony Trollope

Sydney M. Williams

Burrowing into Books
“The Prime Minister,” Anthony Trollope
March 21, 2020

After all, the making of new laws is too often but an unfortunate necessity laid on us by
 the impatience of the people. A lengthened period of quiet and, therefore, good government
 with a minimum of new laws would be the greatest benefit the country could receive.”
The Duke of St. Bungay advising his friend, the Prime Minister
                                                            The Prime Minister, 1876
                                                            Anthony Trollope (1815-1882)

A nice thing about reading Trollope is the renewal of old acquaintances: characters who have a habit of re-appearing. For example, in The Prime Minister we meet again Frank Gresham who first appeared in Dr. Thorne, written eighteen years earlier and Lady Glencora who first appeared in 1864 in The Small House at Allington. Perhaps because of his mother, the novelist Frances Trollope, the son created women of independence, spirit and beauty. His observations on people and particularly clergy and politicians are as relevant today as when written 150 years ago. This is the penultimate novel in the six-volume Palliser series, which deals primarily with Parliament. The last in the series is The Duke’s Children, published in 1880, two years before his death at sixty-seven.

The story follows two lines, first that of Plantagenet Palliser and his wife Lady Glencora, or the Duke of Omnium as he had become toward the end of Phineas Redux, written three years earlier. Palliser is elected a coalition Prime Minister. We follow his trials and tribulations. In the second story line we meet Ferdinand Lopez, a man of unknown parentage and questionable repute, who marries Emily Wharton, the beautiful daughter of Abel Wharton. Against her father’s and her family’s wishes, she marries him. It is hinted that Lopez might be Jewish, and anti-Semitism was prevalent in England at the time. “But,” as Nicholas Shrimpton writes in the Introduction, “it was foreigners in general, rather than Jews in particular, that Englishman of Trollope’s generation were accustomed to regard as lesser breeds.” The story lines merge.

Included in the duchy Palliser inherited is Gatherum Castle, a monstrous country house where forty or fifty guests can be entertained for several days – a perfect place for the Duchess to exercise her political schemes, not all of which go well. But a dukedom, while appealing to his wife, carried responsibilities Palliser never wanted. As a Duke, he was no longer eligible for Parliament, where he had been happily ensconced as Chancellor of the Exchequer. But he was able to be Prime Minister. His friend, the older Duke of St. Bungay (quoted in the rubric), tells him of the characteristics necessary for a successful premiership: “One wants in a Prime Minister a good many things, but not very great things. He should be clever, but not be a genius; he should be conscientious, but by no means straitlaced; he should be cautious but never timid, bold but never venturesome; he should have a good digestion, genial manners, and, above all, a thick skin.”

Britain was at her most imperious in the 1870s. At its height (in the second half of the 19th Century), it ruled 24% of the world’s land mass and comprised 23% of the world’s population. It controlled the Seven Seas. England’s Prime Minister was a powerful man. “To be Prime Minister in England,” the Duchess of Omnium tells her friend Mrs. Finn, “is as much as to be an Emperor in France, and much more than being President in America.” In the ensuing 150 years, while the British Empire was eviscerated, men have not changed, nor have the political forces that drive them. Omnium speaks, sounding a refrain familiar to us today: “The idea that political virtue is all on one side is both mischievous and absurd. We allow ourselves to talk in that way because indignation, scorn, and sometimes, I fear, vituperation are the fuels with which the necessary heat of debate is maintained.” A later observation from the Prime Minister has a ring of truth: “Political enemies are often the best friends in the world; and, I can assure you from my own experience that political friends are often the bitterest enemies.”

Plantagenet was a good man, perhaps overly sensitive, but a gentleman and a realist. When leaving the premiership, he tells his wife: “The play has been played, and the curtain has fallen, and the lights are being put out, and the poor weary actors may go home to bed.” He served his pledge, delivering three years of quiet, good government. As the story ends, the Duke will be followed as Prime Minister by Mr. Gresham, a character based on William Gladstone, a long-time leader of the Liberal Party.

What made the book so controversial at the time of its publication was the story of Ferdinand Lopez and Emily Wharton. In most of his novels, female characters choose the safer of two suitors. Not so in this one. Emily, failing to recognize his offensive and dishonest character and ignoring her father’s warnings, chooses Lopez over her long-time suitor and friend of her family, Arthur Fletcher. Trollope notes that Lopez was tall, good-looking and well spoken. He gave the illusion he was wealthy. He worked in the City, but what he did was a mystery. In fact, we discover, he speculated in commodities, especially guano. But he kept specifics from his fiancée and his future father-in-law. Trollope writes: “Ferdinand Lopez was not an honest man or a good man. He was a self-seeking, intriguing adventurer, who did not know honesty from dishonesty when he saw them together.”

The reader learns of the injustices of 19th Century English marriages, when women became subservient to their husbands. A 21st Century reader wonders – did Trollope, sensitive to women because of his mother’s success, deliberately create the despicable Lopez to highlight this iniquitous inequity?

Emily soon realizes the mistake she made, that her husband was more interested in her wealth than in her: “…she began to perceive that her father was to be regarded as a milch cow, and that she was to be the dairymaid.” But she feels honor-bound to suffer the consequences of her ill-considered decision. Divorce, at that time, was rare. In her own mind, she had made her bed; it was her obligation to lie in it. However, through tragedy, the story ends on an uplifted note.

Authors like Trollope expected their readers to be well-read. Throughout the novel are references to the Bible, to Greek and Roman mythology and classics, and to Shakespeare. The expectation was that the reader would be familiar with Matthew, Aesop, Plutarch and Lady Macbeth. Fortunately, explanatory notes, in the Oxford World’s Classics version I read, were easily accessible. While fewer novels were published in the 1870s than today, authors still competed for readers. English authors like Dickens, Eliot and Carroll were writing during the decade of the 1870s. So were Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Turgenev in Russia and Twain, Henry James and Alcott in the U.S. But there were, then, fewer distractions and alternatives; so educated people – literacy rates in England in the 1870s were 75% – spent more time reading. Now, Coronavirus has given us the opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with some of literatures greatest fictional characters. A good place to start is Trollope.

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