The political plot of The Prime Minister is almost entirely free of ideas, of ideology. Yet the novel turns out to be a kind of study of ideology, but the ideologue is over in the story about the bad marriage. The husband is the con man, who believes whatever is useful at the moment.
His wife, Emily, though, is a true believer. She believes in Victorian wifely duty. Much of Emily’s side of the novel is spent with her thoughts on her wifely duties, her commitment to be the perfect, diligent, obedient wife. As her marriage collapses, and her husband proves to be a bad man, even abusive (verbally, when he says “damn,” or I guess “d---,” which in context – Ch. 47 – is not ridiculous), Emily moves away from him, but slowly, by inches. So these interior monologues or internal arguments are not only aggravating because they justify a sympathetic character’s suffering but because they are highly repetitive, the same arguments again and again with a slight change with each repetition. Trollopian repetition in the service of psychology.
By the end of the novel, everyone – family, friends, author, and likely reader – is against Emily as she refuses to accept a happy ending, armed with “nothing but the stubbornness of her own convictions” (Ch. 79). Should I be cheering her on or begging her to drop her martyrdom? “They should never cheat her back into happiness…” (Ch. 70).
This is all psychologically and ethically insightful, but for long stretches it is no fun.
Meanwhile, the most powerful man in the world, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, is being put through a parallel story, which is hilarious and perhaps the most ingeniously crafted aspect of the novel. He suffers as Prime Minister first because as head of a coalition government he is not allowed to do anything, and he was never more than a technocrat, Trollope’s way of diminishing his perfect gentleman and Great Man. As he persists in the position, though, he stubbornly begins to enjoy his suffering as a sign of his great virtuousness.
A novel of martyr complexes.
My favorite passage in the political story comes from his wife, the former Lady Glencora, the Duchess, when she describes how she would behave as PM, entirely credibly. The Prime Minister is effectively an argument for having women in Parliament.
“I begin to see the ways of government now. I could have done all the dirty work. I could have given away garters and ribbons, and made my bargains while giving them. I could select sleek, easy bishops who wouldn’t be troublesome. I could give pensions or withhold them, and make the stupid men peers. I could have the bog noblemen at my feet, praying to be Lieutenant of Counties. I could dole out secretaryships and lordships, and never a one without getting something in return.” (Ch. 56)
She would be more successful because more corrupt, less perfect. I believe every word of it.
My favorite passage in the marriage story involves hats and umbrellas (Ch. 69). The political plot is mostly abstract, the Wharton marriage much more concrete, with more clothes, meals, furniture, streets, all of that. Curious. A good subject for a post I’m not going to write.