Tuesday, October 25, 2016

He began to foresee that he had a bad time before him - Trollope's Prime Minister had me worried

The first quarter of The Prime Minister (1876), the fifth of Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, had me worried for the first quarter or so.  Was this one going to be merely ordinary?

Trollope had spent the first quarter of The Way We Live Now (1875), his previous novel, introducing characters – so many characters – and enough subplots that I wondered, at the three-quarters mark, how he was going to wrap them all up.  But here, there are only two plots, two parallel stories.

One has Plantagenet Palliser, who Trollope introduced way back in The Small House of Allington (1864), become Prime Minister – see title – as head of a coalition government, a clever device because it completely strips politics of any relation to policy.  The politics become as pure as possible.  The only function of the Prime Minister is to remain Prime Minister.  The only goal of politics is the continuation of politics.  It is the perfect environment for Trollope’s game of Fantasy Parliament, and suggests why this is one of the few great novels about politics and also why there are so few novels about politics that are any good at all.

The other plot is – why it’s just a Victorian marriage plot! again! – charming, handsome, risk-loving, exotic Ferdinand Lopez wants to marry the lovely, incidentally wealthy Emily Wharton.  His charm and other gifts mean his star is on the rise, but Emily’s father is prejudiced, her family is against her, etc.

At about the quarter mark, the obstacles disappear, the couple marries, and the marriage plot turns into a plot about marriage, a bad marriage.  Trollope, that enemy of suspense, openly declares the husband a con man:

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.  (Ch. 24, “The Marriage”)

The marriage is much more interesting than the courtship.  The main characters – Lopez, Emily, and her father – are much more interesting within the marriage story than the courtship story.  The marriage story has the disadvantage of being quite unpleasant, a painful story.  But it is interesting.

At the same time, the political story became less about politics and more personal, more about the psychological effects of the powerful role on the PM and his wife, one of Trollope’s greatest characters.  They’re not so happy, either.

Nor is The Prime Minister especially funny.

Because the novel is well over 900 pages long, a quarter of the novel is a long stretch.  I would guess that readers who have found other Trollope novels slow and repetitive will lose patience with this one.   I wondered, around page 200, if I would have anything to say about this book.

He began to foresee that he had a bad time before him.  (Ch. 9)

And he – Mr. Wharton, the father – does.  But I did all right.  A day or two more on The Prime Minister, then.


  1. Still haven't finished this one, as opposed to skimming it (the only one of the Palliser series I haven't finished) but I always find the characterization of Plantagenet Palliser very well done, moreso even than Glencora. Well, then he gets all annoying in The Duke's Children, but in Phineas Redux and what I've read of The Prime Minister he's quite interesting with his earnest patriotism and his thin skin and the whole issue of being a very privileged liberal ("Here is her ladyship and the ponies. I don't think her ladyship would like to lose her ponies by my doctrine.")

    The marriage plot I find hard to swallow. Not just the implicit proving right of the father's prejudices, but that Emily does everything right and still ends up in the same place as Alice Vavasor--marrying a man against her judgement because she can no longer trust her judgement.

  2. Yes, Planty ends up being more interesting here than ever.

    I call the Duke Planty since he is now my old pal.

    The Wharton-Lopez plot is a tough one. There may be less pleasure in it than in any Trollope plot I can remember. It is deeply uncomfortable in places.

    The redoing of Can You Forgive Her? - and even Glencora's story from Allington - was a revealing move. Trollope wants to try that story from every angle.

  3. Not sure if you read my take on this, but I wasn't a huge fan of this one, mainly because it fizzles out somewhat once one of the two strands 'sorts itself out' (he says, mysteriously). Lots of good character stuff about PP, of course, but not one of the best - I much prefer the two Phineas Finn books myself.

  4. I did read it. We come at Trollope so differently. Among your favorite Trollope descriptions is "comfortable." I find him generally uncomfortable, and this novel the least comfortable of the bunch.

    I don't think the last quarter fizzles but rather shifts - the argument is analogous to the one we had about Doctor Thorne - the source of tension comes from a different direction.

  5. "Trollope, that enemy of suspense" — yes! Ezra Pound said one could learn all one needed to know about constructing novels from Trollope's novels and Henry James's prefaces. He was probably wrong, but you can learn a lot, and one of the things Trollope teaches, I think, is how unnecessary suspense is to a good story.

  6. I was impressed how long Trollope held back this time. He hates knowing things and not telling his readers. What is known" is arbitrary, a game, but the rules are clear to Trollope.