I didn’t mean to read ‘The Prime Minister’ quite so soon, or to rush through it quite so quickly, but I had to step back into Trollope’s world because there seemed to be so many old friends I wanted to see again, so many interesting new people to meet, so many intriguing things happening.
Plantagenet Palliser, the Duke of Omnium, was Prime Minister!
He headed a coalition government, and he had risen not so much as the result of his own charisma and ambition, more because there was no other candidate acceptable to all of the parties and willing to do the job. Now to rise to such a position is a great thing, but I feared for the new Prime Minister. He was too honest, too sensitive, and too unwilling to compromise his principles. Wonderful qualities in so many ways, but qualities you would want in a right-hand man, that would make you want to pick him for your team or hold him up as a role model; but not qualities that would make him a great leader of men.
The Duchess of Omnium – the erstwhile Lady Glencora Palliser – on the other hand was in her element. She would entertain, she would socialise, she would intrigue. She would play her part to the full, and she was in so many ways a far better politician that her husband. Never was it clearer that they loved each other but they would never quite understand each other.
It was lovely to watch them and to listen to them. And, maybe even better, were the conversations between the Duchess and her dearest friend Mrs Finn – the erstwhile Madame Max. That friendship is so well balanced and so well drawn.
Ferdinand Lopez was a handsome adventurer of Portuguese-Jewish descent. It was clear from the start that he was to be the villain of the piece, and he plotted and schemed to acquire wealth and rise up through society. He was determined to secure the hand of Emily Wharton, the daughter of a wealthy and successful barrister. Mr Wharton was firmly set against the match, and determined that his daughter would only marry the son of an English gentleman. He favoured Emily’s childhood friend Arthur Fletcher, but Lopez had her heart.
The deadlock was broken when Lopez, apparently, saved the life of Emily’s brother, and her father reluctantly consented to the marriage.
It was then that Lopez’s campaign escalated. He used his wife to extract significant sums of money from his father-in-law to fund speculations, he exploited – and cheated his lower class business partner. He has some successes but he had more failures, and put more and more pressure on his wife to extract more funds from her father. His attempt to enter the House of Commons, to established him as an English gentleman, fails and Arthur Fletcher takes the seat. he blames everyone but himself.
That had consequence for the Duchess of Omnium – who had been charmed by Lopez and so gave him her support – and in turn for the Prime Minister, who could not, would not, allow his wife’s name – or his principles – to be compromised.
Mr Wharton realised that when he dismissed Lopez’s suit he had neglected to consider other things that would make him an unsuitable husband for his daughter. He did what he could, Emily knew that she had to accept the consequences of her decision; the arc of the relationship between father and daughter was one of my favourite things about this novel.
As Lopez made his determined rise and when he came tumbling down he did a great deal of damage. When both his business and his marriage collapsed around him he made the most dramatic of exits. The repercussions of his actions though would be felt for a long, long time.
His end was inevitable, but the gap that he left was huge, he was such a fascinating, charismatic character. It took the story a while to re-establish itself without him.
But there is a whole world in this story, and the world continues to turn. I loved watching so much going on, at Westminster, in the town, in the country. The scope of the story is vast, and the author’s command of it is magnificent.
There are themes that are horribly relevant today – the consequences of coalition government, and the role the fourth estate – represented here by Mr Quintus Slide …..
There are many things that can be said about this book. I have come to see that Trollope accepted society’s norms and believed that they would continue to hold sway; that he could draw a good villain but he clearly gave much more time to the great and the good; that he gave consideration to how a gentleman should live and behave, and of the consequences of their social position and above all of marriage for women ……
Above all this is a wonderfully rich human drama.
The world that Trollope has created in the Palliser novels and the people that live in it are so very, very real.
I find it easy to simply accept it for what it is, and I love spending time there.