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Anthony Trollope - The Prime Minister Legolas Send a noteboard - 20/03/2012 10:03:22 PM
Over the past year or so, I've been reading the Victorian writer Anthony Trollope's so-called "Palliser novels", a series of six loosely connected novels starring the fictional Liberal politician Plantagenet Palliser. But The Prime Minister, the fifth book, is actually the first one in which Palliser, now Duke of Omnium (yes, Trollope can be extremely subtle in his names), actually becomes the protagonist, or at least one of four protagonists - his wife, the flamboyant Lady Glencora, is another. As one might suspect, their plotline involves the culmination of Palliser's political career, his becoming Prime Minister at the head of an awkward Liberal-Conservative government, after Trollope's equivalents of Gladstone ("Mr. Gresham" ) and Disraeli ("Mr. Daubeny" ) have each tried and failed to form a government. As it turns out, however, Palliser is singularly unsuited for the position of PM - particularly PM of a coalition government.

The plotline of the other two protagonists takes up a larger part of the novel, however - and the intertwining of the two plotlines is really rather limited, all in all. That plot involves a young English heiress, Emily Wharton, and the man she's fallen in love with, Ferdinand Lopez. Who is, as his name makes clear, not quite as English - and may, indeed, even be Jewish. Or something - Mr. Wharton, Emily's father, is not particularly inclined to look too closely at the details. In any case, the man is foreign scum and can't hold a candle to the proper English young man Mr. Wharton has chosen for his daughter. In a modern romantic novel, it may be supposed that Emily would have been forced to marry her father's choice, but that finally she'd have ended up with the man of her heart.

Trollope, however, had other ideas. As it turns out after Emily succeeds in marrying him, Lopez is quite as bad as Mr. Wharton suspected, and indeed rather worse. Much like in Can You Forgive Her?, the first of the Trollope novels (see my review here), the heroine's attempts to assert her own will and rely on her own judgement lead to disaster and near-ruin, and the long-suffering, boring, thoroughly English gentleman suitor wins out in the end.

Unfortunately, this book is lacking in several of the aspects that made Can You Forgive Her? good - for starters, neither the "heroine" nor her bad-boy lover is at all sympathetic or interesting as a character - and is even more offensive to modern sensibilities. I don't think the charges of the novel being anti-Semitic (or at least, more than fleetingly anti-Semitic) have much substance - it's never made clear whether Lopez is in fact a Jew, nor does it seem to matter much. But Trollope does show himself at his most misogynistic and sexist in this novel - not in the least when writing in Emily Wharton's voice. I'm not one to hurl books across rooms, but this book has brought me the closest of any that I recall. The plotline involving Palliser and his wife is less aggravating, but pretty much only because Glencora remains one of Trollope's best characters, male or female.

I wrote in my review of Can You Forgive Her? that "I won't go as far as to say that Palliser and Grey have no depth whatsoever, but they certainly aren't very memorable. I guess one might argue that that only makes it more offensive to read Trollope's views about how their respective love interests should submit to them, but I would prefer to read it as a - quite possibly subconscious - nuancing of Trollope's explicitly expressed views." After The Prime Minister, I'm not nearly so certain about that last bit. Now that Palliser gets depth at last, he turns out to be a rather less impressive man than he seemed before - thin-skinned, fretful, stubborn on all the wrong points and agonizing at length about every mistake he makes. Nevertheless, Trollope makes it quite clear that he considers him to be much more mature and balanced than Glencora - and, bizarrely, that Plantagenet Palliser is his idea of the perfect politician.

With regard to general plot, writing style, background and secondary characters, the novel is no better or worse than the other Palliser novels - which is to say, pretty good, and interesting in its description of Victorian politics and living conditions, but too long. It was always going to be the characters and the themes that made this novel a success or a failure. Unfortunately, three out of the four protagonists irritated or downright annoyed me, while the themes offended me and weren't dealt with nearly as deftly as they were in earlier novels. As such, I can only conclude that this novel does little or nothing that Can You Forgive Her? didn't do better, and since even that book wasn't exactly a flawless masterpiece, I can't recommend the novel to anyone except loyal Trollope fans. For everybody else, and particularly those who like good female characters: go read Jane Eyre or Middlemarch. I rather wish Mr. Trollope would've done so.
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Anthony Trollope - The Prime Minister - 20/03/2012 10:03:22 PM 6291 Views

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