Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Prime Minister by Anthony Trollope

This post contains some spoilers, mostly about previous books in The Palliser Series. 

The Prime Minister by Anthony Trollope is the fifth book in The Palliser Series. It is another Trollope novel full of realistic characters and realistic human interactions. Like several other books in this series, it is infused with a lot of politics. 

The novel tells two parallel stories that occasionally intersect. Plantagenet Palliser, who is now the Duke of Omnium, is elevated to the position of British Prime Minister. As we have seen in previous series entries, he is a patriotic, honorable technocrat who wants to do what is right for Great Britain. He recoils from disingenuous politics and the need to play political games. His wife, Lady Glencora Palliser, now Duchess of Omnium, excels at such political games and quickly becomes a power player while supporting her husband’s ministry. 

The second plot thread involves Emily Wharton. Despite warnings from her family and friends, she marries Ferdinand Lopez. Though he comes off as a sophisticated charmer before the wedding, Lopez turns out to be a narcissistic adventurer who turns cruel. The depiction of how Lopez causes chaos and harm to everyone around him, including Emily, her family, his business and political associates is simply brilliant. It is reflective of more modern depictions of narcissistic people. Trollope shows how he really understood human nature here. 

The two story threads bump into each other when Lopez decides to run for parliament. All sorts of complications ensue. Many characters from previous books are back, including the immoral but very entertaining Lady Eustace and the young Irish politician, Phineas Finn. A few characters from Trollope’s previous series, The Barchester Chronicles, even appear. 

There is much to talk about in regard to this book. I could devote an entire post to Lopez and the havoc that he wreaks. There is a wide variety of characters and themes interacting throughout the work. In this entry, I want to write a few words about Trollope’s political theory and how it relates to the relationship between Palliser and his wife, Lady Glencora. There is a lot of history between this couple, as they have been featured in all of The Palliser Books. In fact, the series is named after them. 

Palliser is outwardly stiff, overly serious and does not display emotions easily. He is very thin skinned and he is extremely sensitive to public criticism. However, he has also been shown to be a man of high principle, one who is willing to make sacrifices for his wife and his country. Though outwardly unemotional, deep down he has been a fully realized character, full of emotions and someone who usually acts with decency. He is also an extremely competent technocrat who is an expert in the area of government finance. He exudes gravitas, is highly respected and almost venerated in the political world. As mentioned above, he hates political games and recoils from acting as if he likes people whom he does not respect. 

Lady Glencora is also a complex character. She can be impulsive. She has a tendency to be sarcastic. She has principles, but she is willing to bend them for political advantage. She wields her social influence in an effort to strengthen her husband and his political position. In contrast to her husband, she is a great player of political games. 

At one point she thinks about how she bestows social approval to some men in exchange for political support,

They were men whose services could be had for a certain payment,— and when paid for were, the Duchess thought, at the Premier's command without further trouble. Of course they came to the receptions, and were entitled to a smile apiece as they entered. But they were entitled to nothing more” 

The way that Palliser and Lady Glencora contrast and complement one another is fascinating. I think that Trollope is saying that government works best when there is a combination of attributes. Ethics, gravity that engenders respect, as well as competence, are vital. These traits are represented by Palliser. Yet, all these noble virtues would be ineffective and useless in politics if not for pragmatism, personal relations and even little bit of disingenuousness. Lady Glencora represents these aspects of politics.

These contrasting styles do cause some conflict between the two. In one extraordinary passage, Palliser contemplates the situation,

“It might, in fact, be the case that it was his wife the Duchess,— that Lady Glencora of whose wild impulses and general impracticability he had always been in dread,— that she with her dinner parties and receptions, with her crowded saloons, her music, her picnics, and social temptations, was Prime Minister rather than he himself. It might be that this had been understood by the coalesced parties,— by everybody, in fact, except himself. It had, perhaps, been found that in the state of things then existing, a ministry could be best kept together, not by parliamentary capacity, but by social arrangements, such as his Duchess, and his Duchess alone, could carry out. She and she only would have the spirit and the money and the sort of cleverness required. In such a state of things he of course, as her husband, must be the nominal Prime Minister.” 

This all ties in to the complicated nature of the relationship between the two. This relationship stretches back through all of the books of this series. The marriage between the pair was arranged. Despite this, it became clear in Can You Forgive Her? that Palliser quickly fell in love with his wife. Lady Glencora initially was resentful and disliked Palliser’s stiffness and outward reserve. However, when Palliser showed that he was willing to sacrifice his entire career, a career that he practically lived for, to ensure his wife’s happiness, Lady Glencora began to develop both respect and affection for him. 

In this book Lady Glencora thinks about her feelings for her husband,

“She revered, admired, and almost loved him. She knew him to be infinitely better than herself.” 

It is not exactly love that she feels. I am not sure her feelings can even be described in a single word. One needs to read the book to completely understand. 

Political theory and explorations are infused throughout the plot. There is a lot more than I touched upon above, including examinations of what Liberalism and Conservatism are. Though I loved the way in which Trollope worked political theory into the plot, I found that actual politics in this book became little wearisome at times. Sometimes, pages and pages are devoted to minor political matters. 

There is also an unfortunate streak of anti-Semitism in this book. I wrote about this tendency here as it manifested itself in Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds. This is doubly disappointing here as Trollope shows a strong sympathy towards the plight of women in this book and elsewhere. It is such shame that that he could not extend his empathy and understanding to Jewish people as he does towards women.

I should note that some of The Palliser books, such as The Eustace Diamonds, work just fine as stand alone books. In my opinion however, as this novel has important connections to all of the previous books in the series, it is best read after the previous four novels.

The complex nature of the relationship between this couple, and its political implications, is only one aspect that makes this book worth reading. This is a fine addition to The Palliser Series. It is full of Trollope’s signature insights into human nature and relationships. I have one more book in this series to go, The Duke’s Children. I cannot wait to get started on that one. 


JacquiWine said...

Another great review of one of Trollope's works. You are making a very strong case for the need to read this author! It's a shame about the streak of antisemitism, though. As you say, it's rather disappointing, especially in light of his attitudes towards other topics.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Jacqui. I think that you would like Trollope. It is interesting how people can be aware in one area but blind in another.

RFD@15037 said...

I always enjoy your reviews and postings, but I have a confession: I am envious of your Trollope reading project (i.e., I wish I had such a commitment to "intensive reading" of one author's many works). Perhaps I will be inspired by you -- one of these days -- to embark on a similarly intensive plan. Two quite different contenders are vying for my attentions: Charles Dickens and Flannery O'Connor. Well, maybe someday I will follow your example. Thanks for the postings, reviews, and the inspiration.

Mudpuddle said...

i've read the Barchester series and just finished "Ralph the Heir" (concerning which i just wrote a post for my "Mudpuddle Soup" blog). Politics is a major concern of T's... perhaps it's the easiest way to examine human nature for him... he does seem to possess negative reactions to the way it's practiced, though... in"Ralph", he's very cynical about the corruption in county elections and after describing the devious and dishonest carryings on in Percycross, he has Parliament ban the borough from having representatives altogether... which i guess was actually done in some cases during the 19th c. excellent review, i must say, and it causes me to think more seriously about attacking the Paliser books... tx....

thecuecard said...

The relationship between the two seems quite interesting. Lady Glencora sounds like a mover & a shaker for her time. Palliser definitely seems to need her for his career. I look forward to hearing about the next one. Enjoy!

James said...

This sounds like another great volume in the Palliser series of novels. I will try to remember to save this until after reading some of the earlier ones. His depiction of the political life of the time must be fascinating.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks RT - One reason that I have read so many Trollope books is that they are in series. One book leads to another. I have also been reading my way through Dickens but at a much slower pace.I need to read Flannery O'Connor.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Mudpuddle - Though at times they drag a little, the politics in this series is often brilliant and insightful. I have not read "Ralph the Heir" but it sounds good.I did not know that you started a blog. I will go check it out!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - The politics are mostly front and center of this series. Interestingly, I find the politics to be very similar to modern American or British politics.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - The relationship between Lady Glencora and The Duke of Omnium has been a constant source of interest throughout the series. Typically for Trollope, it is complex and often unpredictable.

Kathy's Corner said...

Excellent review Brian. You describe this book, the characters, tneir motivations so well. I had planned to start reading the Warden but I too am bothered by the anti-semitism. Trollope is a great writer but I wish he could have taken some of his insight and used it to look a hard look at himself. You have inspired me to find an author and read their entire output. I'm thinking of George Gissing. I read his book The Odd Woman years ago and loved it based on a review of his work by the talented Vivian Gornick I've become curious about Gissing.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Kathy - I actually am not planning to read all of Trollope's books. I believe that he wrote 54 novels. This is the twelfth that I have read. After finishing this series I will probably read about three or four more.

I have not read Gissing. I would like to give him a try.

Simon said...

I recently came upon a set of lovely pristine OWC paperbacks of the Pallisers and Barsetshires, almost complete, so I'll come back to this post at that point some time in the future - don't know when I'll find the time! - when I've read them.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for stopping by Simon - These are books that are worth collecting. I started reading The Chronicles of Barsetshire about four years ago. I read through that series and now I am on the last Palliser book. Many of these are also big books so it is slow going.

Carol said...

I've listened to the Barchester Chronicles on audio - very enjoyable but I'll have to work up to the Palliser novels, I think. Some of Trollope's short stories are very good (listening to the Frau Frohmann series)& I'm sticking to them for the time being. Have you seen this website?

Suko said...

Thanks for posting your thoughts about this book. This book and series sound intriguing in many ways. I'm determined to read something by Anthony Trollope at some point. Excellent commentary, Brian Joseph!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - I think that you would like Trollope. I think that either The Warden or Can You Forgive Her? are good places to start because they are the beginning of series.

Brian Joseph said...

HI Carol - I think the Palliser novels are more cynical then The Barsetshire books. They came later and they describe a more cosmopolitan world. In some ways they it is all one big series as there are crossover characters.

I love exploring the Trollope Society website. It is particularly use when characters from one book appear several books later. I can look up the character for a refresh.

baili said...

Never found any book with politics involve such interesting Brian!

i don't know as if the book itself is as great or your commentary made it so!

I eagerly wanted to explore the main character who has inspirational personality and his wife who "almost love him" i can understand her little bit from your words that she is lady who "thinks Lot" and invest her mental strength in playing games love is not her field .
Love is field of people who "fell more than they think"

i found your review really APPEALING!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much Baili - Lady Glencora is one of Trollope's most interesting and read characters.

Trollope had a flair for making things interesting. That includes politics.

The Bookworm said...

Great post as always, I know you enjoy Trollope's work. I like the quote about Lady Glencora towards her husband. I like reading complicated relationships in books, it feels more true to life that way.
Enjoy your weekend!

Sharon Wilfong said...

I confess I skimmed most of your post because I haven't read the book yet. I did read your last couple of paragraphs, however.

It is unfortunate that people can thoughtlessly denigrate another group of people as Trollope apparently does (I noticed it in the Eustace Diamonds). However, it makes me look at myself and our world and see who we might be holding in contempt without realizing that we're going with a cultural flow without realizing it.

I am jealous that you have read most of these books. They're still on my bookshelves patiently waiting.

Have a great weekend, Brian.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - Indeed it is worth asking oneself if we are holding unfair biases.

I looked back and it turns out that I started The Chronicles of Barchester about four years ago. That and the palliser series are related. I am now on the twelfth book of the combined series.

Have a great weekend!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Naida. Trollope was so good at complex relationships.

Maria Behar said...

OUTSTANDING commentary as usual, Brian!! :)

I really MUST make reading Trollope a New Year's resolution! Lol. It sure sounds like this is a series of really fascinating novels!

This particular installment in the series sounds very interesting, although, as you say, the author's dwelling on "minor political matters" can indeed get tedious. I would like to read about the contrast between conservatism and liberalism, though.

On the other's very unfortunate, as well as unappealing, that this novel is marred by anti-Semitism....And how very ironic, too, as Trollope is sympathetic to women's rights, as you have stated in this review. Why could he not have been just as sympathetic toward Jews? I find this to be illogical and puzzling.

It also bothers me that he has made Ferdinand López a very unsavory character. Is this character Jewish? If not, then Trollope is also showing prejudice against Hispanics. If this character IS Jewish, then it's DOUBLE prejudice. Why should a Hispanic be depicted as being narcissistic, unscrupulous, and cruel? This REALLY ticks me off! This is probably related to the long-standing animosity I've heard exists between the British and the Spanish. If this is true, then I think this animosity probably goes all the way back to the defeat by the British of the Spanish Armada, in 1588. The Armada sailed from La Coruña, Spain, to England with the intent to invade England and overthrow Queen Elizabeth I. But, as stated in the Wikipedia article about the Armada, England had been interfering in the Spanish Netherlands. The plot thickens, right? Lol.

Here's the link to the Wikipedia article on the Spanish Armada. (Note to self: read history books!)

So I think there has not been any love lost between the English and the Spanish for centuries. But it's STILL prejudice to have an evil Hispanic character. Why couldn't this evil character have been British? Why was this particular character included in a book dealing with British characters and British politics?

Here's another interesting Wikipedia link. This one deals with Hispanophobia, which is the irrational fear and aversion toward Hispanics.

Of course, we're currently seeing this fear and aversion toward Hispanics playing out in the recent debates over immigration. Behind the "concern" that illegal immigrants are somehow "destroying" the country, lies the ugly specter of Hispanophobia. Heck, we have evidence of that right here in Miami. With the increase in Hispanic immigration through the 60s, 70s, and 80s, most white Americans moved out of the city. The African-Americans don't like Hispanics much, either. They see us as coming to the city to "take over", thus taking jobs that rightfully should have been theirs. The blame for this should really go to the racist employers in Miami. They prefer to hire light-skinned immigrants to dark-skinned Americans.

Anyway.... I do need to start the Palliser series. Trollope has many other great qualities as a writer. I might end up not reading "The Prime Minister", after all, though.

Thanks for your insightful review!! Hope you're having a great Sunday!! <3 :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria.

I was thinking of devoting a separate post to Trollope’s views of liberalism and conservatism. Trollope was moderately liberal but he saw value in both liberalism and conservatism.

Lopez is of Portuguese origin. I found it hard to tell if Trollope was expressing prejudice against the Portuguese. It may be there but if it is, it is subtle. One thing is that Trollope shows bias toward anyone who is not British. One aspect of the anti – Semitism here is that Lopez is suspected of being Jewish.

Without a doubt there is enormous bias aimed at Hispanic folks in America. Our current administration is fanning it. Sadly different groups, some the recipients of discrimination themselves also biased. I think that we had been moving in the right direction, but Trumpism is a terrible setback.

Have a great week!

Maria Behar said...

Interesting that this character is of Portuguese origin. I was wondering why his last name did not have an accent over the letter "o". But then, there are no written accents in English, so I can see why Trollope didn't place one over the "o". However, Trollope has made a mistake in the spelling of this last name. That's because the Portuguese version is supposed to be "Lopes", with an "s" at the end, and not "Lopez", with a "z". That's why I thought there should have been an accent over the "o".

This type of thing is very common with last names. The Spanish versions end with a "z", while the Portuguese versions end with an "s". My own maiden name, for example, was "Pérez", indicating Spanish origin. My dad was, in fact, from Spain. The Portuguese version is "Peres". And there's no accent over the first "e". Of course, in English, my maiden name lost the accent anyway.

As you have implied, prejudice against someone of Portuguese descent is just as reprehensible as prejudice against Hispanics, or any other group. (BTW, I have discovered while Googling that Brazilians and Portuguese don't like being called "Hispanics".) And you have stated that Trollope was biased against anyone who was not British. The fact that this Lopes character is suspected of being Jewish makes things even worse!

What you've stated about some groups, themselves the victims of prejudice, discriminating other equally discriminated groups, is very true, as well as appalling, not to mention completely illogical! I have argued with Cubans who think that African-Americans are inferior! And even some Jews discriminate against African-Americans. It's really very sad..... And yes, this DISGRACEFUL president if fanning this type of thing, and it IS indeed a terrible setback. After all the suffering and sacrifices of civil rights activists, to have this type of thing happen, is EXTREMELY disappointing! But we will, of course, continue to resist this evil man named Donald J. Trump. We will NOT give up!!

Hope you have a great week, too!! <3 :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hey Maria- That is really interesting about the Portuguese last names and how Trollope got it wrong.

Trump's vileness is beyond words.

Lory said...

This sounds great, Brian - insightful and timely too. The anti-Semitic element was quite pervasive at the time, not that that is an excuse, but I wonder what it says about an element we've long resisted and found hard to integrate in ourselves.

Brian Joseph said...

One thing that makes the anti - semitism harder to push off as a sign of the times is the fact that several of Trollope's contemporaries condemned it. Both Charles Dickens and Friedrich Nietzsche come to mind.

The politics in this book are remarkably similar to the way modern democracies operate.

Deepika Ramesh said...

Thank you for this extensive, enlightening review, Brian. I learn a lot of things from your reviews, which I wouldn't have come across otherwise. Many thanks!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Deepika.

HKatz said...

I really enjoy your reviews of Trollope's books. As for the anti-semitism, I wonder why authors who otherwise can consider complex issues with care and perceive other people's humanity (like in this case, Trollope's approach to female characters) somehow have a strong mental block of sorts when it comes to certain groups.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Hila. It is interesting how folks can be selective when it comes to bias. Some of my relatives who I have not seen in decades were very sympathetic to Jewish people and spoke out against anti - Semitism but were racist against other groups.