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.