Review – Trollope, “The Prime Minister”

Anthony Trollope, “The Prime Minister” (1876) – I read about one Trollope a year. He’s probably my favorite Victorian novelist. I like the (relative) frankness with which he deals with his society. This is the fifth of six novels in his Palliser series, all having to do with Plantagenet Palliser, fabulously wealthy aristocrat and politician troubled by conscience. There’s always a lot going on in a given Trollope novel, though, at least the big ones (this one is big) – some politics, some marriage biz, a crime or two. “The Prime Minister” is no exception, with two main plots. As the title would lead you to expect, Planty (can’t remember if anyone calls him that in the books, but I do) becomes Prime Minister, in this case, of a coalition government, trying to ride herd on both Liberals and Conservatives. He’s a bit of a drag, possessed by notions of duty and a simple desire to be useful- all of his fabulous wealth and power means nothing to him, you see. It’s up to his wife, the Lady Glencora, to play the social game that could make the whole thing work. She overdoes it; he underdoes it; it doesn’t work well.

Then there’s the plot involving Emily Wharton and who she should and shouldn’t marry. She’s the daughter of a rich solicitor from a respectable family, who’s in love with Ferdinand Lopez, a financier in the City. Her dad doesn’t like it, because Lopez is foreign (Portuguese!), possibly a Jew (not a lot of Portuguese Jews, in Portugal anyway, circa 1876 but ok) (also he converted), and his parents weren’t gentle-folk. Various people prevail on Daddy Wharton to see past his prejudices and so they get married. But it turns out the old man was right! Lopez is a scoundrel. He seems nice enough for the first third of the book. But he reveals himself, once he marries Emily, as something worse than crooked (which he also is): he’s pushy. He talks about money in indelicate ways, even with ladies and Dukes! He gets his, in the end, and Emily marries a nice English gentleman.

Those of you who know me know I don’t apply a political or moral litmus test to what I read. I don’t really think Trollope was a ravening anti-semite: I think he was a Little Englander. To my mind, a Little Englander is someone who prefers English flaws to foreign virtues, on the idea that God or nature or whatever has made England and the English such that they can only really be happy and settled with each other. This doesn’t answer why they then sail around the world bothering other people so much, but no one ever said English bigots were consistent. That said, I think if there’s any type of novel to judge on a moral basis, it’s the Victorian triple-decker, and I do think this one’s a little bullshit. Among other things, the smugness — that the crusty old Englishman’s bigotries always wind up correct, even when (especially when?) he hasn’t got any good reason for them — turns the whole thing into a protracted sadistic morality play, watching Lopez descend further and further into cringeworthy servility and lying, the opposite of Trollope’s bluff, independent, somewhat stupid English gentleman, the height of creation.

Oddly enough, the Irish, or anyway Phineas Finn, hero of previous novels in the series, come out ok, if anyone is keeping score at home. Finn stands up for his buddy Plantagenet even after old Planty gets in trouble because his silly wife trusts Lopez. Finn knew his place, Lopez didn’t. “Knowing your place” does not for great literature make. There’s still enough enjoyment in Trollope’s writing and wide-scope depiction of Victorian Britain to make this not totally terrible, but it’s not one of the better Trollopes in my opinion. ***

Review – Trollope, “The Prime Minister”

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