This, the fifth novel in the Palliser series, is according to David Skilton in his introduction `the key work in the (...) series'. Now I wouldn't know about that, not having read the sixth and last novel, but what I do know without a shadow of a doubt is that this is a very very good novel in its own right.
Trollope loosely intertwines two plots in `The Prime Minister'. In the `political' plot Plantagenet Palliser is asked and eventually (though reluctantly) accepts to become prime minister, to the great pride and joy of his wife Lady Glencora. In the `social' plot, Emily Wharton, daughter of a wealthy lawyer, falls in love with and marries, against the advice of all her friends and relatives, a certain Ferdinand Lopez (about whom nobody seems to know much, not who his parents were, or how he makes a living). In both cases the protagonists come to realize before long that it's not all gold that glitters: Palliser learns that being prime minister is not all it's made out to be, and Emily discovers how deceptive appearances can be when she gets to know her husband better.
Trollope investigates several themes in `The Prime Minister' by (implicitly) comparing and contrasting the main characters. As to the men: Plantagenet Palliser is indeed `the perfect gentleman' but this has its drawbacks too, or so it seems: he is scrupulous to a t, unable to socialize and `joke around' with other men, and ever in doubt of his own capability to be a good prime minister. The question Trollope raises is ultimately: can a true gentleman be a good prime minister? Ferdinand Lopez on the other hand is the opposite: he has all the outer trappings of a gentleman, but it turns out that beneath this thin veneer he is a ruthless and egotistical opportunist. However, Lopez has an energy and `can do' mentality, a will to succeed, that Palliser lacks.
The two main female characters too are contrasted: Lady Glencora has been married for years now and, in spite of his shortcomings, truly loves her husband. She tries to support him in all his efforts but in doing so `puts her foot in it' and causes him severe embarassment. Emily Wharton on the other hand tries to love and obey her husband as she feels she should, but finds this increasingly difficult when she discovers he sees her father as nothing but a milch cow (with her as the dairy maid).
Although there is a happy end of sorts, the overall effect of the novel is clearly rather gloomy and depressing, but I hasten to add that this for me by no means detracted from the joy of reading it. It's the eleventh Trollope-novel in a row I've read now, and to me one of the very best so far! And so, with a mixture of both anticipation and regret, it's on to the sixth and final part in the Palliser series, `The Duke's Children'!
The Prime Minister contains two interlacing stories: the career of Plantagenet Palliser, the hero in the series of which this novel is the crowning part, and the tribulations of the London heiress Emily Wharton in love and marriage. I thought the insider's view of parliamentary and cabinet politics would be the novel's attraction. Actually the struggles of Emily Wharton, who has made a love match to a dangerous adventurer, turned out to be more exciting. Trollope was a master storyteller, and that tale is full of interesting surprises as well as sharp, entertaining dialogue. The political story tends to form a lighter backdrop to it.
The Prime Minister is indeed half social comedy and half psychological. It is a cross, perhaps, between Evelyn Waugh and George Eliot. It tends, besides, to be interested in the emotional side of politics and in the effect of social mores on private life, not the other way around. It is also prejudiced (the villain is a swarthy Latin, and he is an arch-villain), though somehow that doesn't shock too much (so am I: a swarthy Latin, I mean, not an arch-villain). But most importantly, it is a compelling read.
Two more points. First, it is not necessary to have read the previous Palliser novels to enjoy this one. Second, in spite of its length, it is quickly read, even if the last hundred pages are superfluous (the work was serialised and expected to reach a certain length).
As a Trollope devotee I cannot honestly say this is one of his works which I enjoyed the most, but it is one of his works which I admire the most. Trollope was really pushing the boundaries of his own writing when he wrote The Prime Minister, he was daring to be different - which is something I always admire in a writer with an established reputation. As a result, The Prime Minister lacks something of the warmth of the Barset novels or the political optimism of some of the earlier Palliser novels e.g. Phineas Finn. However, it is one of his finest, most complex observations of marital relationships, and also his most acute observation of the British political system and for these reasons it is a great novel.
As always with Trollope, the women are the standout characters of the piece - Lady Glencora is at her most charming, witty, frustrating, obstinate best in this book. She is ably assisted thankfully by Mrs Finn - the wonderful Madam Max of previous novels. It was such a relief to find Mrs Finn still played a significant role here despite her marriage in the previous book of the series. Emily Lopez is admittedly not my favourite of Trollope's ladies but she is at least not as saccharine sweet as the likes of Lily Dale, and she is made up for by the underused but rather marvellous Mrs Parker.
However, the male characters here do almost live up to their female rivals in interest, which is unusual in a Trollope novel. Ferdinand Lopez is a great example of the complex outsider, and the direct contrast presented with Plantagenet Palliser, the ultimare insider, is brilliantly drawn. Lopez remains largely a mystery throughout the novel, which just adds to it's brilliance. His ancestral origins remain unclear throughout, as does his cultural background. There are some uncomfortable anti-semitic references here, but these are largely from the mouths of the characters (i.e. not the narrator, Trollope) and so can be understood as a reflection of the attitude of the time. Nevertheless they do make moments of this novel uncomfortable for the modern reader, but do not detract massively from the novel overall.
Apparently Tolstoy was a big admirer of this book, and it is easy to see why as it bears a number of similarities to Anna Karenina. Palliser's political theorising reminds me of the voice of Levin in AK - albeit Trollope doesn't have Palliser go on at such ridiculous boring lengths as Tolstoy's protagonist. I also see similarities between the characters of Lopez and Vronsky - the self absorbed attitude, unwillingness to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions, anger issues and attitude towards women all seems reminiscent of each other. The fate of Lopez is also very reminiscent of one of the characters in AK (I wont say which and spoil the outcome for those who have not yet read this book).
Overall, I really admired this work. My only criticisms were that the overall tone of the book was the most sad and cynical I have encountered with Trollope's work so far which meant it lacked the warmth of other works, and also I felt it was about 75-100 pages too long and some editing would have made the story sharper and more effective. However, Trollope displays all his literary prowess here. He truly is a master of realist fiction, and has such a tremendous understanding of human psychology as well as such wit that I find it impossible not to delight in his work, and The Prime Minister is not exception. flag
What I love about Trollope is his scope and vision. He writes so brilliantly about politics and just makes them come alive. There is not a moment of boredom from start to finish, and that is because Trollope has a fundamental understanding of what politics is all about, it is about people, and he cares passionately for people. I get so attached to the characters in his novels because they are given real, interesting lives. This book is about compromise in politics, about how ideals have to be tempered for real life and is an interesting precursor to the final book in the series "The Duke's Children" for what Palliser learns in politics here he has to learn more brutally in his private life next. Fantastic
The political theme of the Pallisers is in full sight here - Plantagenet Palliser completes his rise from "Planty Pall", the neophyte politician glimpsed in the Barchester novels, and is finally not just Duke of Omnium, but also Prime Minister. As he discovers the vanity of human wishes, in discovering his unfitness for the role amidst the gladhanding and the backbiting of real political life, we can tremble over Lady Glen's (no, one can't really think of her as "the Duchess") entirely predictable revelling in all the bits of the position which the Duke himself hates, and her innate ability to do harm when only trying to do good. The Duke is, in this one book, properly centre stage, and one cannot help loving the man - his intense desire to do the right thing, and his complete inability to make himself other than he is (shy and intensely unsociable) to facilitate his dreams. The passage where he walks with Lady Rosina (what a come down for her since the days of Dr Thorne and Small House) and finds balm for his wounded soul in discussing the difficulty of getting boots with good soles is simply delightful! But the emotional core of the book lies in the story of Emily Wharton, a beautiful, ladylike girl, the cherished daughter of a weathy man. She chafes against the bonds of propriety in the simplest and most fatal way - by determining that she will reject her childhood sweetheart (a wonderfully clever, worthy young man) and marry a bounder and a cad called Lopez. Not, of course that she realises that he is rotten until it is too late - we know she is making a terrible mistake, and so do all her friends, but all we can do is watch helplessly as she falls into the trap - and as she realises that she has tied herself to a man she cannot love and must despise. The story is the more compelling in that Lopez, though plainly a wrong 'un, is still written with a degree of sympathy. Trollope helps us to understand his imperatives, which drive him gradually away from decent behaviour, and the core of truth and love which remains in him and which plays no small part in his ultimate fate. All four of the main characters, of course, discover that one should be careful what one wishes for - because when you get it, it may not suit you at all! I have returned to this book with pleasure time and time again, and every time taken away something new. As a result I would certainly put it in my Trollope Top 5!
A reluctant Prime Minister, Plantaganet Palliser, is called upon to lead a Liberal/Tory coalition ministry, a mission he accepts with great reluctance and performs with distaste. Meanwhile, the loving, eligible Emily Wharton is successfully wooed by an on-the-make adventurer, Ferdinand Lopez, and has to come to terms with the ramifications of her disastrous marriage.
Trollope brilliantly interweaves these ‘political’ and ‘social’ elements. The chary PM — in spite of the exhuberant machinations of his wife, Lady Glen — finds peace once her efforts are exhausted by gradually reconciling himself to his office. The wronged wife finds happiness, at the last, by accepting that her mistake can be forgiven by others (in particular her childhood sweetheart, Arthur Fletcher) and, through them, by herself.
Trollope’s genius is in treating all his character creations with sympathy, while lightly, usually ironically, under-cutting any pretensions to which they and wider society cling. While he has bigger things to say about power — as exercised by politicians in the public sphere, or by men in the private sphere — at heart his stories are deeply personal, both human and humane.
Here is Trollope on coalition government. Quote: 'Everything must be dead when men holding different opinions on every subject under the sun come together in order that they may carry on a government as they would a trade business. The work may be done but it must be done without spirit.' (P. 352 in the Penguin Classics edition.) Does this not sound familiar to our 21st century ears? One will learn more about politics and politicians by reading Trollope's political novels than listening for hours to the tedious platitudes and sound-bites routinely and repeatedly mouthed by contemporary politicians.
The fifth of Trollope's six "Palliser" novels, "The Prime Minister" follows the Prime Ministerial career of the languid and honourable Duke of Omnium. In parallel, we also follow the love affair of Emily Wharton with the dastardly Ferdinand Lopez. The politics of all this is outstanding: the book teems with contemporary-sounding epithets ("ministers are always indecent in their haste or treacherous in their delay") and the Duke's travails sound astonishingly modern. But the relationship side of things is far weaker than in earlier Palliser novels, notably The Eustace Diamonds or Can You Forgive Her, both far stronger. And the fact that Lopez is an object of suspicion because he is Jewish and foreign, and subsequently turns out to be utterly untrustworthy, leaves an unpleasant taste.
For: brilliant on politics. Against: long-winded and a touch anti-semitic