Wednesday, 20 February 2013

At the Top of the Greasy Pole

I started my odyssey through Anthony Trollope’s Palliser series of political novels in early 2011, beginning with Can You Forgive Her? I said at the outset of my review of this book that the year was to be my Trollope period, an author I had hitherto overlooked. Well, I only made it as far as Phineas Redux, the fourth in the series, which I reviewed in October, 2011, just before a trip to Egypt. I was sidetracked, as I am invariably am, setting off in the pursuit of various literary foxes, shifting from one horse to another in mid-gallop. I took time out but I was out for almost a year and a half! 

Now I’m back on course, having finished The Prime Minister, the sequel to Phineas Redux, at the weekend. Once again I immersed myself in the high Victorian political and social milieu; once again I was captivated by the intrigues and the machinations of Trollope’s most engaging character – Lady Glencora Palliser, now the Duchess of Omnium. Her husband, Plantagenet Palliser, the Duke of Omnium, formerly the Chancellor of the Exchequer and now the Prime Minister, has at last made it to the top of the greasy pole, but, oh my, what a struggle she has trying to stop him from sliding back down! 

Her problem is simply stated: Plantagenet is the noblest Roman of them all, something of a drawback when it comes to the realities of modern political life. He heads a coalition, a compromise on men and measures, cobbled together to break a political deadlock. He becomes Prime Minister, moreover, simply because there is no one else suitable at the time, not as the fruit of his own ambition. But, alas, he is not comfortable in the role; he is far too honest, far too thin-skinned and far, far too scrupulous. The Duchess, if only it were possible, could have done it so much better;

They should have made me Prime Minister...I could have done all the dirty work. I could have given away garters and ribbons and made my bargains while giving them. I would give pensions or withheld them and make stupid men peers..... a man at a regular office has to work and that is what Plantagenet is fit for. He wants always to be doing something...............but a Prime Minister should never go beyond generalities about commerce, agriculture, peace and general philanthropy. Of course he should have the gift of the gab and that Plantagenet hasn't got....I could do a Mansion House dinner to a marvel.

Oh, Glencora, you were a hundred years too early! 

The truth is that the Duke, for all his moral rectitude, or because of his moral rectitude, is a dull dog, high-minded but uninspiring, wholly unsuited for a position which demands the kind of personal and managerial skills that he simply does not have. Does Trollope conceive of him as an admirable figure? Yes, he obviously does, though he is clearly one best suited the second rank of political life, far better as a Chancellor, where he can ponder the ins and outs of decimalisation – one of his obsessions – without having to concern himself with the kind of things that the Duchess understands are an essential part of effective leadership. A good Prime Minister has to be a consummate actor. Glencora realises this; Plantagenet does not. No, that’s not quite true: he does not want to play a part. Playing a part, to be more exact, involves compromising his Olympian ideals of probity and honour. 

Those who are interested in present day English political realities will find The Prime Minister dryly amusing at points, not least when the author touches on the nature of coalition government. England does not love coalitions, Disraeli said. That may be true, but England has to suffer coalition;

...coalitions of this kind have been generally feeble, sometimes disastrous, and on occasions, even disgraceful. When a man, perhaps through a long political life, has bound himself to a certain code of opinions, how can he change the code in a moment? And when at the same moment, together with the change, he secures power, patronage, and pay, how shall the public voice absolve him? 

The Prime Minister is certainly a political novel, but the game – unlike the novels of Disraeli himself - is played in the minor key; the politics are the personal. There are really no high ideological issues at stake, no great clash of principles. The focus, rather, is on social, sexual and domestic politics, the politics of marriage above all, particularly as this bears on property relations. 

The author is particularly good on the position of women in the Victorian world. Marriage to a virtuous gentleman, as he sees it, is that highest thing they can aim for, but he does not shy away from the penalties: the frustration of limited prospects and circumscribed lives. It’s also a novel of contrasting types. There is the practical Glencora, a foil to the high-minded Plantagenet. But the greatest contrast of all is between the Duke, a very perfect, gentle knight, and one Ferdinand Lopez, a parvenu, an interloper and - in his personal impact on the lifes of those with whom he comes into contact - something of an incubus. 

Where Lopez comes from, who and what his antecedents were, and how this outsider managed to graft himself on to the highest reaches of English society is never fully explained. Why Glencora takes him up – with unfortunate consequences for her husband – is also something of a mystery, given that he is wholly without connections or influence. Lopez, as an interloper, becomes the butt of all sorts of mid-Victorian prejudices. He is “a man without a father, a foreigner, a black Portuguese nameless Jew...[with] a bright eye, a hook nose and a glib tongue.” Whether or not Lopez is Jewish he certainly takes on the role of the unscrupulous financier, comparing himself at one point to Shakespeare’s Shylock.

Lopez is the kind of figure that might very well find a resonance with a modern readership, particularly as we all now live in ABC – the Aftermath of the Banking Crisis. He’s not a banker himself but he is a speculator, a man who uses the money of others wholly without any kind of scruple. Amongst other things he deals in guano, which may or may not be intended to convey the author’s own estimation of a particular kind of entrepreneurial capitalism! Lopez has nothing, no background, no wealth, no prospects; nothing beyond his wit. 

In his smooth glibness, he manages to contract a socially advantageous marriage to one Emily Wharton, the daughter of a wealthy lawyer, who also happens to be a scion of England’s old rural Tory squirearchy. 

I’ve admired a great many of Trollope’s female characters hitherto, particularly Glencora (who could not admire and love her?), Madame Max Goesler and even the colourful and slightly disreputable Lizzie Eustace. 

Emily Wharton is a contrast in every way; she is a crashing bore. Her one defining characteristic is a perverse obstinacy, coupled with dog-like notions of duty. She is obstinate in her desire to marry Lopez, though she knows nothing about him, and she is obstinate in widowhood – sorry for the spoiler – when he has conveniently been dispatched, Anna Karenina-style, though he had previously used her shamefully in an attempt to milk her father's wealth. After his death she descends into morbid mourning, even though the marriage was a disaster. In fact her widowhood becomes a badge of personal self-immolation. The man was unworthy of her; she should never have married; she rejected honest and true love; it's all her fault - mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Why poor Andrew Fletcher, part of the family’s county set, continued in his unrelenting devotions I have no idea! 

I was tempted to write that The Prime Minister is a kind of comedy of manners, except there is not really much in the way of comedy (The Duchess has a few good self-deprecating lines, though). It’s certainly a superb panorama, ranging over aspects of Victorian life, attitudes and manners at the higher reaches of society, the kind of parts that Dickens never reached or wanted to reach. Trollope, moreover, has a crisp and engaging style. 

There is also, at least it seems to me, an intriguing ambiguity in his message. He obviously disapproves of the morally reprehensible Lopez, but Lopez, or people like him, were the motors of Victorian transformation, the risk takers and the deal makers. Is he really suggesting that the only alternative is the unimpeachable Whartons and Fletchers, the epitome of rural stasis and torpor? Ah, but as Abel Wharton, Emily's father, reflects "...the world was changing around him every day. Royalty was marrying out of its degree. Peers' sons were looking only for money. And, more than that, peers' daughters were bestowing themselves on Jews and shopkeepers." The world is changing, yes, but all change is accompanied by fear, uncertainty and prejudice. 

Anyway, read it and make up your own mind. I assure you it’s well worth the effort. You may even, like me, be engaged enough to cry out in frustration when the plot takes a particular turn, or certain characters prove to be more than usually annoying. I defy anyone, moreover, not to hate Quintus Slide the newspaper proprietor, as slimy as any modern press baron.

So, yes, I’ve bagged my fifth literary Munro in the Trollope range. I spy the last, The Duke’s Children, in the distance. I promise my next review shall not be as distant. 


  1. Nice review, but I still won't read this.

    1. No, Anthony, I don't think this is the kind of thing that would appeal to you.