Friday, October 13, 2023

Anthony Trollope, The Prime Minister (1876)

I'm going to reveal plot points in the following with no spoiler warnings at all; WHATEVER, it's not like you were planning on reading it anyway.

Right, so there's this sketchy dude, Ferdinand Lopez. No one really knows who he is or what his profession is or financial situation is, except that he's not really British; he's Portuguese, or something, and possibly (sigh) Jewish, though there's really very little anti-Semitism here. At any rate, he's fixed his sights on marrying Emily Wharton, the daughter of a successful barrister; he knows that her dad is loaded and thinks to get his hands on some of that dosh through her. For her part, she already has a suitor, Arthur Fletcher, who's a super great guy and everything, but she's fallen in love (or convinced herself she has) with Ferdinand instead. Her dad is extremely not down with this match, but after a certain amount of persistence and pressure, he decides he has no choice but to let the marriage go through. Things go from bad to worse pretty quickly, as Ferdinand is constantly pressuring Emily to prevail on her dad to give him money, which he had assumed would be forthcoming in spite of no such thing having been agreed upon prior to the marriage. He makes a failed run for Parliament. He tries and tries to extort money out of Wharton père. Finally, when all his avenues of pursuit seem definitively walled off, he throws himself in front of a train (reducing him to "bloody atoms"--first suicide I've seen in a Trollope novel; it's fun to note that this was published a year before Anna Karenina, but it's hard to imagine that it was an influence). So now (having long since realized she didn't love Ferdinand) she can get together with Arthur, right? Well, yes; this isn't a Lily Dale situation, thankfully, but not until after a more or less tedious amount of "oh no I don't deserve happiness after marrying that guy you must find someone worthy of you."

So that's that, but of course it's only half the novel; the other, naturally, relates to the title. As you must surely have guessed, the titular Prime Minister is the Duke of Omnium, Plantagenet Palliser himself. He does...Prime Minister things, I guess. There's a lot with his wife, Glencora, who's super into her husband having this role and wants to show off. There's this scandal where she, charmed by Ferdinand, agrees that the Duke will support his Parliamentary campaign, only to learn that Plantagenet is extremely not into this influence brokering stuff and refuses to help. So when Ferdinand loses, he's pissed off that he had to spend five hundred pounds for seemingly nothing, and writes the Duke a letter of complaint. To which the Duke thinks, what is this? Well, okay, my wife probably did give a wrong impression, take the money, whatever. Only then Quintus Slide, Trollope's go-to yellow journalist, finds out about this and tries (and ultimately fails) to make a scandal of it). Look, whatever. Ultimately, Plantagenet loses the title of Prime Minister. What can I say? Oh, and also, Phineas is here, but he doesn't really do much; he kind of just hangs around.

This book is kind of a bumpy read, even more so than the average Trollope novel. The stuff with Ferdinand is actually pretty compelling, especially as his marriage with Emily goes south. He's fun to hate, and even kind of thematically interesting: he's a trader in vaguely-defined commodities, is what he is, and on a number of occasions Trollope says things to the effect of, even though he seemed like an Englishman, he didn't really understand how an Englishman would act in X situation. He seems to represent some combination of foreignness and modernity that Trollope is not into.  This dubious foreigner running around fucking up our established order, I ask you. We get another appearance from our ol' pal Lizzie Eustace here; Ferdinand, knowing that she has at least a modest fortune, tries to get her to run off with him, but she refuses. Trollope doesn't portray her as any more sympathetic than he ever has, but you get the impression that he has a sneaking admiration for her: she may be a gold-digger and all that, but at least she's a good old-fashioned English con artist, as opposed to this sinister guy who's going to bring us all to I don't know what.

So that's all well and good, but good god is the Palliser stuff boring, I can't even tell you, and it really kicks into high boring-gear towards the end: you think the book is going to be over, more or less, after Ferdinand's death, but no, there's still like a hundred fifty pages to go, some of which concerns Arthur's pursuit of Emily, but A LOT of which involves the question of Plantagenet's coalition and what's going to happen to it. I don't think Trollope had much of a sense of dramatic structure. And it appears that he actually thought this was, like interesting, since it ends with Plantagenet, who had sworn off the idea of government service, allowing that maybe someday, in the future, if he's look forward to that, I guess. I mean, did Victorian people? Was this stuff super-riveting to them? Hmm. And even the romance isn't as good as it ought to be, if Emily was less irritating. And the other thing about her is, we never even learn why she's in love with Ferdinand in the first place. He must have his charming aspects, but we sure don't see them, so she comes across as somewhat brain-damaged. No offense.

So anyway, basically the usual stuff here. As always, just a few stray observations...well, just two this time.

So did I say the political stuff was uninteresting? Well, it is, but there IS this here quote from Plantagenet:

Equality would be heaven, if we could attain it. How can we to whom so much has been given dare to think otherwise? How can you look at the bowed back and bent legs and abject face of that poor ploughman, who winter and summer has to drag his rheumatic limbs to work, while you go a-hunting or sit in pride of place among the foremost few of your country, and say that it all is as it ought to be?

Well...yes. That is the case, now as then. It's very weird that Trollope can articulate this in so many words and still have most of his heroes (not always, especially in the Barchester books, but more often than not, especially in the Palliser series) be incredibly rich--and in such a way that the audience is obviously supposed to support their richness. I don't even know. Has somebody done a dissertation on Trollope's class politics, conscious or unconscious? It would be very interesting.

And finally, I would remiss if I didn't note that Ferdinand's business partner/financial victim is named "Sexty Parker." I really, really want someone to take that as their drag name. I would be the only person to get it, but I would get the hell out of it.


Anonymous Achille Talon pontificated to the effect that...

I mean, did Victorian people? Was this stuff super-riveting to them?

I don't doubt that this is less gripping stuff in execution, but “House of Cards” remain popular to this day, don't they? The British one I mean. And for that matter “Yes Minister” if you want one in a less serious register, with a Minister who's not maximally unsympathetic.

4:29 AM  
Anonymous Achille Talon pontificated to the effect that...

(Do please ignore the spurious plural in the above post, edited and then posted without reading it over. Blah.)

4:30 AM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. pontificated to the effect that...

True, but "House of Cards" involves subterfuge and murder, yeah? I've never seen it, but I think a bit of mayhem would kick Trollope up a notch. Or, indeed, comedy; he proved that he was capable of good comic writing with Barchester Towers, but he seems to have just more or less abandoned the mode at some point, which is a shame for everyone.

12:34 PM  
Anonymous Achille Talon pontificated to the effect that...

True, true. (I *would* recommend the Richardson “House of Cards”, by the by, though perhaps few of us need *more* reminders of the mind-boggling amorality of conservative politicians at the present time.)

Good to see you blogging at any rate.

1:06 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. pontificated to the effect that...

I've been extremely busy with a new job, but I'm going to try to get back in the swim a bit in the near future. Yeah, promises promises.

2:08 PM  

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