The first quarter of The Prime Minister (1876), the fifth of Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, had me worried for the first quarter or so. Was this one going to be merely ordinary?
Trollope had spent the first quarter of The Way We Live Now (1875), his previous novel, introducing characters – so many characters – and enough subplots that I wondered, at the three-quarters mark, how he was going to wrap them all up. But here, there are only two plots, two parallel stories.
One has Plantagenet Palliser, who Trollope introduced way back in The Small House of Allington (1864), become Prime Minister – see title – as head of a coalition government, a clever device because it completely strips politics of any relation to policy. The politics become as pure as possible. The only function of the Prime Minister is to remain Prime Minister. The only goal of politics is the continuation of politics. It is the perfect environment for Trollope’s game of Fantasy Parliament, and suggests why this is one of the few great novels about politics and also why there are so few novels about politics that are any good at all.
The other plot is – why it’s just a Victorian marriage plot! again! – charming, handsome, risk-loving, exotic Ferdinand Lopez wants to marry the lovely, incidentally wealthy Emily Wharton. His charm and other gifts mean his star is on the rise, but Emily’s father is prejudiced, her family is against her, etc.
At about the quarter mark, the obstacles disappear, the couple marries, and the marriage plot turns into a plot about marriage, a bad marriage. Trollope, that enemy of suspense, openly declares the husband a con man:
Ferdinand Lopez was not an honest man or a good man. He was a self-seeking, intriguing adventurer, who did not know honesty from dishonesty when he saw them together. (Ch. 24, “The Marriage”)
The marriage is much more interesting than the courtship. The main characters – Lopez, Emily, and her father – are much more interesting within the marriage story than the courtship story. The marriage story has the disadvantage of being quite unpleasant, a painful story. But it is interesting.
At the same time, the political story became less about politics and more personal, more about the psychological effects of the powerful role on the PM and his wife, one of Trollope’s greatest characters. They’re not so happy, either.
Nor is The Prime Minister especially funny.
Because the novel is well over 900 pages long, a quarter of the novel is a long stretch. I would guess that readers who have found other Trollope novels slow and repetitive will lose patience with this one. I wondered, around page 200, if I would have anything to say about this book.
He began to foresee that he had a bad time before him. (Ch. 9)
And he – Mr. Wharton, the father – does. But I did all right. A day or two more on The Prime Minister, then.