Charles Petzold

Autumn Reading: “The Prime Minister”

October 15, 2006
New York, NY

The Prime Minister (1876) is the fifth of Anthony Trollope's six political novels, and the one in which (as the title proclaims) Plantagenet Palliser becomes the head of a coalition government that manages to remain in power for 3 years and almost 700 pages.

Palliser is certainly not the best candidate for Prime Minister. He is much too introverted, "a little too conscientious, a little too scrupulous." (ch. 78) He would much rather be working behind the scenes bringing decimal coinage to Great Britain than juggling a coalition.

Palliser's wife, the social butterfly Lady Glencora, steps into her new role with great enthusiasm, opening up Palliser's ancestral home to everybody who is anybody. If only her husband would just talk to the guests.

Just to make things interesting, into this cast of mostly familiar characters Trollope drops one Ferdinand Lopez, whose exotic name alone makes him stand out among the native Britons. Who is he? He seems to act and speak like an English gentleman, but who are is parents, and where did he come from? The most that Ferdinand Lopez will admit is that he is of Portuguese descent. His employment is also something of a mystery: "It is generally commerical. I buy and sell on speculation. The world, which is shy of new words, has not yet given it a name. I am a good deal at present in the South American trade." (ch. 25)

Ferdinand Lopez certainly charms all the ladies, including Lady Glencora, and also several men. But others are more suspicious of this man, and are soon referring to him (at least in their own minds) as a "swarthy son of Judah" (ch. 3), to pick just the most colorful of several similar expressions.

The modern reader of The Prime Minister wants Lopez to transcend the anti-semitism of Victorian England and demonstrate that he is more than worthy to mingle among Trollope's Anglicans and Catholics. But that perhaps is a different novel. In this novel, Lopez wants too much to be an English gentleman. He talks the talk and he walks the walk, and he even gets the proper wife in naive Emily Wharton, and is virtually promised a seat in Parliament by Lady Glencora. But in his own microcosmic class struggle, Lopez emerges as mean, abusive, and dishonest.

To my mind, The Prime Minister is really about the desolation of a marriage, and Trollope chronicles the arguments between Lopez and Emily, his emotional abuse and her increasing frantic behavior, in excruciating detail. Readers of Trollope know to look out for parallels, and this is certainly not the only troubled marraige. Because of Lady Glencora's faux pas regarding the Parliament seat for Lopez, a scandal erupts that threatens her marriage as well. Lopez's sometimes business partner, Sextus Parker, gets into such straits that he descends into alcoholism and leaves his wife and children in a state of poverty.

Trollope's late novels (of which this is one) are certainly edgier and more disturbing than his early work. Whether Ferdinand Lopez could have achieved respectability on his own merits is an open question, I think. The Prime Minister was written just three years after Mark Twain's and Charles Dudley's The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (1873), which gave the era its name in the U.S. It was an time of increased industrialization and a great many get-rich-quick schemes. The speculative investing is what Lopez sees as his entree into proper British social life, but to Trollope this rampant commercialism was part of what was destroying the rural serenity of England that he chronicled in his early novels.

Characteristic of this novel is how unnervingly modern it sometimes seems. At one point, Lopez entertains hopes of investing in a new spirit named Bios, "which had just been concocted from the bark of trees of Central Africa" and which allowed one to get drunk "without any of the usual troubles of intoxication." (ch. 52)

In a later time, that would be an unstated truth. In a novel published in 1876, it's quite a shock, and demonstrates the turbulence of the era.