Charles Petzold

Summer Reading: “The Duke's Children”

July 10, 2007
Roscoe, N.Y.

If you want a sentimental, weepy-eyed, inspiring death scene, read Dickens. That's certainly not Anthony Trollope's style. Trollope has the audacity to kill off a character that we've come to intimately know and love over the course of five novels before the sixth novel has even begun. This shocker is announced in the very title of the first chapter and the opening sentences of The Duke's Children:

Chapter 1. When the Duchess was Dead

On the next page, Trollope gets as explicit as he will get in this novel concerning the actual circumstances of her death:

The Duke and Duchess are, of course, Plantagenet Palliser and Lady Glencora, who became the Duke and Duchess of Omnium when the old Duke (Palliser's uncle) died. Their marriage and life together form the backbone of the six novels published between 1864 and 1880 that make up Trollope's Palliser series (also called the Political novels or the Parlimentary novels), a panoramic view of political and social life in Victorian England.

In the first novel of the series, Can You Forgive Her? (1864), Palliser and Lady Glencora are forced into an arranged marriage, primarily to separate Lady Glencora from Burgo Fitzgerald, who neither her family nor anyone else thinks is an appropriate husband for her. Of course, no one could actually force a marriage upon an unwilling couple during this era, but families and friends could nonetheless exert a great deal of pressure (as is still the case today).

No one would ever call Plantagenet Palliser and Lady Glencora "compatible" in any way, except as complementary opposites. Palliser is serious, stern, hardworking, a loner dedicated to the duty of serving England. Lady Glencora is fun-loving, very social, and often not quite discreet enough. After some rocky early months of their marriage, they come to genuinely like each other, although Lady Glencora never stops regretting the life she could have led with her only true love.

The Duke's Children (published in 1880 but written a few years earlier) is the the sixth (and final) novel in Trollope's Palliser series. Although published just 16 years after the first novel, it takes place about 25 years later and (as the title indicates) concerns Palliser and Lady Glencora's three children, who are making plenty of their own mistakes, including but not limited to their marriage prospects. By coming full circle The Duke's Children is a fitting end to a wonderful extended novel.

The eldest son, whose name is also Plantagenet but who is known as Lord Silverbridge, is the heir to the dukedom. As the novel begins he has just been "sent down" (that is, expelled) from Oxford for painting the front of the dean's house red. His primary interest is horse-racing, and he co-owns a horse named Prime Minister with a shifty character named Major Tifto.

Lord Silverbridge decides also to go into politics, but he shocks everyone when he abandons the Liberal tradition of generations of Pallisers and switches to the other side to become a Conservative. This is bad enough news for his father, but what's even worse, Lord Silverbridge's Conservative politics often seem rather superficial and without conviction. Fortunately Lord Silverbridge is seeing a Lady Mabel Grex, who may have a ne'er-do-well father and an even worse brother, but at least has the social standing required for a wife of a future Duke.

Palliser's biggest worry is his daughter, the Lady Mary, who is nineteen years old and has fallen in love with one Frank Tregear, who is a friend of her brother's but who has no money and no social standing of his own. He's a nobody, and Palliser explicitly forbids his daughter to see him.

Palliser has even more reason not to like this Frank Tregear: He's the one who got Lord Silverbridge interested in joining the Conservatives. To make things even messier, Frank Tregear also has a past with Lady Mabel Grex, and while he's fully put that relationship behind him, she has not.

Readers of Trollope come to expect situational parallels, and everybody — reader and characters alike — appreciate how the relationship between Lady Mary and Frank Tregear parallels that between her mother and Burgo Fitzgerald some 25 years earlier. Back then, the problem was solved with an intervening arranged marriage, and some of the funniest sequences in this novel involve the attempt to perform a similar service for Lady Mary and a Lord Popplecourt, who doesn't talk much except when the topic is hunting.

Meanwhile, all of England is going gaga for a young American lady, Isabel Boncassen, in England with her parents. She is so beautiful and so charming that even confirmed bachelors like Dolly Longstaffe ("I am not what you would have called a marrying sort of man") find themselves re-evaluating their life goals and finding the inspiration to arise from bed before noon. Isabel Boncassen certainly doesn't act like young English ladies:

Once Lord Silverbridge sets eyes on Isabel Boncassen, he forgets all about Lady Mabel Grex and begins wondering: Can a future Duke marry an American girl? It's another parallel involving a possibly inappropriate match. In a sense, Isabel is American aristocracy: Her father is a well-known scholar and has even been mentioned as a candidate for President. But only two generations separate her from a common day-laborer.

(Oxford professor Hermione Lee's introduction to the Oxford World's Classic edition of The Duke's Children reminds us that Winston Churchill's father, Lord Randolph Churchill, married American Jennie Jerome in 1874, just a couple years before Trollope wrote this novel.)

One effect of Trollope's Palliser novels (as well as his earlier series of Barsetshire novels) is not only to chronicle life in England, but to record changes in that life. Twenty-five years earlier, Palliser and Lady Glencora succumbed to the pressures of family and friends to do the right thing and marry each other instead of people much less appropriate for them. But will that same logic work with Lady Mary and Lord Silverbridge? Trollope observes:

I must admit I was truly in suspense about who would be involved in "The First Wedding" and "The Second Wedding" promised in the titles of the last two chapters.

Somewhat before those two final chapters, however, are Chapters 73 and 77, in which one of the characters not directly involved in either wedding lets loose with a combination of sadness and cynicism that is truly heartbreaking, and hangs like a dark cloud over the two weddings.

I also found it hard not to imagine one of the children of these newlyweds — not the first child surely but perhaps a boy born later, closer to 1890 — this grandson of Plantagenet Palliser and Lady Glencora in his mid-20s in the trenches of the Western Front in the Great War.