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
No one, probably, ever felt himself to be more alone in the world than our old friend, the Duke of Omnium, when the Duchess died. When this sad event happened he had ceased to be Prime Minister. During the first nine months after he had left office he and the Duchess remained in England. Then they had gone abroad, taking with them their three children.
On the next page, Trollope gets as explicit as he will get in this novel concerning the actual circumstances of her death:
In March they spent a few days in London, and then went down to [their country seat] Matching Priory. When she left town the Duchess was complaining of cold, sore throat, and debility. A week after their arrival at Matching she was dead.
Had the heavens fallen and mixed themselves with the earth, had the people of London risen in rebellion with French ideas of equality, had the Queen persistently declined to comply with the constitutional advice of her ministers, had a majority in the House of Commons lost its influence in the country,—the utter prostration of the bereft husband could not have been more complete.
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:
Everybody knew that Miss Boncassen was in England because it suited Mr. Boncassen to spend many hours in the British Museum. But still the daughter hardly seemed to be under control from the father. She went alone where she liked; talked to those she liked; and did what she liked. Some of the young ladies of the day thought that there was a good deal to be said in favour of the freedom which she enjoyed. (ch. 31)
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:
The mutual assent which leads to marriage should no doubt be spontaneous. Who does not feel that? Young love should speak from its first doubtful unconscious spark,—a spark which any breath of air may quench or cherish,—till it becomes a flame which nothing can satisfy but the union of the two lovers. No one shuld be told to love, or bidden to marry, this man or that woman. The theory of this is plain to us all, and till we have sons or daughters whom we feel imperatively obliged to control, the theory is unassailable. (ch. 34)
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.