The Prime Minister

prime ministerTeresa and I have been slowly making our way through Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, and The Prime Minister is the fifth. This book splits itself into two threads, which brush each other but don’t influence each other heavily. One is the story of Ferdinand Lopez, a man of Portuguese descent who makes his money (such as it is) on speculation in the City, and his pursuit of Emily Wharton, a wealthy gentleman’s daughter and a lady to the tips of her fingers. The second returns us to the political fortunes of Plantagenet Palliser, who has been made the (guess what) Prime Minister, and the way he and his still somewhat indiscreet wife Glencora react to their new position in the world.

Jenny: This was a long book — nearly a thousand pages. Did you find that, over time, it held your interest? Was one of the stories more interesting than the other for you?

Teresa: It did! The only point where my interest started to flag even slightly was during the political machinations toward the end, but that’s mostly to do with my lack of understanding. I cared about how it would turn out for the characters. And Emily’s story could have ended a chapter or two earlier, once the outcome was obvious.

As for which I enjoyed more, Emily’s story was certainly the more intense and gripping. But I became so fond of Plantagenet Palliser in this book. His tendency to be almost too principled was a balm to my soul.

Jenny: I felt the same. I found out by accident a few days after I finished the book that decimal coinage didn’t happen in Britain until a hundred years later. A hundred years! Poor Planty Pall. I could have wept. He was the soul of honor, for himself and Glencora. And she turned up trumps here, too, even if she made mistakes. She really loved him, even when she was exasperated with him; she could see how fine he was even if it grated on her sense of timing.

Ferdinand Lopez was, of course, the polar opposite of the Prime Minister. He was a greedy liar; he was dishonorable and low; he was cruel and self-centered. About the only thing you could say for him is that he had all the cheek in the world — he wasn’t much of a coward. But what a man to read about.

Teresa: The thing about Lopez is that it takes quite a while to see what he is. For the first third or so of the book, there are hints that there might be money problems, but there have been lots of decent men with money problems in the series. The main objection anyone has to him is that he’s a foreigner and possibly Jewish. Mr. Wharton is clear that his concerned is mostly that he doesn’t know anything much about Lopez, and I can understand being worried about a total stranger marrying your daughter. Still, the panic among practically all of her acquaintances put me Lopez’s side until his greed surfaced.

One of the things I wonder is, how sincere was his love in the first place?

Jenny: I totally agree with you that the outspoken prejudice against Lopez inclined me to trust him. My question is, did Trollope expect that reaction a hundred and forty years later or so? Were we supposed to see him as an untrustworthy person because he was Portuguese and possibly Jewish and a speculator? Or were we supposed to be inclined to take his part, as Emily did, because so many people were against him?

I think Trollope makes it clear that Lopez loves Emily in his way, or as much as he can. But I think he would have chosen someone else to love in that way if she hadn’t been rich. There’s an incident close to the end of the book that makes me think it was more about the money than the girl, though probably about the girl in some sense as well.

Don’t you think that Quintus Slide has been, over time, even lower than Ferdinand Lopez? This book was, again, a real attack on the tabloid press.

Teresa: Quintus is one of those nasty people who keep popping up again and again. I felt so bad for poor Phineas, remembering what the press did to him. And in this book, he held the fate of the nation in his hands.

The presence of people like Quintus Slide is one of many ways that Trollope is still relevant today. The specifics may have changed, both in politics and in love, but the same types of people continue to exist.

So we’re now left with just one book in our Palliser adventure. Oddly enough, The Duke’s Children was my first introduction to Trollope when I read it in college. I’m looking forward to revisiting it with a much fuller knowledge of the characters’ histories.

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