Before I get into The Prime Minister, I want to link to Tom at Wuthering Expectations’s Trollope posts, which inspired me to go back and read this book all the way through– I had read all the other Parliamentary novels years ago, but never done more than skim this one.
I would like to withdraw a comment I’ve made on twitter and elsewhere, that I dislike the final romance between Emily Lopez nee Wharton and Arthur Fletcher on the grounds that it takes place against Emily’s own judgement and that she isn’t in love with him. It’s quite clear early on in the book that Emily is not in love with Arthur, and when she marries Ferdinand Lopez against the wishes of her family (who despise him as being of Portuguese descent, and make anti-Semitic remarks assuming he must be Jewish), it distressed me that her prejudiced relatives are essentially proven right when he turns out to be a dishonest and abusive man. Thought Trollope is for a change subtle about this (as opposed to the blatant anti-Semitism in Phineas Redux), and hints that if Emily’s father had not been so preoccupied by his future son-in-law’s ethnicity, he might have picked up on his financial dishonesty sooner.
But in regard to the endgame romance, Trollope breaks out of the pattern he has established in earlier books, where a woman whose heart has been given away completely cannot really fall in love again (even in the case of Marie Goesler, who remarries in Phineas Redux, he is careful to establish that she was not truly romantically in love with her first husband). This pattern is critiqued in Jo Walton’s Trollope-based novel Tooth and Claw (it was Walton’s discussions of Trollope that first introduced me to him, though I have not read Tooth and Claw). Emily is truly in love with Ferdinand Lopez, but she falls out of love with him and into love with Arthur Fletcher, who has been pursuing her for years without her loving him other than platonically. In an interesting and shocking scene, the dutiful and proud Emily even defends Arthur to her husband after he kisses her on the lips while she is married. By the end of the novel, though she marries Arthur against her own judgement, she is clearly in love with him and holding back for unrelated reasons. It was really interesting to see, in a Victorian novel, a woman actually fall in love with another man while married and then end up with him (there’s Middlemarch, of course, but Will Ladislaw certainly doesn’t kiss Dorothea prior to her husband’s death).
The other thread of the book follows Plantagenet Palliser, the duke, and his duchess Glencora, as he becomes Prime Minister of a coalition government. Their relationship is quite different from Emily and Ferdinand’s, or Emily and Arthur’s. It is established in Can You Forgive Her? that Glencora was in love with another man prior to her arranged marriage to the future duke. She continued to be in love with him during the early part of her marriage, before her husband won her over. Yet it’s not a perfect relationship even after that–they complement each other and care for each other deeply, but aren’t necessarily a good match, and frequently argue and even hurt each other with their words and actions. It’s not even clear that Glencora is in love with her husband as a person, though she “worships him” when he becomes Prime Minister. She notes to her best friend that she hasn’t had any real fun since she was in love and that she only liked that “because it was wicked”.
The Emily thread of the story is in some ways a rerun of Can You Forgive Her?, in which both Glencora and her cousin Alice face a choice between a dashing scoundrel and dull good man. But where Alice and Emily are left by the narrator in love with the good man and about to live happily ever after, for Glencora it’s not so simple. The whole series traces her and Plantagenet’s struggles in their marriage and looks at what happens after the presumed happily ever after at the end of Can You Forgive Her?. This makes their partnership the most real and interesting marriage of the series.
The Duke, with his devotion to his work and his strong sense of honor, is my favorite character in the series, particularly in Phineas Redux and The Prime Minister (he goes downhill in The Duke’s Children), and in this book my favorite chapter focused on him: “The Prime Minister’s Political Creed”, in which he discusses with Phineas his own political beliefs, his ideas of liberalism and conservatism, and the complexities of being wealthy, privileged, and liberal. He frankly admits, “I doubt whether I could bear the test [of equality] that has been attempted in other countries.”
At any rate, I shall end this post with a quote from that chapter and character:
“You are a Liberal because you know that it is all not as it ought to be, and because you would still march on to some nearer approach to equality; though the thing itself is so great, so glorious, so godlike,–nay, so absolutely divine,–that you have been disgusted by the very promise of it, because its perfection is unattainable.”