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The Prime Minister (Oxford World's Classics) Paperback – June 4, 2011
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Nicholas Shrimpton is Emeritus Fellow of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University.
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Why do I read Trollope? Simply because he is there; or rather, more specifically, I found the Penguin edition of the `Prime Minister' in the `still to be read' section of my shelf. I took it on a trip. It is an amusing way to spend time. Who reads Trollope? People with lots of time, I would guess. People who are not in a rush, who enjoy the chuckle and the insight, and who find the mysteries of the English caste system and legal structure worth a few or more hours. And those who think that British politics are hilarious.
`It is easy for most of us to stay away from stealing and picking, as long as the clear consequence is prison diet and garments. But when silks and satins come of it, the net result of honesty does not seem so secure.' Right, isn't it?
Of course, this book is not about Gordon Brown; it is about Plantagenet Palliser of the Palliser clan, aka the Duke of Omnium, and of the novel series about the Pallisers. The Duke has made it to the position of prime minister, but not all aristocrats look at this achievement with much respect. It is more like a disturbance in a life. This is the 5th of 6 volumes, and I have no idea why I bought it, back in the 90s. Shouldn't I have started with number 1 of the series? It seems that is not strictly necessary for enjoyment. (The product page here says that this is the best of the six.)
Trollope was a masterful observer of people from certain social strata. His knowledge did not, it seems, encompass the whole width of society, but stayed with `society'. That doesn't make him a snob; it just makes him honestly incomplete. Who can claim to be otherwise, honestly?
`When one man is a peer and another a ploughman, one doesn't find fault with the ploughman, but one also doesn't invite him to dinner.'
If I have to find a fault with Trollope, it is his explicitness. He explains everything to us. That makes things easier, but also takes away the freedom of interpretation. It makes the book comfortable but one-dimensional. No space for post-modernist disagreements.
On the positive side: he uses no coincidences, whether tragic or lucky. His plot relies on psychology and life experience. Trollope is possibly the least romantic of all Victorians. (Admittedly my basis for generalization is not broad.)
The plot has a love story and a political story, interwoven: we start with a young would-be parvenu of questionable ancestry who tries to marry the daughter of a proper gentleman. Since the young man's father was Portuguese instead of English, and since the young man works for a living (in the City, how unrespectable!), he is easily dismissible (isn't it likely that he is Jewish on top of it?). This father wants to see his daughter married into a proper family.
Trollope takes care to make us agree. The young man is not to be trusted. Luckily the daughter is a proper Victorian lady without vulgar notions. She will obey, but then again, she is actually positively inclined...
Clearly, the first reactions are just the initial salvos in a protracted battle.
The political side of the plot focuses on the Duke and his wife, a latter day Lady Macbeth, the schemer with grand ambitions. He is a man of principles and patriotism. He is up against the corroding influences of professional politics. He doesn't feel adequate for the PM job. We follow him through his small political wars and somehow I started remembering that contemporary events are not all that different...
It is amazing how little about actual political issues is needed to tell a good story about political mechanisms. Sure, parties are named, but what are they arguing about? Irrelevant, it seems.
The only subject that seems to play a major part is that of home rule for Ireland, but also not in the sense of analyzing the problems, rather to parade the various commonplaces of the time in front of us.
I have not regretted picking this big thing (700 pages!) from my shelf. I think I will go for more of the series, they are good for travel luggage, as they are compact and one can spend some time with them, ie no need to pack half a library.
In the other main plot, Emily Wharton ignores the advice of her father and almost all her friends when she falls in love with Ferdinand Lopez, about whom very little is known except that he seems to be a wealthy gentleman. Finally she persuades her father to give his permission for her marriage. Very quickly she discovers that she has made a horrendous mistake, and her life becomes a living hell. Only one of her old friends remains true--Arthur Fletcher, who vows that he will always love no one but her.
Anyone who is interested in Victorian history and British politics will find the novel a pure delight. Others may find it slow going and mystifying in spots, although no such knowledge or interest is needed for the Emily-Lopez plot. Lopez is one of the most despicable villains in all of Trollope's fiction, ranking with George Vavasor of "Can You Forgive Her?" Emily, on the other hand, sometimes becomes tiresome in her queer, fastidious obstinacy.
The character of Plantagenet Palliser is finely drawn. He is a man who is scrupulously honest, too much so for partisan politics. He is a natural leader and yet a thin-skinned, conscientious man who takes any criticism to heart. He loves his vivacious wife, who teases him mercilessly when she wishes to upset him. The match seems very odd, and their marriage began under inauspicious circumstances, and yet she, in her way, admires and adores her husband.
"The Prime Minister" is an outstanding work by one of literature's greatest novelists, mainly because of his brilliant handling of character. No one does it better.
So lame. Such a pisser. And it's not even a freebie.
Most recent customer reviews
however... i realize that there are those who read the classics for strictly scholarly purposes, but there are also those...Read more
This is a five-star novel and performance.Read more