Thursday, 24 May 2012

Tough at the Top

While I've had fun with a lot of translated fiction recently, it's always a pleasure to slip into something comfortable and while away a few hours with some Victoriana.  With me, of course, that usually means Anthony Trollope, and today's offering is another of big, bad Tony's political offerings.  Pipe and slippers ready?

The Prime Minister is the fifth in Trollope's Palliser Series and sees the return of our old friend Plantagenet Palliser.  The country is in crisis, parliament at a standstill - none of the usual suspects believes they can muster enough support to build a cabinet and bring the House through the session.  What they need is a respected, uncontroversial gentleman to pull the various factions together in a coalition government - and when it comes to reliable, if slightly dull, gentlemen, there are none so respectable (or dull) as the newly-honoured Duke of Omnium himself.

While one half of the novel recounts the traumatic experience of the thin-skinned Duke's term as PM, the other half, as is common in Trollope's fiction, introduces a new character, albeit one who will brush shoulders with the sizeable cast of players the series has already created.  This new man is Ferdinand Lopez, a young, attractive, well-mannered man about town, an habitué of certain clubs and guaranteed to be seen at the best parties and dinners.  Despite uncertainty as to his background, and suspicions as to the exact nature of his wealth, when he asks for the hand of the wealthy heiress Emily Wharton, her father can find no real reason to reject the match other than his own xenophobic and anti-Semitic tendencies.

These are gradually overcome, and Lopez and Emily (as the reader knows full well they will from the first mention of them) eventually tie the knot.  Once married, however, Lopez drops his act.  He has married both for love and for money, and finding the latter not forthcoming, he does his best to destroy any feelings of the former his wife ever had for him, demanding that she use her influence on her father to suck him dry.  This is one couple that will not live happily ever after...

Anyone who has ever read any of Trollope's work will no doubt be able to guess the ending of this particular tale (and could probably fill in certain details I've endeavoured to spare you too).  Lopez, a speculator in the newly invented futures market, has his day in the sun, but he is always destined to fly too close to it and have the wax melt from his wings.  The problem, you see, is that while educated and cultured, Lopez is not a 'gentleman'; he has never mastered the million tiny necessities which form the education of a true British man, and the moment times become difficult, the thin veneer of culture peels off all too easily.

And it is this predictability which mars the novel.  Lopez is a fascinating character, an outsider attempting to carve a way into the lives of the upper classes, and, unfortunately, for that he must be punished.  Trollope is hamstrung by the conventions and expectations of the Victorian novel and is unable, or unwilling, to make Lopez likeable (or even ambiguous).  He feels compelled to make his creation into a villain, one who becomes more black-hearted the longer the novel goes on, when a more balanced approach would have made for better reading.

There is also the question of the above-mentioned xenophobia and anti-Semitism to consider.  It is clear that the writer is attempting to reflect existing attitudes and suspicions towards foreigners in general and Jews in particular.  However, at times, it is tempting to wonder how much of this is really necessary.  Does Lopez have to be a Jew?  Does he have to take on the part of a Shylock desperate to bleed the Christians dry?  While the melodrama may have entertained at the time, it seems like a wasted opportunity to create something more nuanced and worthy...

You'll notice that I have spent a lot of the review talking about Lopez, and that is no accident.  The character dominates the novel, entering the lives of the Pallisers at one point in a sub-plot involving an inevitable by-election.  Once his story has run its course though (and it does so at a relatively early stage, allowing for a protracted and tediously conventional ending for Miss Emily...), the story loses its sparkle, and if you're not particularly interested in the political side, you may as well just close the book then and there.

Luckily however, for those (like me) who have followed Palliser's career throughout the series, the portrayal of the three years of his Prime Ministerhood is excellent.  Trollope has elevated his favourite character, his perfect gentleman, to a position which he is patently unfit to hold.  While he may possess the wealth and breeding necessary for the task of holding the coalition together (and lack the ambition and genius which would only get in his way), he does not have the one thing which is vital for the success of a Prime Minister - a thick skin.

As he suffers the slings and arrows of treacherous colleagues and slanderous journalists, the Duke is simply unable to ignore ridiculous slights which other politicians would laugh off.  Making things worse, his wife, the wonderfully mischievous Duchess (Lady Glencora as was), insists on doing her part to keep the coalition ticking - with predictably disastrous consequences for her husband's peace of mind...

The Prime Minister is a very entertaining novel at times, especially so if you've gone the whole journey with the Duke and his friends.  However, it's not a complete success, largely owing to the struggle of integrating the misfiring Lopez-Wharton side of the story into both the Prime Minister side and the larger, overarching narrative of the series.  In a period of his career where Trollope was writing his best work (He Knew He Was Right and The Way We Live Now were both written around this time), The Prime Minister doesn't quite hit the mark.

But I'd still advise you to find that out for yourself ;)