The Duke's Children opens with a bombshell (albeit one indicated on the back cover): the Duke's wife, Lady Glencora as was, has passed away suddenly, leaving the grieving Duke alone with his three (grown-up) children. For a man like our old friend Plantagenet Palliser, dedicated as he is to his public, political life, the responsibility of taking care of his children is bound to bring him his fair share of troubles at any point in time. As it happens though, this was a singularly unfortunate time for him to be left alone...
The Duke's youngest child, Lady Mary Palliser, has become engaged to Frank Treager, a man who, while an educated gentleman, in no way measures up to the type of husband Mary's father expects for her. When Treager formally asks for Mary's hand in marriage, the Duke rejects him out of hand and forbids all communication between the two. Far from accepting her father's command to end the relationship, Lady Mary digs her heels in, preparing to wait things out.
The former Prime Minister has more family problems on the horizon though. His elder son Lord Silverbridge, the heir to the Palliser title and millions, has been thrown out of Oxford for an immature prank, lost large amounts of money through gambling and - something far worse - has decided to go against his father's politics and stand for parliament as a Conservative candidate. In one way, at least, he is in his father's good books, as he is courting the beautiful, and highly respectable, Lady Mabel Grex. That is, until one day at a garden party he crosses paths with Isabel Boncassen - an alluring American...
The Duke's Children is the culmination of almost twenty years work for Trollope in his development of the character of Plantagenet Palliser. First introduced as a boring, hard-working, young politician in The Small House at Allington, Palliser becomes the main character of a new series of books, in which the reader is able to follow the ups and downs of his personal and political lives. After an extremely shaky start, his forcibly-arranged marriage to Glencora gradually becomes a success, and The Prime Minister, the predecessor to The Duke's Children, marks the high point of his career, with the Duke taking charge of the government and his wife entertaining the high and mighty of the Empire.
Lady Glencora is a great character, and when you first learn of her passing, it comes as a blow - she is someone the reader has lived with (and loved) for years. However, her death is necessary for the plot of The Duke's Children to develop in the way Trollope intended. During their marriage, the Duke has not had to concern himself overly with domestic affairs, leaving all this to his wife; now he is forced to arrange matters himself, and he finds himself totally unable to deal with the strong-willed semi-strangers that have been raised under his roof.
In his struggles with his daughter, he initially has no doubts about his behaviour. Despite his liberal politics and his utter disregard for status in the abstract, he is completely unable to live up to his politics in matters affecting his family. As the head of one of the most blue-blooded families in the kingdom, he feels it is his duty to ensure that his children make appropriate matches - and his daughter's happiness comes a long way behind this sense of duty.
Of course, the Duke, as anyone who has read the series will know, is an utterly honest man (too honest at times for his own good), and the longer matters drag on, the more they eat away at him. While still unwilling to compromise his views, he begins to realise what exactly it is he is doing:
Unable to reconcile his roles as loving father and aristocrat, Palliser has a very difficult decision to make..."Now the misery must go on from day to day beneath his eyes, with the knowledge on his part that he was crushing all joy out of her young life, and the conviction on her part that she was being treated with continued cruelty by her father! It was a terrible prospect! But if it was manifestly his duty to act after this fashion, must he not do his duty?" p.398 (OUP, 1999)
Lord Silverbridge's romance is slightly less dramatic (mainly because the reader always feels that the father is much more likely to give in to the son than the daughter), but it is, in many ways, more interesting. Quite apart from the novelty of the trans-Atlantic courtship, Silverbridge's love affairs carry distant but strong echoes of previous Trollope romances. Lady Mabel is a very similar woman to Lady Laura Standish, a character who was very close to the titular hero of Phineas Finn, and Silverbridge and Treager (Lady Mabel's current and former admirers) seem to embody different aspects of Finn in themselves: Treager is the penniless man who is able to transfer his love easily enough when told to, and Silverbridge is the young, immature man who is slightly cowed by a woman no older than himself.
Looking outside the immediate family, it is Lady Mabel who is one of the most intriguing characters. Like many Trollopian women, she is trapped by her sex, doomed from birth to be subservient and to depend on the whims of male relatives who, in terms of character, are not fit to polish her shoes. Her need to find a husband before it is too late has made her (like Lady Laura Standish...) old before her time in terms of character. As she thinks about Silverbridge, she muses:
While liking the young Lord, she feels no real love for him, but her situation means that she is compelled to play the game and angle herself an eligible husband. However, to succeed in this game, one needs nerves of steel and a conscience of cast-iron, and her scruples may just get in the way..."How was it that she was so old a woman, while he was so little more than a child?" p.128
Once again, Trollope uses The Duke's Children to sympathise with the plight of women in his own way, even though real feminism was something he found slightly distasteful. He elegantly portrays the way society treats (upper-class) women, pointing out the inequalities in his own, wry manner. When introducing the idea of a grand garden party, the one at which Silverbridge will meet Isabel Boncassen, Trollope explains:
While Trollope points out these double standards, he doesn't really propose to do much about them. In the end, he relies on our (i.e. men's) conscience to take lessons from his fictional examples of good and bad behaviour..."Everybody who was asked would go, and everybody had been asked, - who was anybody. Lord Silverbridge had been asked, and Lord Silverbridge intended to be there. Lady Mary, his sister, could not even be asked, because her mother was hardly more than three months dead; but it is understood in the world that women mourn longer than men." p.217
*****At which point it is time to stop rambling and bid farewell to the Pallisers for another few years. Like The Last Chronicle of Barchester, The Duke's Children is a book which brings the curtain down on an era, leaving the reader full of regret. However, where the earlier series seemed to finish leaving us desperate for more, to me The Duke's Children is the right time to bring an end to the series. The Palliser books are primarily about Plantagenet Palliser, Trollope's epitome of the English gentleman, and having safely navigated the treacherous waters of Westminster (and married off two of his children), our old friend Planty Pall thoroughly deserves to slip gently into the background and enjoy the rest of his life in peace and quiet. It's time to say goodbye to the Pallisers...