The Prime Minister by Anthony Trollope

I love Anthony Trollope’s books, but sometimes I need to be pushed into picking them up; I know I’m going to enjoy them, but they are all so long and, once you start reading and become caught up in the lives of the characters, so intense, that I really have to be in the right mood before starting one. As I have already read the first four books in the Palliser series, I added the last two – The Prime Minister and The Duke’s Children – to my Classics Club list to ensure that I got to them sooner rather than later.

The Prime Minister is the fifth in the series and, as predicted, once I got into it I loved it. It had been a while since I read the previous novel, Phineas Redux, (two years, in fact) but that didn’t matter at all – yes, we are reunited with some old friends, but there are new characters and new storylines too, so it wasn’t really necessary to be able to remember everything that happened in the last book. One of those new characters is Ferdinand Lopez, a handsome, charismatic adventurer, thought to be of Portuguese-Jewish descent, who sets his sights on marrying Emily Wharton, the daughter of a wealthy London lawyer.

Emily is in love with Lopez, but Mr Wharton is not at all happy at the prospect of having him as his son-in-law. He has always hoped to see Emily marry her friend Arthur Fletcher, whose family have connections with the Whartons. However, as his main objection to Lopez as a suitor is based on the fact that he is not an Englishman and nobody knows who his parents are, Mr Wharton eventually agrees to let Emily choose her own husband. Will she be happy with her choice or will she end up regretting her decision?

Ferdinand Lopez is a wonderful character; it is obvious from the start that he is going to be the villain of the novel, but we don’t know exactly what form his villainy will take. Watching him plot and scheme as he tries to make himself rich and rise up the social ladder is what drives the story forward. It’s disappointing, from a modern day perspective, that Ferdinand’s background is seen as one of the factors against him, but of course it’s realistic that a conservative, conventional Victorian gentleman like Mr Wharton would have held those views. Anyway, he is much more interesting to read about than Emily’s other love interest, the likeable, socially acceptable but slightly boring Arthur Fletcher. The relationship between the three of them reminded me of the two similar storylines in the first Palliser novel, Can You Forgive Her?

But this book is called The Prime Minister and so far I haven’t mentioned the title character at all! He is a man we already know from the previous books in the series: Plantagenet Palliser, who has recently inherited the title of Duke of Omnium. With neither main political party able to form a government on their own, a coalition has been formed and Plantagenet has been made Prime Minister, mainly because no one else is considered suitable. And Plantagenet is not entirely suitable either; he is an honest, dignified, principled man but lacks the ruthlessness and the leadership skills that are needed in his new job.

The Duchess of Omnium – formerly Lady Glencora Palliser – is much happier in her role as Prime Minister’s wife than Plantagenet is in his as Prime Minister! In some ways she has a better understanding of politics than he does, but their very different methods of dealing with their new position in the world lead to some conflict and tension in their marriage – particularly when Ferdinand Lopez arrives at one of Glencora’s parties hoping to be shown some favour by the new Prime Minister.

Both stories – the story of Emily and her husband and the story of the Prime Minister – are interesting and compelling. Although it was published in 1876 some aspects of the plot still have a lot of relevance today, such as the power of the press and the integrity of politicians being called into question. This is one of my favourite books in the Palliser series and I’m now looking forward to reading the final one, The Duke’s Children.

This is book 4/50 from my second Classics Club list.

Phineas Redux by Anthony Trollope

This is the fourth book in Trollope’s Palliser series and continues the story begun in the second book, Phineas Finn. It would have been possible to move straight from one Phineas novel to the other, but in between the two there is The Eustace Diamonds, which I’m glad I read first as several characters and storylines from that book are picked up again in this one.

*Spoiler warning – If you have not yet read Phineas Finn, be aware that the rest of this post will contain spoilers.*

Phineas Redux At the beginning of the novel we learn that Phineas is now living alone in Dublin, his wife having died in childbirth. Phineas is leading a comfortable but uneventful life and misses the excitement of his former political career in London, so when an opportunity arises for him to return to England and stand for parliament again, he jumps at the chance. Soon Phineas is back in the House of Commons having won a seat as the member for Tankerville, but he almost immediately finds himself caught up in the controversy surrounding plans for the disestablishment of the Church.

The return of Phineas Finn to parliament also means that both he and the reader are reunited with old friends from earlier in the series. These include Plantagenet Palliser, now Duke of Omnium following the death of his elderly uncle, and his wife, Lady Glencora, the new Duchess. Madame Max Goesler, who had been a companion to the old Duke, is still part of Glencora’s circle and is pleased to be able to resume her friendship with Phineas. Meanwhile, Lady Laura Kennedy, the woman Phineas once hoped to marry, has left her husband, but Phineas knows that even though she is passionately in love with him, his own feelings have now changed.

There’s so much going on in Phineas Redux; now that we are four books into the series, the cast of characters is widening all the time. As well as all of the characters I’ve already mentioned, I was pleased to catch up with Lord Chiltern and Violet Effingham and to find that they are now a happily married couple. A young woman called Adelaide Palliser is staying with the Chilterns and one of the novel’s subplots centres around her as she attracts the attentions of two very different men – Gerard Maule and Ned Spooner. And a few characters from The Eustace Diamonds appear again too, including Lizzie Eustace, Lord Fawn and Mr Emilius.

I enjoyed meeting all of these people again and being back in the world of Phineas and the Pallisers, but it took a while for me to become fully drawn into this particular novel. There are some long political passages in the first half of the book, and some fox-hunting chapters too, which I struggled to get through. Then, somewhere in the middle of the novel, a murder takes place and from this point on I thought things became much more interesting. The murder is that of Mr Bonteen, a political rival of Phineas’s, and all the evidence seems to point to Phineas as the culprit.

Now, Anthony Trollope is no Agatha Christie, and we know from the beginning who really committed the crime, but the murder and the trial which follows allows Trollope to develop the relationships between Phineas and each of the other characters, some of whom have no doubts that Phineas is innocent and some who aren’t so sure. Phineas finds that his strongest support comes from the women in his life. Lady Laura wants to help, but is limited as to what she can actually do, and eventually becomes aware that while Phineas values her friendship, the offer he once made her is unlikely to be repeated. Laura’s story is a sad one, in contrast with Madame Max Goesler’s, who goes to great lengths to try to clear Phineas’s name and proves herself to be a true friend. And I love the warm-hearted Duchess and her enthusiasm for the causes she believes in.

After a slow start I enjoyed Phineas Redux and am looking forward to reading the final two Palliser novels. Next will be The Prime Minister!

The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope

The Eustace Diamonds Today is Anthony Trollope’s 200th birthday! When I saw that Karen of Books and Chocolate was hosting a special Trollope Bicentennial Celebration this month, I knew I wanted to take part and I knew exactly what I would be reading. Having read and enjoyed Trollope’s first two Palliser novels, Can You Forgive Her? and Phineas Finn, it made sense to continue with the third in the series – The Eustace Diamonds.

Unlike Trollope’s other set of six novels, the Chronicles of Barsetshire, which revolve around a cathedral town and the lives of the clergy, the Palliser novels have plots involving politics and featuring the Palliser family – the politician Plantagenet Palliser, his wife Lady Glencora, and his uncle, the Duke of Omnium. In The Eustace Diamonds, though, these three characters are pushed into the background. Our heroine this time (although, as Trollope himself tells us at the beginning of the book, ‘heroine’ is maybe not the right way to describe her) is Lizzie Greystock, who quickly becomes Lady Eustace when she marries the wealthy Sir Florian.

After less than a year of marriage, Sir Florian dies, leaving Lizzie a rich widow in possession of a valuable diamond necklace which she claims her husband had given to her before his death. However, the Eustace family lawyer, Mr Camperdown, insists that the diamonds belong to the Eustace estate and that Lizzie has no legal right to them. The question of the ownership of the necklace forms the central plot of the novel, as the people around Lizzie are forced to take sides. Her cousin Frank vows to support her no matter what, while Lord Fawn, who has recently proposed to her, is horrified by the scandal surrounding his fiancée and searches for a way out of the marriage.

Lizzie is selfish, she tells lies, she manipulates people and situations to her own advantage and her own aunt describes her as “false, dishonest, heartless, cruel, irreligious, ungrateful, mean, ignorant, greedy, and vile”. She is a difficult character to like (and I was sorry that Trollope doesn’t give her more redeeming features) but she is a fascinating character to read about and I loved following the twists and turns of her story.

But The Eustace Diamonds also follows other characters and other storylines. There’s Lucy Morris, a governess in the service of Lord Fawn’s mother, who is love with Lizzie’s cousin, Frank Greystock. Frank, however, is preoccupied with Lizzie and her ordeals, and it seems he is unable to give Lucy the commitment she deserves. And there’s also Lucinda Roanoke, a young woman with strong views of her own on the subject of marriage – views which don’t always agree with those of her aunt, Mrs Carbuncle.

I’m finding it difficult to decide exactly what I thought of The Eustace Diamonds. In some ways I loved it even more than the previous two Pallisers, but in others I found it the weakest of the three. I struggled a little bit with the amount of political detail in Phineas Finn, but in this book there is far less focus on politics. Instead, Trollope concentrates on relationships, on marriage, on the law, and on attitudes towards money, property and reputation. In the middle of the book, the dispute surrounding the jewels begins to go in a more sensational direction, which I did find interesting, but I couldn’t help thinking that this type of plot might have been better suited to an author like Wilkie Collins rather than Trollope.

At 800 pages I did think the book felt too long for the story that was being told. Most of Trollope’s novels are long, of course, but I’m not usually conscious of the length while I’m actually reading; this time I was. Despite being absorbed in the story, I found the plot very repetitive at times and the controversy over the ownership of the diamonds seemed to go round in circles for a while – maybe a result of the novel originally being published as a serial and needing to be drawn out over a long period of time.

I did enjoy The Eustace Diamonds overall, though – and can honestly say I haven’t read a Trollope novel yet that I haven’t enjoyed. Now I’m looking forward to catching up with Phineas Finn again in the fourth Palliser novel, Phineas Redux.

Phineas Finn by Anthony Trollope

Phineas Finn The second of Trollope’s Palliser novels introduces us to Phineas Finn, a young Irishman who is elected to parliament at the age of twenty-five.

After supporting Phineas while he studied in London, his father, a country doctor, expects him to return home to Ireland to practise law there and to marry his childhood sweetheart, Mary Flood Jones. Phineas, though, has other ambitions and decides to stand for parliament. Unfortunately, members of parliament receive no payment for their work so when Phineas, against all expectations, is elected, he finds that he must persuade his father to support him for a while longer. Doctor Finn reluctantly agrees, but other friends – such as Phineas’s mentor, the barrister Mr Low – are quick to express their disapproval:

“Phineas, my dear fellow, as far as I have as yet been able to see the world, men don’t begin either very good or very bad. They have generally good aspirations with infirm purposes;—or, as we may say, strong bodies with weak legs to carry them…In nine cases out of ten it is some one small unfortunate event that puts a man astray at first. He sees some woman and loses himself with her — or he is taken to a racecourse and unluckily wins money — or some devil in the shape of a friend lures him to tobacco and brandy. Your temptation has come in the shape of this accursed seat in Parliament.”

Young, idealistic and enthusiastic about his new responsibilities, Phineas sets off for London where as well as finding his way in the corrupt and complex world of politics he also finds himself involved in romantic entanglements with three very different women.

Lady Laura Standish is the daughter of Phineas’s patron, the Earl of Brentford, and the first woman with whom he falls in love after leaving Ireland. Early in the novel, Laura turns down Phineas and marries another politician, Mr Kennedy, for all the wrong reasons. It’s not long before she realises her mistake and begins to desperately search for a way out of her unhappy marriage. Phineas then turns his attentions to Laura’s friend, Violet Effingham, an heiress who seems likely to marry Lord Chiltern, Laura’s brother. A friendship develops between Phineas and Chiltern, but soon they find themselves rivals for Violet’s love. And finally, there’s Madame Max Goesler, a rich and independent widow with a hint of scandal in her past.

Will Phineas marry one of these women or will he decide that his heart belongs in Killaloe with Mary Flood Jones after all? And will Phineas’s political career lead to success or will Dr Finn and Mr Low be proved right in the end?

I’m really enjoying the Palliser series so far, although I think the Barsetshire novels will always hold a special place in my heart through being my first introduction to Trollope. I think I liked the first Palliser novel, Can You Forgive Her?, a little bit more than this one, simply because there is more focus on politics in this book. I could follow some of it – I can remember a school history lesson dealing with the Reform Bill, the ballot and the ‘rotten boroughs’, things which are covered in a lot of detail in this book – but I have to confess to having very little interest in all the speeches, votes and debates that Trollope devotes so much time to.

Luckily, even while finding the politics boring I could still love the rest of the novel and as usual with Trollope I was pulled into the lives of the characters and the dilemmas in which they find themselves. Phineas, of course, is our hero and like most of Trollope’s ‘heroes’ is not always particularly heroic, but this is what makes him such an appealing character. I felt that things were falling into place for him too easily and success was coming too quickly before he really had time to grow into his new life and career, but although he does make mistakes, he learns from them and we can be confident that he’ll try to do the right thing in the end.

But the characters who interested me most were the women in Phineas’s life – Lady Laura, Violet Effingham and Madame Max Goesler. All three are portrayed as intelligent, complex people and I felt that Trollope truly understood and sympathised with the situations they found themselves in and the options that were open to them.

This wasn’t one of my favourite Trollope novels but I loved the characters and am already looking forward to meeting some of them again later in Phineas Redux – after I’ve read the third book in the series, The Eustace Diamonds.

Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

Can You Forgive Her This was the book chosen for me by the recent Classics Club Spin and yet again the Spin has been very good to me by selecting a book that I loved. Can You Forgive Her? is the first in Anthony Trollope’s Palliser series and based on this one I can’t wait to read the other five. Before starting this book, the only Trollopes I had read were his six Barsetshire novels and I felt so comfortable in that world that I was slightly worried about venturing away into the unknown world of the Pallisers. I needn’t have worried, of course, because as usual with a Trollope novel, I was completely drawn into the lives of the characters and enjoyed all 690 pages!

Like the other Trollope novels I’ve read, this one has several different storylines running alongside each other, meeting and intersecting occasionally. First we have the story of Alice Vavasor, the woman whom Trollope is asking whether we can forgive. Alice is twenty-four years old and at the beginning of the novel she is engaged to be married to John Grey, a country gentleman from Cambridgeshire. But there is also another man in Alice’s life – her cousin, George Vavasor, with whom she was romantically involved several years earlier. John is a good, honourable, dependable man, though slightly bland and boring, but he truly loves Alice, whereas the selfish, untrustworthy George only seems to be interested in using her money to further his political career. Throughout the book Alice wavers between John and George and even after it becomes obvious to the reader which of them she should choose, her own nature makes the decision much more complicated than it should have been.

We also meet Alice’s cousin and best friend, Kate Vavasor (George’s sister), who would love to see Alice marry her brother and decides to do everything she can to influence Alice’s decision. Kate herself has no plans to marry and spends a lot of time with her Aunt Greenow, a rich widow who has two rival suitors of her own, Captain Bellfield and Mr Cheeseacre. Cheeseacre, a farmer, is in the better financial position of the two and believes he has more to offer a wife, but Mrs Greenow makes no secret of the fact that she prefers the poorer but more attractive Bellfield and it seems that Cheesacre is the one who is going to be disappointed.

The third storyline involves the Pallisers themselves. Plantagenet Palliser is a politician who is devoted to his work and is considered to have a good chance of becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer. His young wife, Lady Glencora, is another cousin of Alice Vavasor’s. Before their marriage, Glencora was in love with the handsome but irresponsible Burgo Fitzgerald, and as she struggles to understand her new husband, she realises she may have made a big mistake. She and Burgo are still part of the same social circle and when he tells her that he still loves her, Glencora must decide whether to run away with him or whether to stay with her husband and try to make their relationship work.

Whereas the Barsetshire novels revolve around the church and the lives of clergymen and their families, the focus in this series is on the lives of politicians. This hadn’t initially sounded very appealing to me, but luckily I found that the level of political detail in this book was easy enough to follow and understand. I don’t know a lot about the way parliament worked in the 19th century but the thing that does come across very clearly is how corrupt the system was, where a man like George Vavasor, for example, could simply try to buy his way into parliament whether he was actually a good candidate or not.

One of the things I really love about Trollope is the way he makes me care so much about each of his characters, even the ones who seem uninteresting or unsympathetic earlier in the book. As he moves from one character’s perspective to another, he changes my perceptions of each one. In the case of Plantagenet Palliser, for example, I was inclined to agree with Glencora that he was dull and boring and indifferent to his wife’s feelings – until Trollope allows us to get inside Palliser’s head for a while and we see that he does care about his wife after all and is prepared to make huge sacrifices on her behalf.

I think Trollope shows a good understanding in this book of the choices and difficulties facing women, though he offers no real alternatives other than marriage and after a certain point in the book, the outcome of each storyline becomes quite predictable. Each one features a woman forced to choose between two men – one who is respectable but not very exciting and the other who is less respectable but more exciting. However, the way in which each woman deals with the situation she is in varies depending on her personality and her experience of life.

So, to go back to the question the title poses: could I forgive Alice? Well, I could forgive her for vacillating and having doubts and struggling to make up her mind. I understood that although she loved John Grey she was frustrated by what she saw as a lack of passion and ambition and that she wanted to feel she was doing something worthwhile with her life. I found it harder to forgive her for some of the ridiculous decisions she made regarding her money and who to give it to. But really, I don’t think she was in any more need of forgiveness than most of the other characters in the book as they all made mistakes and all had their flaws.

This post is starting to get very long and I haven’t even mentioned the fox hunt, Aunt Greenow’s picnic, the disputed will or the two trips to Switzerland! This is definitely one of my favourite Trollope novels so far and I’m now looking forward to reading the rest of the Pallisers, starting with the second in the series, Phineas Finn.

My Classics Club Spin book is…

Number 20!

The Classics Club

Last week I decided to take part in the fifth Classics Club Spin. The rules were simple – list twenty books from your Classics Club list, number them 1 to 20, and the number announced today (Monday) represents the book you have to read during February and March.

The number that has been selected is 20, which means the book I’ll be reading is:

Can You Forgive Her

Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

I’m not sure how I feel about this…it’s not one of the titles on my list that I was hoping for, but I wasn’t dreading it either. This is the first of Trollope’s Palliser novels and my copy has been on my shelf unread for three or four years, waiting for me to finish the Barsetshire series. I read the last of the six Barsetshire novels last year so I now have no excuse not to read this one!

If you participated in the spin are you happy with your result?

The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope

The Last Chronicle of Barset In April 2010 I read my first Anthony Trollope novel, The Warden, and now here I am, three years and six books later, at the end of the Chronicles of Barsetshire at last!

Being the final book in this series, characters from all five previous novels are brought together in this one, so if you have yet to start reading the Chronicles I would strongly recommend leaving this one until last. If you approach this book having already read the first five, you will be as excited as I was to discover how many old friends reappear in The Last Chronicle…Archdeacon Grantly, Mr Harding (probably my favourite Trollope character) and his daughter Eleanor, Mark Robarts, Bishop and Mrs Proudie, Dr Thorne and too many others to list here!

The main storyline follows the Reverend Josiah Crawley, a poor clergyman who has been accused of stealing a cheque for twenty pounds from Lord Lufton to pay his debts to the butcher. Crawley is unable to explain how it came into his possession but he insists that he didn’t steal it. As news of the scandal begins to spread through Barsetshire, some people believe that Crawley is guilty while others are convinced that he is innocent.

Most of Trollope’s characters are fully developed, three-dimensional people with believable motivations and emotions, but I thought Mr Crawley was particularly complex and fascinating. He did appear earlier in the series, in Framley Parsonage, but we get to know him much better here, with all his conflicting flaws and virtues. He has a lot of admirable qualities but at the same time he is very frustrating; he’s too proud to accept help from anyone, he insists on walking all the way from Hogglestock to Barchester rather than letting a friend drive him (even though it nearly kills him), and stubbornly refuses to have a lawyer defend him. This is what Trollope has to say about him:

“I think that at this time nobody saw clearly the working of his mind,—not even his wife, who studied it very closely, who gave him credit for all his high qualities, and who had gradually learned to acknowledge to herself that she must distrust his judgment in many things. She knew that he was good and yet weak, that he was afflicted by false pride and supported by true pride, that his intellect was still very bright, yet so dismally obscured on many sides as almost to justify people in saying that he was mad. She knew that he was almost a saint, and yet almost a castaway through vanity and hatred of those above him. But she did not know that he knew all this of himself also. She did not comprehend that he should be hourly telling himself that people were calling him mad and were so calling him with truth. It did not occur to her that he could see her insight into him.”

I won’t tell you whether or not Crawley really was guilty of stealing the money, but as the story progresses it starts to look less and less likely that the truth will ever be discovered. To make things worse, his daughter Grace is romantically involved with Major Henry Grantly, the son of Archdeacon Grantly. While Crawley is suspected of theft, the Archdeacon is opposed to the idea of his son marrying Grace – and although Grace is sure her father is innocent, she doesn’t want to damage Henry’s reputation through association with her family. Two other people with an interest in Mr Crawley’s fate are the long-suffering Bishop Proudie and his formidable wife. Mrs Proudie is a real masterpiece of characterisation and their conversations continue to be hilarious.

“Under these circumstances,” continued the bishop, “looking to the welfare of your parish, to the welfare of the diocese, and allow me to say, Mr. Crawley, to the welfare of yourself also—”

“And especially to the souls of the people,” said Mrs. Proudie.

The bishop shook his head. It is hard to be impressively eloquent when one is interrupted at every best turned period, even by a supporting voice.

Lily Dale and Johnny Eames, who we first met in The Small House at Allington, also return in this book. Their storyline was left unresolved at the end of The Small House and is picked up again here several years later. Will Lily agree to marry Johnny at last or will she stick to her decision to remain single forever? And although Johnny does still seem to love Lily, he also becomes involved with another woman in London, Madalina Demolines, while his friend, the painter Conway Dalrymple, begins an affair with the married Mrs Dobbs Broughton. My only criticism of this book is that I felt some of these subplots were unnecessary. I didn’t have much interest in the new characters such as Miss Demolines or Mrs Dobbs Broughton and their storylines were a distraction from the much more absorbing storylines involving the Crawleys, Grantlys and Proudies.

Looking back at the series, my favourites are still Barchester Towers and Doctor Thorne, but I can honestly say I’ve enjoyed all of them. I’m looking forward to starting the Palliser novels next, but I’m sure I’ll be returning to Barsetshire again in the future!