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.