The Liberal government fell, and neither Mr. Gresham nor Mr. Daubeny could form a cabinet. Largely through the influence of the Duke of St. Bungay, the Duke of Omnium, very much against his will, consented to lead a Coalition government. Effective as he had been in the House of Commons, he was too thin-skinned, too diffident and unbending, too much inclined to feel that opposition to his views was a personal affront, to be a successful Prime Minister. The Duchess, by abounding and sometimes indiscriminating hospitality at Gatherum Castle and Matching Priory, endeavored to consolidate his supporters, but with indifferent results. Despite all its handicaps the Coalition government endured for three years, and when it fell the Duke retired from politics.
Interwoven with the main theme is the story of Emily Wharton and her disastrous marriage to Ferdinand Lopez. Emily’s father, a wealthy barrister, violently objected to her marriage but was eventually won to give a grudging consent. Almost immediately it became evident that Lopez, whose finances were in a precarious condition, had an eye on his father-in-law’s purse rather than on his wife’s happiness. He ordered her to obtain money for his speculations and when she refused made her life a burden. His social gifts secured for him an invitation to Gatherum Castle and while there the Duchess hinted that he might seek election to Parliament as a member from Silverbridge, the Palliser pocket-borough. When the Duke declined to have anything to do with the election, she was compelled to hedge, but a word to a local politician seemed to indicate that Lopez was the favored candidate. Arthur Fletcher, who had loved Emily Wharton since his boyhood, had entered the contest before Lopez, but when he learned of the identity of his opponent was persuaded, with difficulty, not to withdraw. Lopez was badly beaten, and was loud in his complaints against the Duke and Duchess for what he styled their treachery to him. He succeeded in securing his election expenses of £500 from Mr. Wharton, and later had the incredible effrontery to demand a like sum from the Duke. Learning for the first time of his wife’s part in supporting Lopez and to protect her name, the Duke had the bad judgment to pay the sum demanded. The payment became known and Quintus Slide promptly made it the subject of a withering attack on the Duke in the scandal sheet, the “People’s Banner.” The affair caused so much gossip that a question was asked in the House, where Phineas Finn, in a graceful speech from which all mention of the Duchess was excluded, brought the matter to an end.
Meanwhile the business affairs of Lopez and of his partner Sexty Parker went from had to worse. He gave up his pretentious apartment for which Mr. Wharton had to pay – and forced Emily to secure for them a home with his reluctant father-in-law. Utterly discredited, he secured the promise of the management of a mine in Guatemala and threatened to take Emily into exile with him. Mr. Wharton tried to buy him off through the purchase of shares, the condition of his appointment by the company. When the offer of the position was withdrawn he ended his life by jumping before a fast-moving train. For a year Emily was crushed, but when her brother Everett, who had become heir to the Baronet Sir Alured Wharton, married his cousin Mary, she left off her weeds, and soon after became the wife of Arthur Fletcher.
In its major theme a study of the interrelation of two divergent temperaments: the Duchess striving to make her husband the greatest figure of his time, and he conscious only of his duties and responsibilities.