Prime Minister, The
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Introduction by Asa Briggs
London, Chapman and Hall, 1876. 4v.
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Plantagenet Palliser is one of Trollope’s most marvelously realised creations. Over three different novels, Trollope gives us an extraordinary portrait of a character who is allowed to grow before our eyes: not only to grow up, and eventually to age, but to exhibit clearly the gradual accretions of time and harsh experience.
Our first glimpse of him, in The Small House at Allington, shows us an uninteresting automaton in pursuit of an equally unresponsive beauty, Lady Dumbello (Grizelda Grantly). Nothing remarkable there. In Can You Forgive Her?, he is first presented as the dull professional politician, the boring enthusiast for decimal coinage: but we are allowed to see the human side too; and it indeed becomes possible to imagine how the volatile Lady Glencora could become reconciled to him, despite the superficial attractions of Burgo Fitzgerald.
In this book, Trollope deliberately set out to show us the professional statesman. ‘He should have rank, and intellect, and parliamentary habits … and he should also have an inextinguishable, inexhaustible love of this country as the ruling principle of his life, and it should so rule him that all other things should be made to give way to it.’ It has to be said that they do.
The Prime Minister, on its own, is not a great achievement. It has, unusually for Trollope, a rather wooden heroine in Emily Wharton, who is swept off her feet by one of the author’s most obviously blatant cads, the dishonest share pusher Ferdinand Lopez, whose main attraction seems to be a dazzling row of white teeth. A determined climber and name dropper, he succeeds in being selected as Parliamentary candidate for the Pallisers’ pocket borough, not altogether convincingly. This causes a great deal of unnecessary aggravation for the Prime Minister, who becomes involved in a payment to Lopez to protect Lady Glencora’s name and reputation. This comes to light, of course, in the gutter press through the odious Quintus Slide: and the affair is only put to rest by a graceful speech in the House from Phineas Finn. Ferdinand Lopez swiftly comes to a predictably sticky end, committing suicide rather dramatically at Tenway Junction.