Sunday, September 25, 2011

A guide to the novels of Anthony Trollope, Part 2: The Palliser novels

This post continues my survey of Trollope's novels begun in Part 1: The Chronicles of Barsetshire.

The Palliser Novels

In order to read and enjoy the Chronicles of Barsetshire you need to know very little about English religion in the 19th century. As long as you're aware that there were tensions between the ritualistic High Church and the evangelical Low Church, you know enough.

The six Palliser novels, though, feature the complex interplay of Parliamentary politics over fifteen years, from the mid-1860s to the late 1870s. To fully enjoy these, it really does help to understand something of the political parties, personalities and issues of the day. So I recommend that you choose a reading edition that features extensive textual notes, such as Oxford's World Classics or Penguin. You'll find those notes to be helpful in giving you a context for the attitudes and actions of many of the characters.

Can You Forgive Her? (1864) features three women who each face two radically different choices in their potential husbands. Alice Vavasor wants to live a life of excitement and political significance, but as a woman she is prevented even from voting. She must choose between her mercurial and unscrupulous cousin George Vavasor, who wants to run for Parliament using her money, and the uninspiring but steadfast John Grey.

The second dilemma belongs to Alice's wealthy, widowed aunt Arabella Greenow, who is comically besieged by two bungling rivals: the vain, impecunious ex-soldier Captain Bellfield, and the vain, coarse farmer Mr. Cheesacre.

But the most compelling love triangle in Can You Forgive Her? centers on Lady Glencora Palliser, wife of the emotionally reticent politician Plantagenet Palliser. Before her marriage Lady Glencora loved the unworthy but alluring Burgo Fitzgerald; her family intervened, however, and arranged her marriage with Palliser. Her attraction to Burgo Fitzgerald has persisted even after her marriage, fed by the certainty that she and her husband are unsuited to one another. Fitzgerald makes plans to run off with Lady Glencora on the night of a gala party. As Lady Glencora dances in Burgo's arms she finds herself faced with making her final, fateful choice.

'I am not such a fool as to mistake what I should be if I left my husband, and went to live with that man as his mistress...But why have I been brought to such a pass as this? And, as for female purity! Ah! What was their idea of female purity when they forced me, like ogres, to marry a man for whom they knew I never cared?' (Can You Forgive Her?, Ch. 47)

Glencora Palliser is one of Trollope's most compelling characters—headstrong, willful, with a delightfully witty tongue. She is not always wise, but somehow always manages to engage our sympathies.

Phineas Finn (1867) is a strikingly handsome young Irishman who has come to London to try to win a seat in Parliament. He is probably the fullest representation of a common type in Trollope: the young man of modest means who hopes to make both his fortune and his future by attracting the interest of the wealthy and powerful.

His own interest is particularly engaged in turn by three women of fortune: Lady Laura Standish, Violet Effingham, and the widowed Madame Max Goesler. Meanwhile, at home in Ireland he is betrothed to a simple country girl, Mary Flood Jones. Somehow we forgive Phineas his changeability, because he seems so fundamentally decent otherwise.

'I hate a stupid man who can't talk to me, and I hate a clever man who talks me down. I don't like a man who is too lazy to make any effort to shine, but I particularly dislike the man who is always striving for effect. I abominate a humble man, but yet I love to perceive that a man acknowledges the superiority of my sex, and youth, and all that kind of thing.'
'You want to be flattered without plain flattery.'
'Of course I do. A man who would tell me that I am pretty, unless he is over seventy, ought to be kicked out of the room. But a man who can't show me that he thinks me so without saying a word about it, is a lout.' (Violet Effingham talking with Lady Laura, Phineas Finn, Ch. 22)

The Eustace Diamonds (1871): Before the aged Sir Florian Eustace died, he bestowed on his beautiful young wife Lizzie a magnificent and hugely valuable diamond necklace. Lizzie now claims that necklace as her own. Sir Florian's family, however, demands that the diamonds be returned to the Eustace estate, and has the weight of legal opinion on their side.

Lizzie, worried that agents of the Eustace family will try to obtain the necklace by means fair or foul, takes it with her whenever she travels. One night the strongbox in which it kept is stolen. Everyone assumes that the necklace is gone forever. Lizzie, though, had slept with it under her pillow, and now thinks that it will work to her advantage if everyone thinks that the diamonds were stolen. In fact, it just creates more complications—especially when the necklace really disappears...

The Eustace Diamonds has, perhaps, the cleverest plot that Trollope ever created. He was evidently inspired by his friend Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone (1868), published just a few years earlier. The Eustace Diamonds is also unusual in that its heroine is unsympathetic: a compulsively dishonest woman who married for money and who is a spectacularly poor judge of men.

When she was alone she stood before her glass looking at herself, and then she burst into tears. Never before had she been thus polluted. The embrace had disgusted her. It made her odious to herself. And if this, the beginning of it, was so bad, how was she to drink the cup to the bitter dregs? Other girls, she knew, were fond of their lovers—some so fond of them that all moments of absence were moments, if not of pain, at any rate of regret. To her, as she stood there ready to tear herself because of the vileness of her own condition, it now seemed as though no such love as that were possible to her. For the sake of this man who was to be her husband, she hated all men. Was not everything around her base, and mean, and sordid?...How should she escape? And yet she knew that she meant to go on and bear it all. Perhaps by study and due practice she might become—as were some others—a beast of prey and nothing more. The feeling that had made these few minutes so inexpressibly loathsome to her might, perhaps, be driven from her heart. She washed the tears from her eyes with savage energy, and descended to her lover with a veil fastened closely under her hat. 'I hope I haven't kept you waiting,' she said. (The Eustace Diamonds, Ch. 42)

Phineas Redux (1873) continues the story of Phineas Finn, and his relationships with Lady Laura, Violet Effingham, and Madame Goesler amid Parliamentary political struggles. The central incident of the novel is Phineas being put on trial for the murder of a hated political rival, a murder that he insists he did not commit.

'People go on quarrelling and fancying this and that, and thinking that the world is full of romance and poetry. When they get married they know better.'

'I hope the romance and poetry do not all vanish.'

'Romance and poetry are for the most part lies, Mr. Maule, and are
very apt to bring people into difficulty.' (Lady Glencora to Gerard Maule, Phineas Redux, Ch. 76)

The Prime Minister (1876): The reserved and apparently unemotional Plantagenet Palliser, now Duke of Omnium, is called on to lead a coalition government when the two major parties fail to reach a compromise. While he struggles to lead the country, his wife interests herself in the political and romantic career of the young, handsome financial speculator Ferdinand Lopez—a career that soon entangles the Duke and Duchess in scandal.

He did doubt his ability to fill that place which it would now be his duty to occupy. He more than doubted. He told himself again and again that there was wanting to him a certain noble capacity for commanding support and homage from other men. With things and facts he could deal, but human beings had not opened themselves to him. (The Prime Minister, Ch. 7)

The Duke's Children (1879): The Duke's children are Mary, who to the Duke's distress has fallen in love with a penniless friend of her brother's; Lord Silverbridge, who to the Duke's distress is pursuing the beautiful American heiress Isabel Boncassen; and Gerald, who to the Duke's distress has been expelled from Cambridge.

'I do not think that ever in your life you have constrained yourself to the civility of a lie.'

'I hope not.'

'To be civil and false is often better than to be harsh and true. I may be soothed by the courtesy and yet not deceived by the lie.' (Lady Mabel Grex to Lord Silverbridge, The Duke's Children, Ch. 77)

The Palliser novels were adapted by BBC Television in 1974 as a 26-episode series. Unfortunately, the series is poorly cast (most of the actors are far too old for their roles) and the script makes various attempts to "improve" on its source, with dire results.

Next time: The Way We Live Now (1875), He Knew He Was Right (1869), and some overlooked Trollope novels.

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