Anthony Trollope’s The Prime Minister makes us think

For our recovery from a particularly nasty dose of the flu this week, we credit the patient ministrations of the wife of our bosom, but we also acknowledge the healing powers of Anthony Trollope, whose The Prime Minister was never far from our bedside.  As usual, Trollope got us to thinking.

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Anthony Trollope, champion of the introvert

1. A lot of journalists are beating their breasts and rendering their garments because newspapers are shutting down and reporters are being laid off right and left. Panic on the left! — how can America escape fascism without Woodward and Bernstein on the job? What’s to become of us if Americans read bloggers who aren’t “accountable” to anyone instead of “professional” reporting by people with journalistic standards?

We can only scratch our heads at the foolish and flagrantly unconstitutional proposals being floated. Government subsidies for “independent” journalism, so Americans won’t have to rely on the unregulated internet for news? Government regulation of the internet? Bah!

The left is reactionary by nature and has always been afraid of technology-driven change, and what it doesn’t like this time is that the cost of publishing one’s thoughts has once again gotten very cheap. (For instance, we don’t remember paying anything for this nifty forum here on WordPress!)

But a world of unregulated, irresponsible journalism is familiar territory to readers of Trollope. The cost of entry into the newspaper business was cheap when The Prime Minister was written in 1874 — practically as easy as setting up a political blog today. It was cheap enough that London was littered with all kinds of tabloid-style newspapers, each violently partisan, like the People’s Banner, the fictional mouthpiece of the detestable Mr. Quintus Slide.

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Clifford Rose as Quintus Slide, wielding his poison quill in the BBC production of The Pallisers (we've never seen it)

Trollope’s character Quintus Slide was a unprincipled self-promoter just like a lot of the political bloggers, and like them he mostly just recycled material he’d read somewhere else, adding invective, innuendo, and malice. Midway through The Prime Minister, for example, the coalition government of which the Duke of Omnium is the head loses one of its chief supporters, Sir Orlando Drought, who has ambitions of its own.  Remember the hysteria on the internet left when Colin Powell left the Bush administration several years ago?  Not much different at all from the way Quintus Slide and his rag reacted to the withdrawal of Sir Orlando from the Duke’s Ministry:

Three or four of the morning papers were of opinion that though Sir Orlando had been a strong man, and a good public servant, the Ministry might exist without him. But the People’s Banner was able to expound to the people at large that the only grain of salt by which the Ministry had been kept from putrefaction had been now cast out, and that mortification, death, and corruption must ensue. It was one of Mr Quintus Slide’s greatest efforts.

If parliamentary government survived yellow journalism in Trollope’s time, American democracy has nothing to fear today.

2. After seeing the 1942 film The Talk of the Town on Turner Classic Movies a week or so ago (while we were still in the opening chapters of The Prime Minister) we were surprised to learn from the TCM host that director George Stevens filmed two different endings of the movie and chose the one that preview audiences seemed to like best. Thus, in the last minutes of the final cut of the movie, Jean Arthur chooses Cary Grant (dashing ne’er-do-well) over Ronald Colman (stodgy law professor).

Now we knew that Hollywood has been doing this sort of thing for a while (at least as long as Julia Roberts has been making movies); the only thing that surprised us was that it was going on as long ago as the 1940s. Emsworth is heartily thankful that Anthony Trollope had more artistic integrity than Hollywood.

The thing is, a Trollope novel does not come with a guarantee of a comfortable ending. Foolish misunderstandings don’t always get cleared up, fortunes don’t always get into the right hands, and the girl doesn’t always end up with the right guy.

So how was The Prime Minister going to end? As we approached the last few chapters of this 680-page novel, we realized nervously that we didn’t remember. Never mind that this was at least the third time that we’d read The Prime Minister. We surely remembered most of the scenes as we came to them, and the characters were old friends. But we weren’t sure what would become of Emily Wharton. In the book’s opening chapters she had chosen the wrong man (the swarthy, smooth-talking adventurer Ferdinand Lopez) over the right man (the fair-haired, noble-hearted, gentlemanly Arthur Fletcher). Would Trollope straighten it out in the end?

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Lily Dale and Johnny Eames (pencil drawing by Victorian artist John Everett Millais)

We remembered uneasily that in The Small House at Arlington, Trollope’s heroine Lily Dale did not end up with the plucky, ever-true Johnny Eames. To the consternation of readers, Lily refused to marry Johnny even after all the obstacles and complications manufactured by Trollope had been cleared away. In The Prime Minister, was Arthur Fletcher destined for perpetual bachelorhood like Johnny?

We couldn’t remember. And we knew Trollope hadn’t taken a public opinion poll on how his novel should end.

3. That an introvert, Plantagenet Palliser, the Duke of Omnium, should be the hero of The Prime Minister, one of Trollope’s very best novels, is something in which Emsworth and other introverts can all take deep pride.

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Philip Lathan as Plantagenet Palliser (later the Duke of Omnium) in the BBC television series. Not quite the image we'd created of him in our own mind's eye.

Of course, Trollope wouldn’t have known the word “introvert,” and it is only in recent years that we introverts have come to be more fully understood. (We especially commend to readers a piece by Jonathan Rauch that we read in The Atlantic several years ago, and which we have often shared with our friends. It is entitled “Caring for Your Introvert: the habits and needs of a little understood group.”)

But no author has ever portrayed an introvert with more accuracy — and sympathy — than Anthony Trollope. The Duke’s wife invites dozens of friends and supporters to his castle for week-long house parties — but he stays in his room with his books and avoids his guests as much as possible. And even after he’s been Prime Minister of England for three years, his closest supporters complain that he never talks to them. What introvert can fail to identify with a man?

Almost every Trollope novel includes a love story, but The Prime Minister contains Trollope’s most intimate and psychologically telling portrayal of a love relationship, and it’s not a story of young love, but instead a tale of married love — the relationship between the introvert Plantagenet Palliser, the Duke of Omnium, and his extroverted wife, Lady Glencora. The novel tells of their desperate (and ultimately successful) attempts to try to understand and to please one another. Reading The Prime Minister, an extrovert might well think that a lovely, intelligent, socially skillful woman like Lady Glen was thrown away on an undemonstrative, socially inept man like the Duke. We introverts know better.

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