I’ve read this story somewhere before. A very rich man comes to the highest political office in a powerful country. His wife, perhaps not feeling the attachment to her husband as keenly as some married women do, has her own home and tries living there for a while. Meanwhile, the new leader discovers to his annoyance that he cannot do or say whatever he wishes but must defer sometimes to the advice of his Cabinet. Then certain newspapers become concerned when they discover that he has tried to hush up a payment that suggests improper influence in the election that brought him to power. In spite of his wealth and position, he is thin-skinned, and everyone around him learns that they must coddle him.
Yes, these points of Anthony Trollope’s The Prime Minister sound very familiar, and yet . . . and yet the lessons of the story are so very different. Plantagenet Palliser, Duke of Omnium and now Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, is scrupulous to the point of impracticality. He does nothing apart from principle – will not, for instance, endorse any candidate whose election would tend to sustain his – the Prime Minister’s – tenure in office. His wife, however, has no such hesitations and encourages Mr. Lopez to run: or to “stand,” as the English say. (Oh, yes, feelings of discomfort held toward a man with a Latin name play a part in the tale.) When Lopez loses and applies to the Duke for repayment of his campaign expenses, P.M. Palliser finds himself in a moral dilemma and writes the check because he believes Lopez to have been deceived. Everyone with a moral sense believes Palliser to be an upstanding man. Even his political enemies refrain from making any personal accusations about the payment.
I’m only about 60% of the way through the book, but the biggest theme so far seems to be power and compromise: how they work together and how they are opposed. While Plantagenet Palliser can see, for instance, that he must compromise and defer at times with his Cabinet, he can’t see at all that his wife, Glencora, has her own mind that he must sometimes defer to. Now it could be that, the Victorian era being what it was, Trollope would just accept the domination of a man over his wife however much he may sympathize with the woman whose husband doesn’t use his oversight justly. After all, as far as I’ve read, Glencora doesn’t get her way on her most important project and must simply learn how to deal with the situation. Maybe Trollope, as a Victorian author, expected his audience to share Glencora’s acceptance of her position.
But I don’t think so. The same dynamic happens with another couple in the book, and there Trollope doesn’t let the cultural norm stand. Emily Wharton’s husband has none of the Prime Minister's virtues, and she becomes miserable soon after her marriage when she discovers the true, dastardly character of the man she has given herself to. Emily indeed believes (as surely many women at the time did) that she must acknowledge that she has ruined her life and must simply suffer the just consequences by dutifully living out her life of misery. But her father – the old guy – the old conservative guy – wants her away from the scoundrel and devises a scheme of payment that will assure the separation be permanent.
Trollope received a lot of criticism for The Prime Minister when it was published. His position in the book isn’t radical feminism by our standards, but it appeared so in the 1870s, and the newspapers and journals (written mostly by men, of course) let him know about it. I don’t know what his mostly female readership thought of the idea of separating from a cruel, deceitful husband. I suppose I don’t actually know that Trollope won’t side with the Y chromosome by the end of the book. But I doubt it.
By the way, Trollope tells us that Emily’s husband doesn’t know that he’s a bad person or that he disgusts her. He thinks spending money he doesn’t have and defaulting on loans is just a way to do business. Yes, I’ve heard this story somewhere before.