The Prime Minister was first published in eight monthly parts by Chapman & Hall from November 1875 to June 1876, and published in book form by Chapman & Hall in May 1876 in four volumes.
We met at St. Edmund Hall in the Old Dining Room, a fine and rare example of Protectorate (1659) architecture, with tea and scones and jam and cream and cake and sandwiches – delicious!
Peter Blacklock opened the discussion; though he felt that the two main plots – the political and the romantic – were connected in a weak and artificial way, he had appreciated the way that Trollope had captured both the state of politics at the time and the domestic tyranny of another of Trollope’s bad-tempered fathers. Peter also reported on the contemporary criticism of the novel (from Smalley’s Critical Heritage): though Trollope himself, as evidenced in his Autobiography, was proud of his portrayal of Plantagenet Palliser and Lady Glencora, the reviews of The Prime Minister were (to quote Smalley) “almost universally unfavourable”. And Peter rather resented the treatment accorded to Lady Glen by Trollope, portraying her as behaving in a nouveau fashion and thereby diminishing the reader’s regard for her.
There was a general consensus that Emily’s character and behaviour were indeed weak and ineffective, as for many of his “heroines”, and that she was almost incidental in the novel; for women with powerful characters, readers had to look to Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Though there was one expression of sympathy for her as regards the bullying of her by her own family and the Fletchers, there was much more interest found in the decline and fall of Lopez, and his consistently caddish and vile behaviour had produced satisfaction in his miserable end. In terms of the construction of the plot, this was seen as inevitable, since it was the only way by which Emily could escape from her wretched marriage and remarry (though none of us had been excited by the idea of her marrying the dull and priggish Arthur Fletcher).
We discussed the similarities and contrasts between Coalition politics as presented in The Prime Minister and as practised today. The fall of the Duke’s government was attributable to his inability to “connect” with his colleagues. Is a blend of gregariousness and skill at man-management particularly necessary for any coalition to survive and prosper? Is it as necessary today? Or is its necessity today reduced by the management being done within the two constituent parties, rather than across them as the Duke needed to do, but failed. Still on politics, the closeness was noted between the Duke’s political ideology and that of Trollope in An Autobiography, down to the words used and the dismissal of the notion of “equality”. And finally, we expressed a range of views of where The Prime Minister sat in the list of his novels: all had enjoyed reading it, no-one dismissed it, and at least one of us ranked it amongst his best.
Report by Roger Harvey