Anthony Trollope, “The Duke’s Children”

The Duke’s Children wraps up the Palliser series of Trollope’s novels and, though I doubt Trollope planned it this way, unites the emotional and political story lines. We meet some of our old friends like Madame Max Goesler, now Mrs. Phineas Finn. We are treated, if that’s the word, to Parliamentary infighting. Even hot-headed Lord Chiltern makes an appearance — yet on this reading, the novel somehow lacked energy.

For one thing, Cora is gone. Her absence from the Palliser family shakes up the dynamics, of course, but her missing energy and sparkle leave a gap on the page as in the relationships. Much of the narration comes now from “Planty Pal” — as no one now calls the Duke of Omnium. In fact I doubt there’s anyone left to call him “Plantagenet” which is  sad. But Trollope isn’t one to wring pity from us. He just methodically informs us how things look from the Duke’s viewpoint.

Jennie Jerome, Lady Randolph Churchill, the prototypical American heiress in England, mother of Winston Churchill.

Jennie Jerome, Lady Randolph Churchill, the prototypical American heiress in England, mother of Winston Churchill.

There’s something true about this. It’s almost as if Trollope himself were in the Duke’s shoes, dutifully moving through monotonous days of activity, unable to find comfort. The Duke, as a character, has always been interesting yet unsympathetic. His is the tragedy of great reserve. He loves his children but has merely formal relationships with them. Of his daughter Mary, we’re told, “… as to her actual disposition, he had never taken any trouble to inform himself. She had been left to her mother, — as girls are left. And his sons had been left to their tutors. And now he had no control over any of them.”

So that’s the plot. Lord Silverbridge, the elder son and heir, is a handsome, appealing sprig of the nobility who gets into various scrapes including semi-engaging himself to an aristocratic girl, then changing his mind and falling hard for an American heiress, Isabel Boncassen. What’s more he has agreed to stand for Parliament, but as a Conservative rather than a Liberal, his father’s party. Lady Mary (and by the way, does anybody else think Julian Fellowes must be a Trollope reader?) for her part has fallen in love with Frank Tregear, a clever, ambitious friend of Silverbridge’s, who has no way to earn a living. (It’s Tregear’s influence that made Silverbridge switch parties. The boy is malleable. That’s part of the problem.) I’m glad I didn’t know that in the 1974 TV series, Silverbridge was played by Anthony Andrews and Tregear by a dewy Jeremy Irons.

Anyway, the Duke is aghast. These matches run counter to everything he believes in. He is not  proud, personally. But he does hold that the position of Duke of Omnium requires maintenance. Silverbridge should not marry Isabel, he should marry Lady Mabel Grex, from one of the oldest families in England. Mary certainly should not engage herself to a poor man, even though the Duke is immensely rich. And Lord Gerald, the younger brother, should not lose money gambling and get himself kicked out of his Oxford college. (Or was it Cambridge? Too lazy to search through 500 pp. to check.)

The difficulty is that Trollope’s loyalty to his chief protagonist drains the drama from this novel. Internal struggle is fiendishly hard to portray without boring your reader. So while we sympathize with the Duke, it’s at a distance. What’s more, because we know that he’s fundamentally kind-hearted, we understand that he’ll eventually relent and make his children happy. And while the stolid, going-through-the-motions quality of the storytelling may indeed mimic the drudgery of grief, I doubt Trollope intended to get that meta. He is simply more fun to read when he’s writing about characters on the edge of sanity or morality or outright disaster. Which is why The Way We Live Now might be a good follow-up.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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