Classics Review: The Duke’s Children by Anthony Trollope, Palliser Series #6
I have just completed the final book of Anthony Trollope’s six-novel Palliser series. I think this is the first time I have read an entire series of anything since my Laura Ingalls Wilder days. The closest I came was about 10 years ago when I read several of Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody mysteries about ten years ago. But after four or five of those the Egyptian archeology shtick got old. The Palliser series, though not universally riveting reading, did keep my attention all the way to the conclusion of the final novel.
Number 6 in the series, The Duke’s Children, begins with the death of Lady Glencora, Duchess of Omnium. Now why in the world did Trollope kill off one of his most popular characters? My theory is it’s because Glencora’s death triggers a plot that finally puts her shy mild-mannered husband Plantagenet, Duke of Omnium, in the spotlight. In the previous novel The Prime Minister, he is titular character but Lady Glencora still hogged most of the limelight. In The Duke’s Children the three surviving Palliser children, Lord Silverbridge, Lord Gerald, and Lady Mary, aged 19 to 22, are ready for romance. Of course all such romance is supposed to be approved and sanctioned by their stern father. Therein lies plenty of opportunity for conflict.
I say “surviving” children because I could swear that in The Prime Minister the Pallisers had four children and there was even a mention of a certain “little Lady Glencora.” There is no explanation of what happened to this missing daughter. I notice inconsistencies like this and they bother me. I know the death of children was commonplace in Victorian England, but was it so commonplace that that Trollope did not see the need for even a couple of lines in little Glencora’s memory? He is known for writing rapidly and he had to meet those serial deadlines. Perhaps it was an oversight.
Once I recovered from this glaring omission I enjoyed the book. The Duke is now in his late forties and old beyond his years. He has lost his sense of purpose (working in the public service) as well as his beloved wife. Now he must deal alone with his wayward children who, in his opinion lack a proper sense of the duty that comes with their exalted hereditary position. It seems he has had very little personal contact with any of his children through the years what with all the nurses, servants, and boarding schools.
Also Lady Glencora has left a problem behind that brings back painful memories. Lady Mary, age 19, has gotten herself engaged to marry a certain Mr. Tregear, a smart handsome guy without a shilling to his name. Tregear is a school friend of her brother Lord Silverbridg. Lady Glencora encouraged the romance because she figured the young man’s income was of no importance since Lady Mary would have plenty of money for both of them. Of course she had not gotten around to mentioning all this to the Duke before she became ill and died suddenly.
When Tregear gets around to breaking his intention to the Duke he finds himself coldly rejected. The Duke most certainly does not approve the match. He considers Tregear to be a nobody and a fortune hunter. Also Tregear reminds him of Burgo Fitzgerald, the handsome rogue with whom his wife nearly ran off with early in their marriage (see #1 in the series, Can You Forgive Her?). Besides, his daughter ought to marry someone more equal in rank, family, and income. However Mary is adamant that she will not stop loving Frank Tregear and though she will not marry him without her father’s consent, will consider herself engaged to him for the rest of her life if necessary. The slow softening of the Duke toward Tregear forms the plot of the novel.
Lord Gerald, the middle child, is a minor character in the story, serving only to add to the Duke’s troubles by his gambling debts and disobedience. You see the effect of money and privilege on the two sons: they are only a little afraid of displeasing their father, but secure in their wealth and rank, have no other fears. The eldest son, Lord Silverbridge, plays a major role as co-protagonist with his father. He has already displeased the Duke as the novel begins because he has been kicked out of Oxford (for painting the Dean’s house red). In addition, he is responsible for introducing his sister to her objectionable suiter. Lord Silverbridge starts as quite an uncertain shallow person but we get to see his character slowly mature as the Duke undergoes a mellowing.
Silverbridge is in the market for a bride. His father is encouraging him to consider taking a wife as he will not come into some of his property until he is married. His choices come down to the proper and beautiful but slightly jaded Lady Mable Grex, a lady fully approved and endorsed by his father, or a visiting American, the even more beautiful Isabel Boncasson. After some months of waffling Lord Silverbridge goes wholeheartedly for Isabel, despite the fear of his father’s further displeasure.
The thing I most enjoy about these Trollope novels is the insight they give me into the workings of Victorian aristocracy, a realm of culture I would certainly never get to otherwise experience. It amazes me how limited they were in their behavior and how many unwritten rules they had. It seems the more sensitive you were to these unwritten rules, the more refined a gentleman or lady you were. I am not sure how Trollope himself knew the inner workings of the aristocracy, not being an aristocrat himself, but I know he had closer access to that strange and rarified world than I do. He surely read the papers at the time, and makes effective use of these rags in his novels. He may have even seen their carriages and silk top hats as they traveled around the cities and towns.
Trollope seems to have begun with the reasonable assumption that Dukes and Duchesses are human being just like ourselves, only with the addition of lifelong money, power, luxury, and social privilege. He used his abundant creative imagination to imagine what kind of effects those additions might have of the character of a human being. Still, I think he does better when writing about his favorite character types: the penniless gentlemen trying to make a go of life among the wealthy and powerful, e.g., Phineas Finn. I’m sure he could personally relate to these characters.
The Palliser novels were serialized and published between 1864 and 1879. In 1875 Trollope wrote the non-Palliser novel, The Way We Live Now, which some critics consider to be his masterpiece. I did like that one a lot and was happy to see that a few of its characters amble into The Duke’s Children. The indolent Dali Longstaff plays a significant role here as Silverbridge’s rival for the heart of Isabel Boncasson, and Lord Nitterdale also plays a small role, now happily married and a success in Parliament.