Saturday, July 18, 2009

Politics as soap opera . . . then and now

Though Trollope's Palliser novels, the fifth of which I've been reading this week, draw their cast of characters from Parliament, its Members and the various Ministers who make up successive governments, the books are ultimately far less about politics than they are about the society and culture that grow up around politics. Trollope's focus is on the members of society rather than its problems, and while political issues do arise in the novels, the important votes and debates to which they give rise are far more likely to be hinges of plot than occasions for deeper thought.

In that sense, Trollope's account of the political life of his time isn't all that unlike our experience of our own politics: though I'll admit to flat-out enjoying the soap opera aspect of politics, I'm at least a casual policy wonk, and this speech from Lady Glencora, Duchess of Omnium and wife of Prime Minister Palliser, sounds distressingly familiar, almost as if it could have come from the mouth of a Sunday morning talk host today:
Of course I don't mean about politics. Of course it must be a mixed kind of thign at first, and I don't care a straw whetehr it run to Radicalism or Toryism. The country goes on its own way, eithe for better or for worse, which ever of them are in. I don't think it makes any difference as to what sort of laws are passed. But among ourselves, in our set, it makes a deal of difference who gets the garters, and the counties, who are made barons and then earls, and whose name stands at the head of everything.
Thus, I suppose, has it always been, frustrating as that may be.


  1. I must admit that I have never been seriously interested in Trollope, though your comments this week dovetailed with Greene's Maurice Castle (The Human Factor)becoming intrigued by such, especially after he hopes to cease certain of his activities; he never knows, but his Section Cheif at MI-6 is also reading Trollope and finding justification for severe actions of his own.

    I picked up a copy of The Duke's Children this a.m. at the library's sale: that brings my number of Palliser novels to four. I hope that August will prove an apt time to explore.

    many thanks - jon

  2. But isn't this the case with all politics, real or fiction? Movies and shows about politicians also always focus on the soap opera aspect, as do most (but, I concede, not all) books on the subject. Even reality tends to pull in the soap opera direction, sadly...

  3. I have to say that ultimately The Prime Minister was a bit disappointing--the first Trollope novel that's not fully satisfied; its duel plots never quite meshed, and the action faltered about two-thirds of the way through. That said, a chance to see more of the Pallisers' marriage is worth the struggle.

    As for your comment, An Anonymous Child, you're definitely right--and in fact, that's what makes the novels still entertaining. There's some interest in the politics, but if they were truly concerned with the issues of the day, the books would be dull. My complaint, rather, is that the non-fictional, news and opinion class tends to view things that way as well; while I understand the interest, I continue to believe, perhaps ridiculously, that there's an audience for wonkier, more analytical political analysis.