Top critical review
A 200-page idea in 600-plus pages
on July 10, 2004
The Trollope lover will not think of missing this, the culmination of the Palliser novels, but will love Trollope a little less after reading it. It is all the things detractors of his work complain of -- plotless, rambling, dull, fussy, trivial. It is a story written not from an irresistible energy to tell it, but from a pair of good ideas: to echo the circumstances of the Duke's own marriage to his late beloved Glencora in an ironic way, and to show that the social changes brought about in part by his own lifetime of Liberal politics have resulted in a world and a way of thinking that Palliser himself cannot accept. Maybe a Henry James could put enough flesh on this scheme to render the narrative human and alive, but THE DUKE'S CHILDREN is sadly inert. It is the sort of book that tends to make a good movie: its conception is more interesting than the pages inside it.
The Duke's children are too slight and too dim to hang a novel on; and the characters from previous books who never fail to engage us -- Marie, Phineas, and Palliser himself -- are mostly either absent or seen in isolation, fuming alone in studies and drawing-rooms. The obligatory hunting and shooting scenes are engaging but beside the point, and the presence of Major Tifto and his racetrack story are a great annoyance. The bitter, disappointed Lady Mabel adds some intermittent liveliness whenever she appears, but even she wears out her welcome. (And she is, conceptually, much too near a relation to Lady Laura in PHINEAS FINN and PHINEAS REDUX.)
Finales are never Trollope's best event. He will muff them or mute them or present the scenes of his happy endings as if viewed from a distant tree-top. I could wish the Palliser saga ended at THE PRIME MINISTER, which is superb, with perhaps a little coda telling us how Trollope saw Plantagenet Palliser's future life. That the little coda should be bloated into a mammoth vexation like this one is not uncharacteristic, but is surely unfortunate.