The Duke's Children is the sixth and last novel in Anthony Trollope's Palliser series, a magnificent series of novels about Parliamentary politics in Victorian England. The main characters are Plantagenet Palliser, later the Duke of Omnium, a rising politician who becomes Prime Minister, and his vivacious wife Lady Glencora. I have been reading the series, one book a year, every December for the past several years. After finishing The Duke's Children, I felt sad, as if I had lost some old friends.
We actually do lose one of my favorite characters in the series. The first sentence of The Duke's Children tells you that Lady Glencora has died. At first I wondered if I would like The Duke's Children as much as the other volumes because she is not in it. But her absence is felt throughout the novel, and characters often talk about her.
At its heart, The Duke's Children is a novel about the conflict between generations, represented by the Duke of Omnium and his three grown children. The Duke is no longer Prime Minister, and he is grieving for his wife. He loves his children, even though he is disappointed by the choices they have made. His children, in turn, love and respect their father, but wish to go their own way in life. They have always been closer to their mother than their father, and now they no longer have her guidance. The Duke has always been rather shy, and has a hard time expressing his feelings openly. Until now, he has kept his children at a distance. Lady Glencora, on the other hand, was very outgoing and affectionate toward her children.
Lord Silverbridge is the Duke of Omnium's son and heir. At the beginning of the book, he is elected to Parliament as a Conservative. The Duke is a lifelong Liberal, as his family has been for generations, and he is disappointed by his son's choice of party. But he is even more disappointed by Silverbridge's lifestyle. Before the novel begins, Silverbridge was expelled from Oxford for a childish prank, and since then he has been living in London among disreputable companions and has run up large gambling debts. His father agrees to help him with his debts, but only if he agrees to marry Lady Mabel Grex, the woman that the Duke has chosen for him. At one time, Silverbridge had thought he loved Mabel, but he falls in love with Isabel Boncassen, an American who has plenty of money but relatively low social status. He is afraid to tell his father he loves Isabel. The witty, vibrant Isabel is one of my favorite characters in the book, and she reminds me a little of Lady Glencora.
Meanwhile, the Duke's daughter Lady Mary has fallen in love with, and become secretly engaged to, Frank Tregear, the penniless second son of a country gentleman. Frank, a school friend of Silverbridge's, is also a Conservative. In fact, he is the one who convinced Silverbridge to change his party. Lady Glencora had known of the engagement and was going to tell her husband, but she fell ill before she could do so. Frank begs Mary to keep the secret as long as possible, but shortly after her mother's death she tells Lady Glencora's closest friend, Marie Finn, formerly Madame Max Goesler, who is another of my favorite characters in the series. When the Duke finally learns of the engagement, he is furious, and he and Mrs. Finn have a serious falling-out because he thinks she has known about the engagement from the beginning and kept it from him. Luckily, this is straightened out later on and they make up. As it turns out, Frank had been in love with Mabel, Silverbridge's intended bride, when they were both very young, but Mabel told him they could not marry because he did not have any money. But she has never stopped loving him, and only pretends to love Silverbridge. Frank has fallen out of love with Mabel long since, and truly loves Mary, although the Duke suspects that he wants to marry Mary for her money.
The second son, Gerald, is the least developed of the Duke's three children, even though it is possible that Trollope meant to write a seventh book in the series that focused on him. The Duke's Children was written two years before Trollope's death, and he may have been in poor health by then. Gerald, like his brother, loves to gamble, and he has been expelled from Cambridge for attending a horse race and not getting back to his college in time. Later, he loses a large amount at cards to Mabel's brother. Like his brother, he depends on the Duke to pay his debts.
I will not give away too much, except to say the book ends satisfactorily for all the characters except Mabel. Mabel is a very complex character. Even though she manipulates the feelings of both Silverbridge and Frank very badly, I felt sorry for her at the end. But I also have a feeling I sympathized with her more than the reader is supposed to.
Even though it is the last book in the series, The Duke's Children can be read on its own. There are actually two different versions of the novel. I read the standard version, which is much shorter than the complete version, which was published for the first time very recently. Trollope's publisher made him cut the novel down considerably. There are varying opinions on which version is better. Some say the complete version is best, but others say Trollope's publisher knew what he was doing when he made him cut the novel, and that the complete version moves slowly. Since I have not yet read the complete version, although I have glanced at it, I do not know exactly what the differences are, except that I heard there are more politics in the complete version, as well as a slightly different ending which definitely makes it seem as if Trollope intended to write a seventh volume that focused on Gerald.
The six novels of the Palliser series are Can You Forgive Her?, Phineas Finn, The Eustace Diamonds, Phineas Redux, The Prime Minister, and The Duke's Children. The Eustace Diamonds and The Duke's Children are the two that can be read on their own. In fact, Trollope hesitated about including The Eustace Diamonds in the series, even though certain plot lines from this novel are continued in Phineas Redux. Also, The Eustace Diamonds and The Duke's Children are the least political of the novels. They are more focused on the social world of the time. In fact, the subplot about Lady Mary in The Duke's Children, with its secret engagement between two people of different social status, would not be out of place in a Jane Austen novel. If you begin with The Duke's Children, though, you will probably want to read more. Reading the whole series, beginning with Can You Forgive Her?, makes for a richly rewarding experience.
The Duke's Children, in the standard version, is available from the Hatcher Graduate Library. The library does not appear to own a copy of the longer version, but it can be borrowed on interlibrary loan.