Literary Notes: Principle and pathology in the political novel

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The Independent Culture
THE GAME of politics is for many a fascinating one in its own right, with its insistence on personal power and the necessity of knowing the right people. Whether dealing with the "Sir Humphreys" of this world or working through spin doctors, there is no escaping from the fact that politics is in many ways not anything in the way of an exemplar of virtue but a good illustration of the pathology of human nature.

The best, or most lasting, of political novels accept this and use politics as a means of gaining insight into the private lives and motivations of individuals. Trollope's Palliser novels, from Can You Forgive Her in 1864 to The Duke's Children in 1880, represent the tradition of looking at the effects of relationships, families, private alliances and networking on personal success. They centre on an upper-class family who are deeply conservative and suspicious of social reform. They depict the earlier approach to politics that meant that aristocratic families would be caught up in loyalty to one party or another, not out of class or conviction but out of tradition.

The politicians that Trollope depicts, Phineas Finn apart, are generally driven by pure motivation. They have chosen to enter politics not necessarily to make money but to do good. What marks out Mrs Humphry Ward's neglected political novels of the early years of this century is their assumption that the same aristocratic families involved in politics see it almost wholly as a game. Both in terms of personal behaviour and motivation, the Edwardian society she depicts is more decadent and self-indulgent. The decay of the political world is reflected in a parallel corruption of marriage.

One of the interesting examples of Mrs Ward's analysis of the intermingling of the private with the public side of politics is Eltham House. Based on an examination of how society in her own day would have viewed the marriage of Lord and Lady Holland who were such a social success in the Regency, despite the fact that Lord Holland's wife was divorced, it is an analysis of the pressures of social hypocrisy and personal ambition. Alec Wing's desire to buy his way into politics is thwarted by personal enmity; morality is merely a device his enemies use.

Eltham House is a book not about political ideas but about the way in which people use them for their own ends. Mrs Ward reveals a society in which ideas have no strong hold, but are a matter of routine, family or prejudice. Alec Wing is typical in pursuing both the game of politics and the game of social success, and it is clear that to Mrs Ward the two belong together.

The difference between the "idea" and the use to which it is put emerges clearly in the very structure of The Coryston Family. On the surface the book is about property, primogeniture and the political world. But there is a clever juxtaposition between the ideas and the plot; the reader looks the more critically because any natural sympathy is deliberately taken from him.

The elder son, Lord Coryston, is a socialist who does not believe in primogeniture, yet he is fighting to possess his estates. The Dowager Lady Coryston, reactionary and self-centred, struggles to prevent him coming into his own as head of the family. This battle, watched by the bewildered relations, flaccid, lazy and inept, is seen to be not about principle but control, not about ideas but self-indulgence. Mrs Ward's concern is with the nature of such a society and the influence on it of personal will and gossip.

Real politics, for novelists, is about people. The view that Mrs Humphry Ward takes, unlike Trollope, strikes a contemporary note, and is essentially bleak. The novels remain relevant as well as worth reading.

Cedric Cullingford is the author of `Children's Literature and its Effects' (Cassell, pounds 15.99)