By John Bowen
James Murdoch will today be hauled over the coals once more, by a House of Commons select committee determined to find out exactly what lay at the bottom of the phone-hacking affair. It has all the best ingredients of a modern political story – a too close relationship of politicians and press; a secret world of networking and influence now dragged, kicking and screaming, into the light; secret payments, cover-ups, and public outrage; and a strong whiff, not to say stench, of corruption in the air. The story of the ex-policeman, now a private investigator, detailed to pursue the lawyers of Milly Dowler in the hope of unearthing something discreditable or scandalous, is only the latest twist in what seems a peculiarly modern spiral of press misbehaviour and political greed.
The Murdoch affair seems the most contemporary of stories, chock-full of hacked mobile phones, high-tech surveillance equipment and secret video-recordings. But although the technology might have changed, it is a world that would have been only too familiar to nineteenth-century author Anthony Trollope. He was as fascinated as we are by what lies behind the public face of politics: the personal passions, rivalries and love affairs, the ins and outs of office, the spectacular rises and equally rapid falls.
It’s been a strange and revealing business, editing and living with Anthony Trollope’s 1873 Palliser novel, Phineas Redux, over the past couple of years. In one way, the Palliser novels seem to come from a world immeasurably distant from our own – aristocrat-run, high-imperial Britain before universal suffrage, motor cars and telephones, let alone the 24-hour news cycle that today’s politicians have learned to live with. But then again, the Palliser world very often seems strangely familiar, and not simply because the parliamentary rituals and furniture seem to have changed so little over the past century and a half. Almost daily throughout the editing process I would turn from thinking about Phineas’s complex love life, or Mr Daubeny’s machinations to stay in office, to the day’s news stories with a wry smile of recognition.
Trollope is sometimes wrongly thought to be a rather soothing or comforting writer, an old pair of slippers or the kind of Trollope a male politician could admit to cuddling up with in perfect safety. If that’s your view, Phineas Redux will make you think again. Not long before, Trollope, who had always wanted a parliamentary career, had stood as a Liberal candidate for Beverley in East Yorkshire. He came bottom in the poll and the corruption and inanity of electioneering disgusted him. The insight and disillusionment that followed fuels the novel, a story about a young politician in the making, who finds himself entangled in a nasty political quarrel that turns even nastier when his hated rival, with whom he has just very publicly quarrelled, is found dead, stabbed in a back alley. It’s not the first bit of violence in the book; a little earlier Phineas himself has been shot at by the enraged and half-mad husband of his intimate (but not too intimate) friend Lady Laura Kennedy (the bullet missed, or the book would have had to end there). By the time we get our hero safely to the end of the book and into the loving arms of the mysterious heiress Madame Max, he and we have also survived a corrupt election, accusations of bribery and electoral malpractice, alleged adultery and a secret investigation into bigamy in Poland. These adventures climax in a legal and political battle fought out over the publication of a private letter in the press, which claims to reveal the truth of Phineas’s adultery. Only through some very fast legal footwork and a last-minute injunction can Phineas prevent its publication, and his own and Lady Laura’s ruin.
It is at times like this that Trollope seems the most contemporary and prescient of novelists. He is a brilliantly perceptive observer of the power of newspaper reporting, and what we now call ‘the media’, in the making and breaking of political careers, and of the complex and often dirty tangles that politicians, editors and journalist find themselves in. The epicentre of these intrigues in the novel is Quintus Slide, the ‘indefatigable, unscrupulous’ editor of The People’s Banner. Formerly a radical, Slide now supports the Conservatives ‘with great zeal and with an assumption of consistency and infallibility’. Trollope gives us plenty to hate in Slide, whose populist Toryism is a mix of high-minded moralising and vitriolic personal attacks. A press quick to condemn others but utterly immoral in its own behaviour: seems a familiar mix?
Political hatreds, sexual scandals, unscrupulous editors, and last-minute injunctions: it is no wonder that Trollope has remained such a favourite, and so perennially topical, for so long. For his are the most clear-sighted and capacious of all novels about what we call, genteelly enough, the modern political process. But it is far from genteel in Trollope. Perhaps the Victorian equivalent of Silvio Berlusconi’s bunga-bunga parties might not have found a home in his work – the Victorian public would hardly have tolerated it – but the politician, his wife, his mistress, and the kidnapped cat almost certainly would have done.
John Bowen is Professor of Nineteenth-Century Literature at University of York. Most recently he has edited the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Phineas Redux, and is also the author of Other Dickens: Pickwick to Chuzzlewit (2000).