Reading Anthony Trollope's Barsetshire novels was a delight. I found each one perfectly charming, an exquisite example of the Victorian novel that ends with a wedding and in which everyone receives exactly what they deserve, and I had to parcel them out to myself, allowing one every few months so that they would last longer. The Palliser novels, on the other hand, were more of a slog. I know this is partly because I am uninterested in politics, real or imaginary, and find it difficult to read about them, even in parodic form. But even the characters were less dear to me; while I became familiar with them, I was not fond of them--at least not till the very end. In the final book, The Duke's Children, I could at last see the trueness of Plantagenet Palliser and the sincerity of Lady Glencora, and love them both for it. I still could not, however, bring myself to care much about their children, friends, enemies, or acquaintances.
I made my way through the whole chronicle in part because, after all, they were written by Trollope, but also because I was eager to watch the BBC miniseries that my mother-in-law had passed on to me some time ago. I'd lent the DVDs to a friend, who got through several discs and couldn't handle any more, so I was interested to see if I enjoyed them better having read the books and to see if it was a good adaptation.
I must warn anyone who sets foot on the same course that the series does not begin well. The first few episodes are filled with glaring anachronisms (it would NOT have been appropriate for a young man to chase a young woman around a garden party given by the Duke of Omnium, and then kiss her in the dance pavilion--although I don't think this would even be appropriate today, under the same circumstances. In any case, Trollope did not and never would have written of such a thing. Lady Glencora was a ditz, not a slut), and the characters sketched roughly and unfairly. I nearly gave up, like my friend, but decided to watch a few more episodes in hopes that things might improve, and fortunately, they did.
While many details necessarily had to be glossed, and entire plot lines ignored, for the sake of length (even 26 hour-long episodes are not enough to fit all the happenings of six fat Victorian novels), in some ways the series brought out facets of the characters that were not as clear in the novels. I was able to sympathize with Plantagenet much more when I could see the trials he was forced to bear and the invariably honorable way in which he handled each one, and I now have a great fondness for his character that I didn't feel while reading the books. This is not to say that the show changed the characters--rather it emphasized the strengths and weaknesses that Trollope made more subtle. For once, the tendency of TV to caricature literature worked out for the best!
For instance, I understood at the end of the miniseries something that I had not realized at the end of the novels. As if the loss of his wife were not enough, Plantagenet must also wonder if she still regretted marrying him after all those years. While it is clear to the reader that the marriage was a happy one, and the right thing for them both, Glencora makes Plantagenet question that fact with her insistence that their children be allowed to choose freely whom they will marry. This is, of course, a good thing in the general sense; Plantagenet's obsession with class was outdated even then. But he and the reader are inexorably reminded of the fact that Glencora was not free to choose her spouse, and suffered greatly until she and Plantagenet finally came to terms. She was happy with him in a way that she could never have been with Burgo Fitzgerald (who, indeed, became a romantic phantom as soon as she married Plantagenet), but she leaves Plantagenet to question that happiness for the rest of his life. In my view this makes the series into a tragedy, despite the weddings at the end. Plantagenet Palliser's memories of his dear wife will be forever tainted with the nagging anxiety that she was never truly happy with him, and that is an ending that he absolutely does not deserve.