Title: First Among Equals
Author: Jeffrey Archer
Publisher: St. Martin’s Paperbacks
Genre: Historical Fiction, Political Thriller
First Publication: 1984
Major Characters: Charles Gurney Seymour, Simon Kerslake, Raymond Gould, Andrew Fraser
Narration: Third Person Omniscient narrator
Book Summary: First Among Equals by Jeffrey Archer
Charles Seymour, second-born son, will never be the earl like his father, but he did inherit his mother’s strength-and the will to realize his destiny…
Simon Kerslake’s father sacrificed everything to make sure his son’s dreams come true. Now it is Simon’s chance to rise as high as those dreams allow…
Ray Gould was born to the back streets but raised with pride-a quality matched by a sharp intellect and the desire to attain the impossible…
Andrew Fraser was raised by a soccer hero turned politician. Now it’s his turn for heroics, whatever the cost.
From strangers to rivals, four men embark on a journey for the highest stakes of all-the keys to No. 10 Downing Street. Unfolding over three decades, their honor will be tested, their loyalties betrayed, and their love of family and country challenged. But in a game where there is a first among equals, only one can triumph.
Book Review: First Among Equals by Jeffrey Archer
First Among Equals is a story about four very driven characters competing in the British political environment from 1964 – 1991, all aspiring to be Prime Minister one day:
Charles Seymour (Viscount)- an Eton/Oxford graduate born to money and banking – obviously a Tory (Conservative) but also an aristocratic, arrogant snob. Doesn’t have much luck with wives, nor the board of his family business.
Simon Kerslake – another Conservative, but also a devoted family man who makes some risky investment choices in his personal life, due to his association with Ronnie Nethercote. Simon’s a nice guy, who tries to do everything right (whom some say Archer based on himself – obviously while wearing rose coloured glasses).
Raymond Gould – Labour Party intellectual from working class background, the son of a butcher, who went on to become the youngest Queen’s Counsel in the country. Blackmailed by a prostitute and later spends most of his political career with a mistress. Eventually rediscovers his love for his wife.
Andrew Fraser – Chooses to be a Labour man and later leader of the Social Democratic Party, despite the fact his father, Sir Duncan, is a strong Conservative politician. Andrew suffers a number of personal tragedies, but has the strength to pull through and continue his political career.
These four very different personalities are developed against the real life PMs – Wilson, Callaghan, Heath and Thatcher. Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles and Lady Di also get a look in, and it’s interesting that given this book was written in 1984, Jeffrey Archer chose to have Charles king by 1991.
Considering “a week is a long time in politics”, Jeffrey Archer has to cover a lot of ground quickly in First Among Equals, and he does it well. He doesn’t always explain the outcomes or spell things out, leaving the reader to figure it out for themselves, or, draw their own conclusions.
In the race to lead the country, there is plenty of backstabbing, blackmailing and controversy. Jeffrey Archer has obviously drawn on a lot of his own life experiences to create this insight into the inner workings of the machinery of government, but he adds a dramatic flair that makes electioneering, party factions and the passing of legislation an exciting battle.
Although First Among Equals is about politics, Jeffrey Archer weaves through the book the personal stories of each of the men. This worked effectively and by the end of the book I was surprised to feel a strong connection to each of the characters. I found First Among Equals intriguing, but I am sure that most would struggle with the heavy political focus. Jeffery Archer’s narrative hooks worked wonders, and although the story is told in third person omniscient, the change from character to character kept me on the edge of my seat.
US and UK plot differences
When published in the United States, the novel was rewritten to eliminate the character of Andrew Fraser. The Fraser character eventually departs the Labour Party to join the breakaway Social Democratic Party. According to Archer, the change was made because the publisher did not believe the American audience would understand a multi-party political system.
As a result, several plot elements revolving around Fraser were transferred to other characters, notably Simon Kerslake, who suffered through a change of heart toward a prospective marriage partner and the later loss of a child.
The ending of the novel differed in the US version as well, with both the winner of the ultimate election and the manner in which the contest was decided changing from one version to the next. In an interview, Archer joked that he found his American friends were generally more supportive of Kerslake, while his British readers backed Gould.
The original UK version was later released in the United States as well.