Phineas Finn

phineas finnIt’s been far too long since we reviewed one of Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, something Teresa and I have decided to do together — but here we are at last with the second in the series, Phineas Finn. This is the story of a young Irish man of good breeding but no fortune, who decides to abandon his plans to become a barrister in order to take a seat in Parliament. His five years at that august institution are full of the steady work of making connections, making speeches, and making love — Phineas is rather a winning young man, if sometimes kind of clueless — and maybe even more full of proposals.

Jenny: When we read the first of the Pallisers, I expected these books to be less ecclesiastical than the Barsetshire books, and more political, but Can You Forgive Her? had politics as a backdrop and relationships strongly in the foreground. Phineas Finn is much more balanced, don’t you think? There’s a lot of Parliament in this novel, and I sometimes wondered what Trollope meant by it.

Teresa: There is more of a balance between the personal and political—and a lot on how the political and personal affect each other. For a while, I thought there was too much political material. As an American, living more than a century later, I found the political content hard to follow at times. What was this bill about really? And what’s this business about disbanding and reforming a new government? I eventually figured out enough of it to follow how it affected Phineas, which was the most important thing, and I came to the conclusion that the content of the particular bills wasn’t even that important, which was sort of Trollope’s point. It’s all political maneuvering, and people’s actual convictions rarely come into it, and that’s where Phineas ultimately runs into problems.

Jenny: Phineas isn’t a manipulative person. He’s sincere, and honorable, and likable, and he wants to do the right thing in the political arena as well as in his personal life. But it becomes clear fairly quickly that someone who is unwilling to make compromises — personal or political — is never going to get on as quickly as someone who is willing to do so. We see Phineas gradually painted into a tighter and tighter corner, and I wondered when — or really whether — he would draw the line. Will he accept help or money from people he ought not to accept it from? Will he marry someone he doesn’t love, or betray the person he does love?

And Trollope being Trollope, we see these questions from other angles, too. I was fascinated by Lady Laura’s story.

Teresa: The thing that fascinated me about Phineas’s political journey is how much it made me think of today’s politics, where loyalty to the party or to one’s donors can trump convictions. Phineas is distressed by this almost immediately, but he lacks the confidence in his own convictions to do what he knows is right. He lets himself be guided by others, sometimes for good reason, but I too wondered whether he would draw a line and make his own choices.

I love Trollope largely for his women, and Lady Laura was no exception. Her story harked back to Can You Forgive Her? with its interest in women’s choices. How can a woman gain (and lose) power in society? The story of Madame Max, which I loved, addresses the some of the same ideas.

Jenny: I respected Lady Laura’s choice to marry for money instead of for love, since she thought it through fairly carefully, but her vanity about her strong character tripped her up after that. And didn’t you think that a lot of the undercurrent of the conflict between her and her husband was actually about sex? He was strict, of course, and had notions about not reading novels on Sundays, but he kept talking about her not doing her conjugal duty, and she kept having headaches when she was around him, and to me, that spelled out a bad sexual relationship. (Plus, no immediate kid.) Do you think Trollope’s readers would have seen it that way?

Teresa: I wonder if they would have—or if Trollope even intended that meaning. It does make sense. But, to me, the problem was rooted in their different attitudes about how to live. Once they were living together, those differences become evident. I could appreciate Laura’s pragmatism, but pragmatism has limits. She chose a man who seemed good without actually being good. But because his goodness was all about appearances, she couldn’t see his unbending nature until it was too late. A different kind of woman (someone more like Glencora, perhaps) might have been able to tolerate his ways, but Laura’s ambition wouldn’t allow that.

Jenny: And, of course, we see the far more worldly Madame Max, whose tolerant attitude and life as a single woman implies that she could put up with a great deal if she chose to (including sex, if that was called for!) I loved her ambition, which is less political and more social, and her implication that she doesn’t understand or even enjoy British society but intends to conquer it. Phineas seems naive by contrast. I agree that a good chunk of this novel is about women’s choices, and it is fascinating to me. Since we saw a lot of a very violent man in Can You Forgive Her? it was interesting to see a relationship forming with another violent man (but this one honorable and even likable) with Lady Violet Effingham — another woman with hard choices to make.

In the end, Phineas has made so many friends — even friends out of former enemies — that he brings a reasonable triumph out of disaster. Since one of the later novels is called Phineas Redux, I suspect this isn’t the last we’ll see of him! I’m really looking forward to it.

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5 Responses to Phineas Finn

  1. See, it’s just not fair. I read the Palliser novels in my early twenties, nearly forty years ago, when I was too young to appreciate Trollope’s measured keen sensibility. And I have never ridden a horse, which I believe is a distinct disadvantage in understanding Trollope.

    While I remember the Palliser series as more political and less engaging than the Barsetshire series (and it’s been twenty years since I read those), I’ve never been disappointed in a Trollope novel. You make me want to read them all again, after my year of Melville and my re-read of Eliot (with special focus on Daniel Deronda), and more James, and Wharton, and I could go on and on. But don’t leave out The Way We Live Now, a book that should be on the same shelf with Middlemarch, Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend, Moby Dick, Vanity Fair, and The Scarlet Letter as the Alps of mid-19th century novel writing in English (Austenites and Hardy lovers–although 1875 is pushing the “mid” concept since Hardy was already writing by then: note that I specified MID-19th century and Russo- and Francophiles that I limited it to English).

    • Jenny says:

      Never ridden a horse! You’re so funny. It’s true that the long descriptions of the hunt in Phineas Finn (and others!) are best read by enthusiasts, but I assumed that was everyone. Also — both Teresa and I have reviewed The Way We Live Now (what a novel!) — just search for it. I absolutely agree with your assessment of it.

  2. Elle says:

    I love that you’re writing about the Palliser novels together! What an excellent way to approach the books. I agree, the content of the bills isn’t really the point (just as details of the cases in Dickens’s Chancery or Circumlocution Office aren’t the point); it’s far more about how both parties are essentially advocating the same things, but different ways of doing them. Every time I read these books, I think about contemporary American politics in the same light.

    Also, isn’t Madame Max just wonderful?! And Laura Kennedy, and Violet Effingham. I do believe Trollope wrote women pretty well. Laura Kennedy’s marriage is so fascinatingly awful; I like that he allows his female characters to make mistakes without blaming them for it.

    • Jenny says:

      I don’t know — I think he kind of does blame Laura for some of the mistakes she makes. She is rather too proud of her own emotional strength, and it goes before her fall. But then, we are mistaken about her husband as much as she is! I like your analysis of the political part of the book. Can’t wait for the Eustace Diamonds!

      • Elle says:

        Yeah, on second thoughts I think you’re probably right. But I still rate Trollope’s women over Dickens’s for roundedness and being more generally interesting, any day.

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