It’s time now for Jenny and me to review the fourth book in Anthony Trollope’s Palliser series. This one picks up the story of Phineas Finn, the main character of the second book in the series. When we last saw Phineas, he had left Parliament, disenchanted by all the political maneuvering, and returned to Ireland to marry his childhood sweetheart. It seemed like a happy ending to a fraught political career.
But Phineas’s happiness didn’t last. His wife died in childbirth, and he gives in to his former colleagues’ encouragement to return to London and stand for Parliament again. He also returns to some of his old relationships, particularly those with Lady Laura and Madame Max. His life is no simpler this time around—in fact, it’s worse! Before it’s all done, Phineas ends up on trial for the murder of a political rival, and that’s only after getting shot at by Lady Laura’s husband.
Teresa: When I’ve talked with other people about these books, many of them have expressed concern about the political content. Would it be too hard for a 21st-century American to follow? And I’ve usually responded that the politics are not central to these books, even when the characters are politicians. Marriage is as big a subject as politics, and often the political material is general enough to apply today.
I did, however, find this book a little more difficult at first. I had a hard time wrapping my head around what was happening with Phineas’s election and the rivalries that led to the murder accusation. But my distress about Lady Laura’s situation was enough to keep me going, and once the murder trial started, I was hooked!
Jenny: I thought that the return to Phineas was going to be dull, after the marvelous Eustace Diamonds, especially given that the most contentious political issue to date in these books has been the move to decimal currency (Palliser Plantagenet’s hobby-horse.) I have to say, however, that it’s the murder trial of the century. Phineas’s anguish, his sense of betrayal that anyone could think him guilty, and his loyal lady friends, were completely gripping. What did you think of the way Trollope handled the trial, with the various certainties and uncertainties?
Teresa: I really enjoyed everything around the trial, and I was especially fascinated and moved by Phineas’s feelings afterward when everyone was telling him to be happy it was over. People wanted to treat it as a passing thing, the sensation of the moment, but of course it would change everything for Phineas. After a trauma like that, how could he be expected to just go back to his regular life? I might be reaching here, but I wonder if Trollope was commenting on the public’s tendency to treat murder trials as entertainment when people’s lives are stake?
Jenny: I do think he was commenting on that — the curiosity of others, even those who were relatively close friends or coworkers, was terrible for Phineas. The only thing he could bear was complete loyalty and discretion.
I was interested, too, in Lady Laura’s situation. She marries for money instead of for love, and then winds up with a very unhappy marriage because she can’t find any love or any freedom there. (And let’s not discount the very deep unhappiness of her husband.) In this book, Trollope delves deeper into this question and — I think — blames Lady Laura for her own predicament, noting that she always reserved part of her heart for Phineas and never really tried to love her husband. Do you think this is fair?
Teresa: I was troubled by the depiction of Lady Laura. I appreciated her pragmatism in Phineas Finn, even though it became clear pretty quickly that her practical choice wouldn’t lead to happiness. But she didn’t seem like the type to then moon over Phineas the way she did. So I felt there was inconsistency in her characterization.
I don’t think Trollope is arguing against making the practical choice, since that’s the choice Glencora Palliser made. But what makes Glencora different is that she decided to fully participate in her marriage. Still, as dull as he is, Plantagenet treats Glencora well, which would make it easier to find some sort of happiness.
Jenny: I agree that initially Lady Laura didn’t seem the type to moon over Phineas. But it’s true that in Phineas Finn, she never tried to adapt herself to her new situation — she wanted to live her old life of political involvement and freedom while being married to a man she knew disapproved of all that. She wanted his money but not his lifestyle. Perhaps that set of choices foreshadowed what came later.
I wonder whether some of this is meant to reflect the political side of the book, which has to do with the separation of Church and State, and whether the suggestion of such a separation should come from the conservatives or the progressive party. Are we ever willing to make compromises when it seems to get in the way of our pride and self-interest?
Teresa: A lot of this series has been about making compromises. The people who are best able to get along in the world of these novels are those who are willing to compromise, who understand that the pure and perfect good probably isn’t attainable, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible to have some happiness. It seems like Madame Max and Glencora, to name just two, see the world as it is and act accordingly. Lady Laura and Phineas have high ideals, and those ideals make it tough to be happy.