I will confess know that whilst I loved the first Palliser novel ('Can You Forgive Her') and raced through it, I found 'Phineas Finn' a bit more of a slog. It wasn't any lack of enjoyment on my part, or pace on Trollope's (not always the case) but somehow it turned into a considerable investment of time. In some ways this is a good thing; I really was immersed in Phineas's world by the time I was done and can hardly wait to find the time to tackle the next instalments in the Palliser series, 'Phineas Redux' in-particular. The down side is trying to find that time, not easy for me this side of Christmas.
Phineas himself is a charming, handsome, Irish man (exactly the sort my mother warned me about) freshly qualified as a barrister at the start of the book. He's persuaded his parents to let him study in London and support him whilst he learns his trade, Mr Finn senior is a prosperous country doctor back in Ireland who wants his son in Dublin but as Phineas is the only boy he seems unable to deny him his way whatever sacrifices that may call for back home. Phineas is also one of fortunes favourites, and the first hero of his type I've encountered in Trollope. He has an interest in politics and at the tender age of 25 finds himself with a seat in parliament thanks to a handy rotten borough and the needs of friends in high places.
Phineas knows he can't really afford a parliamentary career either from a financial point of view or for the damage it's likely to do his future prospects as a barrister - he's starting from the top where the only way is likely to be down. However his natural gifts (Irish good looks and pleasing manners) continue to make him friends - especially amongst the ladies. Phineas is basically a good egg - he's honourable, modest, hard working, and on the whole unspoiled by the many successes that come his way. Indeed politicians are on the whole portrayed as a pretty decent bunch here - not something I'm currently used to.
More interesting to me are the female characters. I've yet to really work out what Trollope's position is regarding feminism, or even women generally, 'Phineas Finn' has some remarkable ladies at it's centre, as well as a couple altogether less interesting. There is Lady Laura Standish, later Kennedy, and her friend Violet Effingham. Phineas falls in love first with lady Laura, but she's given all her money to her brother and has her own political ambitions - although these rise no higher than to be a hostess and friend to great men. Despite having feelings for Finn she chooses to marry money and influence in the form of Mr Kennedy. The marriage is a failure, Kennedy is an impossible husband, not because he's violent or undependable, but because he's totally implacable and an absolute domestic tyrant.
After Lady Laura Phineas transfers his affections to her wealthy friend Violet, not that Violet's money is the main attraction, just that our hero has to admit it would be useful. Violet loves Laura's brother but isn't at all sure she wants to marry him. She's rich enough to remain single and independent if she wishes it, though that would come at quite a social cost. Lord Chiltern is a violent man, and not very dependable. Trollope seems to have every sympathy with Violets reluctance to marry him, just as he's sympathetic to Laura's plight. I think the suggestion is that her punishment far exceeds any of her mistakes. Both Laura and Violet are far more satisfactory than Alice and Kate in 'Can You Forgive Her' and it's impossible not to compare them.
Madame Max Goesler is another a peach. A wealthy widow with a shady past, she's young enough to be yet another romantic interest for Phineas, pretty enough too, though Trollope makes it clear how much of her beauty is due to art rather than nature. Madame Max really is independent, she's also ambitious, intelligent, and a definite heroine when she might just as easily have been a villain. These three women are far more than ornaments and love interests, their relative positions raise all sorts of interesting questions about what a woman might expect in a world where marriage was the only respectable career option. More interesting still is the admission that that might not be an entirely satisfactory or just state of affairs.