Thursday, March 20, 2014

Phineas Redux - Anthony Trollope

It's taken a while to get round to reading the fourth instalment of Trollope's Palliser series, mostly because I find that more than any other writer (with the possible exception of Scott) he dictates my reading pace. I cannot rush Trollope, theoretically I could skip the extended descriptions of hunting and skim through some of the frequent plot recaps and other general repetition's but then what would be the point of reading him? It's the detail that attracts me, that and his insistence on seeing an issue from everybody's point of view. I know this was first published as a serial over a 6 month period (I might try reading 'The Prime Minister' a chapter a week and see how it works) and I guess if you're doing that you don't really need to produce a page turner, I assume it also gives you licence to have a bit of fun from time to time describing something you're enthusiastic about which in Trollope's case is hunting. At any rate Trollope certainly doesn't miss an opportunity to describe a day out with the hounds (I find his enthusiasm infectious). But just because he isn't necessarily producing an action filled page turner it doesn't mean he isn't compelling - just that you don't always get instant gratification.

'Phineas Redux' re-introduces Phineas Finn, the wife he acquired at the end of 'Phineas Finn' has died and his job in Dublin despite supplying for all his material wants isn't providing him with much interest and nor is local society. Finn still craves the excitement of Parliament so when the call from his party comes through he decides to risk everything and return to London with the hope that he'll be given a chance to earn his living. Back in England he begins by picking up old friendships and renewing a couple of old grudges. At the end of 'Phineas Finn' Madam Max had turned down a proposal from the Duke of Omnium and in turn had her own proposal turned down by Finn. Meanwhile she's remained a good friend to the old Duke whose imminent death is about to shake up the shadow cabinet (Plantagenet Palliser is in line to inherit which means he will be ineligible to be chancellor of the exchequer again) and the current government is on it's way out. Everything should be looking good for Finn, his friends are pleased to have him back, he gets into parliament without bankrupting himself, and a useful life in office surely beckons.

And then it starts to go wrong. Scandal erupts over his relationship with Lady Laura Kennedy who has fled to the continent to escape her unsympathetic husband (Robert Kennedy is an exceptionally good argument for sensible divorce laws). Lady Laura's situation is extremely unpleasant, if she returns to England it seems her husband could compel her return to his home, as he's done nothing specifically wrong she has no grounds for divorce, and as her property is rightfully his she has no independent income. She and her father beg Phineas to visit them in Dresden which he does, but he also visits Kennedy who makes it clear that he blames Finn for the break up of his home. It's increasingly clear that Kennedy isn't entirely sane but he can still do a lot of damage to our hero's reputation - which he does by going to the press with accusations which just verge on libel. It's enough for Finn's political enemies to latch onto and things get worse from there on in. His greatest foe is Mr Bonteen - next in line for the chancellors job, he's determined there will be no office for Finn, in turn Finn's friends led by Lady Glencora plot and gossip in such a way that Bonteen is kept from high office as well. After a public argument between the two men Bonteen is found dead and circumstantial evidence points squarely at Finn.

Now we know Finn and Trollope makes it reasonably clear that he's not the man so we can believe in his innocence, but it's not easy for the rest of the cast. There are those who do believe in him but it's blind faith in the man rather than because of concrete evidence of his innocence and he's got enemies in the tabloid press who are determined to blacken his name as far as they possibly can as well. Poor Finn.

I hope it isn't to much of a spoiler to say that it turns out well enough for him in the end, although Trollope makes clear the toll events take on him. I think what marks a book out as a true classic is a certain timeless quality. There are plenty of parallels to draw with contemporary society - the nature of celebrity, the power of the press, public faith (or lack thereof ) in politicians, even the sexual politics at play as the women go into battle for Finn, but what's really interesting are the observations about human nature underneath the action.

Trollope is most definitely a Victorian and not an especially progressive one either; he's clearly anti-Semitic, and just as clearly thinks a woman should know her limitations and place (which oddly doesn't stop him from writing some really interesting and independently minded women). These aren't facets of his character that I find endearing, but he's also a wonderful observer of human nature and he doesn't tie things up to neatly either. Finn's sufferings don't go away when he's declared innocent - they're all the worse because he is innocent, and at the end of the book he's a broken man. Lady Laura doesn't get a happy ending either, but even if Trollope wanted one for her - though I think he believes she deserves a certain amount of punishment for her actions - it wouldn't ring true. The parallels with todays society are interesting but it's the characters that make it live and breath.


  1. I've often wondered about whether Trollope's descriptions of the plight of Victorian women was to shed light on the dire situation or merely tacit acceptance of it. In my reviewlet of Phineas Finn, I wrote this: "And of course as with many a Trollope novel issues of income invariably also deal with issues of the plight of women and their state-forced reliance on men. I wonder if Trollope is an accidental feminist or if he really did ponder the gender inequity of his day?"

    Am I off base? Were there other male Victorians who wrote progressively about women?

    1. I think Trollope is very much an accidental feminist, my impression is that he's conservative enough to see women's proper role as being the angel in the home. The most interesting female character I've found in Trollope so far is Lizzie Eustace but he does not like her at all. I don't think he's unsympathetic towards women when they're the victims of bad men but I suspect he feels that the men should behave better not that the women should have better rights. I guess one of the things I like about him is that he sounds like a decent sort of a man who's views are pretty much in line with decent men of his time which is quietly informative.

      Steerforth is right on the money with Wilkie Collins - books like No Name and The Law and the Lady pivot around how unfair the law is towards women.

  2. I finished it a few weeks ago and found it less enjoyable than Phineas Finn, although the trial added some spice towards the end. I'm now reading The Prime Minister and I'm afraid the anti-Semistism is worse than ever, with descriptions that wouldn't be out of place in a Nazi propaganda film. It's a pity, as for me it taints what is otherwise a very enjoyable panorama of Victorian society (although the hunting scenes are a bit of a drag). I'd love to know why Trollope was so anti-Jewish, even by the standards of his day.

    Re: other male Victorian writers who wrote progressively about women, Thackeray's Becky Sharpe springs to mind, plus some of Wilkie Collins' feisty heroines (although they were usually accompanied by a drippy, frail sister).

    1. I really ought to re read Vanity fair and absolutely agree with you re Wilkie Collins. I don't mind the hunting scenes and can even quite enjoy them for themselves but they get right in the way of the story. I don't know why but I didn't enjoy 'Phineas Finn' as much as others seem to have - I far preferred Phineas Redux (I don't know why). I'm sorry to hear about the anti-Semitism in the Prime Minister, on some level it's interesting to see how far we've come and it helps answer the question of how fascism managed to make such scapegoats of the Jews, but on most levels it's just tedious and unpleasant.