Thursday, March 20, 2014
Phineas Redux - Anthony Trollope
'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.