Anthony Trollope, Phineas Finn, the Irish member. Oxford World’s Classics (1991?) First published as a magazine serial, 1867-68; first book edition, illustrated by Millais (not his best work), 1869
It took me a month to read this huge novel, and another to summon the energy to post about it. Energy was something Anthony Trollope must have had enormous quantities of – he published his first novel in 1847 at the age of 32, and many more followed, sometimes several per year (there were two more, for example, in 1869, when Phineas Finn came out in book form).
The phenomenal rate at which Trollope produced prose fiction came at the cost at times of subtlety and originality. There’s the usual large cast of characters in this novel, but quite a few of them could have been dispensed with at little damage to the fabric or structure of the whole – especially the lower-class characters, who lack the sense of familiarity and sympathy of another prolific Victorian, Dickens.
What I found the most interesting and topical aspect of PF was the portrayal of political life, and in particular of parliamentary life in reform-era England and Ireland. In his Autobiography (1883) Trollope expressed regret at having made his protagonist Irish; this probably reflects the way in which Irish-British politics had become more divisive and volatile in the years that had elapsed after 1869. It’s important for the novel that Phineas is the son of an Irish country doctor, and that his political career suffers its first major crisis as a consequence of his discovery of strong radical convictions about tenant rights and land tenure in his homeland – treated then as a primitive, submissive colony of Britain, another outpost of the exploited Empire.
Politics, then. As early as vol.1, p. 26 (this OWC edition preserves the two-volume structure of the original), Phineas’s cynical politician friend, Fitzgibbon, tells his callow fellow countryman (Phineas is only 25 at the start of the novel), about to set out on his political career, some home truths about the parliamentary system. As Liberals, the two are discussing the faults and merits of their Tory opponents, who at that time held a majority in the Commons. Phineas had objected that under a Tory government, the country got nothing done:
‘As to that, it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other [retorts Fitzgibbon]. I never knew a government yet that wanted to do anything. Give a government a real strong majority, as the Tories used to have half a century since, and as a matter of course it will do nothing. Why should it? Doing things, as you call it, is only bidding for power, – for patronage and pay.’
Much of the political element of the novel (the other element is a tangled web of love and marriage plots, including a duel between two male rivals for a pretty woman – plus a bit of the usual tedious Trollope obsession, fox-hunting) depicts the gradual coming of age of Phineas in this callous, factional world of party politics. He comes to realise that party has to come before principles if he’s to rise to a senior post that paid a salary (MPs at that time were unpaid, hence they had to be rich landowning gentry, or have wealthy sponsors) – a struggle that ultimately forces him to make a self-destructive choice.
That cynical view of British (and American) politics still applies today. During the present crisis it’s apparent that many in government are more interested in keeping in office and eyeing their standing in the polls than in ‘doing something’ for the country.
Phineas is a lucky rather than talented young man. He has little apart from his good looks and pleasant manner to recommend him. He’s fortunate to fall into a ‘pocket borough’ constituency where its aristocratic patron can guarantee his election: ‘The use of a little borough of his own…is a convenience to a great peer’, our narrator says of this as yet unreformed trait of the electoral system in mid-Victorian times.
This luck stays with him for most of the novel – until those pesky convictions enter his head: ‘Could a man be honest in Parliament, and yet abandon all idea of independence?’ is the problem he confronts. “But what is a man to do?” he asks an MP colleague late in the novel: “He can’t smother his convictions.” The reply he’s given is witheringly dismissive of such convictions in a young MP – this is the worst of all possible defects, he’s advised.
He’s less lucky in his love life. He falls in love with several women in the course of the narrative, is rejected twice, more successful twice – but again he has to balance expediency or ‘business’ (meaning money to support his career) against romance. One of the women who turns him down does so for similar reasons: she marries a dull but wealthy man to extricate her profligate brother from debt. As a consequence she denies herself a potentially happy love match with Phineas.
It has to be said that his broken heart heals remarkably quickly, and he’s soon in pursuit of another quarry.
The final part of the novel ties up the numerous loose ends in what looks like a hasty and poorly conceived way, and I tended to agree with one of the women who turned down Phineas’s proposal of marriage: his character lacks depth.
The women characters are more interesting (as they were in Can You Forgive Her?). They face the usual dilemma of spirited, intelligent women of the time: their role in society was largelyrestricted to that of domestic goddess and mother. Although Trollope stops short of promoting a ‘new woman’ or suffragist heroine, he shows a great deal of sympathy for the submissive, unfulfilling life that was such women’s destiny. Characters like Phineas’s first love, Lady Laura, yearn to be able to be ‘useful’ and ‘politically powerful’ – but their capacity to be so is denied them.
Despite the rather silly duel and some flimsy characterisation and clunky plotting, this novel is worth reading for the insight into nascent and much needed political reform.