O, lucky Finn. Anthony Trollope, Phineas Finn

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.

The cover is from ‘In the Conservatory’ by James Tissot

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.

 

 

 

 

June – July in Cornwall and procrastination

I’ve been quite busy with a longstanding work project lately, hence the lack of posts for a while. The other reason for the hiatus has been procrastination: I finished Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Finn a couple of weeks ago, but haven’t summoned the energy to post about it yet.

Meanwhile I’ve almost finished Elizabeth Bowen’s novel Eva Trout. I chose it as a contrast with the Trollope, but it turned out to be something I’ve not enjoyed much, so I’m not sure I have a post in me about that one, either. Maybe next week I’ll feel more energetic or inspired.

So today some updates on recent walks. Now that the UK lockdown has been relaxed a little we’ve continued, Mrs TD and I, to take walks a short drive away (but the local ones have continued too).

Poppies at PentireLast week the sun shone for two whole days in a row – this hasn’t happened much since May. We took advantage of an afternoon at one of our favourite beaches: Polly Joke. The poppies on the headland above are just coming out; soon the fields there will be a blaze of scarlet and gold (the meadow marigolds). It’s a spiritually uplifting sight.

The surf in this north coast cove was fairly wild after the unsettled weather earlier in the week – and month. It wasn’t exactly a glorious June for weather. The water was very cold.

Surf

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spaniel swimming

Spaniel about to emerge after his marathon swim

Yesterday we went to the Roseland peninsula on the south coast. There the sea is always more sedate – not so good for surfing. Also not quite so cold. After a cloudy start, the day turned beautifully sunny about four o’clock. We sat and had a picnic lunch on Porthcurnick beach (near the famous Hidden Hut café). A young man in a wetsuit walked into the water near us followed by his black-and-white spaniel. We thought the dog would turn round and swim back once the guy had swum so far, but he didn’t. We watched in amazement as the pair swam further and further. Right across the bay – and back. A distance of about a mile each way. The owner told us they do this a few times a week. The dog loves it, he said, but not when he was a pup.

PortscathoWe walked back along the coastal path to the nearby village of Portscatho. By this time the cloud was starting to disperse and the water was crystal clear.

We drove on to Carne beach. Like Porthcurnick, it was almost deserted. Two children played in the shallows, watched by their grandmother and parents. No doubt this will all change after Saturday, which our media insists on calling Super Saturday. Hospital EDs are bracing themselves for carnage similar to what they experience usually on New Year’s Eve, as the pubs officially reopen that day. Our doughty prime minister has helped to calm the situation by exhorting us all to go out and enjoy ourselves. Hibernation is over, he crowed. Yaroo.

We no longer need to keep two metres apart: the virus is beaten, defeated. Even though we still have over a thousand new cases a day. The ring of steel around our care homes has done the trick – maybe the virus is just running out of people to infect in them. Pubs and restaurants are safe to open, but not schools, yet. Makes sense, in the minds of our PM, and his Rasputin chief aide, the rule-breaker.

I won’t indulge in another rant. Here’s a picture of Carne instead.

Carne

 

 

Kingfishers, halcyon days, and walks

Last time I mentioned the painted kingfishers on a branch above the river just below my house. In Greek mythology, the bird is known as halcyon. Our expression ‘halcyon days’ derives from the legend that Alkyone or Alcyone and her husband Ceyx angered Zeus by setting themselves up as his equal. Zeus wrecked Ceyx’s ship while he was at sea and he drowned. When she heard the news his wife drowned herself. The gods took pity on them and transformed the couple into kingfishers.

According to other legends, the halcyon laid her eggs on sea rocks or the beach during the winter solstice. Alcyone called upon her father Aeolus, god of the winds (hence Aeolian harp) to produce this period of calm to enable her to care for her brood safely. The expression therefore referred originally to any period of calm weather, then, by extension, to any period of calm and tranquillity.

It’s the feeling we get when we witness a scene like the river in those pictures in my previous post.

A few days ago, when our government in its wisdom relaxed lockdown constraints to allow us to drive to remote places for our walks, I went with Mrs TD to Goss Moor, some ten miles away. It’s a nature reserve on the edge of the area where china clay was once extracted, leaving the landscape scarred with quarries and spoil heaps. This moor is a huge, Fluffy seed headsswampy, pool-filled area of wilderness: lichen-draped trees, reeds and wildlife abound.

It’s a popular cycle and walking trail, being so flat. We saw plenty of these strange fluffy bundles like cotton wool balls. They seem to be the seed heads of certain kinds of reed.

My trusty plant identifier app confidently informs me that the pretty purple-violet flower here is a marsh orchid.marsh orchid

Another day we drove a shorter distance for a walk to one of the tidal creeks on the coast. Not quite the sea, but almost. Many of the neighbourhood houses were guarded by these peculiar plants that resemble miniature Thai temples. They’re called echium pininana, aka giant viper’s bugloss. This popular name apparently derives from the alleged Echiumresemblance of parts of the flowering stem (a favourite haunt of bees) to the head of this snake.

They flourish here in Cornwall, but are more striking than handsome, in my view.

Today we ventured further down the county and had our first walk by the sea since lockdown. This area of dunes is called the Towans. The lighthouse is Godrevy, across the bay from St Ives. This is the one that Virginia Woolf and her family would see from their holiday home Godrevythere. In her novel To the Lighthouse she transposed it to Scotland.

The beautiful weather of the last weeks (halcyon days during the pandemic?) has gone, and it was grey, blustery and much cooler. Still lovely to see the surf and breathe the ozone. A handsome stonechat sat on a gorse bush a few feet from us and sang us a song.

I’m still making glacial progress through Phineas Finn. Just reached one of those tedious foxhunting scenes that Trollope is so fond of. Wish he’d stick to the more interesting parliamentary shenanigans.

Which takes me seamlessly to our illustrious leader of the house of commons, the unctuous Rees-Mogg. He insists on returning to physical co-presence during parliamentary debates, risking the lives of the MPs, and disenfranchising those who have to isolate or who can’t attend for other reasons (carers, etc.). It’s his way of trying to cover up the haplessness of the PM, which has been badly exposed while the chamber is nearly empty for sessions to ensure social distancing, and when the usual braying claque of sycophantic Tory toadies can’t drown out opposition while cheering on the inane blustering of their leader.

With solipsistic narcissists in charge, who will care for the people?

 

 

Comfrey and peacocks

Rural walks continue to be a brief solace in days that resemble each other too closely during this lockdown. At least we can inject a bit of variety by taking different routes, explore new ones. But we’re running out of unexplored country lanes and paths, Mrs TD and I.

Peacock on fenceOne of our default walks takes us past the place where a group of peacocks live. I recently posted a picture of one with his magnificent tail fanned out as he slowly rotated to show himself off to best effect. A couple of days ago there he was – or one of his colleagues – perched rather glumly on a fence. It was a bright sunny day, but he was under trees in dappled shade, so my pictures don’t do justice to his shimmering petrol-blue/green plumage.Peacock on fence

When I checked the origin of the name at the OED online, I wasn’t surprised to see the ‘pea’ element has nothing to do with the legume. What did surprise me was that it derives ultimately from the Latin name, pavo. I recognised this as the modern Spanish for ‘turkey’. OK, so peacocks do slightly resemble these fan-tailed strutters – so what’s the Spanish for ‘peacock’? Turns out it’s ‘pavo real’ – royal turkey. Figures.

ComfreyAlong another lane I came across this pretty blue flower. My plant identifier app informed me it was comfrey.

I vaguely recalled hearing this plant was traditionally used medicinally; a quick search online confirmed this. Its old name was knitbone, alluding to its healing properties when used as a poultice for healing burns, sprains and broken bones. It is also said to be beneficial when taken internally as a potion to treat symptoms of stomach ailments. I was alarmed therefore to read that it also has toxic qualities, and this internal use has been banned in the USA.

Its name in Latin, according to the OED online, is consolida or conferva – reflecting its healing properties. The etymology of the English word is unknown, but the earliest citation from c. 1000 refers to it as confirma(n), and this might be where ‘comfrey’ derives from.

I liked this later OED citation:

1578    H. Lyte tr. R. Dodoens Niewe Herball  i. ciii. 145   The rootes of Comfery..healeth all inwarde woundes, and burstings.

I shudder to think what inward burstings are.

Also pleasing was the description in this OED entry of comfrey as a vulnerary – employed in healing wounds, or having curative properties in respect of external injuries. A useful word, as Dr Johnson might have said.

My reading progress is slow still. I’m up to p.160 of Anthony Trollope’s second Palliser novel, Phineas Finn. I’m enjoying it so far, especially the spooky parallels with modern political hypocrisy and chicanery. Nothing much has changed in the power elite. Recent events in Britain demonstrate that there’s still one set of rules for them, and another, harsher one for the plebs. Our political leaders feign caring for us, but have during this crisis increasingly failed to disguise their arrogant contempt for the ordinary people.

End of rant.