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PHINEAS FINN by Anthony Trollope - Into The Abyss Of Suburbia [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
...and the stains drip between fingers...

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PHINEAS FINN by Anthony Trollope [Jan. 4th, 2017|11:04 pm]
...and the stains drip between fingers...
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Phineas begins the story as the sort of wretched young man who insists that his complete irresponsibility is charming. The reader struggles to keep down their bitter bile in the hopes of character development.

Phineas is supposed to be a rather pretty man - six feet high, and very handsome, with bright blue eyes, and brown wavy hair, and light silken beard - which is another of his misfortunes, along with becoming a Member of Parliament at too early a stage in his career. Like George Vavasor in CAN YOU FORGIVE HER, Phineas can't support himself as an MP; but Phineas is more good-hearted and more sincerely interested in Parliament and politics for its own sake.

Phineas, like other young and foolish men, begins to get himself into trouble in his career for debt, signing bills for other men without consideration - Mark Robarts' mistake.

Phineas, my dear fellow, as far as I have as yet been able to see the world, men don't begin either very good or very bad. They have generally good aspirations with infirm purposes;—or, as we may say, strong bodies with weak legs to carry them. Then, because their legs are weak, they drift into idleness and ruin. During all this drifting they are wretched, and when they have thoroughly drifted they are still wretched. The agony of their old disappointment still clings to them. In nine cases out of ten it is some one small unfortunate event that puts a man astray at first.

Phineas undergoes the character development so anticipated, and Anthony Trollope achieves the difficult feat of conveying Phineas' charisma in writing. Finn has attractive qualities along with his failures--idealism, fairness, honesty, kindness--and eventually buckles down to hard work and keeping his promises. Trollope has the courage to carry Phineas' character arc into an ending that few other writers would dare. (I liked how interestingly different the ending was - however, Trollope himself realised he'd written himself into a corner by it!)

Planty Pall the politician, Lord Fawn, Mr John and Mrs Alice Grey, and other Trollope political characters weave their ways through Parliament and the surrounding society - and some of the political ladies also enter into their own. Lady Laura Standish is an intelligent, complicated female character; Lady Glencora also appears with her exuberance and social genius.

Violet Effingham the heiress is an attention-grabbing character. She's intelligent, vivacious, a little shallow and trivial in her politics, and is trying her best to balance practicality with romance. She's a living expression of Trollope's general theory on marriage and love: that both love *and* practicality are necessary for a good marriage. Violet has some interesting things to say about refusing to devote her life to becoming the saviour of a bad boy, even if she actually finds him attractive.

"Why do you press me about [marrying] your brother in this way?"

"Because I am so anxious. Because it would save him. Because you are the only woman for whom he has ever cared, and because he loves you with all his heart; and because his father would be reconciled to him to-morrow if he heard that you and he were engaged."

"Laura, my dear—"


"You won't be angry if I speak out?"

"Certainly not."

"I don't know that I have any special mission for saving young men. I sometimes think that I shall have quite enough to do to save myself. It is strange what a propensity I feel for the wrong side of the post."

(Note: The quote above has been cut for succinctness.)

Despite this good bit, overall Violet's plotline never rises too far above the bad-romance-novel trope where women are required to be pure and virginal and perfectly submissive in order to reform the abusive male jerk.

And then there's Madame Max Goesler, a sympathetic ambiguously Jewish lady with a strong decisive mind. Not to mention Mary Flood Jones, a humble, poor girl from Phineas' Irish hometown, who's virtuous but thinly characterised. Phineas is thankfully not like the jellyfish Johnny Eames and Conway Dalrymple with regard to keeping his promises.

Trollope again uses his impressive observational skills to write the patriarchy. Charismatic, witty, politically aware Lady Laura Standish--the best character in the novel, according to Trollope himself--makes the mistake of marrying without love, picking wealthy politician Mr Kennedy over pretty penniless Phineas. She went out of her way to select a just man with a strong sense of decency - think of Kennedy as a less intelligent version of Edmund Bertram - and even so she's miserable in the marriage. She and her husband have different tastes, and thanks to law and custom it's Kennedy's tastes that absolutely must win out and crush Lady Laura. Even while Kennedy is not a cruel man by the standards of his day (in this book at least), he's still a tyrant.

The politics of the novel are also pretty interesting. Here's this well-written argument about the number one criteria of creating a Parliament:

One great authority told us the other day that the sole object of legislation on this subject should be to get together the best possible 658 members of Parliament. That to me would be a most repulsive idea if it were not that by its very vagueness it becomes inoperative. Who shall say what is best; or what characteristic constitutes excellence in a member of Parliament? If the gentleman means excellence in general wisdom, or in statecraft, or in skill in talking, or in private character, or even excellence in patriotism, then I say that he is utterly wrong, and has never touched with his intellect the true theory of representation. One only excellence may be acknowledged, and that is the excellence of likeness. As a portrait should be like the person portrayed, so should a representative House be like the people whom it represents. Nor in arranging a franchise does it seem to me that we have a right to regard any other view. If a country be unfit for representative government,—and it may be that there are still peoples unable to use properly that greatest of all blessings,—the question as to what state policy may be best for them is a different question. But if we do have representation, let the representative assembly be like the people, whatever else may be its virtues,—and whatever else its vices.

This passage is noticeably ignoring the fact that such a Parliament would also be fifty percent female. (That would obviously not be a bad thing.) A Parliament should be representative of the country. If government demographics are skewed significantly far from the population average, it's worth asking searching questions about. Then again, the question of what makes a good member of Parliament is more complicated than that, and also not really what the novel is about.

Overall, it's understandable for readers to be impatient over how Phineas Finn's life is made easy by every woman in the story except Lady Glencora falling in love with him, but even so the character development is fascinating. The pacing's sometimes uneven, but Trollope's powers are strong as he develops his Palliser political saga in this volume.

From: rr_duscan
2017-01-04 11:57 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the write-up - definitely one for me to check out.
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[User Picture]From: heliopausa
2017-01-11 11:48 am (UTC)
Sorry for the delay in replying - I saw this days ago, but knew that a proper reply would be beyond me until my world settled down to something closer to tranquillity.
Yes, it's irksome to see everything just falling into Finn's lap - and I guess in feeling that the readers are being drawn into the world of the novel, and being made to align themselves with Finn's colleagues/friend/rivals - this novel, I think, is brilliant in setting out how all the male characters are essentially in competition with one another. (I think? It's a while since I read it.) There's certainly a feeling that he's lost the game at the end of the novel, checkmated, and set aside and the competition will henceforward proceed without him.
Character development - just a little humility, I think, and maybe a bit more of sense of responsibility, and of how fragile things are - human beings and their little worlds. (I'm glad, too, that he didn't smash Mary Flood's.) But I guess that's as much character development that anyone has any right to ask of spoiled, careless Finn at his time of life.

Agreed, Mary Flood is characterless - which must have been a deliberate decision, because Trollope could write the quiet background girl as full of character if he wanted to - examples abound. It's right that Finn returns to her - but it does feel like such a comedown, such a defeat.
(I'm rather sorry that Trollope renegued on that - it would have been great to see him really stretch his powers and write how Finn, a feeling, intelligent, honourable man, would have dealt with the life of comparative failure and regret.)

The other women are all wonderfully-written characters, though I would have liked much more of the mysterious Mme Goesler; I don't feel I really understand her. (This is my own deficiency, I think, due to not knowing much about Viennese society, and what it meant to Londoners at the time.)
Laura's wrangles with inflexible, anguished Kennedy are gruelling to read. He's a lot meatier as a character than Edmund Bertram, anyway - the question of which of the two is the more intelligent is an interesting one. :) I'll have to think that over.
Is that speech about parliament a character speaking, or a side-observation from Trollope? Does Trollope in these novels (I've read them all, but never end-to-end in order) develop a political argument at all? Is that part of what he's doing in these novels? Maybe I should try to schedule in an end-to-end reading, sometime this year.

Ah well - despite my life being slightly more ordered now than it was last week, this reply to your invigorating post is rather jumbled - still, I've enjoyed mulling through the ideas you've brought up here. Thank you!
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[User Picture]From: blueinkedpalm
2017-01-12 07:27 pm (UTC)
Thanks for this comment - I love to read your words!

I'm rather sorry that Trollope renegued on that - it would have been great to see him really stretch his powers and write how Finn, a feeling, intelligent, honourable man, would have dealt with the life of comparative failure and regret.

That is interesting. You'd get a story painted on two inches of ivory - a small town, people of no worldly importance, yet Something happens that is vitally important to their lives - that would be nail-biting and intense despite or because of the confined setting.

I loved Mme Goesler in THE DUKE'S CHILDREN - detailed conflict and character development about her need to be vindicated as someone who does her best to do the right thing. Like you, I wish I knew more about Viennese society of the period! I think Trollope is quite opaque about her background and earlier life.

It's a character speaking that political theory, Joshua Monk - a very advanced liberal. Recent political events have made me come around to a different and perhaps more Trollopian way of thinking - the ideal member of Parliament should be more talented than the population average if at all possible, where "would have a plate of fish and chips with them" isn't the most important voting factor.
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[User Picture]From: heliopausa
2017-01-17 11:00 am (UTC)
I love to read your words!
As do I yours! :)

I'm intrigued by what you say about the later Mme Goesler - I know her as far as her second marriage, but don't have much idea of her character after that. Clearly I do need to read them all through (the political novels) in order. I might make it a 2017 project.

Yes, about needing people more talented (and more committed to the common good) than the population average. How to get there, I'm not too clear. :(
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