|PHINEAS FINN by Anthony Trollope
||[Jan. 4th, 2017|11:04 pm]
...and the stains drip between fingers...
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?"
"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.