Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Finn

I have an almost infinite capacity to lose myself in Victorian novels.

Glued to book:  “Oh, you’re going skiing/snowboarding/ice-fishing today?  Bye!”

Hours later I realize I don’t have the faintest idea where they went.

Anthony Trollope is one of my favorites. His style is so strangely modern that I forget that he is a Victorian.  His graceful sentences are long but plain and without rhetorical flourishes.

phineas-finn--anthony-trollope-paperback-cover-artTrollope is a brilliant writer–as good as Dickens, though in a very different style.  I started long ago with his two famous series, the Chronicles of Barsetshire and the political Pallisers novels. I am not sure which I read first, but I know I was so glued to The Pallisers  on TV that it is amazing I got any work done.  In addition to all those hours of watching, I read all six of the Pallisers books in record time:  Can You Forgive Her?, Phineas Finn, The Eustace Diamonds, Phineas Redux, The Prime Minister, and The Duke’s Children.

Phineas Finn is a perfect novel for those of you who like politics.  I figured that out when I read New York Times columnist David Brooks’s 2011 op/ed piece on Phineas Finn, “Politicians Behaving Well.”  Brooks is a conservative Republican and I am a radical Democrat, but both of us like Trollope.

Trollope is a universal taste.

We do, however, see the idealistic politician Phineas differently.

Phineas Finn parses politics, but Trollope also describes the hero’s idealism. He explores the way politics shapes not only the public good but personal character and happiness.

Phineas, an Irish doctor’s son, a handsome, earnest, charming young barrister, has many friends among the upper classes in London.  When an influential friend, Barrington Erle, urges him to stand as a Liberal for Parliament in Loughshane, Ireland, Phineas is very eager.  Although the Finns have no money, Phineas’s father, Dr. Finn, has influence with the Earl who controls the borough, and the Earl finances the campaign.

But 24-year-old Phineas doesn’t understand that even the Liberal party recruits candidates who will always vote with the party.

Phineas tells Mr. Erle proudly,

“Let me assure you I wouldn’t change my views in politics either for you or the Earl, though each of you carried seats in your breeches pockets.  If I go into Parliament, I shall go there as a sound Liberal–not to support a party, but to do the best I can for the country.  I tell you so, and I shall tell the Earl the same.”

And Mr. Erle tells him that won’t be acceptable.

Phineas FinnWhat do you do to get ahead in politics?  Must you be obsequious? Yes.  Phineas is politically savvy at first, doing what everyone tells him to do, but eventually it gets tiresome.  He wants to make a difference.   But he is caught in a political snare:  he owes too much to his backers to be independent. The final deal-breakers is a tenants’ rights bill which his party refuses to sponsor.  Phineas stands up.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Even one vote makes a difference, as I know from attending the Democratic caucuses, but I admit I am  most interested, and I won’t be alone in this, in  Phineas’s courtships of three women.  Trollope has a gift for drawing believable, lively, though not always likable, women characters, and he is particularly successful with Lady Laura and Violet Effingham.

Although Phineas has flirted with a lovely but apolitical young woman in Ireland, Mary Flood Jones, who thinks he may marry her, he is under the influence of Lady Laura Standish in London, a brilliant, vivacious, ambitious tall redhaired woman who is interested in politics.  Does Phineas love her, or does he love her connections? It is not clear. But when Laura ambitiously marries George Kennedy, a rich, chilly, domineering politician through whom she hopes to have political influence, she almost immediately realizes her mistake.  Kennedy tries to control her by narrowing her interests and cutting her off from friends.  Eventually she cannot live with him, and returns to her father.  She regrets having turned down Phineas.

Laura, Violet, and Phineas-

Phineas with Laura and Violet

But Phineas has turned his affections from Laura to her friend Violet Effingham, a beautiful but eccentric heiress who talks flippantly about John Stuart Mill.  And this quasi-relationship–Violet isn’t particularly interested in him–causes problems, because Laura’s brother, Lord Chiltern, is in love with Violet, Laura’s father found Phineas a parliamentary seat after he lost his Irish one and believes Phineas owes him loyalty, and  jealous Laura says Phineas should forget about Violet for Lord Chiltern’s sake.

In the end, political integrity is Phineas’s saving grace. And I think this is why we so much like Phineas Finn. We would like to see this integrity in more politicians.

I look forward to rereading Phineas Redux.  Trollope’s detailed portraits of his characters’ obsessions with sex, money, and politics remind us that the world has not changed all that much.

Reading on the Number 6

“My e-reader is planning my future.”

Not possible, you say.

phineas-finn--anthony-trollope-paperback-cover-artPerhaps not, but it is reviving my ability to read long books in public.  I recently downloaded a free copy of Phineas Finn, the second novel in Anthony Trollope’s political Pallisers series, from to my e-reader.  At home I am reading Phineas Finn in a beautiful Oxford World’s Classics edition, but on the bus my e-reader is lightweight and a 700-page book is an invisible accessory to my stylish e-gadget.

I don’t like to be seen reading Victorian novels.  Odd, I know.  But  nobody reads Trollope anymore, except David Lodge, who recently wrote a piece for The Guardian on Trollope’s obscure SF novel, The Fixed Period; David Brooks, the conservative New York Times columnist, who wrote about Phineas Finn in 2011; and a few dozen members of a Trollope discussion group at Yahoo, who are always happy to chat about ideals of High Victorianism.

Does it matter if anyone sees what I’m reading?

Yes, perhaps it does.  When everybody else is on his Blackberry, phone, or  other unidentifiable object, I don’t want to step up to the bat with a book, and, like the old woman in the zealously book-banned society of Fahrenheit 451, say, “Play the man, Master Ridley. We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace as I trust shall never be put out.”

I prefer being seen in public reading the odd candy bar wrapper.

Actually, on this day of a Midwestern snowstorm, ten inches of snow make the streets impassable, branches, twigs, and wires are swathed in snow, and the buses won’t run till noon.  I am able to stay home and read my paperback.

I am in the world of Phineas Finn.

Phineas has made his maiden speech in Parliament.  It has not gone well.

Phineas Finn had sundry gifts, a powerful and pleasant voice, which he had learned to modulate, a handsome presence, and a certain natural mixture of modesty and self-reliance, which would certainly protect him from the faults of arrogance and pomposity, and which, perhaps, might carry him through the perils of his new position. …But he had not that gift of slow blood which on the former occasion would have enabled him to remember his prepared speech, and which would now have placed all his own resources within his reach.

Anthony Trollope

Anthony Trollope

His friend Monk tells him his speech was nothing great, but was on a par with other maiden speeches.  Phineas is miserable.

Lady Laura and her friend Violet wonder if Phineas’s speech were as bad as Lord Brentford said it was.

On the bus later today we will not be in the world of Phineas Finn.   The few people who chat are not politicians.  They are often just out of prison or  recently converted to a gushy brand of Christianity. Those who read will read “the paper,” which has gone to hell since it fired and early-retired so many staff members, and they talk about what is in the paper that has gone to hell, and how much better it used to be.

Nobody is reading the Oprah book on the bus.  Perhaps they are reading it on their ereaders.

In general, reading on the Number 6 is a private affair.  We stick to newspapers and  e-books.