Burrowing into Books - "Phineas Finn” by Anthony Trollope

Burrowing into Books - "Phineas Finn” by Anthony Trollope

Burrowing into Books - "Phineas Finn” by Anthony Trollope

“When a man has means of his own, he can please himself. Do you marry a woman with money,  and then you may kick up your heels and do as you like about the Colonial Office. When  a man hasn’t money, of course he must fit himself to the circumstances of the profession.”

                                                Anthony Trollope (1815-1882)

                                                Phineas Finn, 1867

                                             Mr. Low, with whom Phineas had studied for the Bar, offering Finn advice

 

Apart from the modest task of building an empire that would, by the end of the Century, encompass one fifth of the Earth’s land surface, British life in the late 19thCentury was dominated by two institutions – the Anglican Church and Parliament. While Trollope does not show up on a list of 19thCentury-born satirists – a Wikipedia list that includes Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll and P.G. Wodehouse – he poked gentle fun at the two institutions mentioned above. The Barsetshire novels were set in the cathedral city of Barchester and the surrounding county of Barsetshire, while the Palliser series, of which Phineas Finnis the second, were set in London, within the context of Parliament. In both sets of novels, Trollope is more interested in people – their lives, loves and losses – than in an accurate description of the institutions. The reader smiles as he or she makes his or her way through each succeeding chapter.

 

Trollope understood the construct of government. For thirty-three years he had worked for the postal service, retiring in 1867, the year Phineas Finnwas published. When we meet him, Phineas is a tall, well-spoken, pleasant, good-looking 25-year-old Irishman who had studied law with Mr. Low in London, and now impatient to enter Parliament. Though he had no income – his father was a doctor in Ireland – he enjoyed the company of the socially prominent, ruling classes, to whom he has been introduced. Parliamentarians, in that day, were unpaid [1] servants of the people, yet principally loyal to the Duke or Lord whose district or borough they represented. The system was not democratic according to 21stCentury standards, and not especially amenable to young Phineas. Government ministers were paid, but such positions depended on the Party in power. There were, of course, bureaucrats – as Trollope had been – whose jobs survived political change.

The story tells of Finn’s transformation from a youth brushed with fame (against great odds, he is elected to Parliament) and fortune (he claimed three well-heeled young ladies as good friends) into a thirty-year-old, more serious young man who returns to his Irish roots. His landlord Mr. Bunce, sounding like many of us today (and perhaps uttering Trollope’s own views), is quoted: “For myself, I don’t think half so much of Parliament folk as some do. They’re promising everything before they’s elected; but not one in twenty of ‘em is as good as his word when he gets there.” By mid-19thCentury, Women had begun to advocate for equal rights, but young noblewomen were often conflicted. Lady Laura Standish, one of Phineas’ young lady friends who encouraged his ambitions, said she wanted to be “brought as near to the political action as was possible for a woman without surrendering any of the privileges of feminine inaction.”  However, “…the cause of the Rights of Women was odious to her; but, nevertheless, for herself, she delighted in hoping she might be useful.” In reading that passage, written 152 years ago, we must remember it is we the reader who must travel back in time, not the author who should travel forward.

A second lady friend, Violet Effingham, was a wealthy young woman for whose hand Phineas dueled Lord Chiltern, brother of Laura. Finn lost. She remained true to her childhood love. But, listen to her on the subject of men: “I hate a stupid man who can’t talk to me, and I hate a man who talks me down…I abominate a humble man, yet I love to perceive that a man acknowledges the superiority of my sex…” His third young female friend, Madame Max Goesler, was a beautiful young widow whose Continental origins gave her a mysterious aura. It was her enormous wealth that allowed her access to the socially prominent. Phineas was tempted, but, unlike Adam, he resisted: “Had he taken the woman’s hand and her money, had he clenched his fist on the great prize offered to him, his misery would have been ten times worse the first moment that he would have been away from her.” 

Phineas’ mentor is Mr. Monk, the most “advanced Liberal in the Cabinet.” While Mr. Monk told Phineas that he disliked the word “equality,” as it “misleads and frightens, but the wish of every honest man should be to assist in lifting up those below him, till he be something nearer his own level than he finds them.” Later, on patience: “Mr. Monk had told him that Rome was not built in a day – and had told him also that good things were most valued and were more valuable when they came by installment.” It was a trait Phineas acquired by the end of the story. As he takes leave of the glamour and excitement of his five years in the shadow of London’s Parliamentary society, he is intercepted by Quintas Slide, an unsavory member of press. Mr. Slide warned Phineas about his liberal tendencies, especially as regards Ireland: “Well, Mr. Finn – I don’t often quote the Bible; but those who are not for us must be against us.”  

The book ends with Phineas returning to Ireland. “He, like Icarus, had flown up close to the sun, hoping that his wings of wax would bear him steadily aloft among the gods.” While his wings were pretty good, he had matured and knew he must start again. He does so, with Mary Jones, the young woman he had known before he soared in London, but that story will be told in Phineas Redux, to be published in 1873.

A life-long Liberal and a man who longed to serve in Parliament, Trollope wrote this novel during a time when the Second Reform Act was being debated. The Act, which doubled the number of eligible voters from one million to two million (out of five million adult males), was proposed by William Gladstone’s Liberal Party in 1866, but was passed in July by the Conservatives, led by Prime Minister Lord Derby and Chancellor Benjamin Disraeli. The reader will note how far we have advanced politically but will also recognize how little we have changed in terms of relations between the sexes. This is a book to savor, to enjoy. Many of the characters one has met before. Many will remain friends through the next four volumes.

 


[1] It would be 1911 before members of Parliament were paid.

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This article was first published on Thought of the Day

Sydney Williams

Sydney Williams
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