Friday, November 5, 2021

Phineas Finn by Anthony Trollope

Source of book: I own this.


This post is dedicated to the memory of Dale Brooks, who passed recently. Mr. Brooks introduced me to Anthony Trollope 30 years ago, and gifted me some of his duplicate copies. 

Phineas Finn is the second in the “Palliser” series, named after Plantagent Palliser, a recurring secondary character. He gets an occasional mention in this book, although his wife, the delightful Glencora, gets a few chapters for her role in the drama. The books all involve to some degree or another, the doings of Parliament during the era of William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli. (In fact, both of those luminaries are in this book under pseudonyms.) The setting is the events surrounding the passage of the Second Reform Act, which doubled the number of English voters. Trollope takes a few liberties with the history in the service of his plot, but his knowledge of Parliament and history is pretty good. 


Into this tumultuous time, the protagonist, Phineas Finn, is placed. He has just completed his training to be a barrister - he has to make a living, because his father, an Irish doctor, has no land or income to leave him. But when the nobleman who controls his borough has a falling out with his relative, the liberal party encourages Finn to take the position. This starts a sequence of events that eventually end mostly badly for Finn, even though most of it is not his fault. He comes out okay in the end, but not the way he had wanted to. 


The problem for Finn is that he has no money. At that time, Parliament didn’t actually pay you, unless you were appointed to a cabinet position. And that position was not a guarantee, because if the other party took power, you were out, naturally. 


And even worse than that, unless you were in a borough controlled by an aristocrat, or otherwise lucked into a “safe” seat, you had to spend a lot of money, essentially to bribe voters. (See, for example, the previous book in this series, Can You Forgive Her? This meant that politics was mostly a rich man’s game, and Finn is not rich, by a long shot. 


So, once he gets in, he is rather at the whim of the party, and of the aristocrats who sponsor him, first in Ireland, then in England. He wants to vote independently, but he risks losing support, his cabinet position, and ultimately his seat. And then, with the reforms, many safe seats are no longer in existence. 


Add to this, then Finn’s dilemmas when it comes to women. First, he has a girl who loves him back in Ireland, although he hasn’t committed to her. Then, he falls in love with Lady Laura, who reciprocates the affection, but decides she cannot marry him because of her complex financial situation. See, she had an independent fortune, but she used it already to bail out her flaky brother, Lord Chiltern, so she would be as penniless as Finn. Instead, she marries Robert Kennedy, a star in Parliament with a substantial fortune. Unfortunately for her, after she marries him, she realizes that he has very traditional views about women and gender roles, and she feels disrespected and stifled.


Having lost his first choice, Finn next falls for Laura’s distant cousin, Violet. But Violet has been friends with Lord Chiltern since childhood, and they just haven’t entirely realized they love each other. Part of the problem is that since Chiltern is so flaky and thus estranged from his father, family approval would not be forthcoming. Violet does, however, have her own fortune, so there is that. She likes Finn, but not in that way, so she turns him down. 


Finally, the beautiful and witty German widow, Madame Max Goesler, falls for Finn. And this would be a good match on paper. In fact, Madam Max has turned down the elderly but fantastically rich Duke of Omnium, so she would be a social and financial benefit to Finn. He is tempted, but he is also convinced that he would hate himself for marrying for money like Laura.


So, it is all very complicated. 


The themes of the book would therefore be, in my view, the competing demands of love and money (common in Trollope’s books), and the conflict between ideals and reality in politics. 


So much for the plot. As I have noted in pretty much every post about Trollope, the plots are not the thing. He actually tends to telegraph his plots from the beginning, and the point of his books is never what happens, but how the characters respond to what happens. In this case, the book very much centers on Finn’s interior life, and how makes his choices, for better or worse. 


The thing is, he, like most of us, makes choices for reasons that make sense to him, but not necessarily to us. And these choices are neither all good, nor all bad. They have consequences, but they are not clearly right or wrong, and it is difficult to say for sure whether he made the best choice or not. 


In part, this is because his love for the various women he considers is never at the level of a true passion. He could, quite likely, have been happy with any of the four. I personally found his childhood love, Mary Flood Jones, to be a bit insipid, and indeed, her main attraction to him is that she is sweet and devoted. But for him, she will probably be fine. But so would the others, whether the ambitious and intelligent Laura (who in our time would have been able to serve in Parliament herself, which would have been best for her), the strong and independent Violet, or the scintillating Madame Max. But two rejected him, and he rejected another, and so he marries Mary. 


I also personally disagreed with his decisions at the end regarding his career. But his choice was morally defensible to be sure, although it demonstrated his (and perhaps Trollope’s) inability to tolerate the compromises and long-term strategy required for functional politics. 


But this is why Trollope’s books are so good: the moral and psychological nuances are so true to humanity, that even arcane Victorian politics feel on point in the 21st Century. In fact, I cannot think of anything I have read that makes the reality of politics come alive quite like this book. And, of course, his writing is excellent. So, of course, I have plenty of quotes. 


The Oxford edition I have includes an introduction by Jacques Berthoud, which includes an apt description of how Trollope brings the political world alive in this book. I particularly loved this line:


It is not simply the unrivalled quality of the information that is so impressive; it is the sense of parliament as an organic institution - that is, as an institution produced by time rather than theory. 


This is how all governments work - at least the functional ones. I would argue that as soon as a political body chooses theory over practicality, things go awry. One could cite examples from doctrinaire communism (such as Mao’s famine) to today’s American right wing. 


Trollope was a fascinating combination of liberal and conservative in his views. On the one hand, his inclination was to abhor change, but on the other, he was in favor of liberal reforms. This all makes it into his books, where the tension between these forms the basis of much of the frisson. In one passage, Lady Glencora expresses why she is a liberal, despite her wealth and aristocratic status. 


“You will understand me. I am not saying that people are equal; but that the tendency of all law-making and of all governing should be to reduce the inequalities.” 


One of Finn’s mentors, Mr. Monk, who is definitely a reforming firebrand, comments on this, also making one of the most profound statements about the issue I have heard.


“Lady Glencora was not so far wrong the other night. Equality is an ugly word and shouldn’t be used. It misleads, and frightens, and is a bugbear. And she, in using it, had not perhaps a clearly defined meaning for it in her own mind. But the wish of every honest man should be to assist in lifting up those below him, till they be something nearer his own level than he finds them.”


Monk is right: the idea of true equality terrifies many people (which is why Trump was so successful in tapping that fear.) But also, decent human beings should be advocating for equality. 


Trollope’s temperamental conservatism also comes out, particularly in his portrayal of the radical MP Mr. Turnbull. 


Having nothing to construct, he could always deal with generalities. Being free from responsibility, he was not called upon either to study details or to master even great facts. It was his business to inveigh against existing evils, and perhaps there is no easier business when once the privilege of an audience has been attained. It was his work to cut down forest-trees, and he had nothing to do with the subsequent cultivation of the land.


This is the problem with revolutionaries in general. And also with anti-government sorts (which have completely captured the Republican Party in the US.) Burning everything down is all too easy. Building functional institutions takes time and effort. So much easier just to stoke outrage. In this book, Turnbull mostly just stirs up trouble. Even though he is correct about a lot, he has no incentive to actually do the work of governance. In contrast, Mr. Monk, while fairly radical, actually cares about details and thinks through what he does. And Mr. Gresham (Gladstone) actually gets stuff done, including significant reforms. 


One thing that I was not aware of before this book was the intense debate that went on over the idea of a secret ballot. We take that for granted here in America, of course, but it was not always so. Interestingly, those who favored expanding voting rights were the same people who opposed a secret ballot. Here is Mr. Monk on that issue:


“My idea is that every man possessed of the franchise should dare to have and to express a political opinion of his own; that otherwise the franchise is not worth having; and that men will learn that when all so dare, no evil can come from such daring. As the ballot would make any courage of that kind unnecessary, I dislike the ballot.” 


In one sense, I supposed that a public vote would tend to make people think twice about voting for something others despise, which could be good or bad depending on the situation. On the other, people seem to brag about their votes, especially when they vote for someone despicable like Trump, or for raw bigotry like Prop 8 or Prop 187. So I don’t know if it would even make a difference. Our society does plenty of shaming, but there is little to no shame about mistreating the vulnerable, sadly. 


Trollope also takes a look at events surrounding the Reform Act, specifically the protest (or riot if you prefer) by the London denizens that triggered a wave of police brutality and arrests. (Sound familiar?) Finn’s landlord joins the protest, and is arrested despite breaking no laws other than refusing to be run off of a public street by the cops. Finn is pretty outraged, but the aristocrats seem to have no problem with the police. I think Finn’s comment is pretty on point. 


“When they think that they have public opinion on their side, there is nothing in the way of arbitrary excess which is too great for them.”


Some things never change. Including the use of the police to “manage” the symptoms of inequality and injustice. On a related note, Mr. Monk tells Finn in a letter about his views on democracy, and why reform was so needed.  


“It seems to me that but few among us perceive, or at any rate acknowledge, the real reasons for changing these things and reforming what is wrong without delay. 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 any other view.”


This is precisely what our current fight over voting rights is about. One group of people - overwhelmingly white - has no interest in truly representative government. Only their idea of “real Americans” should have representation - white, rural, conservative (and racist as hell too.) Those city people, people in “blue” states, and particularly minorities, are not “real” and thus do not deserve representation. The “best” to them is people like them.  


One of the reasons that Phineas Finn is an appealing protagonist is that he is so far from perfect. One of the scenes that felt so familiar was his first attempt to make a speech in Parliament, which goes badly for many reasons, but mostly because he is new at it and has the jitters. 


He should, on this the occasion of his rising to his maiden legs, have either prepared for himself a short general speech, which could indeed have done little for his credit in the House, but which might have served to carry off the novelty of the thing, and have introduced him to the sound of his own voice within those walls, - or he should have trusted to what his wit and spirit would produce for him on the spur of the moment, and not have burdened himself with a huge exercise of memory.


That feels so much like my first times making arguments in court. It still is far from my favorite thing to do, but I have gotten better with experience. 


Trollope also makes a great observation about politics as related to colonialism that bears mention. It comes in a conversation between Monk and Finn on a visit to Finn’s home in Ireland. 


“It has often seemed to me that men in Parliament know less about Ireland than they do of the interior of Africa,” said Phineas.

“It is seldom that we know anything accurately on any subject that we have not made matter of careful study,” said Mr. Monk, “and very often do not do so even then.”


He goes on:


“There are general laws current in the world as to morality. ‘Thou shalt not steal,’ for instance. That has necessarily been current as a law through all nations. But the first man you meet in the street will have ideas about theft so different from yours, that, if you knew them as you know your own, you would say that this law and yours were not even founded on the same principle. It is compatible with this man’s honesty to cheat you in a matter of horseflesh, with that man’s in a traffic of railway shares, with that other man’s as to a woman’s fortune; with a fourth’s anything may be done for a seat in Parliament, while the fifth man, who stands high among us, and who implores his God every Sunday to write that law on his heart, spends every hour of his daily toil in a system of fraud, and is regarded as a pattern of the national commerce.”  


That has been my experience over the last several years. I find that my concept of morality and those of my former tribe are somehow not even related. The idea of just letting the poor die from starvation or lack of health care doesn’t seem to bother them, nor the thought of refugees dying for lack of a refuge. And all of Mr. Monk’s examples apply to today as much as then. We can simultaneously exploit those outside of our tribe - like the English did to the Irish - while believing we are morally correct. We just don’t see our behavior in that light. 


At the end of the book, after Finn has made his choice to vote against the party he is a part of, and then resign his seat, Mr. Monk makes a final observation. Finn is disillusioned, because the cause he supports has lost, but he also has hope that time will shift things toward the better. I think he and Mr. Monk are speaking for the author at this point. 


“But we are nearer to it.”

“In one sense, yes. Such a debate and such a majority will make men think. But no; - think is too high a word; as a rule men don’t think. But it will make them believe that there is something in it. Many who before regarded legislation on the subject as chimerical, will now fancy that it is only dangerous, or perhaps not more than difficult. And so in time it will come to be looked on as among the things possible, then among the things probable; - and so at last it will be ranged in the list of those few measures which the country requires as being absolutely needed. That is the way in which public opinion is made.”

“It is no loss of time,” said Phineas, “to have taken the first great step in making it.”


This is something that all of us reformers trying to make a better world for the common good need to remind ourselves of from time to time. It takes time, and it takes effort to change the world. 


There are so many great lines in this book about relationships as well. Here is one from Violet to Laura, about her hesitation to marry Lord Chiltern. 


“And as for that business of saving him - “

“You know what I mean.”

“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.” 


And, in a later conversation:


“Is a woman bound to marry a man if she love him?”

“Yes, she is,” replied Lady Laura impetuously, without thinking of what she was saying; “That is, if she be convinced that she is also loved.”


The dripping irony of this, of course, is that Laura refused Finn, who she did love, to marry Kennedy, who she does not. Laura also is sore at Finn for moving on to Violet after Laura marries. 


And yet she was now sick and sore, almost beside herself with the agony of the wound, because this man whom she had been able to throw aside from her heart had also been able so to throw her aside. 


Laura certainly lives to regret marrying Kennedy, who sounds like a real joy to be married to. It’s not that he is exactly abusive, but he is condescending and controlling in a passive aggressive way. (I know both men and women who are like this.) He marries a brilliant and interesting woman, then insists that she become a bland and homebound wife, which goes about as well as you would predict. By the end of the book, Laura has fled to the continent to escape his use of the law to force her to return to him. I think this line sums him up pretty well.


There are men who cannot guard themselves from the assertion of marital rights at most inappropriate moments. 


Later in the book, Kennedy accuses Laura of being unfaithful. She is innocent of any act, but she does carry a flame for Finn nonetheless. This is the final straw for her, and she makes it clear that either Kennedy will apologize, or she will leave him. For the moment, things settle down, but the damage is done. 


The threat which she had held out to him was very dreadful. He was a man terribly in fear of the world’s good opinion, who lacked the courage to go through a great and harassing trial in order that something better might come afterwards. His married life had been unhappy. His wife had not submitted either to his will or to his ways. He had that great desire to enjoy his full rights, so strong in the minds of weak, ambitious men, and he had told himself that a wife’s obedience was one of those rights which he could not abandon without injury to his self-esteem. 


Ouch. But isn’t that the way that patriarchy works? My experience of it has very much been that weak men are the ones who insist on obedience. Laura later discusses her sorrow with her brother, Lord Chiltern. 


“Never be a tyrant, Oswald; or at any rate, not a cold tyrant. And remember this, there is no tyranny to a woman like telling her of her duty.”


Dang, that’s spot on. Laura later makes a bitter statement to Phineas, as part of a conversation in which she encourages him to marry Madame Max for her money. He points out that she married a man she didn’t love, and has suffered. 


“Why should you not love her? And it is so different with a man! A woman is wretched if she does not love her husband, but I fancy that a man gets on very well without any such feeling. She cannot domineer over you. She cannot expect you to pluck yourself out of your own soil, and begin a new growth altogether in accordance with the laws of her own. It was that which Mr. Kennedy did.”


This is at the heart of why putting hierarchy at the center of any relationship is problematic. We all have soils in which we can thrive, and soils that will poison our growth. Part of the task of building a good relationship is finding a way for everyone to thrive. In a marriage, that means a certain amount of compromise, of course, but neither spouse should be expected to give up what they need so the other avoids any discomfort. And that’s in a marriage. For less integrated relationships, the expectation of others rearranging their lives to suit someone else is even sillier. And yet, I have seen that expectation destroy family relationships. 


One of the minor characters is Laurence Fitzgibbon, initially another Irish member of Parliament, before he loses his seat. He is rather unscrupulous, particularly about paying his debts, but hey, he will inherit someday, so who cares? Anyway, I love this line about him. 


Laurence Fitzgibbon certainly possessed the rare accomplishment of telling a lie with good grace. 


In the particular situation this line appears, Fitzgibbon is fully justified in his lie, as it is to protect rather than harm. But in general, he plays pretty fast and loose with the truth. 


As in many of his books, Trollope reserves particular disdain for the yellow press, with its eagerness to slander anyone who it serves them to slander in order to sell papers. In one case, he has the paper coin the word “snobility” in a hit piece about Finn. (Triggered by the fact that Finn took a Parliament seat that the editor wanted for himself, even though it was unrealistic that he would ever be elected.) 


Violet is in an interesting situation. She has an independent fortune. While this doesn’t give her full freedom, the way it would a man, she still has a certain amount of independence from it. Much to the chagrin of the aunt assigned to watch over her. 


There is a satisfaction in turning out of doors a nephew or niece who is pecuniarily dependent, but when the youthful relative is richly endowed, the satisfaction is much diminished. 


Lady Baldock spends the book nagging and lecturing Violet, and keeps having to change her position so that she is always opposed to whatever she thinks Violet wants. 


I have to also quote Violet on the occasion that Finn shows up at Laura’s invitation, only to find himself alone with Violet. They joke about it, of course, and this is the best line. 


“There used to be a time, and that not so long ago either, when young gentlemen and ladies were thought to be very dangerous to each other if they were left alone. But propriety is less rampant now, and upon the whole virtue and morals, with discretion and all that kind of thing, have been the gainers. Don’t you think so?”


In any event, Finn proposes to Violet, and she turns him down, with yet another witty line. 


“Will you try to love me?”

“No; - why should I try? If any trying were necessary, I would try rather not to love you.” 


Finn isn’t Violet’s only suitor, and one of the others is Lord Chiltern, who quickly goes from being Finn’s friend, to challenging him to a duel. But of course, Chiltern can’t stay mad for long. 


Lord Chiltern had in fact acknowledged that though he had been anxious to blow out our hero’s brains, he was aware all the time that our hero was a good sort of fellow. 


Another great line comes from the author as an aside about Madame Max when she is trying to decide if she will marry the Duke of Omnium. It struck me as rather generally applicable, which is why so many are drawn to authoritarian religion. (Although Trollope wasn’t speaking in that context, I think it applies.)


Who is there that has not longed that the power and privilege of selection among alternatives should be taken away from him in some important crisis of his life, and that his conduct should be arranged for him, either this way or that, by some divine power if it were possible, - by some patriarchal power in the absence of divinity, - or by chance even, if nothing better than chance could be found to do it? 


When Madame Max declines the offer, she does so in a gracious letter. In there is an astute observations. 


A woman who is alone in the world is ever regarded with suspicion. In this country, a woman with a foreign name, with means derived from foreign sources, with a foreign history, is specially suspected. 


The book doesn’t have a tragic ending, exactly, just a realistic, normal life ending when the hero makes choices which have consequences. Because Finn chooses between paths that are all decent, he hasn’t ruined his life or anything. But all of the paths have losses to go with the gains, which is how life is for all of us. In that sense, perhaps, this book is a tragedy. Phineas Finn loses out on his chance of a career in Parliament in large part because of his tragic flaw - his inability to settle for what he can realistically do. But in another sense, he still finds his place in the world, wins the heart of a devoted wife, and leaves a good taste in the mouths of those men and women he leaves behind in London when he returns to Ireland. It’s not a bad thing to settle for, one might say. 


As always, I enjoyed my time with Mr. Trollope, who I consider to be, along with George Eliot, the best of the Victorians. 




Regular readers of my blog know that my favorite Victorian author is Anthony Trollope. I try to read one of his books every year. Past reads since I started writing about them are:


Barsetshire Chronicles:


The Barchester Chronicles (BBC miniseries based on the first two books, The Warden and Barchester Towers)

Dr. Thorne

Framley Parsonage

The Small House at Allington

The Last Chronicle of Barset


Palliser Novels:


Can You Forgive Her?


Other books:


He Knew He Was Right

Cousin Henry

The Claverings

Orley Farm

The Three Clerks


These are not, of course, the only Trollope novels I have read. These are the ones I have read since I started blogging in 2010. I should mention Castle Richmond and The Bertrams as particularly excellent books.


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