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Phineas Finn

By Drharrietd @drharrietd

Pf1  This lovely illustration, showing Phineas Finn and Lady Laura in Scotland, is one of a series of 20 done by John Everett Millais for the first edition of Trollope's novel. I found it here and you can see several more in the same place. I was really interested to see how Millais depicted Phineas, who is described in the novel as extremely handsome and attractive. I've been watching the 1974 BBC production of the Pallisers, which can be seen in small 12 minute chunks on youtube, and in it Phineas is played by Donal McCann, a fine Irish actor but not really, to my mind, quite as Trollope and his readers imagined Phineas. I've been trying to think who could play him now if there was to be a new adaptation (and I wish there was), so it's interesting to see his original incarnation, tall and well set up and bearded. Lady Laura, too, appears in the pictures as a real beauty, and Anna Massey, who played her beautifully in 1974, is more what the French call a jolie laide

If you haven't read this novel you won't have the slightest idea what I'm talking about, and have probably given up reading by now anyway. If you are still with me, well, Phineas Finn is the second of Trollope's Palliser novels, so called because of a central character called Plantaganet Palliser, an aristocratic politician who appears throughout the series. While the Barsetshire novels, which I have galloped through in the last few months, depict the clergy in the English provinces, here we are in the political world of London, just around the time of the Reform Bill of 1867. And into it, as this novel begins, comes the eponymous Phineas, a young man from Ireland training for the law but desperate to become a member of parliament. And so he does, and remains, ironically owing this to the system of rotten or pocket boroughs which he comes to oppose fiercely. 

The politics are actually surprisingly interesting, or I found them so, but the real center of this novel -- and I enjoyed it enormously -- is the character of Phineas and the story of his various and mostly unsuccessful love affairs. For Phineas is extremely susceptible to female beauty and charm. He has left behind him in Ireland his pretty, innocent sweetheart Mary Jones, who he has more or less promised to marry. But London with its many delights quickly distracts him from his memories of Mary, and he is soon in love with Lady Laura Standish, a highly intelligent and politically minded young woman, who is determined to help him in his political career. He finally gets up the courage to propose to her, only to find that she has just agreed to marry Edward Kennedy, a wealthy and rather grim politician. Pretty soon, though, he has transferred his affections to pretty, lively, independent Violet Effingham, who unfortunately is also loved by his best friend. Then he is taken up by Marie Goestler, the beautiful, exotic young widow of a wealthy banker, who is being pursued by the aged roue the Duke of Omnium. 

I was actually on tenterhooks at times during this novel -- who would Phineas end up marrying? What would happen to his political career? Trollope does this to me -- involves me with his characters to a surprisingly great extent. In fact the ending is extremely and disappointingly anticlimactic, and apparently Trollope was dissatisfied with it, which is why he went on to tell the rest of Phineas's story in Phineas Redux, which I shall be reading soon.

As well as the thrills and spills of Phineas's love life, the novel is fascinating in the way it deals with women and their roles. Unlike Dickens, Trollope is not afraid of creating strong women, and Laura, Violet and Marie are all extremely bright, strong minded and forward thinking. Of course they are all very rich, which helps, though Laura's unfortunate marriage results from her having used her large inheritance to bail out her much loved brother who has got into financial difficulties. But Laura is bitterly unhappy with Kennedy, who turns out to be the worst of Victorian husbands, repressive and angry, constantly reminding his wife of her "duty". Laura's final fate is an unhappy one -- when she can bear it no longer she leaves him, but is faced with the rest of her life living sadly abroad, cast out by society -- a really ironic end for such a forward-looking woman. Violet, too, is constrained by the demands of her society. Rich enough to do anything she wishes, she is unable to do what she would like most of all -- to live by herself as an single independent woman, which would have been unheard of in the 1860s. Instead she is forced to live with her hated aunt unless she marries. As for Marie Goestler, as a widow she at least has the freedom to live on her own, but her life is no less of a struggle despite her wealth and intelligence. 

I got quite worried when, after finishing with Barchester, I had a difficult experience with The Prime Minister.  Thanks goodness I am back on track with Trollope and look forward to some more enjoyment in the coming months.


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