Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Phineas Finn by Anthony Trollope

Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Finn is the second book in his Palliser series. My commentary on the first book, Can You Forgive Her? is here. This novel centers on Phineas Finn, a young Irishman elected to the British House of Commons. The book is steeped in British politics and society. 

In the course of the novel, Phineas befriends and interacts with various characters, many of whom are politicians or connected to politics in some way. Many of these characters are interesting in their own right, and the narrative involves several interwoven plot threads.

Early on, Phineas becomes enamored with Lady Laura Standish. Though she begins to fall in love with Phineas, Lady Laura decides to marry the wealthy politician, Robert Kennedy, instead. Later, Phineas turns his romantic sites on her friend, Violet Effingham. 

Lord Chiltern is Lady Laura’s wildly dangerous but amusing brother. Lady Glencora and Plantagenet Palliser, are back from the previous book. There are additional interesting characters. 

The book’s themes involve politics and political philosophy, as well as the plight of women in Victorian society. Characters in this book are complex, as are the novel’s themes. Phineas himself is likable, but flawed. At 640 pages, Trollope uses plenty of words to develop these angles. Thus, I could devote multiple blog posts to individual characters and themes.

A particularly interesting character is Lady Laura. I want to write a few words about her. As is typical with Trollope, her complexity is reflective of a real human being. 

Lady Laura is a woman who wields great political power and influence behind the scenes and who has sophisticated and nuanced opinions regarding politics and the world at large.  

She is thus described,

“It was her ambition to be brought as near to political action as was possible for a woman without surrendering any of the privileges of feminine inaction. That women should even wish to have votes at parliamentary elections was to her abominable, and the cause of the Rights of Women generally was odious to her; but, nevertheless, for herself, she delighted in hoping that she too might be useful,— in thinking that she too was perhaps, in some degree, politically powerful”

However, Lady Laura makes a terrible mistake. She decides to marry the dull and repressive Robert Kennedy. He is no brute. He is just quietly oppressive. Lady Laura describes him to her brother as thus,

"He does not beat me  …He never said a word in his life either to me or, as I believe, to any other human being, that he would think himself bound to regret…He simply chooses to have his own way, and his way cannot be my way. He is hard, and dry, and just, and dispassionate, and he wishes me to be the same.”

For several months, Lady Laura  allows Mr. Kennedy to stifle her socially and politically. She eventually rebels, however. Conflict erupts between her and her husband. She manages to assert some independence, but she remains subdued in some ways. As they quietly fight each other to a draw, both husband and wife descend into a state of misery. 

The inflexibility and sexism manifested by Mr. Kennedy is illustrated in the below passage. 

“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. He had thought about the matter, slowly, as was his wont, and had resolved that he would assert himself.”

Trollope is so complex. Though the reader’s sympathy naturally falls towards Lady Laura, as in real life, sometimes decent people do questionable things when under stress and in the midst of conflict. At one point, Lady Laura inappropriately employs the tactic of overpraising Phineas, who she still has feelings for, as a weapon against her husband. At this stage, the reader actually begins to sympathize with Mr. Kennedy. 

All of this adds up to a very nuanced portrait of Lady Laura. It is a picture of a woman who is politically ambitious yet has morals and integrity. She also has flaws that lead her to make an irrevocable mistake. She marries Mr. Kennedy mainly to improve her social and political position. She tries to act honestly and ethically, but sometimes fails to do so. She is often at war with her own emotions.

In his portrait of Lady Laura, Trollope seems to be highlighting the unfairness that women face. In politics, she cannot assert herself as a man would. In terms of marriage, though her and her husband both make mistakes in marrying, she is the one at a disadvantage. In addition, in the portrayal her disastrous marriage, Trollope highlights the pitfalls of placing political gain over what is right. Instead of choosing Phineas whom she loved, Lady Laura chooses Mr. Kennedy for political advantage. 

Lady Laura is only one of many complex characters contained in this book. The above is only one of several interesting subplots to this novel. There are entire interesting plot threads that I have not even mentioned. One could write many words on the political philosophy expounded within the pages of this novel, and much of it is still relevant today. 

As this is the second of the Palliser novels, I recommend that one reads Can You Forgive Her first. With that, this book works well as a standalone. Either way, this is another brilliant exploration of character and themes by Anthony Trollope.


31 comments:

JacquiWine said...

As you may remember, I read a brief collection of Trollope's stories just before Christmas last year - my first experience of this author as it happens. This sounds like the type of character study I would enjoy too.

The Reader's Tales said...

I've never read Trollope stories... This one looks interesting - I think I would enjoy reading it :)

Mudpuddle said...

i've been trying to work up the courage to start the Paliser series for some time now, and your excellent post has helped... i enjoyed the Barchester chronicles quite a bit, buy it was rather a slog; but maybe it's time to bite the bullet and get started... tx for paving the way...

James said...

Wonderful commentary on yet another good entry from Trollope. It seems ironic that Lady Laura, along with most other women of her era, would face such unfairness and disadvantages while the throne is held by one of the great female rulers of the ages.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi The Reader's Tales - Though I would go in order, I think that you would like this series.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks James - You raise such an interesting point. Some woman as heads of State weirded such great power, yet it did not trickle down.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Mudpuddle - If you like The Barchester Chronicles I think that you would like this series. I am finding these books a bit darker.

On the other hand if you found he The Barchester Chronicles a bit tedious, you might have similar feelings about this book.

Suko said...

Excellent review, Brian Joseph! I've been interested in reading Anthony Trollope’s work for at least a couple of years now. I will keep this series in mind.

Caroline said...

It's interesting that a novel with a man's name in the title should paint such an arresting portrait of a woman, Lady Laura sounds very interesting. I think I'm ready for another Trollope soon. Barchester Towers, I think. Great review as always, Brian.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko - If you read these books I would love to know what you thought about them.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Caroline.

Trollope paints such rich characters. It seems that in almost everyone of his books one can find such interesting men and women.

Barchester Towers might be my favorite Trollope book that I have read so far. I would love to know what you thought if you read it.

James said...

I can't help but comment on your reference to Barchester Towers as perhaps your favorite amongst his novels. While I haven't read as much Trollope as you, I feel the same about BT. By

Gently Mad said...

I have not read any of these novels even though I have the entire set. I can't wait to start, thanks to you, although I'm not sure when that will be. Thanks for your review.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - These are long books so there is much to read. When you do try them I look forward to reading what you think.

baili said...

very interesting book though you seem to take more interest in the leading character and her husband .I happen to knew little less about phineas as i wanted to know him little more.

ladies like Laura try to live their LIFE OF DREAMS and forget that no one has authority to live a PERFECT life ,their fight against destiny destroy them badly.
thank you for another very nice story .

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Baili - Sometimes when it comes to Classic Literature, sine so much has been written about the book, I try to find a secondary character or concept to comment on.


It is typical of of Trollope to depict imperfect people, even when they are sympathetic,

Have a great weekend!

Maria Behar said...

GREAT commentary as usual, Brian!! :)

Your analysis of this work of Trollope's is very complete, and SO interesting! Although you have stated in this post that there's a lot more to comment on regarding this novel, I think your overall look at it is perfect in itself. And again I tell myself that I must read Trollope! So many books.....you know the rest!

The character you've concentrated on in this review, Lady Laura, is someone I already have mixed feelings about. How could she marry that boring, overbearing guy, instead of Phineas? I'm not surprised that she has an unhappy marriage! How could such an obviously intelligent woman make such a huge mistake? I guess this points to the difficulties faced by women in England at that time. She needed to wield power, but could not do so herself, so she decided to marry someone through whom she could do just that.

This quote from your review made me totally dislike Kennedy:

“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. He had thought about the matter, slowly, as was his wont, and had resolved that he would assert himself.”

This quote sounds almost like an MRA "manifesto", so to speak. What's this about Kennedy having the EXPECTATION that his wife would SUBMIT to his will and his ways?! Oh, this makes me see RED!! I feel this way because there are still too many men who actually think, like Kennedy, that it's their RIGHT, just because they're men0 (and therefore the "superior" sex), for their wives (or girlfriends for those who are either single, or cheating on their wives) to simply go passively along with everything THEY think should be done or not done! Yes, of course, Kennedy bases his male self-esteem on this. So do these MRAs. From the tone of the narrative in this particular quote, it seems clear that Trollope does not agree, and, indeed, created Kennedy for the purpose of satirizing and ridiculing such a viewpoint.

I agree that Laura is a nuanced character. It seems to me that she wants things both ways -- she wants to have political power, but doesn't want to lose her "feminine privilege", as she sees it. Of course, this is no privilege at all.

In earlier centuries, women were, of course, forced to be "the power behind the throne" in many instances. I think that Trollope is also using the character of Laura to decry this situation. Indeed, he seems to be criticizing it in tandem with his criticism of "male privilege".

From everything you've written about Trollope's novels, he definitely is a writer of high intellect, great creative power, and astute philosophical temperament. He is above all a realist, a commentator, if you will, on the complex interactions present in the society of his time. I really must get to his work at some point soon!!

I also like that Trollope is quite obviously on the side of the heart in the matter of choosing a romantic partner. Political expediency and societal mores are things he thinks make for a miserable marriage, and he is quite right! Kudos to him for being on the side of true love!! Lol.

And now.....KUDOS to YOU for another well-written, beautifully analytical review that provides much food for thought!! :) :) :)


Carol said...

Brian, your comment above about finding a secondary character or concept to concentrate upon when writing about Classic books was thought worthy. I don't like to know all about a book when I read a review but focussing on someone like you did in this book is an enticement to reading. Thanks & well done.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Carol.

Sometimes so much is written about these Classic books that I want to say something different. They are also so rich that there is so many different angles that one can explore.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria.

I think that you would really like Trollope. In particular, The warden is the first book in The Chronicles of Barsetshire. I think that you will really like Septimus Harding, its main protagonist.

Kennedy is very unlikable. As we have seen, there are men on social media today who would very much relate to Kennedy! This book really delves into how much control a husband had over his wife in terms of the law. Trollope was writing about a society where woman’s freedom was so very restricted. Throughout his books there is a particular sensitivity to the plight of women. His mother Fanny Trollope was a prominent advocate for women’s rights. I think that there is a connection.


Have a great weekend!

Maria Behar said...

Hi, again! How interesting that Trollope's mother, Fanny, was a women's rights activist!! Of course she had to have influenced his writing with regard to the plight of women at that time. I will have to do some research on Trollope's life. Thanks for the info!! Hope you're having a GREAT Saturday!! <3 <3 :) :)

Maria Behar said...

P.P.S. And how very ironic that this character is named "ROBERT Kennedy", too!! :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maia - My wife also thought that the Robert Kennedy thing was funny.

thecuecard said...

Ugh it sounds like Lady Laura blew it; too bad. I'm sure I'd be pulling for her in the novel to break away but alas she seems to have been squashed by her mistake. Does Phineas stay likable and successful throughout?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - Lady Laura is not quite crushed but very much wounded.

Phineas stays likable, despite the fact that he does a few questionable things. In the end, he does what is right.

sunt_lacrimae_rerum said...

Thank you for a great review of a wonderful novel. I love Trollope and reading reviews of his work is always exciting.

Brian Joseph said...

One nice thing about Trollope books is that there is so much to talk about it creates endless blogging possibilities.

HKatz said...

I'm planning to read more of Trollope, because yes, he's great at writing complex characters and nuanced situations. I enjoy your analyses of his writing.

Recently I finished The Warden - among other things, it's a wonderful exploration of good intentions that don't necessarily amount to much in practical terms. And I like how Septimus Harding and his younger daughter are written. And even the archbishop, who could've been portrayed as a two-dimensional tyrant, is written with some sympathy (and wry humor).

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Hila - I really liked The Warden. Septimus Harding is truly a unique character.

The next book in the series, Barchester Towers, is my all time favorite Trollope book.

Evelina said...

Haven't read anything by Trollope yet, but it's on my list :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Evelina - If you read him I would love to know what you thought.

I thought that The first book in this series, Can you Forgive Her?, was outstanding.