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.