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Anthony Trollope - Phineas Finn: The Irish Member Legolas Send a noteboard - 10/03/2011 11:06:27 PM
Having recently read Anthony Trollope's Can You Forgive Her?, and finding it a good read despite its flaws, I decided to read the next book of his six "Palliser novels". This review will probably make more sense if you've read my review of the former book, but that is hardly a necessity - the books are almost entirely stand-alone, merely sharing some secondary characters.

Trollope was a popular Victorian author, most of his books appearing between 1850 and 1880. The "Palliser novels" are generally thought of as some of his best work, I understand (I haven't read anything else by him yet), and so far I have to say I rather like them, even though there are some flaws. The introduction to this volume compared it to Turgenev's Fathers and Sons and Flaubert's Education Sentimentale; having read the former at least, I'm inclined to think that might be a bit too much praise, but then Fathers and Sons is a book I think very highly of, and there is no shame in coming second to it. The comparison is difficult in any case, because while there are some similarities between the two books, and they were written around the same time, their primary subjects are different.

Like several of the "Palliser novels", Phineas Finn does not really deal all that much with the Palliser family - even less than the previous book, in fact. The title character is a young Irish law student who, through a combination of his talents and an extraordinary amount of luck, embarks on a political career in London. Unlike Can You Forgive Her?, this is primarily a political novel, even though at the end of the day I suspect more pages are devoted to the title character's romantic life than to his political career. But then, to a man with modest means and political ambitions in Victorian Britain, such as Phineas Finn, there was an obvious connection between the two: each could provide the money to make the other possible. Members of Parliament in those days were not paid, and so a marriage to a wealthy woman could allow a man to engage in a political career when he might otherwise have been unable to do so; on the other hand, some relatively poor MPs managed to obtain government positions with salaries that allowed them to settle down and start a family. And so politics and romance are never entirely separate in this book.

This book has fewer side-plots and diversions than its predecessor, with only a handful of passages that don't concern the title character. And so one's views about the book have to be linked to some extent to one's views of Phineas Finn. He is similar to Alice Vavasor to the extent that he, too, is a well-written and believable character, but has some characteristics that will get on the readers' nerves. Phineas is a somewhat spoiled but charming and popular young man with an incredible lucky streak, who also is, to not put too fine a point upon it, a bit of a slut. Which makes an interesting and probably intentional contrast with his friend Lord Chiltern - a rough, hot-tempered, contrary and rather asocial man, whose love never wavers a moment.

The really interesting characters, though, are, once more, the women: the fiery Lady Laura Standish, her witty friend Violet Effingham, the intriguing foreigner Madame Max Goesler and, though only in a very minor role, Lady Glencora Palliser (the only one of the four not to be a love interest of Phineas' at any point - I said he was a slut). Despite the solid female characters, I mentioned Trollope's views on women as one possible factor that might turn readers off in Can You Forgive Her?. I don't know if I can go as far as to claim he espouses truly different views here, but there is certainly nothing remotely as offensive to modern readers, and it's hard to attack Trollope on the subject when (most of) his female characters are so impressively well-written, with so much evident sympathy for them.

As for Phineas' political career, he is every bit as successful there as with the women, and I think it's fair to say he displays more maturity and responsibility in that regard, and more obvious growth as a character. Trollope does an excellent job in making the political game come to life - the theatrical and hypocritical aspects of the House debates, the conflicts between pragmatism and ideology, and the moral conundrums of government members forced to defend a position they personally disagree with. The book is largely based on real political events of the 1860s, mainly the controversy of the "Reform Bill" (an attempt to greatly enlarge the amount of eligible voters while getting rid of some of the less fairly distributed constituencies) and the matter of the Irish tenant rights - which even most politicians in the novel are shown to be rather clueless about. The leading ministers of the book are based on real people, including famous names like Gladstone and Disraeli, so that this book could be read almost as a history of that particular period of British political history. Its observations on politics are broad enough to be relevant to any democratic government, though, and knowledge of the period isn't really necessary to appreciate or understand the political elements of the plot (though having good footnotes helps).

As for the flaws of the book, other than Phineas Finn's character flaws, they are fairly modest, I think. Like its predecessor, the book is perhaps a touch too long - and I have to question the wisdom of suddenly spending a handful of chapters on a not very relevant side-plot in the middle of the second half of the book, when the main plot should be heading towards its conclusion instead - but only a little bit. The ending can with some justification be called insipid and disappointing, but I understand that is rectified to some extent in the direct sequel of the book, Phineas Redux. Still, I'm beginning to conclude that endings are not Trollope's strongest suit.

In the final verdict, this book is a very good effort, and I think better than the already quite good Can You Forgive Her?, even if it shares some of its flaws. Since reading this first really does not spoil the other book in the slightest, I think this might perhaps be a better place to start with Trollope. Warmly recommended, and in my modest opinion a must-read to the people here who have a particular interest in the Victorian era.
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Anthony Trollope - Phineas Finn: The Irish Member - 10/03/2011 11:06:27 PM 5912 Views

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