I’m not gonna lie to you: Phineas Finn is not my favorite of the Palliser novels. Just too much of it focuses on politics, specifically on the great Victorian battle to reform the parliamentary system. I know there are people who revel in the maneuvering, the alliances and tactics of representative government, but I am not one of those. On the other hand, this novel is about Phineas Finn’s coming of age in personal as much as political terms. And for Trollope, that meant the ever-crucial marriage question. Who should marry whom, and under what circumstances? What conditions should determine or affect the choice? And if the marriage failed, what then?
So that’s the bright side for me. Phineas Finn, the title character, is a handsome, hard-working, charming young man from Ireland, a doctor’s son with a good education and plenty of ambition. And over the course of 500+ pages, Trollope takes him through five years, several elections to Parliament, a couple of government appointments, and several courtships. Along the way we are able to examine a number of relationships. Phineas’ first love is the sweet modest Mary Flood Jones, the girl he left behind in Ireland. Once in London, as a young Member of Parliament, he falls into the circle of Lady Laura Standish, the daughter of a political earl. Does he love her? He is certainly dazzled by her, and fairly sure he could be talked into love. And that she could, too.
But Laura forestalls Phineas’ declaration by informing him that she is engaged to Robert Kennedy, an immensely wealthy Scot who is also in Parliament. Here’s another great thing about Trollope: he talks about money, bluntly and in detail. Laura’s hotheaded brother Lord Chiltern has run up debts and Laura has used her own money to repay them, which means she brings nothing to a marriage. She marries Kennedy to re-stabilize her family’s financial status.
Phineas is disappointed; possibly heart-broken. But he’s also young, and he rebounds fast. His eye falls next on the charming, pretty, and verifiably rich Violet Effingham. Violet is an orphan, living under the care of an aunt whom she loathes. Violet’s real problem is that she’s a high-spirited woman living in high society in 1860s England, when a young woman cannot respectably live alone. Violet chafes against the limitations of her world, lashing out in a very controlled — dare I say Victorian? — fashion. Would she marry Phineas? She says not. She refuses him twice, but Phineas can’t give up, in spite of his growing friendship with Violet’s other suitor, the mercurial Lord Chiltern. (With whom he eventually fights a duel, which Trollope keeps offstage, resolutely avoiding melodrama. In fact the duel is seriocomic, a device borrowed from an earlier style of fiction and shown here as a faintly shabby literary convention.)
Finally, we meet Madame Max Goesler, the widow of a Jewish Viennese banker, beautiful, cosmopolitan, somewhat mysterious, a canny, disciplined social climber who, having turned down a marriage proposal from a Duke, still cherishes a soft spot for Phineas.
The genius of it is that Phineas Finn himself is nothing terribly special. The fierce Lord Chiltern and the harsh, despotic Mr. Kennedy are far more memorable as characters. Phineas works hard in Parliament, but his success feels un-earned, even to him:
It soon came to be admitted by all who knew Phineas Finn that he had a peculiar power of making himself agreeable which no one knew how to analyze or define. ‘I think it is because he listens so well,’ said one man. ‘But the women would not like him for that,’ said another. ‘He has studied when to listen and when to talk,’ said a third. The truth, however, was that Phineas Finn had made no study in the manner at all. It was simply his nature to be pleasant.”
Cynical? I don’t think so. Trollope isn’t angry; he just wants to show life as he perceives it.