Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Anthony Trollope, Phineas Finn/The Irish Member (1869)

We GOTTA have that alternate title, 'cause otherwise you'd never know he was Irish, what with that extremely subtle name Trollope has given him.

Right, JEEZ. It's the second Palliser novel, although Plantagenet and Glencora actually play very little role. So here's the plot: Phineas, who comes from a working-class Irish family, goes into Parliament. This is a bit dicey because, at the time, MP was an unpaid position. That sounds kind of amazing, but the idea was that you were assumed to have an outside source of income. Seems perverse to me; either you expect your MPs to do a really cursory, half-assed job so they'll have the time to do their REAL work; or they have to be independently wealthy, which seems to be contrary to the whole "House of COMMONS" thing. This is an issue that we've seen come up in other Trollope novels as well. So...there's a lot of politics here, mainly centering around the Reform Act of 1867. If you're reading it in this day and age, you really have to do a bit of outside research to understand the political context. And...in keeping with all the other "political" parts of Trollope novels that I've read, it's pretty boring. I'll admit that it's kind of fun to watch Phineas' coming-of-age--at first he's super-determined to give a speech in Parliament, but he's all nervous about screwing up and sounding dumb, but by the end he's cool as a cucumber--but most of the rest is not super-compelling to my eyes.

Well, but the meat of the book is actually Phineas' romances, or attempted romances. First, there's Mary Flood Jones, The Girl He Left Behind. He kinda leads her on and leaves her hopelessly in love with him as he gallivants off to London to get involved in politics. She's by far the least interesting of his amours, and we don't actually see that much of her, though she does resurface towards the end.

Then there's Lady Laura, whom he's determined he's going to marry until, very early in the novel, she gets engaged to someone else because, well, it's practical and she needs money. Unromantic concerns like this are common in Trollope. But it's not a happy marriage, because of things like this:

"I won't say that reading a novel on a Sunday is a sin," he said; "but we must at any rate admit that it is a matter on which men disagree, that many of the best of men are against such occupation on Sunday, and that to abstain is to be on the safe side."

What a fun guy! Here's another amusing bit:

"Laura," he said, "I am sorry that I contradicted you."
"I am quite used to it, Robert."
"No;--you are not used to it." She smiled and bowed her head. "You wrong me by saying that you are used to it."

Anyway, it's just plain bad, and she realizes she loved Phineas all along, so there's some of the usual sort of pathos here. But this is interesting, because I'm pretty sure I've never actually seen it happen in a Victorian novel before: the last straw is reached when he accuses her of being Phineas' lover, and she leaves him. Like, for good, seemingly. Nor is this presented as an ethical enormity so much as it's justified by the husband's behavior. I...didn't know that was allowed to happen in Victorian novels, actually. I knew that it was okay for women to remarry after their husbands' deaths (except in Dickens, but he's just such a wildly puritanical outlier that we kind of have to disregard him), or even (at least in Collins) to marry after having had a non-marital affair with another man, but this? It's new to me.  I mean, in Can You Forgive Her? you get the really strong impression that the only possibility if you're stuck in a lousy marriage is to wait around and hope it gets better.  Not here, though.  The fact that she has to go live on the continent to avoid being legally forced to return to her husband seems like a bit of social critique, even.  Way to go, Anthony. Mind you, it's still a bit vague: for all that they're apparently separated forever, nobody can bring themselves to mention the D word, and the situation appears to be that they're just going to be separated but still technically married in perpetuity, which is just weird. Still, I'm interested in seeing the different contours the Victorian novel can take.

The third woman is Violet Effingham, a rich orphan with an amusingly jaded attitude towards romance:

"After all, a husband is very much like a house or a horse. You don't take your house because it's the best house in the world, but because just then you want a house. You go and see a house, and if it's very nasty you don't take it. But if you think it will suit you pretty well, and if you are tired of looking about for houses, you do take it. That's the way one buys one's horses--and one's husbands."

This part actually made me ell oh ell:

"Lady Baldock asked me the other day whether I was going to throw myself away on Mr. Laurence Fitzgibbon."
"Indeed she did."
"And what did you answer?"
"I told her that it was not quite settled; but that as I had only spoken to him once during the last two years, and then for not more than half a minute, and as I wasn't sure whether I knew him by sight, and as I had reason to suppose he didn't know my name, there might, perhaps, be a delay of a week or two before the thing came off. Then she flounced out of the room."

So that's fine. But the actual romance business isn't that interesting. The issue is that Lady Laura's brother Lord Chiltern also wants to marry Violet, and his father wants this too so that he'll be financially secure, but she keeps rejecting him, and Phineas wants to try his luck too. The two suitors actually fight a duel over her (in an anti-climactic, off-page way). But in the end, she marries Lord Chiltern, and WHATEVER. I don't know why, but it's true: even though most of the romances in the Barchester Chronicles were pretty slight, they were generally charming, but in these Palliser novels thusfar...they've just been nothing.

ANYWAY. The last woman is the oddly-named Madame Max Goesler. No, her first name isn't "Max;" it's actually Marie, but that's how she's generally referred: Madame Max Goesler. I guess there's no reason Max couldn't be short for Maxine, but you don't generally see that, do you? WHATEVER. That's neither here nor there. She's a rich widow who has big soir├ęs but also feels a kind of social ennui: what's the point of all this? She has Wiles, and she toys with social advancement by marrying the aged Duke of Omnium, but she's also into Phineas, so what will she do? To me, she's the most interesting of the women (though none of them are all that). She's coded as Jewish, and though Trollope isn't devoid of anti-Semitism, he could be a lot worse. She's pretty much a totally sympathetic character in the end.

WELL BUT. Okay, I'll say what happens, so spoilers: Phineas--seemingly on a whim--ends up getting engaged to Mary Flood Jones, who displays female Victorian "virtues" that were surely more appealing at the time than they are now. But the problem is, he's losing his paid position and also his house seat because Principle has required him to go against his party and his political career seems doomed, but gosh, if only he'd marry Madame Goesler, which he totally could...the whole dilemma sort of feels slapped together at the last minute, but there you are. People who, like me, have read too many Trollope novels may remember this as the same dilemma that Crosbie had in The Small House at Allington, but Phineas, not being a cad, ends up doing the right thing. Boring, but right. And he ends up getting a new government position after all had seemed lost, and his star is on the way up, baby! And that is that. Said the cat in the hat.

What else? Well, there's a bit where Phineas is visiting a zoo, and Trollope refers to the animals therein as "unsavoury beasts." Only one person on facebook found this amusing. THEIR LOSS. Uh, the other people's. One thing you might be wondering is: how exactly does Phineas' Irishness play into all this? And the answer is...not every much, actually. Hard to know what else to say. No one displays much anti-Irish sentiment. He ends up losing his position thanks to his position on Irish tenant rights, but that seems to be about it. I dunno.

Yes, well. This novel IS shorter than Can You Forgive Her?, I'll give it that much. It also probably has a bit more of interest about it, but man, especially in the early going, it is just so dry. One really does have to question my committment to Trollope. His novels always look appealing from a distance, but then when you get up close...

Do I have what it takes to finish these damn Palliser novels? Well, here's what's coming up: next is The Eustace Diamonds, which actually looks kinda promising. It's well-reviewed, and it's even said to be a little Moonstone-esque. It was written a few years after the Collins novel, so maybe Trollope was chasing after that sweet, sweet mystery money. Probably worth checking out. Then there's Phineas Redux, and goddamn, man...I am sort of interested in seeing Phineas' story continue, but if I have to battle through as much stuff as I did here to get to it, I'm not sure if it's worth it. Then it's The Prime Minister, which I know nothing about except that the very title makes me want to fall asleep; and finally The Duke's Children, which was written after Trollope's popularity had substantially diminished, and he could only get it published by cutting it down substantially. But hey, guess what, now there's a Restored Edition, so now we can read it in all its gargantuan glory! Which I suppose I'd feel obligated to do if I read it at all, but urgh. I think at any rate I'll stay away from Trollope until such time as, inevitably, I forget that his novels are never quite as good as I wish they were. And the circle of life will continue!


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