Sunday, August 08, 2021

Anthony Trollope, Phineas Redux (1874)

Oh Tony Baloney--I just can't quit you.  So...what's Phineas been up to lately?  Well, in a similar move to the one the author pulled in Barchester Towers, his wife Mary died between the two books, in childbirth (the child died as well, which is too bad--it might have been interesting to see him have to deal with single-fatherhood).  He still has his comfortable government office in Ireland, but his ol' pals in the Liberal Party convince him to come back to England and run for Parliament again.  He does this, and although he loses at first, it turns out that his opponent had engaged in bribery so he's declared the winner.  But as you will perhaps remember, MP was an unpaid position at the time (that STILL seems nuts to me--and before he becomes a duke, Plantagenet Palliser himself is one (in the House of Commons, that is), which renders gibberish the idea that members should have other careers), so he's gunning for a cabinet position so he can even AFFORD to be in politics, and despite the help of various people (notably Glencora Palliser), he's not having much luck.

Meanwhile, all of his former potential amours are still around.  There's Violet Chiltern (née Effingham), of which there's not much to say: she's still happily married to Phineas' pal Lord Chiltern, doing all right.  Then there's Lady Laura Kennedy (née Standish), Lord Chiltern's sister, who isn't doing so great: in Phineas Finn she had left her husband Robert Kennedy (whom she'd married out of a sense of obligation) to live on the continent after he accused her of having an affair with Phineas.  Which she wasn't, BUT, she was still in love with him the whole time.  Robert is rapidly disintegrating.  There's a scene where he impulsively attempts to murder Phineas by shooting him in the head, and is only thwarted when the gun misfires--similar to an incident in Can You Forgive Her? if I recall correctly.  And I do.  But on the whole, he's more pitiable than anything else this time around, not that that means the reader is exactly sad when he dies.  So yeah, and now Laura is just going to pine for Phineas forever, it seems, because he doesn't love her anymore and isn't going to try renew his suit.  I frankly don't care for the Lady Laura stuff--she seemed kind of cool and empowered last time around, ditching her husband when it was called for, but here she's much more a figure of pity, and the way Trollope more or less blames her for having married Robert--which was a bad idea, true, but come on, her motives were pure--kind of rubs me the wrong way.  Bah.  Anyway, the third woman is of course the legendary--and weirdly-named--Madame Max Goesler, the one that Phineas would have married if he hadn't already been promised to the late Mary.  She's still a hot rich widow who's never stopped loving him, so you don't have to think too hard about what's going to happen.  In fact, Trollope really makes a point of emphasizing how much women love Phineas (in spite of the fact that he's a kind of doofy-looking dude with a bushy mustache in the illustrations):

For six weeks after the ceremony parcels were showered upon him by the ladies of the borough who sent him worked slippers, scarlet hunting waistcoats, pocket handkerchiefs with "P.F." beautifully embroidered, and chains made of their own hair.

And THAT is why everyone calls him LL Cool P--Ladies Love Cool Phineas.

Good lord.  Is there more?  OF COURSE there's more.  So the politics in the book concern the question of whether church and state should be separated.  It's tolerable but kind of dull.  The problem with politics in Trollope novels is not just that I'm not super-enthralled by these hundred-fifty-year-old struggles; it's more that I don't get the impression I'm supposed to care, particularly.  He really, really does seem to have this "it's all for show; nothing's going to change" attitude, which, let us say, as a critique.  

And speaking of "uninteresting things," there's also this secondary romance between a poor cousin of the Pallisers, Adelaide, and a guy called Gerard Maule (oh, did I mention that the old Duke of Omnium dies here, leaving Plantagenet to inherit the title?  It's so hard to not forget something in a book like this).  But these two are REALLY barely characters; there's just nothing to them--and still less to the doomed-to-fail rival for Adelaide's affections.  Eventually they get some money and get married, but doesn't feel like Trollope was really trying very hard here.

Also: fox hunting.  Inevitably.  But with a twist: here there's a conflict between Plantagenet, who doesn't care about it even a tiny bit, and has been having foxes on his land killed (or at least not caring when his underlines have them killed).  This is VERY upsetting to Lord Chiltern, who's a fox hunting maniac.  Now, I do find all this distasteful, of course, and it's not a very interesting plot thread, but I was sort of interested in some comments Trollope makes:

There is something doubtless absurd in the intensity of the worship paid to the fox by hunting communities.  The animal becomes sacred, and his preservation is a religion.  His irregular destruction is a profanity, and words spoken to his injury are blasphemy.

(he also calls a guy who kills a fox in an unauthorized way a "vulpicide," which I  can't deny I enjoyed)

I think we can safely say that the foxes would be willing to forgo the worship if people would just leave them the hell alone--BUT, I think you can also make a good case that if not for hunters working to preserve them, British foxes would very likely have been exterminated the way wolves were.  I mean, that doesn't exactly justify the hunting, but...still.  It's a thing.

Is it possible that I've written close to a thousand words without even touching on the book's central plot?  I think it is.  So one thing that I like about Trollope novels is their general predictability.  You're not likely to be surprised by anything that happens.  And that's not always a good thing, but sometimes it's just what you need.  But this time something DID surprise me, because I'm pretty sure this is the first of his books I've read to feature a murder.  Yup.  So there's this dude named Mr. Bonteen, a fellow member of the Liberal Party.  He and Phineas were decided enemies, Bonteen having criticized him for previously leaving the Party and for his alleged carryings-on with Lady Laura.  So then they have a very public fight in a club and soon after Bonteen is found beaten to death in a nearby alley.  Who is the guilty party?  Well...good god, it is impossible to describe these things succinctly.  Remember how at the end of The Eustace Diamonds, Trollope assured as that Lizzie Eustace would return?  Well...he was as good as his word.  I'm not really sure why we wanted to see her again, but that is neither here nor there.  Point is, here she is, marry to this preacher named Joseph Emilius, a dubious character who's a converted Bohemian (ie, Czech) JEW (hoo boy).  He didn't like Bonteen either, because, at the behest of Lizzie, he'd gone to Bohemia to try to prove that he was still married.  So he's clearly the guilty party, although it's never proven (as for Lizzie, she barely appears and does very little--if you were really hoping for more Eustace action, you'd probably feel short-changed).  But Phineas has to on trial, and Madame Goesler goes to Prague to find evidence that Emilius did in fact have a duplicate house key and could have committed the murder (this proof of her devotion is probably the main reason they end up married).  Obviously Phineas is acquitted, but he's not feeling too good afterwards, about his supposed friends who doubted his innocence and about politics in general.  You might argue that he has a kind of PTSD.  Seems excessive, but have YOU ever been on trial for a murder you didn't commit?  Or even one you DID commit?  That would probably really take it out of you.

So he's offered the position that he had previously wanted, but due to his jaundiced attitude, he turns it down.  That was a bit surprising--I would have thought he'd somehow get over his cynicism by novel's end.  But no!  Perhaps he will in one of the subsequent Palliser novels: he seems to be Trollope's favorite character, prominently featuring in both of them.  We shall see: it's pretty obvious at this point that one of these days I'm going to finish the series, and then probably check out some of his stand-alone novels.

And I say that not just out of some sunk-cost fallacy, but because I really surprised myself with the extent to which I enjoyed this.  Definitely more so than Phineas Finn (that rare sequel better than the original, though I don't think you'd get as much out of it without having read its predecessor), and indeed definitely more than ANY of the previous Palliser novels.  And here's something that I don't think I've ever mentioned re Trollope, but which is definitely worth noting: he's really a very good social novelist, by which I mean, he depicts a society--with its trends and beliefs and byways--very effectively.  For a person interested in Victorian society, he's a must-read.  Dickens may be more popular, but Trollope is much more effective in this particular regard.  Admittedly, there are times you wish he was a more acute social social critic: he keeps coming so close to acknowledging the injustice of the brutal wealth disparities of the time, but then he always back off at the last second.  He's clearly aware of these things on some level, but he can't quite bring himself to articulate it, goshdarnit.

Okay, let's finish with a few miscellaneous quotes, as is my wont.

Phineas talking with Madame Goesler:

"I like to hear a good speech."

"But you have the excitement before you of making a good speech in answer.  You are in the fight.  A poor woman, shut up in a cage, feels there more acutely than anywhere else how insignificant a position she fills in the world."

"You don't advocate the rights of women, Madame Goesler?"

"Oh, no.  Knowing our inferiority I submit without a grumble; but I am not sure that I care to go and listen to the squabbles of my masters.

JEEZ.  Madame Goesler is the most capable person in the novel, but she can't help buying into these bullshit sexist narratives regardless (you could argue that she's being ironic--that both she and Phineas are--but I am dubious about that notion).  You might think that Trollope--who, after all, created her--would be capable of just extrapolating a tiny bit and realizing what's wrong with this, but apparently not.  Well, as they say, The Patriarchy hurts us all.

Hmm.  I guess I didn't mention Plantagenet's main fixation, which is switching the UK to decimal currency (though from the vantage point of the present, we know he never got anywhere:

On the following morning he was closeted with Mr. Bonteen, two private secretaries, and a leading clerk from the Treasury for four hours, during which they were endeavouring to ascertain whether the commercial world of Great Britain would be ruined or enriched if twelve pennies were declared to contain fifty farthings.

So that's pretty fun.

Glencora on whether or not to believe that Phineas committed the murder:

I never will believe what I don't like to believe, and nothing shall ever make me.

I mean, we're all prey to that sentiment to one degree or another, but the fact that Republicans have raised it to the level of a religious tenet is a good part of the reason we're so fucked.

The end of Robert Kennedy:

In fact Robert Kennedy was dying;—and in the first week of May, when the beauty of the spring was beginning to show itself on the braes of Loughlinter, he did die. The old woman, his mother, was seated by his bedside, and into her ears he murmured his last wailing complaint. "If she had the fear of God before her eyes, she would come back to me." "Let us pray that He may soften her heart," said the old lady. "Eh, mother;—nothing can soften the heart Satan has hardened, till it be hard as the nether millstone." And in that faith he died believing, as he had ever believed, that the spirit of evil was stronger than the spirit of good.

That's kind of brutal, and it really calls into question Trollope's notion that Lady Laura is in some way to blame for any of this.

Lady Laura tells her father about the murder:

When the story of the murder had first been told to him, he had been amazed--and, no doubt, somewhat gratified, as we all are, at tragic occurrences which do not concern ourselves.

Yup.  We pretend it's not true because it seems monstrous, but this is a universal or near-universal thing.  It's nice to see Trollope articulate it.

A discussion about horses:

The mare hadn't a leg to stand upon.  Charlie had been stagging with her for the last two months, and knocked her all to pieces.  She's a screw, of course, but there isn't anything carries Chiltern so well.  There's nothing like a good screw.

"There's nothing like a good screw." -Anthony Trollope


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