Phineas Finn

Phineas Finn: The Irish Member

Leigh Turner
Leigh Turner

Phineas Finn: you have to worship an author who wrote: ‘It has been the great fault of our politicians that they have all wanted to do something.’

Trollope’s “Parliamentary Novels”

Phineas Finn, published in 1869, is one of six novels by Anthony Trollope that together make up the “Palliser Novels” or “Parliamentary Novels”. Neither summation does justice to this sprawling web of dense, interlocked works. The full set are:

  • Can You Forgive Her? (1864) – my review is at the link
  • Phineas Finn (1869) – this review
  • The Eustace Diamonds (1873)
  • Phineas Redux (1874)
  • The Prime Minister (1876)
  • The Duke’s Children (1879)

John Major once told me he thought the Palliser novels the best description of politics in fiction. I agree wholeheartedly. Indeed, I’ve blogged before on why Trollope is straight-up awesome (links in bold italics are to other posts on this site), and on Trollope’s insights into how politics work.

Phineas Finn: the plot

I’ve got to be honest. A summary of the plot of Phineas Finn does not make the book sound riveting. But read on – for why the book nonetheless is a terrific read.

The story – no spoilers – is that Phineas, son of an Irish doctor, comes to London penniless, to pursue a career in politics. He cuts a swathe through London political life as his charm and good looks attract the patronage of women. Having left his true love behind in Ireland, Phineas falls in love with two London society women, one after another. Other relationships, and circumstances, complicate each potential match, as Phineas and the women are torn by conflicting demands of honour, friendship and passion.

In the course of all this, Phineas fights a duel with the intended of one of the women. He must decide whether to return to Ireland, or pursue politics in London with a wealthy and intriguing patroness, who offers to marry him to support his career. Eventually he makes his decision. Lady Glencora and Plantagenet Palliser, who play important parts in the Parliamentary novels, appear in the background.

Why Trollope matters

You can be passionate about Trollope for two reasons. First, the quality of the writing and humour is entertaining. His narrative drive is better than, say, Dickens. In the scene from the book shown in the contemporary illustration below, Phineas seeks close friendship with Lady Laura Standish. Her reply is exemplary:

Classic Trollope: ‘I wish to regard you as a dear friend – both of my own and of my husband.’

But for me the second reason is more important. It is that Trollope consistently explores contemporary themes. His women, for example – in this book, Laura Standish, Violet Effingham, Madame Max Goesler and Lady Glencora Palliser – are all strong, principled and fighting to control their destinies. Trollope explores similar themes in Lady Anna, He Knew He Was Right and Dr Wortle’s School, all reviewed on these pages. Indeed, I summarised the plot of Can You Forgive Her, the first of the Parliamentary Novels, as “What should a woman do with her life?”

On politics

What about the politics? Phineas Finn contains one of my favourite political quotes. I have seen hundreds of politicians in action, from Margaret Thatcher and John Major to Tony Blair and Boris Johnson. I have always been struck by their urge to change things. “Brexit” is a classic example. Many people disliked the status quo. Surely, some politicians thought, everything would be better if only things were different? Trollope wisely observed, back in 1869:

  • ‘It has been the great fault of our politicians that they have all wanted to do something.’

I am baffled that this brilliant quotation is not more widely known.

Indeed, that restless striving to do stuff applies to many of us – myself included. As Madame Goesler says to Phineas:

  • ‘You believe only in motion, Mr Finn; – and not at all in quiescence.  An express train at full speed is grander to you than a mountain with heaps of snow.’

So true, so true!

Finally, this quotation on convictions in politics struck me as frighteningly contemporary. It is made by a character called Barrington Erle to the young Phineas:

  • Convictions!  There is nothing on earth that I’m so afraid of in a young member of Parliament as convictions.’

In an era where everyone, fuelled by the latest thing they’ve read on social media, feels obliged to have convictions about every subject under the sun, the idea of keeping an open mind is appealing.

Phineas Finn in love?

Trollope is wise on the balance between a man having spirit, and being arrogant. As Violet says of Phineas:

  • ‘I think I could be in love with Mr Phineas Finn, if I could be in love with anybody…  In the first place, he is a gentleman.  Then he is a man of spirit.  And then he has not too much spirit; – not that kind of spirit which makes some men think they are the finest things going.  His manners are perfect…  He never browbeats any one, and never toadies any one.  He knows how to live easily with men of all ranks, without any appearance of claiming a special status for himself.’

Women: does that sound like a good balance to you? Comments welcome.

Actually, Phineas is more pragmatic than Violet imagines. Later, when Phineas has lost a great love, Trollope observes:

  • A man must live, even though his heart be broken, and living he must dine.

Trollope also summarises accurately some of the inequalities between the sexes, such as when Phineas tells Mary of his past lovers:

  • For women, such episodes in the lives of their lovers have an excitement which is almost pleasurable, whereas each man is anxious to hear his lady swear that until he appeared upon the scene her heart had been fancy free.

This reminds me of the far more tragic Tess of the D’Urbervilles, where the inequality of acceptance between a bridegroom’s account of his pre-marital flings and a parallel admission from the bride have ghastly consequences.

“Phineas Finn” on familes

As a father, I found this epigram on sons and fathers moving:

  • It is natural that the father should yearn for the son, while the son’s feeling for the father is of a very much weaker nature.

On decision-making

Indeed, Phineas Finn is full of wisdom of every kind. I liked this arch observation of the wealthy Madame Goesler, considering whether to wed the Duke of Omnium:

  • There is nothing in the world so difficult as that task of making up one’s mind.

On garden parties

Finally, as with Trollope’s brilliant observation on “The railway sandwich” in He Knew He Was Right, Trollope is always ready with splendid epigrams. Some of these are on strange things – as here, on the humble garden party:

  • Though of all parties a garden party is the nicest, everyone is always anxious to get out of the garden as quick as may be.

Is this still true? Discuss.

What to do next

If you’d like to explore more Trollope, check out the index here. Or if you’d like to try my own political efforts, take a look at my Berlin thriller Blood Summit or my Istanbul thriller Palladium. You might enjoy them both!

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