I fell in love with Can You Forgive Her, my first Trollope and my first Palliser novel, and when I had to leave that book behind I knew that if wouldn’t be too long before I stepped back into Trollope’s world with the next novel in this particular sequence. The fact that this was the novel where politics came to the fore worried me a little, but it wasn’t a problem; I was pulled right into the human story by the same storyteller I had come to love as I read that first book.
Phineas Finn himself was a charming, handsome, and eminently personable young Irishman. His parents had supported him when he moved to London to study to become a barrister. When he qualified his father, a country doctor, hoped that he would come home, that he would practice his profession, establish his own home, marry his childhood sweetheart, raise a family …. but Phineas had other ideas. He had an interest in politics, and a friends had suggested that he could become a member of parliament. Because in the days before parliamentary reform all that you needed were the needs of friends in high places who could offer a pocket borough.
There was one major drawback: he would be paid nothing as a member of parliament. But Phineas persuaded his father to support him for just a little longer, until he established himself and could either begin to practice the law or secure a lucrative government post. Doctor Finn gave way, because his wife and daughters were so thrilled at the prospect of what Phineas might achieve, and so, secretly, was he.
Success came easily to Phineas, thanks to his good locks his charm, and his straightforward, open and honest character. But he often ran into trouble, because it took him a long time to learn that the motivations of others were not so simple.
Lady Laura Standish was Phineas’ first mentor, and he fancied himself in love with her; she though chose to marry for the things that she thought she needed; money, influence, and social standing in the shape of Mr Robert Kennedy. But she was to learn that those were the wrong reasons, that she had married man who could had to rule everything and would brook no arguments. It was heart-breaking to watch the marriage fail, and to understand the terrible consequences that had for an intelligent and compassionate woman.
Violet Effingham; a lovely young heiress rich enough to remain single and independent if she wishes it, though that would come at quite a social cost. She was Laura’s closest friend and there was an understanding between her Laura’s brother, Lord Chiltern, but Violet was having doubts. Because he was short-tempered, thoughtless, and not inclined to see her point of view.
She was drawn to Phineas and he was drawn to her; but that upset her friend, her friend’s brother and her friend’s brother; and that was unfortunate, because it was his pocket borough that gave Phineas his seat in parliament ….
Trollope clearly understood with Violets reluctance to marry, and Laura’s regret that she did marry, and he draws both of them, and the friendship between them quite beautifully. I drew parallels with the two friends, one linked romantically with the other’s brother scenario in this book and the one in ‘Can You Forgive Her’. There were some similarities but there were far more differences, and I thought that the characters and relationships in this book were rather more subtly drawn.
I found the continuing friendship between Laura and Violet especially engaging.
While all of this was going on Phineas was finding that his conscience and his party’s politics or his sponsor’s interests were often at odds, and that the political world was very tricky indeed.
Trollope deploys all of his characters well, and there are plenty of events and incidents along the way to keep things interesting. I’ve pulled out a few strands, but in the book they are interwoven, and everything works together beautifully.
And then – when the story was simmering nicely, but I was wondering how it was going to fill such a big book – another intriguing woman character made her entrance. Madame Max Goesler was young widow, with a rather dubious past, but with more that enough money to assure her a place in society. In the hands of some authors she would have been a stereotype, but Trollope made her a wonderfully real woman; the was independent, was bright and she understood people very well indeed.
Drawing parallel’s with ‘Can You Forgive Her’ again, I could compare Madame Max’s role in this book with the role of the widow in that first book. And again the second book wins, with a story arc that is gentler and sits more naturally in the book as a whole.
I must come back to Phineas Finn though, because his story is the thread that holds the story together. Trollope does a wonderful job of having Phineas learn and grow as the story progresses, without losing any of the things that made him such an appealing character when the story began.
The story plays out beautifully.
I’ve already moved on to ‘The Eustace Diamonds’ and I’ m looking forward to picking up Phineas’s story again in ‘Phineas Redux’ ….