Tuesday, August 5, 2014

In France I read Phineas Finn

Since I went to Europe, I read a Trollope novel.  No, there is no logic there, but it has become a pattern.  Phineas Finn (1867-8), the second book in the Palliser series, was the novel I took this time.  The book is well suited to reading in interrupted chunks, a chapter or a serialized cluster of chapters at one sitting.  I can take advantage of Trollope’s repetitions, which in mass can be maddening, but with some distance I don’t mind the gentle reminders – where was that character’s last scene, how did we leave that subplot?

Trollope is always careful about the passage of time in his novels, keeping all of the characters and threads consistent, which I suspect I find psychologically helpful.  It is easier to put the book down for the day when I come to a “time passes” transition.  Let some actual time can pass along with the fictional.  And more time passes in Phineas Finn than in any other Trollope novel I have encountered.  A Barchester novel might cover five months; Phineas Finn needs five years.  So there are plenty of breaks.

The title character is young, smart, and handsome.  He falls in with a powerful set who assist him, with the help of a lucky accident, to become a Member of Parliament at age twenty-five.  Finn has talent but little money, and this is a time when the MPs had no salary, so a central surface theme of the book is how a successful career in politics can be pursued without money.  In reality, the main theme is how such a career can work for a young man without sex.  The bulk of the book is about Finn’s romantic troubles: who should he marry, who can he marry?  Some of those women have their own money, tying the two ideas together.

I am joking, just a bit, but this story could not work in a French novel.  M. Finn would have an affair with his maid or the wife of the Minister under whom he serves, and thus carry on his political work without distraction.  The Irish Finn, who has no other outlet, falls deeply in love with, it seems, every young woman he meets.

My guess is that 70% of the book is about Finn and women, 30% about politics and vocation.  Many readers likely find that ratio to be unbalanced, with much too much detail about the minutiae of offices, political intrigues, and colonial policy towards western Canada.  I would not have minded a shift the other way, with a little less romantic stuff.

Somewhere – if I  could only remember where – I read an anecdote about Trollope coming to breakfast – he wrote every day before breakfast – and announcing that he had just written his fiftieth – or more likely his five hundredth – proposal scene.  Phineas Finn by itself has at least eight (8) proposal scenes involving a total of two men and four women.  Five of the proposals involve Finn.  The other three are all between the same couple, the man proposing to the same woman repeatedly.  One of the proposals comes after she has accepted him.  That is a lot of proposal scenes, although I guess I exaggerated when I said there were five hundred.  Fifty novels, eight proposals per novel, so that’s four hundred tops.


  1. I do hope you'll mention his whiskers - Finn's manliness is the key to the novel ;)

  2. I seem to have missed the key! I would need to see the argument. By my count, Finn ranks no higher than third in the Young Beard competition. He has "bright blue eyes, and brown wavy hair, and light silken beard" (Ch. 6), where the non-entity Lord Fawn has "an unrivalled pair of whiskers" (Ch. 41) and of course Lord Chiltern has "an abundance of very red beard" (Ch. 4) which has "none of the softness of waving hair" (Ch. 11).

  3. I have this one somewhere, being drawn by the Irish lead character. Maybe if someone buys me a holiday in France I could take it with me???

  4. The sequel Phineas Redux is really quite good.

  5. Ma femme has recently finished all the Barchester novels and begun to collect various editions of the Palliser books, but she hasn't started the series yet. I always enjoy the passages she reads to me. I assume she'll be annoyed at the frequency Mr Finn falls in love; there's always at least one character in whatever Trollope she reads that she'd like to give a good shake.

  6. The Irish element gives the novel a flavor I had not tasted in Trollope before, although I know there are some earlier novels set in Ireland.

    The existence of Phineas Redux subtly changes the ending of Phineas Finn contemporary readers had no reason to think they were not saying farewell to Phineas, but I knew he would be back. I look forward to it. He is only 30 when this novel ends - of course he comes back.

    Phineas Finn is occasionally given a good shake, metaphorically at least, sometimes more literally, so I doubt any extra shaking would do much good.