The property of manliness in a man is a great possession, but perhaps there is none that is less understood… (Ch. 68)
Phineas Finn possesses the ideal characteristics of a gentleman – discretion, integrity, courage, good looks, wit but not too much wit, smarts but not etc., (the list of Finn’s virtues could go on and on), and most importantly a willingness to work. The Trollopian gentleman has a purpose; the exact value of his purpose may not matter much. Finn’s chosen work, in politics and government, is a tough road without money, and then is some discussion in Phineas Finn about whether he is too hasty – perhaps he should work for decades as a lawyer and then run for office – but the author seems to be on Finn’s side. Give it a shot. The perfect gentleman knows how to take risks.
It is the idlers who disgust Trollope, author, over the course of thirty-five years, of seventy or so books.
What I want to get at is what Trollope does with the ideal he has established. He crushes it. He accuses his gentleman of murder and puts him on trial and in the newspapers. A few friends believe he is innocent, more say he is innocent, others deal with their conscience in different ways. Trollope allows Finn to be almost strong enough for his ordeal:
He had become almost numb from the weariness of his position and the agonising strain upon his mind. The gaoler had offered him a seat from day to day, but he had always refused it, preferring to lean upon the rail and gaze upon the Court [Finn stands during his entire trial!]. He had almost ceased to hope for anything except the end of it. He had lost count of the days, and had begun to feel that the trial was an eternity of torture in itself. At nights he could not sleep, but during the Sunday, after Mass, he had slept all day. Then it had begun again, and when the Tuesday came he hardly knew how long it had been since that vacant Sunday. (Ch. 64)
It is this delay in the trial, entirely because of evidence in his favor, that knocks the strength out of him. Once acquitted, he falls into a state that looks suspiciously like clinical depression. He recovers through the continued and thoughtful assistance of his friends. Trollope is redoing Reverend Crawley’s humiliations in The Last Chronicle of Barset, but with a character who is a gentleman, not a saint. A different set of virtues. They are saved in the same way, too, socially.
Almost all novels are social in the sense I mean here, but Trollope’s are moreso, and the Palliser novels even more than that. There is a thought that could use some development. Maybe with the next novel. Thus the repeated, perhaps even repetitive gossip passages, or the characters who function as a chorus. Trollope’s social intricacies are closer to Proust’s than Balzac’s.
It is quite interesting to see Trollope but his creation in prison and break his spirit while the world watches. Not what I was expecting from the novel.
I could have written a similar piece about one of the women in the novel, who in a parallel plot is similarly crushed, not by prison but by her bad marriage, and since she does not have the social support enjoyed by Finn, and is not the character in the title, she will have a harder time recovering. She suffers more for her mistakes than does Finn. Her story, the novels B plot, may even be a little more interesting. Her story was also a surprise. It is, oddly, a bit like Gwendolen Harleth’s story in Daniel Deronda, published two years later. Maybe Eliot stole it from Trollope. Ha ha ha! If she did, it was fair game.
Everything else I might say about the novel is an incidental point – e.g., look, it is the return of the dirty, clever defense attorney Chaffanbrass, who I last saw in Orley Farm! – but I think I will retire Phineas Redux.