Phineas Redux – Anthony Trollope
At the risk of being accused of going all Julian Clary-like, there is nothing better in the long winter evenings than settling down with a Trollope. I’m working my way through the Palliser Series, of which Phineas Redux, published as a book in 1874 after being serialised in The Graphic, is the fourth of six and the sequel to the second of the series, Phineas Finn. Reading Trollope is no light undertaking, this book running to 80 chapters and a tad less than 700 pages. Thankfully, I read it as an ebook, otherwise I would have had a limp wrist.
One of the characteristics that marks out a classic is its universality, allowing the reader, however removed by time from the author, can find themes and topics which speak to them. In a time when the British parliamentary system is creaking at the seams, Phineas Redux resonates loud and clear. The Prime Minister introduces a controversial bill into Parliament, no not withdrawal from the EU but the disestablishment of the Church of England, which his own party is against and for which he has no majority. His motion, which is turned down by a thumping majority, leads to his resignation and the opposition, who intuitively support the motion, assuming power. It wouldn’t happen today, would it? Trollope’s narrative is a masterpiece on the venality and hypocrisy of politics and stands the test of time.
Another major theme running through the book relates to the deficiencies and inefficiencies of the English legal system, highlighted by the trial of Phineas Finn, the hero of the tale, for the murder of fellow parliamentarian, Mr Bonteen. Finn is on trial for his life and much of the evidence brought against him is circumstantial at best. His eventual triumph is more to do with the determination of his female friends to prove his innocence than the wheels of justice. Finn emerges from the horrors of the trial a changed man and turns down the political office he was desperate to secure in the early part of the book. The book is really the story of his transformation from a shallow careerist, dazzled by the glamour of society and the cut and thrust of politics to one who sees the world as it really is,
To the modern reader, what is astonishing is how reliant Finn is upon his female friends and admirers. They implicitly believe in his innocence and between Madame Max Goesler and Lady Glencora Palliser, she becomes the new Duchess of Omnium during the course of the book, his defence is constructed. There is love interest too. Lady Laura Kennedy has the hots for Finn but is trapped in a loveless marriage with a husband whom, I think unfairly, is described as mad. He probably had just cause to feel aggrieved as his wife upped and left him but, anyway, he conveniently dies leaving Laura on the market.
Madame Max Goesler also has eyes on Finn and she has the advantage of being unencumbered with the need to spend the appropriate period of time mourning a dead husband and having pots of money. In a moment akin to the famous Mrs Merton/Debbie McGee exchange, the near-penniless Finn throws up his ministerial career to marry Goesler. Apart from her millions, what did he see in her?
There are some fine comedic episodes, not least the on-off love affair involving Adelaid Palliser and her ne’er do well lover, Gerard Maule, and Mr Spooner. One of the book’s leitmotifs is the dispute between Lord Chiltern and the Duke of Omnium over foxes which is funnier than it might seem, there is a lot of fox hunting in the book. I also enjoyed Mr Quintus Slide who represents all that is bad in journalism and who has a major role to play in Finn’s downfall.
In summary, I found the book an enjoyable read, a good story with a few twists and turns and one which deals with themes that resonate to this day.