Tag Archives: Phineas Redux

Book Corner – October 2019 (5)

The Claverings – Anthony Trollope

The nights are drawing in and it is time to curl up with another Trollope. The Claverings, written in 1864 but not serialised in the Cornhill Magazine until 1866 and published in book form until a year later, could rightly be described as one of Trollope’s unappreciated gems. The author was rather pleased with it, noting in his Autobiography that it was well-written, with both humour and pathos. The problem, though, as he noted, was “I am not aware that the public has ever corroborated that verdict. I doubt now whether anyone reads The Claverings”, he sniffed.     

Well, if very few read it then, matey, these days it has pretty much fallen off the radar screen. If anyone reads Trollope nowadays it is probably going to be the Barchester series or the Pallisters or The Way We Live Now, which is a shame. The Claverings is classic Trollope and a perfect introduction to his world and style.

Yes, it is a tad long-winded – what Victorian novel, especially one written for serialisation, isn’t? – but has a pace about it and an engaging enough story to keep the reader interested. It is almost as perfect a novel as you can imagine, not a thread left undone, every loose end tied up. Trollope playfully cross-references the Barsetshire series, Bishop Proudie forbidding Henry Clavering, the rector, from fox hunting. So, why did it never find much favour with the reading public?

Part of the trouble, I think, lies in the fact that the lead characters are a tad ordinary with all the human failings of the common man. As the narrator of the story says, “men as I see them are not often heroic”. The plot revolves around a love triangle. The story opens with Julia Brabazon rejects the marriage proposal of Harry Clavering, a man she loves but who has very modest prospects, in favour of hooking up with the loathsome, dissolute but rich, Lord Ongar. In answer to the obvious Mrs Merton question, Julia “had no reliance on her own power of living on a potato, with one new dress every year”.       

The marriage was an ordeal but Lord Ongar quickly succumbed to the strains imposed on his body by his dissolute lifestyle. Meanwhile Harry has plighted his troth to Florence Burton, the daughter of his boss. When Julia reappears on the scene, what should Harry do, return to his first love or remain faithful to his vow of marriage? Cue much soul-searching and wringing of hands as all three protagonists try and work their way through this moral Gaudian knot.      

It takes an intervention of Neptune as an improbable and extremely convenient deus ex machina to resolve the dilemma. The accident, telegraphed well before it occurs, suggests that Trollope was grappling for a way out for his story and many might see it as a structural weakness which detracts from the reader’s enjoyment of the book. I find with many a Victorian novel you need to suspend credulity when considering the plot. Whether you consider the device to be a cop out or not, it does free the main characters from their torment.

I thought Trollope treated the moral anguish of the characters with sympathy and gave the reader an insight into their psychologies. On a more superficial level, the book is full of humour, social insight and pathos. Along the way we meet some wonderful characters including a supposed Russian spy, the sporting and devious Captain Boodle, who I’m sure gets a namecheck in Phineas Redux, a belligerent cleric, Dr Saul, the brothers Clavering, Sir Hugh of the hard heart and Archie, the feckless one, a sleazy foreign Count and many more.

I enjoyed the book and as a book that stands alone as opposed to being one of a series and being of moderate length (by the standards of the day) it is a good introduction to the author.

Book Corner – May 2019 (3)

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.