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Phineas Finn by Anthony Trollope

Phineas Finn, the second of the Palliser/Parliamentary novels repeats many of the virtues and vices of the first of the series, Can You Forgive Her, and Trollope in general. Many gems of observation, strong forward plot propulsion combined with a dreadful repetitiveness. Phineas Finn is a notch stronger than its prequel, helped structurally by having a more central protagonist. PF was written/published three years after CYFH (1867 v. 64) and the subtleties of political life and mid-century English governance are more nuanced.

This picaresque novel has the eponymous son of an Irish doctor making his way in Parliament. (The Pallisers are again side characters, with Lady Glendora if anything more important than Plantagenet Palliser.) Phineas is not particularly studious nor intellectually deep, but he is handsome and ambitious. The novel is a coming of age story of his ethics, politically and socially.

Politically he manages a roller coaster of fortune, hopping seats (with handy assists from too many deus ex machina) in the House of Commons. The machinations of party organization, scurrilous media, and electioneering all get fascinating scenes for the latter day political junkie.

The most engaging question for the reader is what the real motivations for the sacrifice(s) he makes in the end. Socially, the relationship with his father and father figures are more developed than other Trollope works, and the four women who are potential wives are sufficiently distinct from each other to be interesting. Phineas is willing to fight a duel over one, Violet Effingham. This is the central plot twist which despite the build and aftermath is itself recounted only briefly in the past tense. An interesting authorial choice. Trollope simply doesn’t like action scenes that are not hunting.

The biggest missed opportunity is greater depth into misery of Lady Laura, the first love of Phineas who chooses instead a miserable marriage. For all of her interest in politics, being trapped with a wealthy lord Robert Kennedy (foreshadowing?) she is left to make few impactful choices. A more introspective psychological novel (or subplot) would have been hard for Trollope to pound out 250 words every 15 minutes about.

Phineas’ final resolution, to choose a high-minded resignation from Parliament over Irish Tenant rights and an almost afterthought marriage proposal to the least interesting of the girls (dear sweet Mary, waiting for him all this time), must have been written with a sequel in mind. However, it would be six more years before Phineas Redux. This chronology of Trollope’s work has it being written only three years later, which makes more sense. A final word on Finn probably needs to wait for that work.

Meanwhile: Three Stars

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