The fourth novel in Trollope's Palliser series, Phineas Redux stands on its own as a compelling work of political intrigue, personal crisis, and romantic jealousy. Phineas Finn lives quietly in Dublin, resigned to the fact that his political career is over and coming to terms with the death of his wife. He receives an unexpected invitation to return to Parliament, and jumps at the chance, whereupon old romances and rivalries are revived. When his adversary, Mr. Bonteen, is murdered, suspicion immediately falls on Finn, and his former friends and lovers seem only to add to his shame.
Having spent the past seven years in Ireland, Phineas Finn returns to his old life in London upon the death of his young wife. Recalling the drawing rooms of several well-to-do London women, which had sometimes been open exclusively to him, he is tempted by his old haunts and wonders, “Would the Countesses’ cards be showered upon him again?” (Ch 6) As it turns out, such frivolities are superceded by far more gripping concerns: like avoiding a trip to the gallows, for one. For another, he needs to come to grips with an internal struggle between his parliamentary ambitions and his ever-growing distaste for the chicaneries of politics: “’I don’t know which are the falser,’ he said to himself, ‘the mock courtesies or the mock indignations of statesmen.’” (Ch 78) But all is not gloom and doom for Trollope’s protagonist: wealthy women and exclusive invitations, indeed!
I am completely taken with Trollope’s female characters, and in this regard Phineas Redux more than satisfied. Lady Glencora, now Duchess of Omnium (and my favourite) is delightful as ever – lively, dignified, not too weighted down by decorum, and in-the-know as regards any “rattle” in society. We see much more here of Madame Marie Goesler, gifted with charm, brains, and fortune – but the greatest of these is fortune! Lizzie Eustace has changed not one iota: “Poor Lizzie Eustace! Was it nature or education which had made it impossible to her to tell the truth, when a lie came to her hand? Lizzie, the liar! Poor Lizzie!” (Ch 72) Admittedly, newcomer Adelaide Palliser, first cousin (though not of the moneyed variety) to the new Duke of Ominum, is completely underwhelming. But the others more than made up! And finally, Lady Laura Kennedy has become a pathetic figure, personifying the impossible position of women in the nineteenth century. Having now deserted her scornfully jealous husband, she is tragically aware of her reality:
“I have done wrong, and have shipwrecked every hope in this world. No woman was ever more severely punished. My life is a burden to me, and I may truly say that I look for no peace this side the grave … He now threatens me with publicity. He declares that unless I return to him he will put into some of the papers a statement of the whole case. Of course this would be very bad. To be obscure and untalked of is all the comfort that now remains to me … I have not answered him yet, nor have I shown his letter to Papa … but I almost fear to talk to Papa about it. He never urges me to go back, but I know that he wishes that I should do so. He has ideas about money …“ (Ch 65)
I remain delightfully enraptured in Trollope’s Palliser series. If I have a criticism of Phineas Redux it is that I occasionally found the political comings and goings difficult to follow (and, yes, I am aware that these are Trollope’s “Parliamentary Novels”). That said, I think I’ve made it pretty clear that the women characters are more than fair compensation! And Simon Vance is … well, Simon Vance.
His relationship with Lady Laura Kennedy is developed further. Separated from her husband, Laura has become increasingly isolated and, after Phineas returns, increasingly dependent on him. There's a sharp contrast to the first Phineas book, where Laura was his superior in status, political influence and self-possession. He confessed his love and she calmly let him down, but remained his friend. Now Laura is unable to contain her emotions and admits she loves Phineas. For the whole book, Phineas remains loyal to Laura, even when it costs him politically, but never returns her love. Laura's husband Mr. Kennedy also suffers in isolation. On one hand, Trollope shows the destruction caused by a marriage that, to Laura at least, was mostly mercenary. Laura's marriage is also a contrast to the happy outcome of a 'sensible' match such as the one between Lady Glencora and Plantagenet Palliser. Glencora's marriage was decided for her. She didn't love her husband, but he was a steady, ambitious, well-off politician. At one point, Glencora even wanted to leave him for another man, but they worked things out and their marriage was a success. The Kennedy marriage was arranged under similar circumstances, but it ruins both Kennedy and Laura.
Glencora and her husband are dealing with the Duke of Omnium, Palliser's uncle, who is near death. The thought of inheriting his uncle's title and vast wealth does not appeal to the stolid Palliser, who only wants to be Chancellor of the Exchequer. Glencora also tries to bring about the match between her friend, Madame Max Goesler and Phineas, much to Laura's chagrin. In politics, there's an intense debate over church disestablishment. Trollope's requisite love subplot is less interesting than some - Adelaide Palliser and the man she can't quite make up her mind to love and marry, Gerard Maule. Lizzie Eustace from the third Palliser novel shows up, unsurpringly unhappy in her second marriage. The main plot deals with Phineas being accused of the murder of a political rival.
Although this novel was written two centuries ago, the characters and situations could have been pulled from today's news headlines. Political divisions are as partisan as ever, and public perception is valued more than truth. Trollope's focus on character and social structure give his novels a timeless quality with continued appeal to new generations of readers. Highly recommended.
Alongside the main storyline are those of characters we’ve met in previous novels including Plantagenet Palliser, his wife Lady Glencora, and Lord and Lady Chiltern. And Adelaide Palliser, a distant cousin, weighs her marriage options.
Because it’s Trollope, everything works out for the best but not without some sadness along the way. The crime and courtroom drama was well done, albeit in a characteristic style that left no doubt about “whodunnit”. Trollope’s depiction of post-trial Phineas was realistic and touching. I really enjoyed this installment in the Palliser series and look forward to reading the next book soon.
Politics also seems to have gone round in circles. The Great Reform that was fought over so bitterly hasn't made elections very much fairer yet, and the hypocrisy of parliament is unchanged - in a blatant move to split the opposition, a minority Tory Prime Minister is promoting a measure that he and his party have always opposed, and which none of them believe in (plus ca change!). When a cabinet minister is brutally murdered, the police arrest an Irishman and an immigrant from Eastern Europe...
There's always something very comforting in pulling on a big, thick Victorian novel on a winter's day, and Trollope is about as warm and wooly as they come. But that's not to say that the world he writes about is idealised and comforting - he is quite happy to show us corruption, fraud, hypocrisy (religious and political), mental illness, inequality, greed and all the rest. Parliament, the Church and the Law are all fully open to be mocked and criticised for their weaknesses. Unlike most British writers of the time, he also has no hesitation about breaking the convention that marriages in fiction have to be happy, and he's not completely convinced that there's any sound basis for setting up society in such a way that men run things and women are there only to help and support them.
A detail - only one among many - that really struck me was the way Trollope lets Phineas suffer a kind of emotional collapse after what should (by normal narrative standards) have been his big moment of triumph - as soon as the intense stress he's been under is taken away, he goes into a period of depression in which he doesn't want to talk to anybody, to be seen in public, or make any kind of plans for his future. When you read it, you feel that this is the only possible way someone like Phineas could possibly have reacted, but you have to wonder whether any other novelist of the time would have allowed a male character to show that kind of weakness.
I just had to know!
The story begins a few years after ‘Phineas Finn’ and a few months after ‘The Eustace Diamonds’. I’ve seen suggestions that you could read the two Phineas novels back to back, but if you did that there are things that you might not appreciate in this book, because it picks up a few threads and a few characters from ‘The Eustace Diamonds’.
Phineas Finn is living in Dublin, alone, since his wife has died, and though he has a good job and a healthy income he is bored. He misses parliament, he misses his London life, and so, when he sees a chance to return, he decides to risk everything , hoping that he will be able to pick up the threads of his old life.
He’s still the same Phineas, as charming, as straightforward as ever, but time and experience has made his just a little jaded.
He finds that some things have changed and some things are still the same.
Madam Max had turned down a proposal from the Duke of Omnium; she had hoped to win Phineas, not knowing that he had already decided that his future lay with Mary Flood-Jones. She remained a good friend to the Duke, whose health was failing, and whose death would bring her a bequest that she was not prepared to accept. And she proved to be the best of friends to Phineas.
That death meant that Plantagenet Palliser was the new Duke of Omnium. Lady Glencora was in her element; I love that was so passionate about her causes, and her friendship with Madame Max is a delight. Her husband, on the other hand, was concerned that he would be ineligible to be chancellor of the exchequer again, and that he may not be able to see his work to reform the currency through to the end.
Lord Chilton and Violet Effingham had married and were happily settled. They had house-guests, and that set off a subplot – a love triangle that had echoes of one from an earlier book and yet was quite different. Trollope does see to have lots of variants on the love triangle, and I have to say that he does them very well. It was a little strange, moving from characters I knew so well to brand new characters, but I understood why they were there. One of the reasons was to keep the Chilterns in the story – as he still refused to have anything to do with politics – I loved that Lord Chiltern had grown from an angry young man into a comfortable curmudgeon, that Violet had found her niche as a wife and mother, and that the two of the understood each other so well.
Lady Laura Kennedy had fled to the continent, to escape her cold, unsympathetic husband. Her situation was dreadful, because, if she returned to England her husband could compel her return to him, as she had no grounds for divorce. The shift in her relationship with Phineas was interesting – in the first book he wanted more of her than she would give, and in this book that reversed. The arc of her story was inevitable and it was heart-breaking;
Of course Phineas became part of all of their lives again, and he regained his seat in parliament.
But it wasn’t all plain sailing. Robert Kennedy objected to Phineas visiting his wife, and it became horrible clear that he was beginning to lose his reason. And Mr Bonteen, his greatest political foe, and maybe the next chancellor of the exchequer, is determined that Phineas will be kept from high office.
The consequence of all of this is that Phineas must fight, first against a terrible slander, and then against a charge of murder.
There’s a great deal going on, and inevitably there are highs and lows. There’s quite a bit of politics to wade through at the beginning of the book, there are quiet spells between that great dramas, and it has to be said that Trollope is not a great crime writer.
But the two great dramas, and the human dramas that spin around them, are wonderful.
It works so well because – I think – Trollope was what my mother would call a people person.
He understood his characters, how their relationships worked, how life and events would change them.
He understood how their world worked; he may or may not of liked that, but he presented it, clear-sightedly, as it was.
He cared and he made me care; it’s as simple as that.