The Return of the Man with the Magnificent Whiskers

While I quite enjoyed my month of women writers, it’s nice to get back to a less-restrictive reading pattern – especially nice when that entails a return from an old friend.  And when I say ‘old friend’, I’m not talking about Trollope himself (although he has kept me company for many a year now), but one of his many fictional creations, a certain Mr. Phineas Finn.  We first met the charming Irish politician in  Phineas Finn, the second of Trollope’s Palliser Novels, and Phineas Redux, the fourth of the set, returns our friend to London from his Dublin sabbatical.

After a couple of years away from Westminster, Finn’s misguided, but principled, betrayal of his party has long been forgotten, and a letter from an old colleague (along with a feeling of emptiness after his wife’s death) soon persuades Phineas to cross the sea and don his parliamentary armour once more.  In no time at all, the reader is back in the midst of Trollope’s usual scenes: crooked elections, breath-taking hunts and bitter, spiteful debates in the House of Commons.  It’s almost as if we were never away…

The more the novel unfolds, however, the more obvious the differences with the first book (what Trollope actually thought of as the first half of a single book) become.  In Phineas Finn, our friend is a young, innocent, indestructible character.  While he has his troubles, we never have any doubt that he will fall, cat-like, on his feet, usually with a thousand pounds a year and a new love interest to keep him going.

Phineas Redux though introduces a rather more mature Finn, a darker, more pessimistic man.  Where his first attempts to climb the political ladder were almost playful, now that he is keener than ever to make politics his profession, he sees that it is far from the noble pursuit he once thought it.   While the landed gentry, unburdened by the need to actually live off their parliamentary earnings, may be able to command respect, men like Finn, without fortunes of their own, are required to scramble for every crumb which may fall from the party leader’s table, sacrificing their dignity in the process

Another difference between the two books is that where Phineas was able to glide through this parliamentary life fairly comfortably during his first terms of office, his second attempt at politics runs a lot less smoothly.  Mr. Bonteen, a minor character in Phineas Finn who is foregrounded in this novel, becomes a major obstacle in our hero’s path, one whose spite causes Finn to be left out in the cold by his Liberal Party superiors.  Finn and Bonteen quickly become sworn enemies – until, that is, Bonteen is mysteriously removed from the picture…

The ‘redux’ of the title is Latin for ‘restored’ or ‘brought back’, and it is apt for many reasons.  Not only is our friend (and his moustache!) brought back for the reader’s delight, so too are many characters we have met in the first three of the Palliser novels.  This is one of the many joys of reading Trollope’s work – though he, like many Victorian writers, uses a number of minor plot strands, he is able to make these sub-plots more interesting by using old friends to paint in the minor details of the bigger picture.

Who needs to invent scores of new characters when you can bring back the likes of the Duke of Omnium, Madame Max Goesler and Lord Chiltern?  When the pivotal murder strand needs an alternative murderer, who better than to fulfil that role than a shady character we met in the previous novel?  Even where there’s a need for a new character, let’s just pluck a relative of the wonderfully sanguine Plantagenet Palliser from the aether to suit our purposes.  Comfort reading indeed 🙂

As is always the case with my reviews of the Palliser novels, there are several other ideas which would justify a post in their own right.  Just as Phineas Finn did, Phineas Redux once more examines the frustrations of middle-class women in Victorian England, bored to tears and prey for idle gentlemen when single, mere chattels of their husbands when married (especially if the marriage was more for the sake of convenience than love).  The character of Lady Laura Kennedy is an exceptional one, and a thorough retracing of her character over the course of the two books would show a complexity that many readers may think beyond Trollope.

There’s also the small matter of the double-edged sword of publicity and the fashionable world.  Phineas benefits greatly from his high-class connections and his position in parliament, but the flip side of this is the extra attention paid to him in his most difficult hours.  The crusade against him in the pages of The People’s Banner is eerily reminiscent of the way certain British tabloids consider it their duty to interfere with the lives of the rich and famous today…

Despite all these fascinating ideas though, the reader will always return to the man himself, our young Irish friend, a character whose early innocence and joy for life has been seriously tempered by the ordeals he has gone through.  By the time we reach the end of this chapter of his story, we fully understand why he makes the decision he does.  No longer is he as happy a man as he was when he first set foot in London; in return though, he has acquired a much greater maturity and depth of character, traits which will stand him in good stead in later years when he eventually returns to the parliamentary fray – which he will, as a minor character, in the final two novels in the series.

Don’t worry – next time I’m in the Palliser world (in the not-too-distant future…), I’ll be sure to give him your regards…


12 thoughts on “The Return of the Man with the Magnificent Whiskers

  1. I haven't read any writers from this period for quite a while, although posts like this remind me of of such literature, not sure if I'll will get round to re-reading them, time/other books etc. If it wasn't so dire & seedy, it would be quite funny to realise the tabloids have always behaved that way.


  2. Since I love to overthrow rules and contradict myself, after having left a comment on Emma's blog how I wasn't going to read Trollope any day soon, I got The Warden. Maybe, after all, I will read Trollope before Hardy.
    Not a Palliser novel, if I understood correctly but hopefully a good starting point.


  3. Gary – Apparently I'm very prophetic – this post was written well before the latest scandals with 'The Sun'! It just goes to show that Trollope's writing is always topical 😉

    Guy – Which would be 'Phineas Finn' I assume – you're in for a treat 🙂

    Caroline – No, 'The Warden' isn't a Palliser novel, but it is the first book (of six!) in another, arguably more famous, series, The Chronicles of Barset. That's why Trollope is so addictive – two series run to twelve books (and by that time you're hooked!).


  4. No, and I'm not sure if I want to. Half of me likes the idea, but the other half doesn't want some casting bloke's choices to colour my visions of Trollope's world…


  5. I loved this book and agree with you that it's a great illustration of the emotional depth Trollope is capable of. I thought the bleak portrayal the Kennedy's marriage was exquisitely done.

    I'm actually reading Framley Parsonage at the moment – ideal comfort reading for winter evenings.


  6. I know what you mean. I have the collection and I've been thinking about beginning it at an appropriate time (when I can watch a fair portion of it over a few days).

    If I do, I'll let you know.


  7. Angie – I'm finding that this is a great period of Trollope's writing. The Barchester novels are, of course, wonderfully entertaining, but the later Palliser books, along with 'The Way We Live Now' and 'He Knew He Was Right' are superb.

    I do like 'Framley Parsonage' though 🙂

    Guy – I'm very tempted to scour the net later to see if any downloads have slipped under the Beeb's radar 😉

    Stu – I'd love to have a matching set – one day… And yes, you definitely should give them a go, perhaps one every month/two months 🙂


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