Phineas Finn by Anthony Trollope

Phineas Finn The second of Trollope’s Palliser novels introduces us to Phineas Finn, a young Irishman who is elected to parliament at the age of twenty-five.

After supporting Phineas while he studied in London, his father, a country doctor, expects him to return home to Ireland to practise law there and to marry his childhood sweetheart, Mary Flood Jones. Phineas, though, has other ambitions and decides to stand for parliament. Unfortunately, members of parliament receive no payment for their work so when Phineas, against all expectations, is elected, he finds that he must persuade his father to support him for a while longer. Doctor Finn reluctantly agrees, but other friends – such as Phineas’s mentor, the barrister Mr Low – are quick to express their disapproval:

“Phineas, my dear fellow, as far as I have as yet been able to see the world, men don’t begin either very good or very bad. They have generally good aspirations with infirm purposes;—or, as we may say, strong bodies with weak legs to carry them…In nine cases out of ten it is some one small unfortunate event that puts a man astray at first. He sees some woman and loses himself with her — or he is taken to a racecourse and unluckily wins money — or some devil in the shape of a friend lures him to tobacco and brandy. Your temptation has come in the shape of this accursed seat in Parliament.”

Young, idealistic and enthusiastic about his new responsibilities, Phineas sets off for London where as well as finding his way in the corrupt and complex world of politics he also finds himself involved in romantic entanglements with three very different women.

Lady Laura Standish is the daughter of Phineas’s patron, the Earl of Brentford, and the first woman with whom he falls in love after leaving Ireland. Early in the novel, Laura turns down Phineas and marries another politician, Mr Kennedy, for all the wrong reasons. It’s not long before she realises her mistake and begins to desperately search for a way out of her unhappy marriage. Phineas then turns his attentions to Laura’s friend, Violet Effingham, an heiress who seems likely to marry Lord Chiltern, Laura’s brother. A friendship develops between Phineas and Chiltern, but soon they find themselves rivals for Violet’s love. And finally, there’s Madame Max Goesler, a rich and independent widow with a hint of scandal in her past.

Will Phineas marry one of these women or will he decide that his heart belongs in Killaloe with Mary Flood Jones after all? And will Phineas’s political career lead to success or will Dr Finn and Mr Low be proved right in the end?

I’m really enjoying the Palliser series so far, although I think the Barsetshire novels will always hold a special place in my heart through being my first introduction to Trollope. I think I liked the first Palliser novel, Can You Forgive Her?, a little bit more than this one, simply because there is more focus on politics in this book. I could follow some of it – I can remember a school history lesson dealing with the Reform Bill, the ballot and the ‘rotten boroughs’, things which are covered in a lot of detail in this book – but I have to confess to having very little interest in all the speeches, votes and debates that Trollope devotes so much time to.

Luckily, even while finding the politics boring I could still love the rest of the novel and as usual with Trollope I was pulled into the lives of the characters and the dilemmas in which they find themselves. Phineas, of course, is our hero and like most of Trollope’s ‘heroes’ is not always particularly heroic, but this is what makes him such an appealing character. I felt that things were falling into place for him too easily and success was coming too quickly before he really had time to grow into his new life and career, but although he does make mistakes, he learns from them and we can be confident that he’ll try to do the right thing in the end.

But the characters who interested me most were the women in Phineas’s life – Lady Laura, Violet Effingham and Madame Max Goesler. All three are portrayed as intelligent, complex people and I felt that Trollope truly understood and sympathised with the situations they found themselves in and the options that were open to them.

This wasn’t one of my favourite Trollope novels but I loved the characters and am already looking forward to meeting some of them again later in Phineas Redux – after I’ve read the third book in the series, The Eustace Diamonds.

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17 thoughts on “Phineas Finn by Anthony Trollope

  1. beckylindroos says:

    I started in on the Trollope novels a long time ago and I don’t know what happened. I remember enjoying what I read but I guess life (and other books) got in the way? Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Karen K. says:

    I loved Can You Forgive Her? and I’m really looking forward to Phineas Finn. I’ve read a couple of chapters recently but got distracted by Ayala’s Angel which I loved — my mother was reading it and I thought it would be so fun for us to read the same book by Trollope, which it was! I do want to get back to the Pallisers, probably after the new year.

    I like what you wrote about the women in Phineas’ life — one thing I love about Trollope is how interesting his female characters are, so much more than Dickens’ women, who are usually evil, comic relief, or annoying ingenues. I get the impression that Trollope had much healthier relationships with women than Dickens!

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad to hear you loved Ayala’s Angel. I haven’t tried any of the stand-alone novels yet and will probably leave them now until I’ve finished the Pallisers. And yes, Trollope’s women are great. I don’t think creating interesting female characters was one of Dickens’ strong points!

  3. Lark says:

    It’s my goal to finally read an Anthony Trollope book next year. They all sound so good; every time I read a review of one of his books I realize how much I’m missing out by not reading him, too. I even picked up a cheap copy of Can You Forgive Her? But I might start with the first of his Barsetshire novels. Still deciding. 🙂 Thanks for the review.

    • Helen says:

      I started with The Warden, the first of the Barsetshire novels and it was the right choice for me – it’s not one of his best books but it’s shorter than most of his others and will give you a good idea of what his writing style is like. Can You Forgive Her? is a great book too, though!

    • Helen says:

      I struggled with the politics but luckily the rest of the story was enjoyable enough for that not to be a problem. I can’t wait to find out what happens in Phineas Redux.

  4. Lisa says:

    Each time I read this I find the politics very confusing at the start, and then I sort of get acclimated – and I stop worrying about keeping all the details straight. Phineas is one of my favorite characters, and I love his story – the sequel a little better than this one, but they’re both wonderful. And I agree about Trollope’s women characters! Madame Max is also a favorite, and Violet (I’m so glad her story turns out happily).

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