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Classics Review: Phineas Redux by Anthony Trollope, #4 in the Palliser series

Reading Anthony Trollope’s Palliser series is a long-term project. I  began the first book, Can You Forgive Her?, about a year ago, and I find, for the most part, I like each novel more than the previous one. Perhaps familiarity has something to do with it: you tend to care about people more as you get to know them better, and what people can you ever know better than those that populate a hefty well-crafted Victorian novel?

Phineas ReduxI was a bit hesitant to embark on Phineas Redux within mere days of finishing The Eustace Diamonds. I remembered that my feeling about Phineas Finn, the second novel in the series, were on the lukewarm side. Not that the book was not good enough to stick with it. Anything by Trollope is well worth the effort. But, I thought, am I really ready to read another long book about the same shallow fortune-hunting protagonist? So much Parliament –the bills, the speeches – and so much fox-hunting. Parliament and fox hunts are difficult for me to relate to especially when it is already a stretch to relate to these Victorian aristocrats.

Our world seems to be spinning further and further away from that quaint society with its ways and manners. (I often wonder if it is noticeably more difficult for the younger generation – millennials they call them – to relate to 19th century literature. But that’s another article….) Ultimately part of the charm of reading Trollope is that it becomes so apparent that even with the distance of years and leap of technology, Victorian aristocrats turn out to be more like me than not. Trollope was writing about the exact same species of creature that I interact with every day. I realize just how superficial an overlay technology really is. What counts is our common humanity.

I need not have hesitated for a moment to read Phineas Redux, fox-hunting and Parliament notwithstanding. As the story begins, few years have passed and Phineas is older and wiser. At the end of Phineas Finn our hero who had made a success for himself in the government makes the decision to leave the high-society life, turning down the opportunity to marry the wealthy and beautiful widow, Madame Max Goesler; instead he goes home to Ireland to marry his hometown sweetheart and practice his trade as a small town barrister. In Phineas Redux we find that his young wife has died in the first year of their marriage trying to give birth to her first child.  When some of his old friends in high places call on him to stand again for Parliament Phineas risks his small life savings to return to life among the rich and famous. Lucky Phineas wins a seat as member for Tankerville because his opponent is called out for voter fraud, but his reappearance on the scene rekindles a few flames in some of the broken hearts he left in his wake. Trouble ensues.

Upon returning to London, Phineas innocently accepts a few invitations from old friends, one of whom is Lady Laura Kennedy, a woman who has made the scandalous decision to separate from her tyrannical husband. Lady Laura is not happy. She is living the life of an outcast in Dresden with her old father. Out of pure sympathy and friendship, Phineas offers to comfort and help her in any way he can. However pure friendship between a man and a scandalized woman is not well understood in this particular society, especially when Quintus Slide, the hostile editor of the newspaper “People’s Banner” makes it his mission in life to spread malicious rumors. Then the spurned husband, Robert Kennedy, a religious fanatic on the edge of madness, attempts to shoot Phineas in the head.  All the bad press makes it unlikely Phineas is going to get a paying job in the cabinet, something his desperately needs to stay in Parliament.

Just when you think it can’t get worse for poor Phineas, it gets worse. Phineas is put through the trial of his life, one that strips all the gloss off his life and enables him to clearly discern hypocrites from true friends. Among his true friends is the woman he rejected in the past, Madame Max Goesler, a character we get to know better in this novel. I liked her a lot and also enjoyed the reappearance of Glencora and Plantagenet Palliser. There is also a fun sub-plot involving the romance of a distant Palliser cousin, the stubborn Adelaide Palliser, her clueless ne’er-do-well lover Gerard Maule, and her hapless suitor, Mr. Spooner.  Oswald and Violet Chiltern round out Phineas’ small group of friends, providing both comedy and backbone to the events of the story.

The thing I liked most about this book is how Phineas is changed by the experience, how, no longer dazzled by the glamour of high political society, he is able to see the world as it really is. If I had not done so before, I now number Trollope among my collection of the wisest authors, those who view the world  sub specie aeternitatis, a term I learned from reading Albert Jay Nock. It means seeing things from an eternal perspective.

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Note 1: I listened to the fabulous unabridged audio edition of Phineas Redux, narrated by Simon Vance. The novel was first published in 1873 in serial form in a publication called The Graphic.

Note 2: Anthony Trollope’s Palliser series consists of six loosely-related novels:

  • Can You Forgive Her?
  • Phineas Finn
  • The Eustace Diamonds
  • Phineas Redux
  • The Prime Minister
  • The Duke’s Children
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