Thursday 13 October 2011

An Irishman Abroad

Although I was definitely tempted, I decided earlier this year to put off rereading Anthony Trollope's Palliser Novels until next year, hoping to delay the pleasure for a little longer.  However, after my Rereading July project turned into a V-Lit comfort-reading fest, I ended up racing through Can You Forgive Her?, and it was only a matter of time before I slipped off the wagon again...

If you are going to break promises you make to yourself though, there's no better book to do it with than Phineas Finn, the second of Trollope's 'political novels', and arguably the most interesting.  In this book, the reader follows the eponymous hero of the novel as he emerges from obscurity in the Irish backwaters to follow his ambition - to enter the 'mother of all parliaments', the centre of power of the most powerful nation on Earth.

Young Phineas, armed only with his native wit, a pleasing appearance and a set of the finest whiskers a man could ever hope for, sets out to make his fortune in the great British metropolis, managing to succeed both politically and romantically, despite his humble origins and empty pockets.  However, parliament can be a cruel mistress, and there are no guarantees in politics, particularly for those without family and fortune to support them...

I love this book.  I absolutely love it (well, I don't love my Everyman version and its multitude of typos, but the novel itself, yes).  It is such a dazzling entry into the world of Victorian politics and society, a book which can be read on so many levels and for so many reasons.  I doubt there is a sub-genre of Literary Theory which wouldn't be interested in deconstructing Phineas Finn, from Post-Colonialism and Feminism to Marxism (Queer Theory might be a stretch, but there was definitely one 'gay' Irish bachelor with no conspicuous female attachment...).

Our loveable Irishman, all six feet of him, is not the deepest of characters, but that is not especially important as he is more the reader's ticket of entry to Westminster and Mayfair than a fully-functioning protagonist.  It is through Finn's eyes that we are privileged to enter The House of Commons and experience for ourselves the nerve centre of the largest Empire the world has ever seen; when he rises to make his maiden speech, we share his sense of terror and vertigo, and when he is unable to bring himself to make the effort, we feel the shame of his failure.  It is through his visits to the city homes of the landed gentry that we, 21st-century citizens of the world, are able to gain access to the lifestyle of the very rich and the very famous of mid-1860s Britain.  It's an exhilarating ride.

Another reason why Finn's relatively shallow, if pleasing, character is not an issue is that the novel is crammed full with more interesting ones, most of them women.  Apart from a childhood sweetheart back in Ireland, our dapper young politician has many female friends and lovers, and these young women are far from being one-dimensional love interests.  An area where Trollope is perhaps underrated is the length he goes to in creating believable female characters, women desperate to do something with their lives, but prevented from doing so by a traditional, patriarchal society which wanted nothing more than to pass its female citizens from the protection of their fathers straight into the arms of their (usually much older) husbands.

The three women Phineas becomes involved with in London, Lady Laura Standish, Violet Effingham and Madame (Marie) Max Goesler, are all independent women - with independent means -, and you would think that this would enable them to enjoy their place in life.  Sadly, this is far from being the case: each is forced to recognise that despite their wealth, they are nothing more than birds in a cage, albeit a large and roomy cage.  Without an appropriate partner by their sides, they are unable to make the most of their undoubted advantages, and the apparent freedom their money gives them is offset by the weight of the social pressure they must eventually bow to.  It is striking though that the one who comes to struggle financially is the one who will suffer most in her future affairs...

If you like Victorian literature (and especially if you have any interest in the machinations of politics), you will enjoy this book immensely.  This is one of those books where, if I had unlimited time and typing hours in my pain-riddled arms, I would come back again and again to look at the novel from a slightly different angle (I didn't even touch on the perils of independent thought in a party political system, or the parallels between the robotic, and slightly disturbed, Robert Kennedy and the later creation of Louis Trevelyan of He Knew He Was Right...).  Unfortunately (or perhaps for the best), this is all you're getting for today.

Still, there are four more Palliser novels to come, including a sequel featuring our loveable Irish friend.  Now that's definitely something to look forward to ;)