Yesterday, besides reading poetry out loud to my longsuffering family, I finished Phineas Finn, the second book in Anthony Trollope’s Palliser series. I am so delighted to have rediscovered Victorian novels: where three or four people constitute the cast, and the plot consists of them getting in and out of love with various suitable or unsuitable persons – especially in triangles or squares. And yet it takes 800 pages to sort them out, because they’re so scrupulous about honor, and propriety, and duty. And also lots of character actors: the aunt who must guard her niece, thus making everyone’s life miserable, because the niece doesn’t actually need to be guarded; the fathers who quarrel with their sons every other month, and nobody can make it up, even though there’s nothing there to quarrel about, because both sides are so proud and stiff.Trollope’s style of writing, and his complex characters, are fun enough. But then there’s the political part. Trollope apparently wished to enter Parliament, but never quite succeeded; so he always includes at least one characters whose whole goal in life is to get into Parliament, and make a good speech there. In this book, Phineas Finn is from Ireland, so there’s a slight discussion of the abuse of Irish tenants too.
Did you know that in England in the 1860s, you had to be worth 50 pounds a year to be able to vote? That some districts had only 2 or 3 hundred electors? That voting was open – no secret ballot? That if the Government proposed a measure in Parliament, and won by only a slight majority, they regarded themselves as shamefully defeated, and dissolved themselves? That the prime minister was still very ostensibly chosen by the queen, so whenever he was in difficulties (close to what we would call a vote of no-confidence today) he had to go down to the Palace and confer with her, and recommend her to choose his great rival in the other party as the prime minister? That there was no salary for members of parliament, so it was thought imprudent to run for office if you were not independently wealthy? That if you took a paying job in the government (eg, undersecretary for colonial affairs, in charge of deciding whether to run a railway line through Canada to the Rockies), you were obliged to vote the government position, even if it differed with your conscience?
Two of the political leaders in Phineas Finn are thus characterized: the Radical one wanted to do everything exactly in the style of the United States, and he was a staunch enemy of the Liberal man, who wanted to follow every revolutionary style of the Continent.
I don’t want to say much about the plot, because I’m in hopes that you all will also fall in love with Trollope, and want to read all of his books yourself. And they really are very suspenseful, although there are no spies, no bombs, and no murders to solve. So I wouldn’t want to ruin it by letting out who actually ends up marrying whom. (And don’t read any introductions, either – they always ruin the plot.)