Friday, March 11, 2016

Phineas Redux by Anthony Trollope


I'm really trying to read only books from my own shelves, and I know in my head it would be so much faster if I read all the short books so that the unread number would be smaller. But sometimes, I just get a craving for a big fat Victorian triple-decker that will just totally absorb me. And that's when it's time for some Trollope. 

I originally picked Phineas Redux because the audio was available on audio download free from my library -- it's a three-week checkout, but seriously, in a city of a million people, who else besides me would want to read it? I wanted a good classic on audio for dog walking, and I figured I could stretch it out for awhile. Well, I got completely hooked on the story and zoomed through it in just a couple of weeks. I was so pleasantly surprised, because this book is just brilliant. I knew the Pallisers were supposed to be as great as the Barchester Chronicles, but of the four books I've read in the series, this one is by far my favorite. It has satire, romance, politics, intrigue, and lots of my favorite characters from previous novels in the series. 

I should back up a little. Phineas Finn, the eponymous Irish politician from the second Palliser novel, is back in London after several years out of public life. At the end of Phineas Finn, he left Parliament, went back to Ireland, and married his childhood sweetheart Mary. She tragically died shortly after their marriage, leaving him childless, and he is approached by some MPs to see if he wouldn't consider attempting to try for a seat in a  borough which could be won without much trouble or financial output. Phineas has a little money and no family left, so he has nothing to lose. 

Of course, he's thrown back into society with three of his old paramours -- Lady Viola, now happily married to Lord Chiltern; her sister-in-law, Lady Laura, who is separated from her husband, the cantankerous George Kennedy; and Madame Max Goesler, the rich widow who proposed to Phineas and offered to support his political aspirations. (Madame Goesler very nearly became a Duchess when the elderly Duke of Omnium proposed to her, but she turned him down, since she could very well have been the mother to the next Duke, thereby ousting the heir apparent, Plantagenet Palliser. She sensitively turned him down rather then incur the wrath of of her friend Lady Glencora, Palliser's wife). Following all this so far? This is just the setup!


At first, I thought this was a pretty standard Trollope. There are love triangles, and proposals, and broken engagements, plus the aforementioned political machinations. (There's also the reappearance of the devious Lady Eustace from The Eustace Diamonds, who has a small but pivotal role.  However, just about halfway through, there's a pretty significant plot twist, and what I thought was a minor quarrel turns into a murder, and much of the book is taken up with the trial and its aftermath.  Although I suspected it would all turn out alright in the end, it was still riveting.

One thing I really love about Trollope is how great his female characters are -- unlike Dickens, who tends to write females as either brainless ingenues or comic older women. In this book alone, there are no less than six strong females with fully realized characterization. Of course, most of them had already been introduced in the previous books, but the female characters are the heart and soul of his books. Lady Glencora, Madame Goesler, and even the detestable Lizzie Eustace are all worth reading about. I just love that about Trollope -- the women get just as much time in the books as the men, or nearly so. (I wish some graduate student would do a study about this!)

My only quibble with the novel is that I'm really starting to see an anti-Semitic bias in Trollope that makes me uncomfortable. There's a character who is painted as an absolute villain who is Jewish, and there are some pretty derogatory remarks made about him. Also, one character is terribly jealous of Madame Max Goesler, who is a foreigner, and there are a couple of nasty jabs from her rival as well. I remember a minor Jewish character from Rachel Ray that had some anti-Semitic remarks about him, but at the time I read it, I was unsure if Trollope was satirizing anti-Semites or was one himself. I'm starting to think it was Trollope. I understand this is just a reflection of the times, but still, it's disappointing because I love Trollope's books so much. Even Charles Dickens responded to public pressure about Fagin and wrote a much more sympathetic character in Our Mutual Friend.



I also wish I had read it a little closer to Phineas Finn -- it had been almost a year, and some of the details from the first book were a little fuzzy. I suppose chronologically it comes after The Eustace Diamonds, but I certainly don't want to wait an entire year to read the final two books in the series!

I'm counting this as my 19th Century Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge. I'm also thinking about reading more Trollope for the other Back to the Classics categories -- I do have some unread volumes of his short stories, and I also have a couple more Trollopes that might qualify for the Classic With a Place in the Title category.

Has anyone else read the Palliser novels? Which are your favorites? How's everyone else doing with the Back to the Classics Challenge? 

11 comments:

  1. I think the Phineas books are my favorite of the Palliser series. They're the ones I've read most often too. I like Phineas as the main character, and I love the supporting characters. I was very happy in this book to find that Violet's marriage did turn out well, because I worried about her. I love your point about the women in Trollope's books. I don't think I've read a single one without two or three strong female characters.

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    1. I was happy about Violet and Lady Glendora also, though it seemed like she spent an awful lot of time meddling in other people's lives. She would have made a brilliant politician.

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  2. I love AT and his books are just so solid and interesting. I start and then I am hooked and cannot put them down. Out of the Palliser novels I have to say that Phineus Redux is my favourite. Out of the Barchester novels, which really can be read separately, the Last Chronicle of Barset is simply riveting though Barchester Towers is perhaps the funniest and most enjoyable

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    1. I agree about Barchester, except I think The Warden really sets up the background for Barchester Towers (though BT is far superior. The Warden starts out pretty slow). My favorite Barchester novel is Doctor Thorne -- so excited to see the new Julian Fellowes adaptation in the works, I hope it will create a resurgence in popularity for Trollope!

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  3. I think Phineas Redux is my favourite, I read them in fairly quick succession though. I'm quite forgiving of any Jewish or homophobic traits in old books. When you consider that Benjamin Disraeli was a Victorian prime minister and obviously of Jewish descent it would seem that any prejudice didn't go too far - or maybe I'm just being optimistic.

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    1. I've heard the anti-Semitism persisted in the aristocracy a long time, even up to WWII. One of the Mitford sisters was married to a Fascist and I've heard Edward VIII was a Nazi sympathizer also. One of my favorite books from last year was Farthing by Jo Walton which re-imagined WWII as if the British had conceded and the Nazis were still fighting the Americans. The main character's husband is a Jew, it's pretty scary. Great book though.

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    2. Yes it's true, there were/are Fascist types amongst the upper classes, including Edward VIII, but I think most people thought they were beyond the pale. Diana Mitford's husband Oswald Moseley was despised by most people - as was she. I suppose there will always be nutters around!

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  4. The Palliser novels are definitely on my TBR horizon, right now I am reading Ralph the Heir by Anthony Trollope. There is a Facebook Trollope group that is reading it as a group read, which is fun since we get to share comments chapter by chapter.

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    1. That sounds so fun -- which Facebook group? I belong to a couple of different Trollope groups, I'd love to join in as I still have Ralph the Heir on the TBR shelves.

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  5. As soon as I am done with the Barsetshire novels, it's on to the Pallisers for me! This one does sound like it has everything to delight a Trollope fan, but I am sorry to hear about the emerging anti-Semitism. I am less forgiving of the prejudices favorite authors display and can admire them as authors yet still despise their positions.

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  6. I finished the Pallisers this year and decided that Can You Forgive Her and The Prime Minster tie for first place with me. Phineas Finn was my least favorite and Phineas Redux was in 5th place.

    Unfortunately Trollope is not unique in his antis-Semitism. What I don't know is if Trollope felt that way, or was it his characters. I think possibly both. I find anti-Semitism fairly common in English literature well into the mid-20th century. I think WWII might have woken up people's sensibility because there seems to be much less of it.

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