Phineas Finn by Anthony Trollope.
Phineas Finn: The Irish Member is the second novel in Anthony Trollope's Palliser series (following Can You Forgive Her?, 1864 - 1865) and was first published in 1869 having been serialised in St Paul's Magazine (October 1867 to May 1868). It is not notoriously difficult and yet I've struggled for over a year to read it. I read Can You Forgive Her? in March '15 and made the fatal error of deciding to put off Phineas Finn for a little bit, despite being eager to read it almost immediately, thinking it was a little too soon. After that I could never get into it (for this reason, now having finished Phineas Finn, I'm planning on reading the third of the series, The Eustace Diamonds, for Saturday's readathon, that I think I will like).
And so, this being the third or fourth attempt, I did finally finish Phineas Finn, and no, I never got into it. I did try - sometimes one does have to try with Trollope, I find some of his novels very hard to crack into (sometimes it can take over a hundred pages, then suddenly boom! I'm in) but this is for me one of those tiring novels that kept me just on the very edge of enjoying it, not quite reaching the comfortable phase but ever feeling like it was coming up. My attention did wane at times, and I read it almost resentfully, thinking all the way through, "Come on, start!", but as I reached about page 450 (of around 700) it had sadly become clear that the novel had well and truly started, and this was it. Why, for what reason, I do not know - it's exactly the kind of novel I ought to like. The hero, Phineas Finn, is a very handsome young Irishman studying law, but when Barrington Erle (a friend of the Finn's) suggests he stands for parliament in the coming election he does so and wins becoming Whig MP for Loughshane (a small borough). In Phineas Finn we see his rise (despite a poor maiden speech in parliament he eventually becomes at Junior Minister at the Treasury). Meanwhile we follow his very complicated love life, in which he seems to flit about from woman to woman like a bee flits from flower to flower. First, Mary Flood Jones, his childhood sweetheart in Ireland who waits for him patiently. Whilst she waits, we next encounter Lady Laura Standish, one of the great female characters in Trollope's novels (and there are many greats). She has a great interest in politics but the political sway she so desires is of course limited. Trollope writes,
It was her ambition to be brought as near to political action as was possible for a woman without surrendering any of the privileges of feminine inaction. That women should even wish to have votes at parliamentary elections was to her abominable, and the cause of the Rights of Women generally was odious to her; but, nevertheless, for herself, she delighted in hoping that she too might be useful,—in thinking that she too was perhaps, in some degree, politically powerful...
It's not s surprise to me that Lady Laura does not support 'Votes for Women', though it may appear odd: she mirrors Trollope's view I dare say - his women are often very strong and admirable and they are not cartoonish or one dimensional in this, with the exception of the "Rights of Women Institute for the Relief of the Disabilities of Females", or "the Disabilities" in short, as depicted in Is He Popenjoy? (1878, the only other Trollope novel so far I didn't care for). What I am trying to say is Trollope likes his character Lady Laura, and so no, she, like him, does not want the vote. So Lady Laura Standish must find another way to become "politically powerful" and that is by surrounding herself with men of politics (this started with her father the Earl and Lord Privy Seal). She must go on to marry a politician, and she does take a shine to Phineas, giving him advice and encouragement and opening the door for him so to speak. But he knows he is not wealthy or powerful enough for her, and when she realises she marries Robert Kennedy. It is this, the marriage of Lady Laura and Kennedy, that (for me) redeems Phineas Finn. Their marriage is a bad one, but Trollope writes of it so well: there's no drama, no violence, just slow and dismal misery:
In her misery one day Lady Laura told the whole story of her own unhappiness to her brother, saying nothing of Phineas Finn,—thinking nothing of him as she told her story, but speaking more strongly perhaps than she should have done, of the terrible dreariness of her life at Loughlinter, and of her inability to induce her husband to alter it for her sake.
"Do you mean that he,—ill-treats you?" said the brother, with a scowl on his face which seemed to indicate that he would like no task better than that of resenting such ill-treatment.
"He does not beat me, if you mean that."
"Is he cruel to you? Does he use harsh language?"
"He never said a word in his life either to me or, as I believe, to any other human being, that he would think himself bound to regret."
"What is it then?"
"He simply chooses to have his own way, and his way cannot be my way. He is hard, and dry, and just, and dispassionate, and he wishes me to be the same. That is all."
"I tell you fairly, Laura, as far as I am concerned, I never could speak to him. He is antipathetic to me. But then I am not his wife."
"I am;—and I suppose I must bear it."
Returning to Phineas' love interests - next, Violet Effingham, which also goes awry, then Madame Max Goesler who he can't bring himself to accept. It goes on: I'll not spoil the ending.
Phineas Finn is a political drama, something I was excited about as I do tend to follow politics a little, and seeing the political landscape of the mid-19th Century was indeed very interesting. As it was being serialised Trollope himself was attempting to embark on a political career standing in 1868 as a Liberal candidate in Beverley, East Yorkshire (his campaigning, he described, was "the most wretched fortnight of my manhood". Ralph the Heir, 1871, is based on this campaign but I'm not so encouraged to read it as Trollope described it as "one of the worst novels I have written"). Trollope's real-life concern with rotten boroughs is reflected in Phineas Finn, and it also deals with the Irish Question. Above all, though, it is about people - ambition, gain, wealth, class, and as ever love. It's such a shame I didn't like it: I really ought to have done. Nevertheless, high hopes for The Eustace Diamonds, which I've seen described as "reminiscent of The Moonstone". Looking forward to that!