Thursday, June 28, 2007

Trollope, the Victorians, and us, part two

Part one is here.

Phineas Finn himself, meanwhile, is a stunning creation. We watch as he grows from a thoughtless (though essentially harmless) youth to a serious, responsible adult--yet the change is so gradual as to be almost imperceptible as it happens. Actions and decisions and experiences simply accrete, as they do in life, and Phineas is changed thereby, though not without missteps along the way, as when he mistakenly seeks Lady Laura's assistance in his quest for the hand of her friend Violet Effingham:
When making this resolution, I think that he must have forgotten much that he had learned of his friend's character; and by making it, I think that he showed also that he had not learned as much as his opportunities might have taught him. He knew Lady Laura's obstinacy of purpose, he knew her devotion to her brother, and he knew also how desirous she had been that her brother should win Violet Effingham for himself. This knowledge should, I think, have sufficed to show him how improbable it was that Lady Laura should assist him in his enterprise. But beyond all this was the fact,--a fact as to the consequences of which Phineas himself was entirely blind, beautifully ignorant,--that Lady Laura had once condescended to love himself. Nay;--she had gone farther than this, and had ventured to tell him, even after her marriage, that the remembrance of some feeling that had once dwelt in her heart in regard to him was still a danger to her. She had warned him from Loughlinter, and then had received him in London;--and now he selected her as his confidante in this love affair! Had he not been beautifully ignorant and most modestly blind, he would surely have placed his confidence elsewhere.
Phineas's faults mostly lie in his odd combination of modesty and entitlement: he feels that he should have a place in English society, but he is at the same time regularly surprised when others agree and use their power to help him find one.

That place is in politics, so along the way we get a full course in British Parliamentary politics during one of its most fascinating and crucial periods, the sessions leading up to passage of the Reform Bill and the expansion of the vote. Trollope, who had entertained hopes of a political career, knows well the workings of Parliament and the push-pull-kick-scratch of politics. The story of the Government's efforts to pass the Reform Bill, which runs through the book and forms the spine on which the interpersonal dramas are hung, would satisfy any political junkie.

The impression Trollope gives of these inherently unjust governing arrangements--rife as they were at the time with rotten boroughs, pocket boroughs, and the privileges of nobility and wealth--is actually not dissimilar to reformist outsiders' takes on contemporary Washington (or, presumably, Westminster). Parliament is presented as at least as much clique as representative body, and only the prospect of wide-ranging, irrevocable change can cut through the clubby cordiality and turn political opponents into real enemies. Similarly, the primary question facing Phineas still vexes honest politicians today: how does one balance the demands of party, constituents, and conscience when they are at odds? Late in the novel, Phineas's friend and fellow MP Laurence Fitzgibbon remonstrates him about his convictions:
"Convictions! There is nothing on earth that I'm so much afraid of in a young member of Parliament as convictions. There are ever so many rocks against which men get broken. One man can't keep his temper. Another can't hold his tongue. A third can't say a word unless he has been priming himself half a session. A fourth is always thinking of himself, and wanting more than he can get. A fifth is idle, and won't be there when he's wanted. A sixth is always in the way. A seventh lies so that you can never trust him. I've had to do with them all, but a fellow with convictions is the worst of all."
Phineas's frustration with that attitude is not too distant from Atrios's contemporary lament that the DC insiders don't understand that the reason we can't all just get along and be centrists in politics is that people who aren't professional politicians or pundits actually care about these issues.

In the introduction to the Penguin edition of Can Your Forgive Her?, Stephen Wall quotes Trollope, from his Autobiography, on the Pallisers:
By no amount of description or asseveration could I succeed in making any reader understand how much these characters and their belongings have meant to me.
And later in the Autobiography he also wonders:
Who will read Can You Forgive Her?, Phineas Finn, Phineas Redux, and The Prime Minister [and The Eustace Diamonds] consecutively, in order that he may understand the characters of the Duke of Omnium, of Plantagenet Palliser, and Lady Glencora? Who will even know that they should be so read?
Reading the first two of the sequence has shown me that the Trollope is serious about his love for these characters; I can surely do him the favor of reading the others.

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