After supporting Phineas while he studied in London, his father, a country doctor, expects him to return home to Ireland to practise law there and to marry his childhood sweetheart, Mary Flood Jones. Phineas, though, has other ambitions and decides to stand for parliament. Unfortunately, members of parliament receive no payment for their work so when Phineas, against all expectations, is elected, he finds that he must persuade his father to support him for a while longer. Doctor Finn reluctantly agrees, but other friends – such as Phineas’s mentor, the barrister Mr Low – are quick to express their disapproval:
“Phineas, my dear fellow, as far as I have as yet been able to see the world, men don’t begin either very good or very bad. They have generally good aspirations with infirm purposes;—or, as we may say, strong bodies with weak legs to carry them…In nine cases out of ten it is some one small unfortunate event that puts a man astray at first. He sees some woman and loses himself with her — or he is taken to a racecourse and unluckily wins money — or some devil in the shape of a friend lures him to tobacco and brandy. Your temptation has come in the shape of this accursed seat in Parliament.”
Young, idealistic and enthusiastic about his new responsibilities, Phineas sets off for London where as well as finding his way in the corrupt and complex world of politics he also finds himself involved in romantic entanglements with three very different women.
Lady Laura Standish is the daughter of Phineas’s patron, the Earl of Brentford, and the first woman with whom he falls in love after leaving Ireland. Early in the novel, Laura turns down Phineas and marries another politician, Mr Kennedy, for all the wrong reasons. It’s not long before she realises her mistake and begins to desperately search for a way out of her unhappy marriage. Phineas then turns his attentions to Laura’s friend, Violet Effingham, an heiress who seems likely to marry Lord Chiltern, Laura’s brother. A friendship develops between Phineas and Chiltern, but soon they find themselves rivals for Violet’s love. And finally, there’s Madame Max Goesler, a rich and independent widow with a hint of scandal in her past.
Will Phineas marry one of these women or will he decide that his heart belongs in Killaloe with Mary Flood Jones after all? And will Phineas’s political career lead to success or will Dr Finn and Mr Low be proved right in the end?
I’m really enjoying the Palliser series so far, although I think the Barsetshire novels will always hold a special place in my heart through being my first introduction to Trollope. I think I liked the first Palliser novel, Can You Forgive Her?, a little bit more than this one, simply because there is more focus on politics in this book. I could follow some of it – I can remember a school history lesson dealing with the Reform Bill, the ballot and the ‘rotten boroughs’, things which are covered in a lot of detail in this book – but I have to confess to having very little interest in all the speeches, votes and debates that Trollope devotes so much time to.
Luckily, even while finding the politics boring I could still love the rest of the novel and as usual with Trollope I was pulled into the lives of the characters and the dilemmas in which they find themselves. Phineas, of course, is our hero and like most of Trollope’s ‘heroes’ is not always particularly heroic, but this is what makes him such an appealing character. I felt that things were falling into place for him too easily and success was coming too quickly before he really had time to grow into his new life and career, but although he does make mistakes, he learns from them and we can be confident that he’ll try to do the right thing in the end.
But the characters who interested me most were the women in Phineas’s life – Lady Laura, Violet Effingham and Madame Max Goesler. All three are portrayed as intelligent, complex people and I felt that Trollope truly understood and sympathised with the situations they found themselves in and the options that were open to them.
This wasn’t one of my favourite Trollope novels but I loved the characters and am already looking forward to meeting some of them again later in Phineas Redux – after I’ve read the third book in the series, The Eustace Diamonds.