John Wirenius’s Phineas at Bay: Trollope Country
January 24, 2015 by ellenandjim
Dear friends and readers, especially Trollopian ones,
Over the month of December and early January, a few of us on Trollope19thCStudies, read and discussed John Wirenius’s Phineas at Bay, following an installment pattern he devised, with him participating and even his editor on board (so to speak). This (to use the modern capacious term) is a post-text represents an important milestone in the Trollope imaginary.
First it is easily arguably the first full completely realized true sequel to Trollope’s books. Accurately defined, a sequel is a novel which continues the story of a group of characters in a book or books after that book or those books have ended: Phineas at Bay does more than fulfill that desire many fans have to experience more of the characters in a favorite or last book by s favorite novelist: Wirenius takes up the storylines and characters of the six Parliamentary or Palliser novels a number of years after The Duke’s Children has concluded (the version we have been reading is now generally known to have been cut by Trollope himself). Phineas at Bay re-configures the original emphases to make a middle-aged Phineas and Marie Finn an idealized hero and heroine, re-imagines and rehabilitates some damned Palliser characters (the Rev. Emilius and Lizzie Eustace), realigns other characters (makes different parallels and contrasts), and adds in characters from other of the author’s novels, in this case those whose emphasis is on “the upper ten thousand,” like The Way We Live Now, Orley Farm (e.g., Mary, Lady Mason), the Barsetshire series (Mr Toogood). That’s common in these collaborative creations (see Henry Jenkins’s Textual Poachers). In authors who have cult followings and where numerous film adaptations have been made, these remembered experiences become part of the imaginary. Wirenius also evokes specific actors and actresses’s portrayals of Trollope’s characters (Donal McCann, Barbara Murray, Anthony Ainsley, Sarah Badel, Donald Pickering, Moray Watson, Marvin Jarvis [Frank Greystock]) as they appeared in Simon Raven’s 1974-75 Pallisers, their costumes, settings and environments.
It’s more than a specific region of Trollope country (upper class, lots of lawyers). It represents a readership or perspective on that specific region. Phineas at Bay is a highly intertextual literary book, allusive, bookish (I see nothing wrong with that) whose references are just about wholly to books favored by males, mid-20th century to late Edwardian. A central text is R. f. Delderfield’s To Serve Them All My Days, as embodied and shaped by Andrew Davies’s 1980-81 16 part mini-series which rehearses an archetypal nostalgic schoolboy to teacher story. One of the most (for me) appealing characters in Phineas at Bay is named Ifor Powlett-Jones, clearly after David Powlett-Jones as memorably portrayed by John Duttine:
Ifor is a miner in Wales who risks his life to save the lives of fellow miners who have been abusively mistreated by the mine-owner, a ruthless obtuse, sadistic and spiteful industrialist, McScuttle (the book’s one full villain) who accuses the young man of destroying private property and by influence manages to have him thrown in jail for a number of years. We have powerful scenes of a life in prison in this period before Powlett-Jones is rescued (naturally) by Phineas Finn who, with Marie, adopts, has educated by Mr Low (now retired) and makes a sort of nephew-son of the boy, providing him with a career he could not have dreamed of.
Other similar authors, texts alluded to and used significantly are Beerbohm, Mortimer (Rumpole of Bailey), Walter Scott, Tennyson, Wodehouse (a lot), Oscar Wilde, Bernard Shaw, Winston Graham’s Poldark series, Thackeray, Dumas’s Three Musketeers, M. R. James (the ghost story writer). Individual lines are plucked from Hugo’s Les Miserables. The inter-related imaginary carved out here is the one Mark Turner (Trollope and the Magazines) first described as central to understanding how Trollope assumed his readership would react. We follow the trajectory — coming of age — of several newly invented young adult male characters, the next generation of the Palliser and Chiltern sons, e.g., Savrola Vavasour, son of George (remember the escapee from Can You Forgive Her?) who met and married Mrs Winifred Hurtle while in the US. Savrola courts Clarissa Finn, despite her Richardsonian name, a fugitive from an innocent girl’s 19th century novel, protected by a series of benevolent parent figures — rather like Lady Rose McClaren in Downton Abbey. Downton Abbey is in evidence too with a butler who acts paternal roles towards Clarissa and anticipates Marie, his mistress’s every need, including sleuthing.
The providential pattern of the book could be put down to its being (in effect) a historical novel whose main (but only main) franchise is Trollope except that another skein of allusion shows the deep structure is a creation of its contemporary author. Wirenius said that when he began the book he had the uplifting (if ironically so) final lines of the book in mind. He wanted to get there. Religious music (song exquisitely by Marie), allusions to church fathers, liturgy, the use of Christmas make it not a book more Victorian than our sceptical and secular (and darker) Trollope, but one intended to speak today in the way praised by John Gardiner (once a best-selling novelist who wrote a post-text himself, to Beowulf, Grendel) in his On Moral Fiction. Its politics are benevolent, left-liberal, and some of the best long-running stories of the book are effective dramatic analyses of politicking within parties, between rivals and enemies and friends, scenes in courts (at least two trials) and parliament, at elections, pressure dealing, very Trollopian some of these (including a politicized sermon). Hunting scenes, dinners, parties, weddings figure too. Good people finally mostly win out and we are invited to celebrate the figures within a pleasing faery aesthetic pattern (or carpet as Henry James would put it).
There’s a lot of kindness in the book, to Lady Laura Kennedy and the Duke of Omnium (Plantagenet Palliser that was), happy at last, fittingly. Phineas works hard in this book, is as acute and successfully manipulative as Hercule Poirot, and for the public good, and is rewarded at the book’s close, with Marie resembling the film idealization of Barbara Murray, a European type also memorably embodied by Stephane Audran as Lord Marchmain’s Cara (Brideshead Revisited anyone?), except she is also a nurturing mother (to Clarissa), businesswoman par excellence (off-stage), supportive saloniere, endlessly there for her man and compliant. The problems with this as feminism are transparent — beyond the truth that women behind the scenes working for men enable the male hegemonic order.
There is at the same time a real tolerance for amoral worldly-vicious types of people, the distruptive, the mean, and those complicit with, obedient to those who do evil, as Barrington Erle (who experience an ultimate ironic hard fall). She seduces, harasses, attempting to ruin (by insisting on an engagement) and takes to court another of the novel’s young adult heroes, the new young Lord Chiltern, John Standish (as hot-tempered and self-destructive as his father once was). Lizzie is willing to marry to spite Chiltern and as a way of triumphing over a society that has despised her. She is allowed to exit the court scot-free. She is not a modern rendition of the Victorian Becky Sharp, but agreat-great-grand-daughter of Eliza Haywood’s 18th century school of fiction, which include versions of slash fiction (sex writhings on the floor, mutual masturbation, no need to particularize further); all the more does Lizzie attract and resume her old relationship with still corrupt (now Mormon) Rev. Emilius who (we recall) in Raven enjoyed hurting women. John Wirenius cited Nietzsche in attempting to say what Emilius stood for. Rather his and Lizzie’s sordid doings (some monetary) are not post-modern nor at all nihilistic because the book and its main characters recognize them as reprehensible. They are framed more like Fielding’s Blifil in Tom Jones, their punishment is to go on being what they are. John Wirenius cited Stephano and Trinculo of Shakespeare’s Tempest. Emilius and especially Lady Eustace are in this fiction not minor easily swatted-away pests on the world’s continuum of vileness. It is interesting to consider for what different reasons Trollope loathed his Emilius and castigated his Lady Eustace; this pair resemble Trollope’s Melmoth, only they are not really admired by anyone we see in the book and are at the same time made less desperate.
There is a lot of fun in the book for the Trollopian too. Quotations. Recurring recreated characters. Lawrence Fitzgibbon remains Phineas’s friend. Quintus Slide has acquired a secretary, as snide as he. The Duke of Omnium has a set of books which include a Trollope (rather like in Raven’s Pallisers when Bryan Pringle as Mr Monk begins to read aloud The American Senator to Phineas while in jail and stops himself rather than read this old-hat interminable author). For the person who reads Galsworthy (another masculinist book of upper class life alluded to) and who knows the 1967 Forsyte Saga well, there are quiet allusions linking Trollope’s characters to Galsworthy’s via particular actors you will enjoy more if you recognize the carry-over.
Marvin Jarvis is Frank Greystock in Raven’s mini-series, Irene’s darling son in the 1967 Forsyte Saga, and alluded to in Phineas at Bay as part of his role as the leader of the Tory opposition to Phineas
My one personal complaint was there is no woman in the book for me to identify with, no one to bond with, but I have to admit that until recently this often happened to me in Trollope’s fictions. I did bond this year for the first time with Trollope’s Madame Max in Phineas Finn because the emphasis was clearly on the price in loneliness and hollow relationships, veneers she had to keep up in order to live the proud existence she craved, but most of the time except for Alice Vavasour (as conceived in Trollope’s book), and various marginalized women in Trollope’s fiction, or the occasional figure in the short stories (Miss Emily Forrest in “Journey to Panama” comes to mind), without some “downstairs” contingent there is no one there for me. A Miss Garnett, a typist clerk who somehow improbably is welcomed into the Chiltern family, several years older than young Chiltern, as a sobering wife-influence, all complacency just doesn’t hack it. Give me Miss Sarah Bunting any day.
Phineas at Bay is a strongly realized, highly intelligent book with many believable characters, some bite and beauty in its use of allusions and reality-feel in its depictions of places (including mines). It’s very readable and erudite too. I found I needed annotation because several law decisions of specific cases are central to the outcome of the trials and other scenes in the book. John Wirenius’s “Behind the Curtain” (a sort of coda) cites a slew of insightful rich histories of the later 19th into the 20th century. Its political and economic parables are relevant (McScuttle attempts to own the prime minister), and we see the birth of a small labor party. Clearly it is world just begun, meant to be continued and invites others to do likewise.
The most interesting question for me that this book raises is, What does and will this book tell us about Trollope’s mainstream readership? what they value in Trollope? One reason there has not been a true sequel before is there is so much Trollope and really so varied. He wrote 47 novels, 42 short stories, 5 travel books, his autobiography, essays, criticism. Among these he has written his own sequels in his Barsetshire and Palliser books, Ayala’s Angel is a kind of sequel to The American Senator, he planned to (he said) to write an Australian set of books out of Lady Anna; his Anglo-Irish books carve out a Trollope terrain or another country in western and across Ireland. When I taught a course wholly devoted to Trollope for the first time this past fall, I found I had surprised those in the class who thought they knew Trollope and had read numerous of his books before. This book would’ve fulfilled their expectations much better than my syllabus. Trollope as a European novelist (Nina Balatka), his dark tragic vein, his dwelling centrally on outcast figures, the subversiveness of his short stories, is another Trollope terrain within the country they had been led to half-expect. I regretted not being able to screen for them Henry Herbert’s Malachi’s Cove (from Trollope’s great short story, where Donald Pleasence who played Mr Harding in Barchester Chronicles enacts Malachi).
First formulations matter. The one book by Jane Austen which soars in readership above all others is her Pride and Prejudice, something like 90% of the sequels have been out of Pride and Prejudice and after that Emma. In 1940 the MGM screwball Pride and Prejudice directed by Robert Leonard, scripted by Jane Murfin and Aldous Huxley (featuring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier) and again in 1979 the BBC Pride and Prejudice directed by Cyril Coke, scripted by Fay Weldon (featuring David Rintoul and Elizabeth Garvie set the terms of the two types of Austen films made in theaters (simpering unserious comedy) and for TV (familial Oedipal melodrama) for decades thereafter. The famous 1995 Andrew Davies’s Pride and Prejudice (featuring Colin Firth, Jennifer Ehle) is a close repeat of the 1979 movie; Amy Heckerling’s Clueless does a screwball on Jane Austen’s Emma. These aural-visualizations bring out into the open discussable socially recognized ways of reading, understanding, framing their eponymous books and its long-dead author.
Among the earliest of Trollope’s books filmed by the BBC was a The Warden in 1951 (totally wiped out). After that The Eustace Diamonds, Last Chronicle of Barset and The Small House at Allington. The Way We Live Now a first version by Raven followed in 1969; so Trollope was Barsetshire-Palliser with The Way We Live Now vying as a signature book 50 years ago. All wiped out and (thus forgotten). The film performing the work of the first two P&Ps is Raven’s 1974 mini-series, somewhat reinforced by Alan Plater’s complacent comic pastoral 1983 Barchester Chronicles, and these together assumed milieu-world-norms that other Trollope film adaptations have had to align themselves with or overcome. Unfortunately Henry Herbert’s 1976 Malachi’s Cove has left hardly a trace in Trollopian public memory, though Andrew Davies’s 2001 The Way We Live Now has made some inroads, his daring 2004 He Knew He Was Right with its strong feminism and weak men out of Trollope has not found favor.
Wirenius’s Phineas at Bay is an analogous first step to Raven’s mini-series in the textual arena. We have a reconstituted world of Trollopian fiction. How will it affect Trollope’s novels as understood by a wider readership? Reinforcement? Raven was a pessimistic atheist, strong cynic, sceptical; Wirenius turns back to Trollope and softens what is there. Modern film adaptations often make what is back-story of a 19th century book and make it front present story. Wirenius chose instead to make a new group of young mostly male upwardly mobile winning-out protagonists. There is said to be a new graphic novel in the works of Trollope’s John Caldigate, a post-text called Dispossession which takes the low-life desperate working class characters and the unchaste Mrs Smith and makes them the central characters of the story.
If the above news is not a hoax, what kinds of interactions will be negotiated between different perspectives? If a woman should write a post-text, which story and characters in Trollope would she appropriate? What books would be alluded to, what 19th to mid-20th century intertextualities? Will anyone develop out the Anglo-Irish fiction so different from the Palliser world? and reverse front stories to become back-stories, and of course bring out the implied sexualities. What will future Trollope fan fiction be like? Will it help to extend Trollope’s readership beyond the usual 15 books read? Or not.
We wrote many postings on Trollope19thCStudies during the reading of this book and I couldn’t in the space of a blog include the details of many of all, nor John Wirenius’s various explanations; those who might like to read them after the book have only to join the Yahoo listserv to read them; that is, if Yahoo does not shut the groups down or make the archives inaccessible by debasing the software yet some more.