Mary, Lady Mason deep in thought (Orley Farm): “There was less of beauty, less of charm, less of softness; but in spite of all that she had gone through there was more of strength, — more of the power to resist all that this world could do to her.”
Dear friends and readers,
I’ve been re-immersed in Trollope’s fiction and reading contemporary writing about him these past couple of years, and this term I re-read Phineas Finn for an umpteenth time. As people say of great writers, this time through I discovered elements, patterns, thematic apprehensions in Trollope’s Phineas Finn I hadn’t noticed before, or hadn’t connected up to the rest of his fiction.
There is a real problem in Phineas Finn, one which needs explanation, a feature at its close which doesn’t make quite enough sense in terms of all that has happened before. In Chapters 55-56 of a 76 chapter book Phineas does a reverse turn-around. Phineas suddenly buys into as a firm adherent Irish tenant rights, declares he must give up his official position as a salaried employee since he disagrees with the gov’t, and pleads with Mary Flood Jones to marry him. The last proposal (marrying Mary) might be called a driving in the nail on the coffin of a career he has worked so hard and cost such money to sustain over hundreds of pages.
How to account for Phineas’s withdrawal? It’s just not the same as say Mr Harding’s and Lily Dale’s which have been prepared for all their novels long. Mr Harding has grown sick with distress at finding himself castigated in public for taking such a huge sum for the little effort it takes him to live with 12 paupers while they get a pittance (partly the product of a couple of hundred years of inflation and partly the church making sure its one members get well paid). Lily Dale has been humiliated by Adolphus Crosbie, and like the “Parson’s Daughter of Oxney Colne,” if she accepts him now on his terms, he will treat her with disrespect, painfully; she has discovered Johnny unable to be faithful and a boy-man she cannot rely on. It’s not the same as Lady Mason as all her novel long she has been fighting to win a case where she forged a document to win her son a property and the wherewithal to act the part of gentleman with; Mary Lady Mason is pronounced not guilty but has been so publicly shamed (and knows she is guilty) she is exclude herself from social life.
Trollope sees his difficulty: he has made Phineas into someone after the main chance continually, in politics, in love life (he chases four women over the course of PF), everywhere, and with obtusely seen motivation: it’s one of the irritants of the novel we are told so little about Irish Tenant Rights and then in so derisory a tone, you’d think Trollope was against it. Phineas hardly discusses it; Monk gives us its signficance while deprecating its possibility. So what is Phineas’s conscience burning about? it will be said from Chapter 1 on Phineas mentioned his conscience, and this mention disgusted Barrington Erle but Phineas never acted on it, to the point of duelling with Chiltern.
Therefore Trollope in the concluding chapters of his book produces a plethora of explanations. If this were an academic paper, I’d now proceed to describe and quote from scenes and analyse words but I’ll spare everyone and keep this blog reasonably sized and just cite the inferences from scene after scene starting with “What the people of Marlebone thought about it:” Phineas discovers these people, voters don’t give a damn about an issue enough to understand it for real, and if you ask them their opinion on an issue they spout ill-informed egotistic nonsense (about Canada). Phineas feels deeply suddenly he has been phony through and though (in an agon in front of Lady Laura — which makes him look bad before his own eyes). Suddenly he feels and sees his insecurity (Lord Brentford shows him this, and then the boroughs are eliminated). He is acutely aware he has no money and is draining his father. When he works at his job which he shows a real propensity for (not oration alone, but really trying to set up railways say), then there’s his delight in debate and how he enjoys arguing for what he believes (alas again we are not told these beliefs); more deeply we feel an impulse in him to self-destruct. This recalls Josiah Crawley but the problem again is Crawley regularly sabotages himself, Phineas does not.
At the close Millais’s portrait of Phineas accepting the derisory and ironic job (you care about Irish tenants, all right then, be a poor house inspector)
resembles George Housman’s depicton of Josiah Crawley and his wife poring over Archdeacon Grantley’s humilitating way offering a needed position to Crawley
Psychiatrists say rightly in this instance when a person starts to invent reasons for what he wants to do, and comes up with many, they are rationalizations for something deeper. Phineas doth protest too much.
Raven saw this problem and made Mary pregnant; thus Phineas’s withdrawal does not need to be explained. He must not leave Mary to be publicly shamed (along with himself in Ireland). Did anyone ever read a more painful scene than Chapter 72 where Madame max repeatedly offers herself to Phineas – It’s an extraordinary chapter, 72, p 311 in my book, second volume, where Madame Max hinting continually she is on offer (she is not gauche like Mr Kennedy but ends up doing the same sort of thing) and having to move step-by-step to offer herself. Phineas longs to reach out for this woman who understands, who would give him the right setting, be all adoration and not get in the way (European icon from Brideshead let’s recall, Stephan Audan, Lord Marchmain’s mistress), Phineas turns her down! In the 1974 Pallisers, it’s made obvious: he must return to marry the pregnant Mary; by doing this Raven spares us all of the above, but also loses Trollope.
Trollope does not offer a reason which convinces. Why does he do this continually, have his most sympathetic characters perform an escape maneuver, sometimes while winning, act out a reluctant withdrawal? We’ve see in An Eye for an Eye, Fred Neville sabotaging himself, even returning to Ireland to be toppled over a cliff; and powerfully and convincingly in “The Parson’s Daughter.
I connect this pattern to two others in Trollope: I call these the self-flagellation and the person under “joint attack.” Everyone around the characters agrees to browbeat, bully, tempt and otherwise insist our hero or heroine act out what the world admires and wants (marry the lord not the tailor in Lady Anna), no matter what the personal cost or gyrations this demands.
The self-flagellation is seen most plangently in “The Spotted Dog,” where a gifted man has sabotaged his life and now that he must find some employments, presents himself openly as a shameful creature no one in their right mind would interview, much less hire to deal with fragile paper indexes and scholarship. Julius Mackenzie unable to cope ends up drunk rolling in the streets, his talents utterly thrown away. For myself one of the most moving pieces of prose in a novel I’ve ever read is the letter he writes for the interview. When he says he does not expect an interview, it bowls me over. The only competition is Josiah Crawley’s letter accepting a job offered him on humiliating terms because he must. Phineas at the close is offered a derisory job with courteous words, but it’s a derisory job, a kind of ironic laugh: you wanted to help tenants, well now go and inspect the houses the gov’t sets up for the poor. In “Fred Pickering” We get this writer who is forced to admit he must write the tripe or indexes or whatever it is that sells that the public wants, and the story shows the central character punished hard to be taught this. The adventures of Fred Pickering, provides George Bertram with a lesson in theological controversy and how a spirit of integrity can lead to suicide in The Bertrams. Mary Gresley destroys her manuscript. George Bertram’s learns hard lessons about attacking the Bible – even discussing it in The Bertrams where this is another realistic visit to Palestine.
On one level Trollope is at once teaching himself he is doing the right thing to compromise and living out vicariously the act of integrity and the escape. His characters who are punished often make their strongest arguments on the side of utter integrity, of refusal, they get to walk away and display courage doing it. It’s the others’ joint attacks which speak the world’s cant wisdom, prudence and the like. Mr Harding is not supposed to be a saint, but has the courage to walk away. The greatness of William Styron is he does have as heroic acts men who walk away. Plantangenet Palliser as Duke of Omnium and Prime Minister is in constant agons over his desire to walk away and not deal. Not that Mr Trollope wanted to do that, but he is releasing something within him he needs to get out of his system again and again and again … On Trollope19thCStudies @hyahoo.com, a fellow reader agreed with me: “both in terms of Phineas and Trollope. Anyone who is successful must also feel the same way – that they have succeeded in exchange for not in some sense being true to themselves.”
The interview as a manipulative hazing experience (in Barchester Towers, the book, and again in Barchester Chronicles, the mini-series): Alan Rickman as an inimitable Slope and Donald Pleasence as Mr Harding
The courage to walk away is underrated terrifically in US society. You are to go out for the team if everyone else does even if it means permanent brain damage. If someone bullies you, you are to take it, take that punishment and whatever the psychic cost in later life triumph – in public. Look upon cruel self-shattering forms of training as “boot camp,” a word which puzzlingly is used as a honorific. Then take pills when no one is looking. Maybe die of an overdose? Never mind the psychic penalties that warp your personality, break up your marriage. The loss of integrity, an authentic existence? you end up not knowing what are the true instincts of your nature.
Phineas has the courage to walk away, and the ending chapters of his novel are made up of attacks. Several times groups of characters attack him. End of chapter 67, Mrs Finn joins Bunce and Low as choral voice: now she is against him giving up his job, “Fiddlesticks!” she says about his conscience. Dr Finn suspects how hard it will be for Phineas to be allowed to begin again. Ever give up a promotion and others know it – do they respect you? They are suspicious. Why are you doing this? By the way same attitudes can be found towards people who take volunteer unpaid jobs. Note the words Trollope uses for Mary Lady Mason: all that the world could do to her would not make her give in. In Lady Anna, she is under ferocious pressure and she holds out for her beloved childhood sweetheart, though he is a tailor.
Which by contrast (Lady Anna Lovel aka Anna Murray and Mary Flood Jones are not interested in power or influence or individual lives at all) takes me to the second pattern I noticed in Phineas Finn: a depiction of a woman’s career when not invested in or though a marriage or as a mother (Lady Lufton of Framley Parsonage). Trollope sees that such a career takes a very different shape from a man’s; even more rare is that in PF he presents such a career with empathy. He is usually intensely hostile and presents such a woman as a dominating vixen (e.g., Mrs Proudie).
I’m talking of Madame Max Goesler as we first meet her in Trollope’s novel — imaged by the 19747 Pallisers well after she is introduced:
It’s a truism that women’s careers look different from men’s — as writers, as mid-level professionals, as elite types. The criteria and things you judge a man’s success by won’t do as women often don’t have big monetary success on their own, rarely hold high public office, don’t have a forward trajectory in the same way. One of the strengths of Phineas Finn, not repeated in Phineas Redux is to show us a woman having a career not based on a man’s job — though a man’s money: Madame Max Goesler. We see her tempted — I reread “Madame Max’s generosity” (in the chapter in PF where she offers herself to Phineas), not as a tempter but as the one tempted to opt out because forsooth she’s lonely.
The explanation for her offer to Phineas is that she is intensely lonely and has a heart (not common in the world by the bye) — the narrator has told us three times that she is lonely, she has no intimate friend, and by that in a way what’s meant is a woman friend. She becomes intimate with Lady Glen sometime during Eustace Diamonds (it happens offstage in the novel while Raven puts the development of their friendship on-stage). Madame Max recognizes in Phineas a fellow-outsider, a person on the make, but also a person who wants to have integrity and act on it, he’s handsome (how often do we have to be told this); they are just gut-level congenial.
In Madame Max in PF Trollope shows us the cost of such a career to a woman: she must be intensely and continually performative, keep no one close to her. To enjoy life and be free she is of the demi-monde, but then no woman of high respectability will visit her easily and she must endure the Mrs Bonteens. Finally Lady Glen does visit Madame Max, but that is to stop the Duke from getting too close to Madame Max in an intimate dinner party, to prevent a marriage. Trollope does present Lady Glen attempting a career in The Prime Minister but as a wife, with a family to fall back into, and in a real sense Lady Glen fails (over Ferdinand Lopez among other bad choices) and is taught a harsh lesson against doing all she did. At the same time Trollope recognizes that women do this kind of thing in politics — elite women do.
It is important to recognize this saloniere business (whether respectably married or on her own) is a conservative approach to a woman’s career as she upholds the patriarchal order by complying with the demand she work, facilitate and do all sorts of things without an office or salary or without any real means of independence. Marie has independence. For a man to look at the price and say walk away is radical, not supporting “progress” as Trollope sees this. He cannot bring himself to reveal that his male hero wants to walk away, that it takes courage to do this because he knows the average reader does not like that. The average reader has sold him or herself or believes in the cant of fighting on, doing what others do, boot camp. He can show the woman opting out — for Trollope is for marriage.
In Phineas Finn, Phineas is nagged to quit and become a lawyer by the Lows and Mr Bunce; but the real contrasts to him are on the one side, Chiltern who will not be bought but has no place in the world, and Laurence Fitzgibbon who has no character to uphold; and on the other, Barrington Erle who has no soul and Mr Slide who does not understand how corrupt he is
Millais’s drawings of Lady Mason was so great for Trollope because (he said) of the psychology of the drawing; it’s the pattern of her holding out against the world he is riveted to, her emotional distress and strain. And yet once he got into Ireland and broke out of his depression, he fought and fought and was coopted — and knew the stress of that selling of his talent, renting it, too.
A personal note: I admire Phineas and Mr Harding because I know the emotional distress of such a choice and in a way that’s one of the draws of Trollope’s texts for me: he dramatizes that distress again and again. Mr Harding’s long day in London (a favorite chapter with me) shows the distress Mr Harding experiences in having been attacked, in realizing he was doing wrong from a standpoint of integrity, and in holding out under great stress to be coopted (from Archdeacon Grantly) or be destroyed. Some of Trollope’s characters give in to the world and are destroyed … or partly succeed (Lady Glen gave up the instincts of her heart and Burgo Fitzgerald and tries the saloniere out and remains safe too).
I know of one academic essay which discusses this withdrawal pattern, not in terms of Trollope’s life, his career, and not as a pattern across the fiction, but as opting for failure not quite as a noble choice (that gets us to Henry James whose uses this theme again and again), but as the better part of valour: Sarah Gilead, ‘Trollope’s Orphans and the “Power of Adequate Performance”‘, Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 27 (1985): 86-105 (she brings together Mr Harding, Lily Dale and Mary, Lady Mason). Nowadays there are numerous on the depiction of the career in Trollope’s fiction but not the ambivalence with which he present this. To see the pattern as a reluctant withdrawal and relate it to Trollope’s own awkwardnesses in social life, his carapace and refusals to play along in company is to see deeply into his fiction’s fuel. To see the rarity in Trollope of a depiction of a woman’s career when not married in a patriarchy, and its accuracy is to assess his acute perception of social life and his limitations.