When Politics and Crime are mixed

I am grateful to Ekaterina Schulman who spotted an excellent article on Trollope in the Wuthering Expectations website devoted to 19th centry literature. I am reproducing the article in full here and if you are interested in reading more in a similar vein then you can go to the site at:


were it even desirable to maintain a doubt – Trollope writes a murder mystery

In Phineas Finn, the title character, an ambitious yet conscientious young Irishman of good family but little means is elected to Parliament with the assistance of a number of prominent women.  He is extremely good-looking, but also an embodiment of Trollope’s complex ideas of gentlemanliness.  To stay in Parliament, he both needs to marry well and to balance the interests of his party against his own integrity.  By the end if that novel, he has retired from the field in a novelistically satisfying manner.

That novel had more marriage proposal scenes than any Trollope novel I have encountered, including, thankfully Phineas Redux, which only has a half dozen or so, three of which are explicitly comic relief.  That still sounds like a lot.

Phineas returns to Parliament in Phineas Redux, and the romantic question returns, too; it is the position of the various women that takes so many pages to establish.

The reader, if he has duly studied the history of the age, will know that the Duke did make an offer to Madame Goesler, pressing it with all his eloquence, but [plot plot plot]  (Ch. 17)

The phrase in bold translates as “if he has read Phineas Finn.”  I believe Trollope meant that as a joke, but it no longer is – what better way to study the history of that age than read Trollope novels?

What a surprise, given all this, when in Chapter 47, Phineas Redux turns into a murder mystery, with police detectives and private detectives and clues and red herrings.  Did Phineas Finn, in a fit of rage, murder his political enemy in a dark alley?  Few writers today would wait until page 510 to spring the murder on their readers, but regardless, things should really cook now.

Except that now Trollope faces a serious problem.  He is employing an omniscient narrator, and unlike more shoddy writers understands what an omniscient narrator is.  Trollope does not cheat.  So Phineas Redux is a murder mystery for all of 24 pages, as the narrator visits various characters to get their reaction to the murder – the poison of gossip and rumor is a major theme of the novel – but soon enough, he has to move Phineas back on stage, and then, in my favorite passage in the novel, the mystery is called off due to the integrity of the narrator, a thematic parallel with the strict integrity of Phineas himself:

The reader need hardly be told that, as regards this great offence, Phineas Finn was as white as snow. The maintenance of any doubt on that matter, – were it even desirable to maintain a doubt, – would be altogether beyond the power of the present writer.  The reader has probably perceived [he has!], from the first moment of the discovery of the body on the steps at the end of the passage, that Mr. Bonteen had been killed by that ingenious gentleman [that other guy].  (Ch. 49)

The phrase in bold is concentrated Trollope.  It is not desirable to maintain a doubt.  Your desire for suspense in fiction is a moral flaw.  Trollope does generate a certain amount of suspense during the trial of Phineas Finn – will he be hanged by the neck until dead? seems unlikely – of the cheaper kind by using a trick I had previously seen in The Last Chronicle of Barset (1866-7), in which the narrator is only omniscient regarding occurrences and characters in Great Britain.  Fog in Channel; continent cut off.  So the author has to dispatch characters to Europe to learn what is going on there.  An arbitrary but clear rule.  It is probably for the best that so few of his readers seem to notice what a formalist Trollope was.


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