Phineas At Bay: a review

phineas

I have profound reservations about the work and motives of continuators. I fear that their novels are either cynical money-making exercises riding on the coat-tails of an illustrious predecessor or are hapless products of fan-fiction. I must confess to being even more protective in this respect of the legacies of authors whose works I particularly treasure and who, like Trollope, have brought me so much pleasure in reading and re-reading their work.

However, I am also mindful of the point raised by John McCourt in his thought-provoking analysis of Trollope’s Irish connections – Writing The Frontier – that Trollope’s character Phineas Finn, after featuring as the central character in two of the political novels is then allowed to fade into the background. McCourt believes that the character deserved a third outing in which his radical – dare I say it, Irish – tendencies are not suppressed by a gradual absorption into the ruling elite of the English parliament. Trollope never gave him this outing but in his continuation novel, written I must assume without knowledge of McCourt’s then unpublished views, John Wirenius has done so.

Wirenius is avowedly a fan of Trollope but it is apparent from the earliest chapters that he is an able writer and so any fears on that head are allayed. He understands the demands of plot development, building tension and the importance of character which are the basic stock in trade of the writer of fiction.

If I might consider his characters first; it is important, where established characters from previous novels are resurrected that they should be recognisable from the Trollopian incarnations. Phineas Finn, as the principal character is the most important in this respect, but so too is his wife Marie – Madame Max from the Palliser series of novels. Here Wirenius succeeds for me. His Phineas would not be out of place in Trollope’s novels. He is older, certainly – the novel is set in the last decade of the 19th century – and perhaps wiser but, importantly for those who wish to see him rediscover his youthful energy and willingness to take on an unpopular cause, he is once more something of an outsider from the establishment. He is a member of the ruling Liberal party but not a member of Barrington Erle’s cabinet. His somewhat Quixotic decision to champion the cause of the Welsh miner Ifor Powlett-Jones is in keeping with this reinvigorated character.

Marie Finn is also recognisably the character Trollope created. Her wisdom and insight are intact as is her ability to see how people will react and match her actions to the needs of the case in a way that would be an example to her husband if he were not the man he is. I found their relationship described with greater frankness than the Victorian Trollope was able to commit to the page. It was a salutary reminder that this was a couple who were not only intellectually but physically drawn to one another. Sex, Wirenius makes clear, was not invented in the 1960s but for this couple had been very much part of their lives in the 1860s. This, I hasten to emphasise, is done without needing to follow them past the bedroom door.

This thoroughly up to date recognition of love not being confined to the young is not, however, the love story around which Trollope insisted all novels must be woven. Here Wirenius has introduced new characters of the next generation to provide the necessary triangle which drives one strand of the books various narratives. We meet Clarissa Riley – Phineas’s orphaned niece who will assume the role of the sensible girl at the centre of rivalry between Jack Standish – son of Phineas’s friends Lord Oswald Beresford and his wife Violet – and Savrola Vavasor – son of the late, unlamented (by anyone save his son who was too young to know him before he died) George Vavasor and the feisty Winifred Hurtle (as was) who, having survived that unfortunate marriage after her return to the States following the events described in The Way We Live Now, has now returned to England with her son.

There is little concealment in the development of this romantic plot, which would have pleased Trollope. We know early on that Clarissa has chosen the nice Savrola rather than the hot-headed Jack Standish but the latter provides dramatic tension with his determination to win her back at all costs. His violent passion, like that of his father when he bore the title Lord Chiltern, provides the mainspring for a sequence of events which include a duel in which Phineas is once more embroiled, as it turns out at great personal risk.

These younger characters are rather more vividly drawn than the secondary characters of the older generation. Plantagenet Palliser is less complex than I have come to find him (but then I have spent much of last year immersed in the fantastically more detailed full text of the new edition of The Duke’s Children in which his character is drawn in minute detail). Violet Beresford, similarly, is less clearly distinguishable from others around her than the younger generation’s characters. However, this is not the case with Laura Kennedy, whose character is finally given a happy ending with a romantic development late in life, and achieves a reconciliation with Marie Finn, which is as heart-warming as it is truthful to the potential of Trollope’s characters.

To an extent this is perhaps inevitable. When a cast of more than a dozen characters from Trollope’s novels reappear then they may take on the role of the chorus as a backdrop against which the main protagonists act.

In this light, there are then a number of delightful cameo roles for familiar faces such as Dolly Longestaffe and Quintus Slide. Here, I think Wirenius’s innate desire to see peace and harmony at the conclusion leads him to allow for reconciliation, uncharacteristically charitable acts of forgiveness in the end and mellowings of some of these characters who, in a more hard-hearted author, might be left to stew as they get their just desserts for past actions.

Indeed, the author’s optimism allows him to have the young Welsh miner to embark on what promises to be a successful new career in the legal profession which, while it may not be without precedent, stretches credulity in the context of Victorian society.

It is sometimes suggested that Trollope’s novels lack drama. They are more about the unraveling of events whose roots are derived from the characters and are concerned with social and domestic issues of no great moment. Who shall marry whom? How will the son manage the finances left in a parlous state by his father? Middle-class family troubles are worked through and resolved. The books are rarely concerned with external events.

At first sight, Phineas’s involvement with the criminal court case of a stranger, a working class miner whose violent actions during an underground disaster are in question, seems a distinctly un-Trollopian subject for a novel. But this is not the case. There is precedent for such external dramas to feature and Phineas himself featured on one such event: the murder of Mr Bonteen and his subsequent trial. So it is in keeping with prior criminal dramas that Phineas should reappear in such events (although now safely in the guise of defence barrister).

If I have a quibble with this book it is that, unlike Trollope, whose most villainous characters were always shown to have finer qualities that gave them a rounded humanity, we are presented with an obdurate antagonist with whom Phineas must grapple. The industrialist Sir William McScuttle is vindictive in his prosecution of Ifor Powlett-Jones and uses improper subterfuge to undermine Barrington Erle in pursuit of power and to continue a vendetta against Phineas. He is painted too black and lacks the redeeming features which Trollope gave even his meanest characters. In this, perhaps, the book reflects a modern requirement for a simplified unambiguous narrative to which Trollope was not subject or could, at least, choose to ignore.

That concern aside, I found the plots worked – inasmuch as the actions of the characters which drive the plots forward are “in character”. Jack Standish is impetuous like his father was before him. Lizzie Eustace schemes and always has a weather eye on the main chance to do what is best for Lizzie. If there is sometimes a lack of the sense of inevitability about how things will go wrong that is a hallmark of Trollope (no good ever came out of a young man signing bills!) there is never implausibility. I believed in the stories as they developed and wanted to follow the developments. As a result, even though it weighs in at 500 pages, the book is a page-turner. Indeed, I did not find it long. By Trollope’s standards, of course, it isn’t – a mere two volume novel.

Is it a worthy continuation of Trollope’s political novels? Does it provide Phineas with the third outing which John McCourt believes his character calls out for? I think the answer to both questions is “yes”. Wirenius has done his research on the issues which his book touches upon and his understanding of the characters he has borrowed from Trollope (I cannot speak to the borrowings from other writers which also feature as amusing asides) is evident. He has, therefore, satisfied my test of paying sufficient respect to his original source. And he has produced a story which moves quickly, more quickly than Trollope might have had it, and entertains. His writing style is clearly modern and if at times he attributes to his hero slightly anachronistic views that are ahead of his time (and out of sync with what Trollope might have given him), then I, for one, most definitely can forgive him.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Phineas At Bay: a review

  1. Glenn Shipway

    Well written, Mark. I have not read the book yet so I only read the first part of the revue. However, you have convinced me to buy it and read – I was also concerned about the continuation of the characters and didn’t want to be disappointed.

  2. Glenn Shipway

    Please substitute “review” for “revue”. Not thinking straight at the end of a long, hard day!

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