Friday, 4 June 2010

Perhaps, in some degree, politically powerful

I always think it’s interesting when a novel’s aboutness isn’t entirely, or even primarily, focused on the character for whom it is named. Phineas Finn, the second novel in Anthony Trollope’s 6-part series on the Pallisers, is one such novel. It’s not that Phineas isn’t present, for of course he is; indeed, his experiences and thoughts make up at least half of the contents of the first volume of the novel. But because it is one of the Palliser series, it is also a novel heavily steeped in the political concerns of mid-19th-century England. The “official” topic of this novel is whether or not to extend the vote, but the issue of women’s participation in politics is pushed insistently to the fore, and not only that – it’s linked intimately to women’s particular social position.

Phineas Finn
Phineas Finn is a young, talented Irishmen elected to the British parliament at the tender age of 24. His financial straights, his attempts to make his name by speaking in the House, and his proposal to Lady Laura Standish comprise the bulk of the narrative surrounding him in the first volume. Phineas is talented and exceptional, it seems, but Trollope doesn’t spend a great deal of space directly explicating his personality. He does note rather tersely that Phineas is “a young man not without sense, – not entirely a windbag” (p. 8). Trollope’s wry but gentle criticism of Phineas’s imperfections let us know that while the young MP is not perfect, he is also neither incompetent nor malicious.

He makes errors, but they don’t appear to be major errors for he pays very little by way of consequence for any of them. Yet, Trollope’s skillful juxtaposition of Phineas’s unthinking ease in life with the careful and complicated steps, mental and actual, Lady Laura Standish and Violet Effingham must constantly negotiate clearly highlight that as a young man possessed of a particular level of education, not to mention good looks and charm, he possesses a freedom – both to achieve and to screw up – that is simply not within the purview of a young woman, regardless of how well placed she is socially or how much money she has.

Lady Laura Standish
Lady Laura is without money but of a particular class. She is aware of the advantages of her position, and uses them to her advantage. Her physical presence speaks to both her privileges and her priorities:
She would lean forward when sitting, as a man does, and would use her arms in talking, and would put her hand over her face, and pass her fingers through her hair, –after the fashion of men rather than of women; –and she seemed to despise that soft quiescence of her sex in which are generally found so many charms. (p. 33)
In spite of this apparent dearth of traditional feminine charms, Laura is sufficiently attractive to both Phineas and Mr. Robert Kennedy, another MP, to beg her hand in marriage.

In the meantime, Lady Laura seems to know what she’s about. Although a woman and entitled neither to run for political office nor to vote, she has clear ideas about how she might nonetheless exercise political power:
It was her ambition to be brought as near to political action as was possible for a woman without surrendering any of the privileges of feminine inaction. That women should even wish to have votes at parliamentary elections was to her abominable, and the cause of the Rights of Women generally was odious to her; but, nevertheless, for herself, she delighted in hoping that she too might be useful, –in thinking that she too was perhaps, in some degree, politically powerful[.] (p. 89)
Laura sees this political power as manifesting primarily in her stewardship of her father’s and Phineas’s political careers, and indeed, she is implicated in both their political successes. What I find curious about this passage is Laura’s adherence to more traditional views of women’s social roles even as she imagines extending that role into the masculine realm of government. It’s not initially clear if she’s simply a rather complex representative of her era, or if she doesn’t have sufficient knowledge of herself.

As it turns out, it’s more the latter, although she certainly doesn’t come to any conclusions about wanting the vote for herself or other women of her class. Rather, she realizes that while she may mentor a young man like Phineas and cajole her doting father into political action, she is, without money, limited in what she can do from her privileged position of “feminine inaction.” She, thus, makes the entirely logical choice to marry the rich Robert Kennedy and not the financially challenged Phineas – and in very short order, finds herself deeply dissatisfied:
Those two hours…with her husband in the morning became very wearisome to her. At first she had declared that it would be her greatest ambition to help her husband in his work, and she had read all the letters from the MacNabs and MacFies, asking to be made gaugers and landing-waiters, with an assumed interest. But the work palled upon her very quickly. Her quick intellect discovered soon that there was nothing in it which she really did. It was all form and verbiage, and pretence at business. Her husband went through it all with the utmost patience, reading every word, giving orders as to every detail, and conscientiously doing that which he conceived he had undertaken to do. But Lady Laura wanted to meddle with high politics, to discuss reform bills, to assist in putting up Mr. This and putting down my Lord That. Why should she waste her time in doing that which the lad in the next room, who was called a private secretary, could do as well? (pp. 208-09)
Lady Laura sees too clearly that while “She had married a rich man in order that she might be able to do something in the world…now that she was this rich man's wife…she could do nothing [but] sit at home and look after his welfare” (p. 304).

Violet Effingham
Trollope does not allow us to draw a pat object lesson from Lady Laura’s case, however. Her friend Violet Effingham is a charming young woman who, like Lady Laura, is the subject of a great deal of marital interest. In particular, Lady Laura’s profligate brother, Lord Chiltern, has repeatedly asked Violet to marry him without success; Lady Laura, in her brother’s interest, applies a steady dose of pressure on her friend to accept. Lady Laura and her brother both believe that enough pressure upon the petite and pretty young lady will gain this end, but the fact is, “With all her seeming frolic, Violet Effingham is very wise” (p. 157) – with regards not simply to whom she might marry, but also in considering whether or not to marry at all. Violet isn’t blinded by any grand political notions about what her marriage might do or mean; on the contrary, she clearly sees the differences that gender makes and keeps that practical reality before her at all times. Violet and Laura engage in one of several arguments concerning Lord Chiltern:
"I prefer men who are improper, and all that sort of thing. If I were a man myself I should go in for everything I ought to leave alone. I know I should. But you see, –I'm not a man, and I must take care of myself. The wrong side of a post for a woman is so very much the wrong side. I like a fast man, but I know that I must not dare to marry the sort of man that I like."

…………..

"… I should like to be your sister. I should like well enough to be your father's daughter. I should like well enough to be Chiltern's friend. I am his friend. Nothing that any one has ever said of him has estranged me from him. I have fought for him till I have been black in the face. Yes, I have, –with my aunt. But I am afraid to be his wife. The risk would be so great. Suppose that I did not save him, but that he brought me to shipwreck instead?"

"That could not be!"

"Could it not? I think it might be so very well. When I was a child they used to be always telling me to mind myself. It seems to me that a child and a man need not mind themselves. Let them do what they may, they can be set right again. Let them fall as they will, you can put them on their feet. But a woman has to mind herself; –and very hard work it is when she has a dragon of her own driving her ever the wrong way." (pp. 95-6)
Lord Chiltern would very likely bring Violet to ruin, as Lady Laura should well know as paying off his gargantuan gambling debts is what made it necessary that she marry someone with money in the first place! Violet knows her own mind and the implications of her position in the world and holds herself close, in spite of her friend’s emotional pressure. While I haven’t read the second volume of Phineas Finn yet, and so don’t know how Violet’s story will play out, I would be very surprised if she “ruined” herself with a disastrous marriage to Lord Chiltern or someone like him.

Both she and Lady Laura feel forced to be calculating when considering marriage but Lady Laura’s calculations lack the distinctly practical consideration of what it would mean to live with someone as dry and upright as Robert Kennedy; she is blinded by his political activities and imagines something much more noble for herself than what she gets. Violet imagines – nothing precisely, it seems, except what disasters may ensue with the wrong choice. And yet, when confronted about a possible fancy for Phineas, she is able to identity the more positive counterpoint to the disaster she so constantly and carefully avoids:
"I think you like my friend, Mr. Finn," Lady Laura said to Miss Effingham...

"Yes, I do. I like him decidedly."

"So do I. I should hardly have thought that you would have taken a fancy to him."

"I hardly know what you call taking a fancy," said Violet. "I am not quite sure I like to be told that I have taken a fancy for a young man."

"I mean no offence, my dear."

"Of course you don't. But, to speak truth, I think I have rather taken a fancy to him. There is just enough of him, but not too much. I don't mean materially, –in regard to his inches; but as to his mental belongings. I hate a stupid man who can't talk to me, and I hate a clever man who talks me down. I don't like a man who is too lazy to make any effort to shine; but I particularly dislike the man who is always striving for effect. I abominate a humble man, but yet I love to perceive that a man acknowledges the superiority of my sex, and youth, and all that kind of thing."

………………

"I suppose you do not mean to fall in love with him?"

"Not that I know of, my dear. But when I do, I'll be sure to give you notice." (pp. 200-01)
Laura is the one lauded for her intelligence, but Violet is the sharper of the two. She possesses clear ideas of what women may realistically do with themselves but also of what she wants; further, her assurance that she’ll give Laura “notice” if she begins to fall for Phineas suggests her awareness that Laura’s views on Phineas are not entirely disinterested, even after she’s married Robert Kennedy. Violet is not blinded by her own ideals; if she possesses an ideal, it is one simply of not being forced into decisions she is neither willing nor ready to make.

Lady Glencora Palliser

Where this issue of women and marriage and politics really coalesces, I believe, is in one short speech made my Lady Glencora Palliser. The Pallisers are notably much less present in this the second Palliser novel than they were in the first, but Lady Glencora has a crucial conversation with the more traditional Mrs. Bonteen at a political event in which Trollope makes clear that the connection between women’s limited freedoms, so aptly described by Violet, are not just inherently political. Rather, without considering gender, any political action that purports to support equality is simply empty rhetoric:
"Making men and women all equal," said Lady Glencora. "That I take to be the gist of our political theory."

"Lady Glencora, I must cry off," said Mr. Monk.

"Yes; –no doubt. If I were in the Cabinet myself I should not admit so much. There are reticences, –of course. And there is an official discretion."

"But you don't mean to say, Lady Glencora, that you would really advocate equality?" said Mrs. Bonteen.

"I do mean to say so, Mrs. Bonteen. And I mean to go further, and to tell you that you are no Liberal at heart unless you do so likewise; unless that is the basis of your political aspirations."

"Pray let me speak for myself, Lady Glencora."

"By no means, –not when you are criticising me and my politics. Do you not wish to make the lower orders comfortable?"

"Certainly," said Mrs. Bonteen.

"And educated, and happy and good?"

"Undoubtedly."

"To make them as comfortable and as good as yourself?"

"Better if possible."

"And I'm sure you wish to make yourself as good and as comfortable as anybody else, –as those above you, if anybody is above you? You will admit that?"

"Yes; –if I understand you."

"Then you have admitted everything, and are an advocate for general equality, –just as Mr. Monk is, and as I am.” (pp. 126-27)
Lady Glencora is a curious character to choose to have speak such words, and yet in the Palliser world, she’s the only one who would and perhaps could. That she nearly left her husband for a former lover in the previous novel shouldn’t discredit what she says here for in Phineas Finn, she doesn’t appear any longer to be bridling against her position as Plantagenet Palliser’s wife; indeed, she seems entirely comfortable in the political circles in which he functions. Further, in the first volume this novel, Lady Glencora is the only Palliser allowed to speak; her husband is fairly frequently present, but Trollope doesn’t give him any dialogue. Lady Glencora is the voice of liberalism here and she is an eloquent and logical one.

So, is this book as certain as Lady Glencora is about equality being a meaningless term unless it applies to both men and women? I don’t think so. Lady Glencora is outspoken about this particular issue in part because she can afford to be – she is incredibly rich, her husband is a universally admired politician, and she’s always remarkably charming. In other words, she has nothing to lose. Further, Trollope further undermines such a proto-feminist interpretation of things near the conclusion of the first volume thus:
It was manifestly a meeting of Liberals, semi-social and semi-political; –so arranged that ladies might feel that some interest in politics was allowed to them, and perhaps some influence also. (p. 355)
This is a rather quietly crushing moment (I feel everything Trollope does is quiet, even crushing; it’s one of the reasons I love him) but I don’t think it negates the observations about the interconnections between the personal (specifically via gender) and the political above. I think, rather, that Trollope is engaging in a close and fearless explication of a political culture in transition, and particular the ways in which the individuals involved both contribute to and stifle (often simultaneously) such transition through their personal values, fears, and inability to comprehend the implications of the history they’re living.

Of course, very few real people are capable of fully comprehending the historical moment in which they live, and I think knowing this is part of what makes Trollope so gentle with his characters. And it’s also part of why I love Trollope. More anon, on Volume 2 of Phineas Finn.

7 comments:

heidenkind said...

Sounds fascinating! I wouldn't have expected a book called Phineas Finn to have so many major female characters.

www.silverseason.wordpress.com said...

Thank you so much for bringing this book back to my attention. I read it some years ago. In fact I read right through the entire Palliser series after seeing it on television. The TV wasn't bad, but the books had much, much more to them.

I particularly remember my feelings for Lady Laura. She was misled by her own desires, thinking that she could have power indirectly when she had no power of her own to assure that result. As I remember it, her marriage ended badly.

Colleen said...

Now that I'm almost half-way through Volume 2, I think I see why Trollope was focusing so heavily on female characters in Volume 1. I'm sure I'll write an unreadably wordy post about it in a week or so.

Tony said...

I am presently wading happily through the final acres of Barsetshire, wondering how it is possible to write a book where everything is completely obvious from the very start, yet it really doesn't matter: simply wonderful ;)

Colleen said...

Tony: That sounds lovely. Have you read all of Trollope's novels?

Tony said...

Nowhere near! I think he wrote 40-odd, so I've a lot to do yet! I've 'only' read, the Barchester and Palliser series plus 'The Way We Live Now'. I'm planning to read a few more of his more famous works in the second half of the year ('Orley Farm', 'Rachel Ray', 'Three Clerks', 'He Knew He Was Right'). The trouble is, when an author has twelve longish books in two wonderful series, you never seem to get around to reading anything new; I've been rereading the ones I've got for the past decade :)

Colleen said...

Tony: I can totally see that. :) It's so comforting to have such dear favourites to go back to.