Review of Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Redux

Phineas Redux. By Anthony Trolllope. In Two Volumes. Chapman and Hall. The Examiner (21 February 1874):  190.

In ‘Phineas Redux,’ Mr. Trollope has added one more chapter to that voluminous history of British Philistinism of which he, above all other novelists, may be considered the representative interpreter. To this ungenial task he has devoted an amount of patient industry and minute observation perhaps all the more commendable from the fact that the subject could hardly inspire any enthusiasm in the laborious inquirer. But the palm of having reproduced “respectability with its thousand gigs,” with an accuracy almost fatal to its author, must undoubtedly be awarded to Mr. Anthony Trollope. “The pinched and hide-bound type of human character” with which he has rendered us so familiar is eminently a growth and outcome of the tendencies and influences of our time, and one of the dangers accompanying that pressure of public opinion under which people now habitually live. Mr. John Stuart Mill in one of the most forcible passages of his ‘Liberty’ has eloquently pointed out what peril there lies for humanity in the check thus habitually applied to the full development of individuality, and as a running commentary on the truth of his remarks we might appropriately study such a work as ‘Phineas Redux.’ The persons we meet with here are precise copies of those men and women of whom Mr. Mill says, “I do not mean that they choose what is customary in preference to what suits their own inclinations. It does not occur to them to have any inclination except what is customary.”

The principal interest of ‘Phineas Redux’ depends to a certain extent on the accurate description of the see-saw of motives in the formation of Cabinets. Too much influence is possibly attributed to such motives, as well as too much of self-interest in the desire for place. At the present crisis, especially, the political forecast with regard to the disestablishment of the Church of England must possess a strong interest of its own. Mr Daubeny, the prime minister, when showing himself to the electors of East Barsetshire, is very felicitously made to interweave the following remarks with his address:–“The period of our history is one in which it becomes essential for us to renew those inquiries which have prevailed since man first woke to his destiny, as to the amount of connection which exists and which must exist between spiritual and simply human forms of government—between our daily religion and our daily politics, between the Crown and the Mitre.’ The East Barsetshire clergymen and the East Barsetshire farmers like to hear something of the mitre in political speeches at the hustings. The words sound pleasantly in their ears, as appertaining to good old gracious times, and good old gracious things.”

Mr. Phineas Finn is a comparatively honest politician, who does not exactly sacrifice his convictions to his interests, because, on the whole, he has no convictions to sacrifice. It is only after having been unjustly tried for murder that indignation prompts him to look a little below the surface of things, when he is disgusted with the idea of making political action a means of livelihood. On his acquittal for the murder of Mr. Barchester, president of the Board of Trade, he is received back into society like a conquering hero; but the love, the admiration, the worship almost, which are lavished on him by all the women that come across his path, are never in any say satisfactorily justified. What we mean by this is, that the author entirely fails in imbuing the reader with a sense of that subtle, indescribable fascination which some people exercise on all those who come within the immediate sphere of their influence. As the author has not done this, nor otherwise bestowed on his hero such eminent qualities of intellect or character as would make this copious admiration natural, we can entertain but slight sympathy for the love-lorn Lady Laura Kennedy, or for Madame Goesler, whose offer of her hand to the hero is in the first instance rejected by him. She goes all the way to Prague in order to discover a key which may possibly lead to the absolute proof of his innocence. She does all this in a practical, undemonstrative way, and there is, perhaps, even a touch of nobility in her conduct. Nevertheless, though we cannot define why, the impression left of her character is hard, dry, and prosaic. The same may be said of Lady Laura, in spite of the strong and enduring passion which she cherishes for Phineas. Having rejected him in the first instance, in order to wed the wealthy owner of Lough Linter, she has all the rest of her life to repent, in sackcloth and ashes, the false step which she has so unfortunately taken. Doubtless it is a salutary lesson which Mr. Trollope wishes to inculcate by the strangely dismal narrative of her somber days; and the last words addressed to him by the unfortunate woman, in taking leave of Phineas, are well worth remembering:–“When I was younger I did not know how strong the heart can be. I should have known it, and I pay for my ignorance with the penalty of my whole life.”