[Photo by Jacquelyn Griffin)

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Politics and Souls of the Pallisers

In his Autobiography, Anthony Trollope described himself politically:
I consider myself to be an advanced, but still a Conservative-Liberal, which I regard not only as a possible, but as a rational and consistent phase of political existence. I can, I believe, in a very few words, make known my political theory; and, as I am anxious that any who know aught of me should know that, I will endeavour to do so.

It must, I think, be painful to all men to feel inferiority. It should, I think, be a matter of some pain to all men to feel superiority, unless when it has been won by their own efforts. We do not understand the operations of Almighty wisdom, and are, therefore, unable to tell the causes of the terrible inequalities that we see—why some, why so many, should have so little to make life enjoyable, so much to make it painful, while a few others, not through their own merit, have had gifts poured out to them from a full hand. We acknowledge the hand of God and His wisdom, but still we are struck with awe and horror at the misery of many of our brethren. We who have been born to the superior condition,—for, in this matter, I consider myself to be standing on a platform with dukes and princes, and all others to whom plenty and education and liberty have been given,—cannot, I think, look upon the inane, unintellectual, and tossed-bound life of those who cannot even feed themselves sufficiently by their sweat, without some feeling of injustice, some feeling of pain.
He then went on to describe both conservatism and his own brand of liberalism:
This consciousness of wrong has induced in many enthusiastic but unbalanced minds a desire to set all things right by a proclaimed equality. In their efforts such men have shown how powerless they are in opposing the ordinances of the Creator. For the mind of the thinker and the student is driven to admit, though it be awestruck by apparent injustice, that this inequality is the work of God. Make all men equal to-day, and God has so created them that they shall be all unequal to-morrow. The so-called Conservative, the conscientious, philanthropic Conservative, seeing this, and being surely convinced that such inequalities are of divine origin, tells himself that it is his duty to preserve them. He thinks that the preservation of the welfare of the world depends on the maintenance of those distances between the prince and the peasant by which he finds himself to be surrounded; and, perhaps, I may add, that the duty is not unpleasant, as he feels himself to be one of the princes.

But this man, though he sees something, and sees that very clearly, sees only a little. The divine inequality is apparent to him, but not the equally divine diminution of that inequality. That such diminution is taking place on all sides is apparent enough; but it is apparent to him as an evil, the consummation of which it is his duty to retard. He cannot prevent it; and, therefore, the society to which he belongs is, in his eyes, retrograding. He will even, at times, assist it; and will do so conscientiously, feeling that, under the gentle pressure supplied by him, and with the drags and holdfasts which he may add, the movement would be slower than it would become if subjected to his proclaimed and absolute opponents. Such, I think, are Conservatives; and I speak of men who, with the fear of God before their eyes and the love of their neighbours warm in their hearts, endeavour to do their duty to the best of their ability.

Using the term which is now common, and which will be best understood, I will endeavour to explain how the equally conscientious Liberal is opposed to the Conservative. He is equally aware that these distances are of divine origin, equally averse to any sudden disruption of society in quest of some Utopian blessedness; but he is alive to the fact that these distances are day by day becoming less, and he regards this continual diminution as a series of steps towards that human millennium of which he dreams. He is even willing to help the many to ascend the ladder a little, though he knows, as they come up towards him, he must go down to meet them. What is really in his mind is,—I will not say equality, for the word is offensive, and presents to the imagination of men ideas of communism, of ruin, and insane democracy,—but a tendency towards equality. In following that, however, he knows that he must be hemmed in by safeguards, lest he be tempted to travel too quickly; and, therefore, he is glad to be accompanied on his way by the repressive action of a Conservative opponent. Holding such views, I think I am guilty of no absurdity in calling myself an advanced Conservative-Liberal. A man who entertains in his mind any political doctrine, except as a means of improving the condition of his fellows, I regard as a political intriguer, a charlatan, and a conjurer—as one who thinks that, by a certain amount of wary wire-pulling, he may raise himself in the estimation of the world.
Trollope gives his own political views to Plantagenet Palliser, as Duke of Omnium, in The Prime Minister.

The chapter is an interesting one, in part because it establishes the growing friendship of the Duke with Phineas Finn, who has, at the end of the preceding book, Phineas Redux, married the Duchess's confidante, Madame Max Goesler. By dint of that friendship, Finn and the Duke are thrown into closer contact, and gradually a friendship is formed.

Of course, the chapter is also problematic because Phineas's political views are, in this chapter, presented as somewhat more conservative than the Duke's. The fire-breathing radical of his two starring appearances is seemingly co-opted into the complacency of the upper class after having been accepted by it. It's only one line in a chapter, and I could have ignored it, as Phineas's other appearances in that novel and The Duke's Children are pretty characteristic of the man--but I felt that would be dishonest.

So Phineas at Bay is, in part, a story of finding one's way back to one's true self--and not just for Phineas. The Duke of Omnium, nearing his sixtieth birthday, the son of Phineas's old friend and rival Lord Chiltern, and even that old rascal the Rev. Joseph Emilius and the larcenous Lizzie Eustace are all confronted with the question that to me defines Trollope's best work:

Who am I, underneath the costumes and greasepaint of the roles I have played?

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