The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Mind the Gap!

(Barbara Murray and Donal McCann as Madame Max Goesler and Phineas Finn in The Pallisers)

Although no precise date is given, textual evidence, as well as the couple's childlessness, suggest that Marie ("Madame Max") Goesler is roughly a decade older than her second husband, Phineas Finn. Refreshingly, this was honored in Simon Raven's adaptation of the novels; Barbara Murray (who died earlier this year, alas!) was born in September, 1929; Donal McCann in May, 1943. The almost 14 year age gap shows on screen, but the actors have tremendous chemistry, even in the early episodes where McCann's Phineas is a bit raw. In the later episodes, especially as Phineas's woes mount, the ageless elegance Murray brings to the role (she was 45 at the time the adaptation was filmed, McCann was 31) and her charisma, as well as McCann's impetuous performance, rule out any mercenary motives; Phineas wants her, in this adaptation, as well as in the text.

Now, this is far from the usual pattern in Victorian mores; quite to the contrary, according to Ginger A. Frost:
Age differences were common among late-Victorian couples. According to Jalland in her study of the upper classes, 'The husband was expected to be older than the wife; ideally by three to seven years, since women were supposed to age faster than men.'. . .[In the breach of promise here under study,] defendants were older than plaintiffs 84 percent of the time, but the ranges were quite often higher than the ideal, since half of the older defendants were more than ten years senior to the plaintiffs. However, few people involved in the trials disapproved of these age ranges. In several cases a woman in her twenties was considered well suited to a man in his forties or fifties.
In fact, the older woman-younger man pairing is rare, and usually either comic or critical; as John Mullan notes,"Only one man in all Jane Austen’s novels marries a woman older than himself: Mr Collins, aged 25, marries Charlotte Lucas, aged 27. The disparity speaks of the unselectiveness of both parties. Yet three of Jane Austen’s own brothers married women older than themselves."

So one thing about Marie's and Phineas's marriage from the start--it's subversive. She is older--considerably so--and she is wealthy, with all the power that money brings. A total inversion of the Victorian patriarchal ideal, no? And both are from normally despised minorities--the Viennese Jewish woman, the Irish Roman Catholic man.

In trying to project out this couple's future after Anthony Trollope drew the curtain, I thought quite a lot abut their atypicality. Marie and Phineas are an uncommon partnership in Victorian literature. Much of the obvious power resides in her, yet he is not diminished thereby. Phineas has the virtue of ease in his own skin, most of the time; it it enables him to cheerfully accept the benefits of Marie's money and power just as he was willing to learn from Lady Laura the arts of politics. In continuing that trajectory and projecting it out two decades, I believe that Phineas at Bay keeps faith with the creator of these wonderful aberrations from the norms of Victorian fiction.

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