The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Thursday, March 31, 2016

High Praise: The Trollope Jupiter on Phineas at Bay

I'm with Missy; isn't this review of Phineas at Bay by Mark Green brilliant:
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


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.
Sorry to borrow so much--there's lots I didn't borrow, and the reader will, I think, find the whole review of interest--but it's music to my ears. Green has other notes of praise and blame, but the overall assessment has made my day.

I will say that I wrote Phineas at Bay without the benefit of the much more nuanced depiction of Plantagenet Palliser
afforded by the finally released edition of The Duke's Children, having before me only the severely cut version published in Trollope's own lifetime. While I think my characterization of Palliser is consistent with Trollope's, I agree that the unabridged version could have led me to go deeper into his psyche. I also acknowledge that Sir William McScuttle has little to say for himself--not nothing, mind you; he's a practitioner of realpolitik who genuinely believes he's surrounded by hypocrites, and, having clawed his own way up the social ladder, is quite afraid of plummeting back down. I admit though, that he's less fully developed than he could have been. (Though I'm quite pleased with how Rev. Emilius and Lady Eustace came out, as my villains go.)

Still, how can I not be pleased with Green's conclusion:
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.
What author could not be happy to read that?

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