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Love in a time of politics.

The Political Romance of Modernity in Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Redux.

Duke University.

[Graduate Trollope Prize Winner 2014]

Domestic Politics and the Novel

Anthony Trollope, as photographed by Napoleon Sarony.  Taken from Wikimedia Foundation.HIS LIFELONG DESIRE to enter Parliament unfulfilled, the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope set out to speak politically through his fiction.1 Tellingly, however, he found that he could not produce novels about politics without including “love and intrigue” (Autobiography 317). Trollope’s comment points to a complex relationship between romance and politics in Victorian fiction. Orienting itself within Victorian studies’ ongoing reexamination of political liberalism, this essay will investigate that relationship in Trollope’s political novels from the years surrounding the Second Reform Act of 1867.2

According to Nancy Armstrong’s influential theory of the British novel, domestic novels diffuse ideology by translating the political into the domestic; the domestic thus contains political tensions (Desire and Domestic Fiction). In Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels (1864-1879), however, the translation is far from smooth and the containment rarely complete. This series of six political novels provides “an anthropology of upper-class Britain at the height of its empire” (Gagnier 238), and in doing so it focuses precisely and extensively on the connections between romance and politics. While the entire Palliser series is germane to my argument, in this paper I examine Phineas Redux (1874) in context of contemporary theoretical texts by John Stuart Mill and Henry Sumner Maine. Kathy Psomiades argues that beginning in the 1860s novels “use sex/domesticity/marriage less as a disguise for the political than as a theoretical tool for thinking about political life” (Psomaides, “Marriage” 58). Like Psomiades, I see a “mutually constitutive relationship” between fiction and theory in this period (“Marriage” 54). Therefore, my approach to Phineas Redux moves cautiously away from viewing novels as primarily reproducers of ideology and instead conceives of the novel as a site of political thought.

Applying this approach to Phineas Redux necessitates scrutinizing the marriage plots of this political novel. Sharon Marcus persuasively argues that the first Palliser novel, Can You Forgive Her? (1864-65), resists the modern ideal of marriage as an egalitarian contract and instead represents contract as “the point where modernity becomes primitive” (244). Marcus’ reading contends that the novel “eliminates its heroine’s freedom of contract” by subsuming it into a patriarchal marriage (250). It is perfectly true that Alice Vavasor and other Trollopian women, including Lady Glencora Palliser herself, are subdued into marriage with imagery of violence or coercion that resonates with Victorian anthropologist John McLennan’s descriptions of primitive marriage. However, while Phineas Redux invokes traditional models of marriage as alliance between families and as patriarchal tyranny, it does so only to displace them: the climactic union between Marie Goesler and Phineas Finn is “an even partnership” (565). Without contesting Marcus’ reading of the earlier novel, I maintain that Phineas Redux ultimately endorses marriage as a voluntary and egalitarian contract—perhaps owing to the influence of Mill’s On the Subjection of Women (1869) and the debates surrounding the Second Reform Act.

cover of the first print edition of Phineas Redux.  Source: Wiki.I propose that Phineas Redux uses the marriage plot of Phineas Finn and Marie Goesler to explore the reform-era problem of expanding participation in the state. Because reform-era political discourse such as Mill’s On the Subjection of Women theoretically links marriage with the state, the form of marriage enacted in the novel can be read as a model for the modern state. The novel turns to the marital fortunes of these aspirants to the governing class as a way of reconceptualizing that class and the state itself. As Lauren Goodlad observes, the Palliser novels ask, “Can [the patrician elite] of born-and-bred rulers reinvent itself and British governance along with it? Can it assimilate the ambitious outsiders that modernity so plentifully furnishes?” (“Parliament” 449). Through Phineas Finn’s politico-marriage plot and the egalitarian partnership in which it culminates, the novel conceptualizes the integration of the racial outsiders and middle class upstarts into political life. On one level, Phineas and Marie’s non-reproductive marriage appears to contain a racial threat by preventing the Irishman and the supposed Jewess from marrying into the aristocracy. More significantly, however, these outsiders’ politically enabling and egalitarian marriage contract provides a model for expanding participation in democracy. Through Phineas and Marie’s marriage plot, Phineas Redux advances a theory of Britain not as a pure and traditional nation but as an inclusive and modern state.

Constitutional Marriage

MARRIAGE AND THE STATE ARE LINKED IN VICTORIAN political discourse of both the theoretical and fictional varieties, and this connection becomes particularly charged in the reform-era Palliser series. I want to frame the forthcoming reading of marriage and politics in Phineas Redux (1873) by examining the ways in which John Stuart Mill interweaves marriage and political theory in On the Subjection of Women (1869). Contrary to some earlier Trollope scholars, I suggest that Mill’s thought significantly influences Trollope’s fiction of the late 1860s and 1870s, notably including Phineas Redux. My reading of Mill will demonstrate that he employs marriage as a way of figuring constitutional arrangements and that he also uses constitutional terms to construct his ideal marriage. In other words, Mill uses marriage to think about the constitution and the constitution to think about marriage. Establishing this theoretical resonance between marriage and the constitution allows me to suggest that in addressing marriage, Phineas Redux implicitly invokes constitutional issues.3 The novel takes up the figure of marriage in order to foreground abstract political issues that, as a novel, it would otherwise struggle to accommodate; marriage is a site for the novel to think politically. In endorsing a recognizably Millian model of marriage, therefore, Phineas Redux implicitly proposes a model for the modern state.

John Stuart Mill.No one did more than John Stuart Mill to establish women’s political enfranchisement and marriage law reform in the cultural consciousness. Indeed, it was Mill who most firmly linked marriage reform to constitutional reform: he famously, if unsuccessfully, sought to amend the Reform Bill to extend suffrage to propertied women. In The Subjection of Women (1869), Mill employs political theory to argue for equality for women in marriage. He claims, “Not a word can be said for despotism in the family which cannot be said for political despotism” (506). While Britain has evolved past the point of political tyranny and would not tolerate it, society continues to enable retrograde despotism through the husband’s almost unlimited power in marriage. I am more interested in the theoretical move than in Mill’s specific argument: he advocates marital reform by drawing an equation between the family and the state. Because the family and the state are homologous structures, the state of marriage is made to appear retrograde next to political progress. Mill also advances the ideal model of marriage in explicitly constitutional terms: “The natural arrangement is a division of powers between the two; each being absolute in the executive branch of their own department, and any change of system and principle requiring the consent of both” (513). He likens the husband and wife to the executives of separate but equal branches of government; this little constitution even provides for amendment by mutual consent. If Britain had a written constitution, it would use precisely this kind of language. Each marriage, therefore, is like a little state.

Much as he uses constitutional terms to explain the ideal marriage, Mill also refers to constitutional evolution to explain and justify marriage reform. In comparing the political evolution of the British constitution to marriage, Mill associates women with the House of Commons4:

The Commons began by claiming a few municipal privileges; they next asked an exemption for themselves from being taxed without their own consent; but they would at that time have thought it a great presumption to claim any share in the king’s sovereign authority. The case of women is not the only case in which to rebel against established rules is still looked upon with the same eyes as was formerly a subject’s claim to the right of rebelling against his king. (556)

IN CONTEXT, MILL is rebutting an argument that women do not need to be empowered in marriage because they are not collectively clamoring against their husbands. Again, however, I am here concerned less with the specific point than with Mill’s larger move, which is to draw an analogy between the Commons in the constitutional evolution of Britain and women in a marriage. As the wife in a constitutional marriage with the monarch, the House of Commons eventually gained a position of equal (and ultimately greater) power. For Mill, the marriage contract should evolve to empower wives just as the constitution evolved to empower the House of Commons.

Mill’s ideal model for modern marriage is the business contract…

Mill’s ideal model for modern marriage is the business contract—a model that he puts forward to outflank a political theory-inflected defense of traditional marriage. He anticipates that opponents might defend traditional marriage on the grounds that “[i]n a family, as in a state, some on person must be the ultimate ruler” (512). He turns to the business contract in order to show that not all forms of “voluntary association”—a category in which he seems to group marriage, business partnerships, and the state itself—require an absolute sovereign (512). He argues that, unlike in traditional marriage, in a business partnership there is no automatic inequality of power between partners. Rather, the “articles of agreement” would stipulate any desired division of powers or functions; similarly, if a married couple wished to prescribe any conditions on their relationship they could “pre-appoint it by the marriage contract” (513). Unlike the traditional marriage contract, the modern business contract does not automatically impose unequal relations between the contracting parties. While the contract that establishes the partnership could be used to arrange different roles or powers, the two partners (at least theoretically) enter the contract and agree to its terms on a voluntary and equal basis. Mill proposes a parallel system for marriage: the two partners would be equal and the exact terms of their relationship would be arranged between them according to their preferences and abilities. If desired, they could formally stipulate their roles in a prenuptial contract. In essence, this contract is gender-neutral. Mill acknowledges that in the present condition of society, the husband would still usually have more control due to his greater age and income, but it is equally possible that the wife could play the leading role under the appropriate circumstances. Ultimately, for Mill, the ideal situation is de facto as well as de jure equality. The “ideal of marriage” is a true partnership between two persons of “that best kind of equality, similarity of powers and capacities” (575). Mill describes the ideal marriage as a true partnership among equals. Notably, this model has political implications in that he describes both marriage and the state as forms of voluntary association.

Title page of the first printing of Phineas Finn.  Taken from Wikimedia Foundation.Evidence of Mill’s political positions and, I argue, his linking of marriage and the state are evident in Trollope’s fiction of the late 1860s and 1870s. An earlier generation of Trollope scholarship minimized Mill’s influence on the novelist. John Halperin (1977), for example, concludes somewhat dismissively that “Trollope’s own knowledge of Mill was doubtful” (39).5 More recent scholarship has, however, demonstrated Mill’s significant influence on Trollope. Deborah Morse finds that Mill and other Liberal friends substantially influenced Trollope, especially as regards the 1870 Married Women’s Property Act (80). Intriguingly, Morse also reveals that Trollope once stated, “Stuart Mill is the only man in the whole world for the sake of seeing whom I would leave my own house on a Sunday” (qtd. in Morse 80). Given that characters in both Phineas Finn (1867-8) and He Knew He Was Right (1869) directly reference Mill’s arguments about women, the resonances between Mill’s theory and Trollope’s fiction are quite clear.6

Phineas Redux takes up Mill’s husband/wife analogy for the constitutional relationship between the sovereign and the House of Commons but actually reverses its terms, figuring the monarch as the wife and the Commons as the husband. I point to this analogy simply to provide a specific example of the novel, like Mill’s theory, readily adopting marriage as a figure for conceptualizing the construction of the state. The construct of the constitutional marriage between branches of government emerges in a debate between Phineas Finn and the Liberal party functionary Barrington Erle. Erle declares that “‘the constitution of the country requires that [the monarch] should submit to dictation’” and that such dictation can only “‘come safely from . . . a majority in the House of Commons’” (144). Phineas concedes only that “‘[the sovereign] must submit to advice’” (143). With Mill’s comparison of the Commons’ role in the state to the wife’s in marriage in mind, this passage seems to adopt the same marital metaphor to explicate constitutional evolution: Is the Commons now empowered to act like a tyrannical husband? Or is the constitutional arrangement a more egalitarian one of mutual advice and consent? Significantly, the aristocratic Erle stands upon a model of dictation and submission while the modern Phineas argues for a more egalitarian relationship. Phineas’ constitutional vision, therefore, aligns with the type of marriage contract he will ultimately enact. If the novel, like Mill’s text, adopts the marriage contract to explain a constitutional problem in this particular instance, it is perhaps not unreasonable to propose that Phineas’ own marriage ultimately enacts a model for the state.

The debates surrounding the Second Reform Act of 1867 bring the constitutional issue of expanding participation in democracy to the forefront of the cultural consciousness. After the Reform Act, “even if most people still were not enfranchised, they were at least presented to the imagination as inevitably one day being so” (Psomiades, “Marriage,” 54). My contention is that the novel engages with the political problem of expanding participation in the state through plots about integrating outsiders and upstarts into the governing class—in other words, through figuring out what to do with the Phineas Finns of the world. Through my analysis of Mill, I hope to have shown that on a theoretical level marriage and the state are presented as homologous structures that can be used to theorize each other. In other words, the marriage contract can serve as a figure for the constitution, and marriage itself can become a figure for the state. The reverse can also be true, as evidenced by Mill’s use of constitutional language to describe his model of marriage. Thus, marital contracts and the political constitution are mutually invocative. With this framework, we can read proceed to read Phineas’ marriage as a model for the modern state.

Contract with Status

Taken From the Wikimedia Foundation.MARITAL ALLIANCE IS the traditional way of incorporating individuals from the middle class into the aristocracy and, more broadly, of forming alliances between families. In this way, the marriage of Lady Laura Standish and Robert Kennedy serves to ally a middle class upstart with the aristocracy, but this match swiftly disintegrates under the force of Kennedy’s tyranny.7 In Phineas Redux, Phineas declines the opportunity to ally himself in this way by marrying the widowed Lady Laura, thereby creating space for his match with Marie Goesler. Thus, Phineas Redux extensively invokes the alliance marriage but ultimately discards it, providing in its place a Millian model of marriage as contract. In this sense, the novel seems to endorse Victorian jurist Henry Sumner Maine’s famous thesis that “the movement of the progressive societies has hitherto been a movement from Status to Contract” (141). Maine’s Ancient Law (1861) argues that ancient society consisted of family groups bound together by blood (or by the legal fiction of a blood relationship) and subject to tyrannical patriarchal rule. As society progressed, voluntary contracts between individuals gradually displaced the involuntary association of the family. A few archaic holdovers from traditional patriarchy persist into modern society, marriage law among them (Maine 131). Maine is useful here because although Phineas Redux adopts a Millian model of marriage as contract, status and alliance remain important for the novel. The novel does not envision a society composed of voluntary contracts between anyone and everyone: radical modernity this is not. While alliance by marriage is not Phineas’ fate, he must nonetheless associate with and fashion himself after the hereditary aristocracy. Even as Phineas Redux opts for marriage as egalitarian contract instead of marriage as family alliance, it suggests that access to the governing class, and thus to the modern democracy it represents, should be limited to those who possess or acquire elements of traditional status.

The Palliser novels present marriage and political office as the two major doors into the governing class, and they grapple with the problems of who should be permitted entry and how best to guard the portals. Figures like Barrington Erle and the Duke of St. Bungay serve as gatekeepers to political office, much as Lady Glencora’s matchmaking controls access to aristocratic marriage. Prospective upstarts are measured against the traditional virtues of the hereditary aristocracy. The Trollopian narrator rhapsodically describes the Liberal aristocracy:

There is probably more of the flavor of political aristocracy to be found still remaining among our Liberal leading statesmen . . . The old hereditary Whig Cabinet ministers . . . [retain] something of the feeling of high blood, of rank, and of living in a park with deer about it . . . They still entertain a pride in their Cabinets . . . The Charles James Fox element of liberality still holds its own, and the fragrance of Cavendish is essential . . . (284)

Trollope’s theory of the heredity of political virtues enables this “advanced conservative Liberal” to reconcile progress with investment in the hereditary aristocracy (Autobiography 294).8 A radical reformer would hardly see an inherited sense of living in a deer park as a recommendation for a cabinet minister, but Trollope does. His logic is that certain valuable and mostly intangible traits (the “flavor,” “feeling,” “pride,” “fragrance” of inherited liberalism) inhere in the old political families.

Importantly, the novel allows room for outsiders like Phineas to acquire the political virtues of the hereditary elite. In other words, it is possible to acquire status through association rather than through blood or aristocratic alliance. Barrington Erle explains this possibility to our hero9:

‘I do believe in the patriotism of certain families. I believe that the Mildmays, the FitzHowards, and the Pallisers have for some centuries brought up their children to regard the well-being of their country as their highest personal interest, and that such teaching has been generally efficacious . . . You have come in for some of the teaching, and I expect to see you a scholar yet.’ (145)

These pure aristocratic families appear to be holdouts from a Mainian traditional society, but the novel does not present them as harmful anachronisms. Important political virtues are especially but not exclusively prevalent in these old political families. Because Erle and others have educated Phineas in the ways of the political aristocracy, Phineas has the opportunity to acquire their political virtues. Phineas’ education is part of the narrative of his alliance with aristocratic families—the plot that would logically culminate in Phineas’ marriage to Lady Laura. While Phineas finds an alternative path to political inclusion, the education he obtains by associating with aristocratic families is part of what renders him fit to be included at all.

In order to transition to modernity smoothly and without violence, a limited number of outsiders and upstarts must be assimilated into the political aristocracy, but only after proving their fitness. Even the old Whig Duke of St. Bungay recognizes that “exclusiveness” in who governs the country no longer “suit[s] the nation”—although it is “pleasant to himself” (284). Maintaining the governing class on principles of tradition and purity no longer suits the modern state. The sound policy, then, is to moderate the exclusiveness, but carefully. The novel addresses this issue in the person of Mr. Bonteen, a somewhat uncouth politician from an undistinguished background who is briefly considered to take Palliser’s place as Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Duke of St. Bungay reflects on Bonteen’s rise:

Bonteens must creep into the holy places. The faces which he loved to see,—born chiefly of other faces he had loved when young,—could not cluster around the sacred table without others who were much less welcome to him . . . There must be Bonteens;—but when any Bonteen came up, who loomed before him as specially disagreeable, it seemed to him to be a duty to close the door against such a one, if it could be closed without violence. A constant, gentle pressure against the door would tend to keep down the number of Bonteens. (284)

THIS IS THE novel’s clearest articulation of the feeling of the old hereditary aristocracy towards the “ambitious outsiders that modernity so plentifully furnishes” (Goodlad, “Parliament,” 449). While they might prefer to preserve family-based purity, they concede that some outsiders must be admitted—but only if they are not too disagreeable. The big problem with Bonteen is that he is an “ill-conditioned man” (545). Bonteen has not fashioned the kind of character that would render him palatable to the St. Bungays of the world. He has not acquired elements of status, so the door must be closed to him. Phineas is acutely conscious of this logic. Thus, when his confrontation with Kennedy mars his political standing, he worries that “‘[i]t shuts the door to me for ever and ever’” (287). While many sins might be forgiven of the son of a peer, the son of an Irish country doctor must maintain an impeccable character or risk being locked out like just another Bonteen.

Lady Glencora, as illustrated by Miss E. Taylor of St. Leonards.  Taken from Gutenberg.orgIn Phineas Redux and throughout the series, Plantagenet Palliser embodies the tension between modernity and tradition, between contract and status. Palliser’s pathos lies in the fact that he occupies a position and possesses a character poised on the boundary between tradition and modernity but lacks the flexibility comfortably to balance the two. Palliser is both heir to a dukedom and something of a self-made man. He is “crushed” that he can no longer be Chancellor of the Exchequer, a position “he had won for himself by his own aptitudes and his own industry,” when he is “obliged” to ascend to the peerage as Duke of Omnium (183).10 Palliser prides himself on rising on merit. He occupies his aristocratic position, but uneasily: his character contains element of both status and contract. For instance, when Marie Goesler wishes to decline money and jewels left to her under the late duke’s will, Palliser insists on the contractual nature of the transaction: “property [is] property,” he declares, opining that a will is “ a very serious thing” and that refusing money “in such circumstances . . . could not be done” (212). From the businesslike stance of “a man who had been Chancellor of the Exchequer,” Palliser insists upon the old duke’s individual right to bequeath assets to whomever he wishes, declining to acknowledge the impropriety of leaving wealth outside the family to a woman perceived to be his mistress (212). In a gesture that helps to establish her own suitability for assimilation, Goesler declines the bequest on grounds of status, while Palliser insists upon it on grounds of contract. In the end, Lady Glencora, a rare character who understands both the old and the new ways, negotiates a compromise in which the needs of status are met through a series of contracts. The tension between these two sides of Plantagenet’s character and Glencora’s efforts to negotiate between them are major reasons why their own marriage plot so effectively binds together a series about modernizing British politics.11

The key is that, in this period of transition and reconstitution of the governing class, status is still necessary. In a sense, this is Trollope’s modification of both Mill and Maine. He joins them in seeing contract as an important element of modernity, but he is not prepared to cast tradition entirely to the winds. For Trollope, a peaceful transition to modernity requires the stabilizing element of the old hereditary aristocracy, the members of which must therefore take pains to maintain their status even if they must slowly concede purity. While the “history of political ideas” may be based on “the assumption that kinship in blood is the sole possible ground of community in political functions” (Maine 124), Phineas Redux gives us a governing class that must learn to incorporate new members and share their inherited political virtues. Likewise, successful aspirants to the governing classes must learn to adopt the virtues of the hereditary governors. The novel addresses the romantic fortunes of such aspiring outsiders in order to theorize contractual marriage as a mechanism for this moderated assimilation.

The Politics of Romance

POLITICAL SUCCESS DEFINES and delimits the world of Phineas Redux (and the other Palliser novels), and that success is both enabled and undermined by the domestic. Phineas’ political friend and former love interest Laura Standish writes that she “cannot conceive of [Phineas] as living any other life than that of the House of Commons” (49). I am not sure that Trollope can conceive of Phineas living another life any more than Laura can. Phineas’ period of domestic bliss with his short-lived Irish wife occurs in the brief interregnum between Phineas Finn and Phineas Redux. These novels cannot accommodate the purely domestic. Indeed, Phineas’ wife’s death provides the inciting force for the novel’s plot; Redux opens with her death. Phineas reenters the Trollopian world, where in the meantime everyone has been looking for Lizzie Eustace’s diamonds, when it comes to the attention of various Liberal functionaries that he has been widowed and is therefore eligible for political resurrection. It is not the fact of his marriage that disqualifies Phineas for politics; it is the fact that he is married to a poor Irish girl in Dublin. In a novel from an earlier period, this tidy endogamous marriage, underwritten by a good salary, would be precisely what is required to contain any political threat that Phineas may pose or represent. His comfortable middle class domesticity is incompatible with political agency, and he is therefore dead to the political world until his wife becomes in fact dead. But Phineas Finn then gets another shot at the marriage plot—and the political plot.

The novel will provide a model of marriage through which an outsider like Phineas can continue to live within the political class, but first it shows the models that do not work.

In a parallel case, Laura Standish and Robert Kennedy’s domestic failure necessitates their departure from the political world. After their marriage, “the ill-matched pair had been divided, with absolute ruin to both of them . . . Then [Phineas], too, had been ejected, as it were, out of the world” (69). Kennedy, a onetime cabinet minister, and Laura, a formerly influential political kingmaker, must leave the political world because of their domestic failure much as Phineas must leave it because of his success in the wrong kind of domesticity. The novel will provide a model of marriage through which an outsider like Phineas can continue to live within the political class, but first it shows the models that do not work. The failed Kennedy/Laura match, which is both an alliance between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie and an outmoded marriage of patriarchal tyranny, enables the novel to discard these other forms of marriage.

The novel sets up a problem of which characters are modern, liberal subjects and of what renders them fit to be so. The problem with the Laura/Kennedy marriage plot is that both ultimately prove to be bad subjects and therefore cannot continue to function politically or to inhabit the world of the novel—which, in the Trollope of the Pallisers, is the same thing. Hence, we leave Kennedy dead in Scotland and Laura living “the life of a recluse” in her father’s country seat (569). Lady Laura breaks a rule of the marriage plot: she marries for money and power rather than love. As she later realizes, “‘I tried to blaze into power by a marriage, and I failed,—because I was a woman. A woman should marry only for love’” (87-8). Laura marries Kennedy because she conflates politics with love. But her greatest sins are failing to know herself and being unable to control her passions. She has to “‘[find] out’” too late that Phineas was to her “‘the dearest of human beings,’” and then she is “‘obliged to separate you . . . because, after all [she] was so mere a woman that [she] could not bear to have [him] near [her]’” (87-8). She resolves, then, that she must “‘kill it out of [her] heart, even though [she] should crucify [her] body,’” but “‘it is not [her] love’” that she must kill (87-8). Laura draws a distinction between sexual desire and an elevated, companionate love. The problem is that she does not recognize in time the power of her desire. She fails to “discover it, to liberate it, to articulate it,” and so she has to “find out” too late (Foucault 156). She must kill her desire, not her love. But ultimately, she cannot do so. Phineas concludes that her inability to “rid herself of her passion in the course of years” is “a folly opposed to the very instincts of man and woman” and “a weakness showing want of fibre and muscle in the character” (142). Laura proves to be a bad subject because she fails first to know herself and second to rule her passion.

IN KENNEDY’S CASE, it is difficult to tell what motivates this cold, dry Scotsman to marry, other than that a single man with a good fortune must want a wife. What is clear is that he cannot govern his wife or, ultimately, himself. Kennedy is a firm master for Lady Laura, so that “in his house politics [loses] all the flavor” and “household duties under the tutelage of Mr Kennedy” become “impossible to her” (498). When his wife flees from his repressive regime, he begins to descend into madness. In a scene laden with sexual imagery, Kennedy raises a fire poker with the apparent intention of striking Phineas, but “gradually” lowers it “towards the fire” when Phineas “stretche[s] himself to his full height” (74-5). Kennedy appears ready to engage in violence, but Phineas’ superior virility renders him impotent. In a parallel scene, he attempts to shoot Phineas, but he fumbles awkwardly with the gun and misses his target (167). As William Cohen observes, “Trollope often associates physical violence with men at the extremes,” representatives of the “old, outmoded order against which he distinguishes his vision of modernity” (52). This act of violence forces Kennedy beyond the pale: in a spectacular fall from liberal subjecthood, the erstwhile cabinet minister descends into madness, legal incapacity, seclusion, and an early death.

I would suggest that the need to establish his natural nobility is what compels Phineas to resign his seat and decline the offer of government office—precisely what an adventurer would not do.

Phineas Finn and Marie Goesler, both outsiders seeking assimilation into the governing class, carefully fashion themselves into liberal individuals fit for social and political ascendancy. Phineas and Marie are doubles for Robert Kennedy and Laura Standish. As Robert and Laura disqualify themselves as liberal subjects, Phineas and Marie experience trials that enable them to prove themselves. Phineas’ trial for the murder of Bonteen both threatens Phineas’ position in the governing class and allows him to defend his status as a liberal subject. Phineas has carefully fashioned himself into a good subject, practicing an aesthetic of the self: he declares that the real murderer “will have hidden his face, and have been a murderer in more than deed” (431). Phineas asks, “[D]id it seem to them that I was a murderer? Has my life been like that? They who have really known me cannot believe that I have been guilty” (431). Phineas defends himself not on the basis of what he has done but of who he is and how he lives. He is broken down by the possibility that “the leading men and woman of his day” would think him “a base adventurer unworthy of their society!” (429). Here, Phineas’ concern with his (aspirational) peers’ opinions of him testifies to the Darwinian principle that “the praise and blame of our fellow-men” is “the most powerful stimulus to the development of the social virtues” (Darwin 164). Phineas’ noble behavior during and after his trial more than redeems him. In fact, I would suggest that the need to establish his natural nobility is what compels Phineas to resign his seat and decline the offer of government office—precisely what an adventurer would not do. Marie’s character undergoes a similar trajectory. Fittingly, the offers that she must decline are in the private sphere: the old duke’s repeated marriage proposals and his bequeathed wealth. “‘Such a thing will never be done by me,’” Marie declares (176-7). As outsiders, both Marie and Phineas must carefully and self-consciously establish their noble, liberal characters in order to overcome the gentle and not-so-gentle pressure designed to exclude them and separate themselves from the ranks of ill-conditioned adventurers.

Thus, Phineas’ and Marie’s marriage plot culminates in their marriage as well as their successful integration into the governing classes. When Phineas stands trial for the murder actually committed by Emilius to cover up bigamy, the evidence suggests that only Marie Goesler’s extraordinary investigations save Phineas from conviction and possible execution. Motivated by love for Phineas, Marie goes “to Prague, to Cracow . . . spending her wealth, employing her wits” in order to find the evidence that vindicates him (463). In my reading, this extraordinary exertion enables her to displace the now-widowed Laura Standish as the eligible match for Phineas. Of course, by inhabiting the role of a detective and travelling independently across Europe to redeem the man she loves, Marie leaps far out of the feminine sphere—even as her public actions are romantically motivated. Marie overcomes Laura in yet another way: she carefully moderates her love for Phineas over the course of two novels, so that by the time they finally come together she has recovered from his earlier rejection and is “‘not broken hearted a bit’” (566). Controlling her passion is precisely what Laura Standish cannot do. The Liberal governing class and the Government they lead generally accept Phineas’ guilt and prosecute him vigorously; Marie’s intervention saves the leading Liberals from a gross miscarriage of justice against one of their own. Marie earns her position by saving the governing class from itself.

IT MAY SEEM to be against the force of the plot that has been building up for two novels that Phineas does not ultimately marry Lady Laura and through her gain a position in an old aristocratic family and usurp Robert Kennedy’s wealth. After all, he has been almost inhabiting the position of the son of the Earl of Brentford’s Standish family since before the beginning of Phineas Finn: he acts as suitor first to Lady Laura Standish and then to Violet Effingham, the future wife of Laura’s brother; he fights a duel with Lord Chiltern, the earl’s son, over Violet’s hand; he sits for Lord Brentford’s pocket borough, the traditional parliamentary seat of a member of the family; and he is at different times the favored friend of Laura’s brother, father, and husband. But in the end, Phineas rejects Laura and chooses Marie (in Phineas Finn, he had rejected Marie and been rejected by Laura). On one level, for an outsider to infiltrate the heart of an aristocratic family might strain the novel’s ideological limits too far.12 But not only “base adventurers” like Joseph Emilius (George Vavasor, Ferdinand Lopez) must be kept out of the governing classes. So too must bad aristocrats (Burgo Fitzgerald). Ultimately, like her savage brother Chiltern, Laura is an outmoded aristocrat who cannot control her desires; she cannot function as a modern liberal individual. Elsie B. Michie has revealed Victorian novels’ anxiety about propertied women like Laura marrying exogamously (428), and in one sense Marie’s outsider status neutralizes that ideological tension. But on a theoretical level the Phineas/Laura marriage plot must give way to the Phineas/Marie marriage plot in order for the novel to formulate a model of egalitarian marriage between two tried and true liberal individuals from outside the aristocracy.

Their marriage is based on love, but carefully moderated love aligned with the worldly interests of both parties. When Phineas expresses doubts about his poverty compared to her vast wealth, Marie declares, “‘If you ever remind me of that again I will strike you . . . Between you and me there must be nothing more about that. It must be an even partnership’” (565). Marie’s jesting threat of violence underscores how different their marriage will be from an old model of husbandly tyranny and wifely submission. Importantly, this is a love match. While in the earlier novel Phineas rejects her marriage proposal, over the course of Phineas Redux we see him gradually becoming aware of his love for her, and on Marie’s side she has “‘never ceased to love’” him (566). Along with love comes genuine partnership in worldly affairs; she stipulates that he will be an equal partner in managing her property and takes legal steps to make it so (565-7). Their marriage, preceded by what amounts to a verbal prenuptial contract, seems perfectly to enact Mill’s ideal modern marriage. This liberal marriage is Trollope’s model for the successful integration of outsiders into the governing class. Indeed, Lady Glencora Palliser, now the Duchess of Omnium, testifies to the extent of their acceptance by inviting them to be married from the Pallisers’ aptly named Matching Priory alongside the duke’s niece.

title page for the first edition of The Prime Minister by Anthony Trollope.  Taken from Wikimedia Foundation.INSOFAR AS THEIR marriage nullifies their outsider status by preventing either of them from infiltrating the aristocracy through marriage—an opportunity that both Marie and Phineas decline—it can be seen as performing a containing function. But this is not like Phineas’ earlier marriage, which clearly contains his foreignness and his political dissent by relegating him to an unthreatening domestic existence in Ireland. No, this match actually enables political agency not just for Phineas, but for Marie as well. As the novel closes, we learn that Phineas “will of course go into office before long” (569). In The Prime Minister (1876), he does, and so after a fashion does his wife. The later novel finds Phineas and Marie acting as political aides-de-camp to their respective chiefs, Plantagenet and Glencora Palliser. When Plantagenet becomes Prime Minister, Glencora declares that she means to set up her own cabinet, with Marie as her Foreign Secretary (Prime 48). Phineas takes office in Plantagenet’s actual government, eventually playing a leading role in defending his chief from attacks over Glencora’s indiscretions. Politics, gender, and marriage in The Prime Minister require a more thorough treatment than I can give here, but suffice to say both Phineas and Marie go on to extensive political activity largely independently of each other. Marie Goesler is neither Dorothea Brooke finding a career in supporting her husband nor Margaret Hale providing capital for her husband’s business. In the later novels, the Finns have scarcely a shadow of a domestic life. Significantly, they never have children. Both are still in their early thirties, and we have reason to believe in their sexual desire for each other. To my mind, the reason is that to make their marriage reproductive and represent their domesticity would shift the focus away from the political and likely neutralize at least Marie’s political agency. Here, marriage is not a mechanism through which the domestic contains the political. Rather, the performance of a very specific form of marriage, a gender-neutral and non-reproductive partnership, provides a model for modernizing the governing class.

Marriage Plot Suspended/Extended

IN A WAY that harks back to oold systems of familial status and alliance, the romantic fortunes of the ruling class are always already political. It is here, therefore, that the novel turns to participate in developing a political theory for advancing modernity. Phineas Redux is central to this project, at least in Trollope’s work. In Phineas and Marie, we have outsiders who prove themselves to possess a natural nobility that renders them suitable peers for the hereditary nobility. For Elaine Hadley, Phineas’ assimilation at the heart of Trollope’s “study of British liberal culture” testifies to “the inclusive presumptions of liberalism” (230).13 Similarly, William Cohen contends that Phineas’ and Marie’s “centrality to the Palliser world indicates its capacity to accommodate a wider range of ethnic and class configurations than a strictly orthodox idea of the British ruling elite might be imagined to include” (50). I would add gender to Cohen’s list of new identities imagined within the ruling elite: it is no accident that one of our model modern subjects is a woman. In Phineas Redux, we see the novel imagining places for women, outsiders, and upstarts in the political class as it formulates the kind of marriage that would safely secure their status therein.

Phineas Redux is distinct from many earlier domestic novels in that all of the major characters are on their second marriage plot. They are contained, but then return to further political action.

In a larger sense, my reading of the Palliser novels suggests that by the 1870s the plot of pure marital containment resolved within a single novel no longer works. Phineas Redux is distinct from many earlier domestic novels in that all of the major characters are on their second marriage plot. They are contained, but then return to further political action. The marriage plot of a single novel does not open up enough space for thinking political issues, and that is why the Palliser series extends, suspends, and revisits characters’ marriage plots—why, in short, these novels have to be a series. Trollope’s great “scheme” of expressing political thought through fiction compels him to “spread [his] picture over so wide a canvas” that no single novel could contain it (Autobiography 184). Significantly, it is Plantagenet and Glencora’s very extended marriage plot that enables this expanded space for thinking about politics. Their plot begins even before the Palliser series, in The Small House at Allington (1864), but then provides the inciting force and the uniting thread for a six-novel, fifteen-year politico-romantic thought experiment. While earlier domestic novels’ ideological containment may still operate to some extent, in the political novel of the 1860s and ‘70s containment is neither permanent nor complete. Hilary Shor has recently asked, “[W]hat would it mean if we saw the novel’s quest for knowledge, its delay of the marriage plot . . . [as] a quest for different knowledge; a new form of curiosity?” (10). Shor sees the marriage plot as an opportunity for female characters to exercise political agency as the novel “indulges in” their political aspirations, “particularly when it comes to the romance of women’s rights” (9). My argument here aligns with Shor’s as regards individual characters in single novels, but for me the Palliser series as a series retools the marriage plot for thinking politically in the (second) reform era.

Novels do not deal well with political abstractions. In Nancy Armstrong’s terms, foregrounding individuals is what novels do (How Novels Think). The novel is not theory, but it does think theoretically through individuals and their relationships. Phineas Redux invokes the construct of marriage in order to represent and work through late Victorian political problems of expanding democracy. Marriage becomes a figure for the state, and the egalitarian marriage contract figures constitutional expansion. The novel employs the marriage of Phineas and Marie to model a controlled (conservative liberal) expansion of the governing class, representing democratic expansion through the marriage of these outsider, upstart figures. In the sense that Phineas and Marie’s marriage contains their foreignness and prevents them from infiltrating the aristocracy, there is containment here, but there is also a model for political inclusion. What the novel ultimately provides is a vision of modern Britain as a state composed of voluntarily participating individuals rather than as a nation of allied families. Even after the 1867 Reform Act, suffrage was still highly limited and the opportunity to serve in government even more so, but unlike politics “[m]arriage is not an institution designed for a select few” (Mill 507). In using marriage to represent modern politics, Trollope’s political novel airs the possibility of democracy expanding in terms of class, nationality, and gender.


Gregory Brennen is a graduate student at Duke University. This essay won the 2014 Trollope Prize awarded to the best entry by a graduate student.

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  1. Trollope stood as the Liberal candidate for Yorkshire borough of Beverley in 1868, but he placed last of four candidates in a corrupt election. He spent several hundred pounds on the campaign and later called the experience the “most wretched fortnight of (his) manhood” (Autobiography 300).
  2. Important contributions to this field include Amanda Anderson’s The Powers of Distance (2001), Lauren M. E. Goodlad’s Victorian Literature and the Victorian State (2003), and Elaine Hadley’s Living Liberalism (2010). For a useful survey of recent work on Victorian liberalism, see Helen Small, “The Forms of Liberalism.”
  3. Christopher Harvie persuasively argues that in Victorian Britain “political fiction” is “an important component in a constitution which, being unwritten, (is) peculiarly dependent on its political culture” (4). I would add that Trollope seems to be particularly conscious of the constitution’s open nature and of fiction’s potential to influence its interpretation. In his 1867 essay “On Sovereignty,” Trollope argues that the rules of the British constitution are “traditional rather than written” and that they “have continued to change from year to year since England had a king” (85). Various Trollope characters voice similar sentiments. Lady Glencora, for example, “studie(s) the subject carefully” and concludes that “‘anything is constitutional . . . just as you choose to look at it’” (Prime 211).
  4. Technically, Mill refers to the Commons who met in the united Parliament in its early years. The Commons first met separately in the fourteenth century and became a separate House in the sixteenth.
  5. Halperin bases his conclusion on the fact that only A System of Logic was listed in Trollope’s library catalogue, but in fact Trollope had several different catalogues printed as his collection fluctated (Grossman and Wright).
  6. Wendy Jones (Consensual Fictions) and Kathy Psomiades (“He Knew He Was Right”) each put these resonances to good use in reading He Knew He Was Right in context of On the Subjection of Women.
  7. Although one of the richest commoners in Britain, Kennedy owes his wealth to his father’s success in manufacturing. Kennedy’s willingness and ability to marry Lady Laura even though her brother’s debts have swallowed up her fortune is an important plot point in Phineas Finn; the loss of Laura’s fortune obliges her to marry Kennedy despite loving the impecunious Phineas.
  8. Textual history has rendered Trollope’s political self-identification vexing. Many scholars cite the 1883 and 1923 editions of the Autobiography, which refer to “advanced Conservative-Liberal.” This capitalization could suggest affiliation with the two parties. However, David Craig has demonstrated that Trollope’s manuscript employs the “advanced conservative Liberal” punctuation and capitalization (370, n2). This usage clarifies Trollope positioning himself within Liberal thought.
  9. I take Erle, who seems to be related to virtually every Liberal noble, as representative of the old Whig aristocracy. It is no coincidence that his name encompasses both “earl” and “baron.”
  10. Among the many quirks of the British constitution is the requirement that a peer can serve as Prime Minister but the Chancellor of the Exchequer must sit in the Commons.
  11. I would be prepared to hazard an argument that, at different times, Plantagenet and Glencora’s marriage incorporates elements of most available models of marriage.
  12. Versions of this plot are available: the bourgeois lawyer Archibald Carlyle marries an earl’s daughter in East Lynne (1861), and the drawing master Walter Hartright marries a squire’s daughter and baronet’s widow in The Woman in White (1859-60). These plots are stories of the virtuous middle classes rejuvenatinthe g (or replacing) the morally and fiscally bankrupt aristocracy. Trollope eventually gives us his version of this plot in The Duke’s Children (1879), with the marriage plots of the Palliser children. There, in my reading, the good aristocracy modernizes itself by selecting exogamous mates.
  13. Along similar lines, Goodlad concludes that “Phineas ultimately represents the kind of rejuvenating otherness that England’s ‘Venetian’ ruling class would do well to embrace” (“Parliament” 450).

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