Insane Politics Then and Now

Anthony Trollope’s social and political commentary is just as true today as in 1867

My parents were big readers. Between the two of them, I think their interests covered almost all the subjects in the Dewey Decimal System. There were always a lot of books around, and when they weren’t discussing art or looking at art or making art, they were often reading. We had quite a collection of literature to read at home, and more from the public library that they brought home every few weeks. Living out in the country far from everything, like we did, gave me a lot of free time so I read a lot of what my parents read.


“Oh Cathy, Cathy…” – Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon from the 1939 movie Wuthering Heights – the height of romance for my teen self.

In my teens I read books like Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre repeatedly – brooding over the tragic love stories and enjoying the rich imagery and language of the novels.

I discovered Melville’s Moby Dick in grade 12 English class, and read that tome 3 times.


… death-glorious ship! must ye perish, and without me? …Towards thee I roll, thou all destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee… Moby Dick

And I discovered Charles Dickens, whose books have continued to enchant me throughout my life.

Most recently I added Anthony Trollope to my reading pile. Trollope wrote around the same time as Dickens in the mid 1800’s and my parents were always encouraging me to try reading him because they enjoyed his books so much.


Trollope was a civil servant so he knew all about government from the inside. A caricature of Anthony Trollope from the mid 1800s.

It wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago, when I was looking for something to read that I picked up their old copy of Phineas Finn by Trollope. It was written in 1867 and it is remarkably modern in subject matter. It covers such topics as women’s rights, the inanity of politics and old boy networks, unhappy marriages, and the inequity of social class. No one is safe from Trollope’s caustic eye and quick humor.

The book is about Phineas Finn, the handsome young son of an Irish country doctor who finds his way by happenstance into the British Parliament, and then into high society.

Phineas is good-natured, friendly, and everyone in his circle is enchanted with him. He moves through politics without thought and happily discovers that as long as he doesn’t upset things and follows his official Party Line, his powerful friends will smooth the way for his success.

The only problem is that he is idealistic and well meaning and a passionate Liberal. He sincerely wants to help “The People” – the only snag is that sometimes his opinions on these matters differ from his fellow party members and this makes his head hurt – especially when he follows his colleagues, instead of his conscience.

When he finally recognizes that he has been blindly enjoying his newfound status and wealthy lifestyle (given to him from his wealthy, influential, and powerful friends), he deliberately sacrifices his position and comforts to vote for what he believes is right; even though its against his own Party. His Party’s entrenched stand against the Opposition Party just insults his sense of justice too much for him to do anything else… for following his conscience, he is banished back to Ireland and poverty.

He is disenchanted and broken at the end of the novel. (But believe me it is an entertaining read… despite the heavy political and social commentary.)

Trollope John Everett Millais Monkton Grange

Fox hunting was an elite pursuit in the 19th century (as it is now) and Trollope includes several characters in Phineas Finn who are obsessed with it. Its quite clear that the author didn’t care for the practice – nor do I. Illustration by John Everett Millais.

The book cleverly shows how governments operate following the old party system (considered old even in 1867!) – where members rarely vote for what is right, but vote to support their party, and defy the opposition no matter what the cost. It was true in the 19th century and just as true today – you have only to look at American, British or Canadian politics to see how divisive the party system can be.

rupert friend 1830s

Let’s pretend that this is Phineas Finn in 1867, even though its Rupert Friend in an 1830s costume from the film Young Victoria. (Its very hard to find a handsome young man from the real period.)

But there is more to the story than that. The secondary story is what truly amazes me, considering when it was written…

One of Phineas’ dear friends in London is a woman who is high born but has no money of her own. As long as she lives with her father she can enjoy political discussions, a social life, and pursue her intellectual interests. But there comes a time when she feels forced to marry for money to save her financially poor family.

She doesn’t love the man she marries and ends up suffering in a stifling, controlling marriage. She loses all her intellectual and physical freedom; she is tormented by her narrow minded, rigidly religious, miserly husband with no respite. She can’t escape – she is trapped.

Her situation is so carefully drawn by the author – so sensitively shown – it demonstrates profoundly the societal oppression of women.

1860s Duchess Sophie Charlotte

This is a portrait of Duchess Sophie Charlotte from the 1860’s – the time period of Phineas Finn. The main female characters in the book are nobility and would have dressed much the same in huge silken crinolines. National Portrait Gallery, London

There are also several high born women in the book who are adamant supporters of women’s right to vote. Just remember that the book was written in 1867 and women didn’t get the vote in many countries til just before WWII.

It surprises me how on the nose Trollope’s observations of people are – in Dickens the women are often weepy or dull simpering things. In this book Lady Laura and her contemporaries are brilliant, independent thinkers – fighting for their individuality on every page.

givenchy 2012

Givenchy 2012

philip treacy 2000

Philip Treacy 2000

I’m very happy to be alive now in the 21st century and not be subjected to arranged marriages and corsets. But we tend to applaud ourselves a bit too much sometimes – we really aren’t that much more socially advanced than our ancestors of 200 years ago (especially regarding politics) – so we shouldn’t rest on our laurels.

And I’d like to point out that some other things besides politics haven’t changed much since the 1860s… look at these contemporary couture dresses – their skirts are just like the hoop skirt in the photograph of the Duchess – in fact the Philip Treacy gown is probably corseted too, and it is ginormous – it must weigh a ton – imagine trying to move in it or even sit down?

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

(An epigram by Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr in the January 1849 issue of his journal Les Guêpes (“The Wasps”) : the more things change the more they stay the same)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s