History: The novel was first published as a monthly serial from October 1867 to May 1868 in St Paul's Magazine. It is the second of the "Palliser" series of novels.
Plot: Finn is the only son of a successful Irish doctor, who sends him to London to become a lawyer. He proves to be a lackadaisical student, but being pleasant company and strikingly handsome to boot, he makes many influential friends. One of them, a fellow Irishman and politician, suggests he stand for Parliament in the coming election.
At first, the idea seems absurd. Finn is supported solely by a modest allowance from his father, but a stroke of luck clears his path. One of his father's patients is Lord Tulla, a nobleman who controls a little borough that can be contested cheaply. Lord Tulla has had a falling out with his brother, the long-time officeholder. As a result, while the staunchly Tory lord will not support the Whig Finn, neither will he hamper him. Convincing his sceptical father to provide the funds needed, Finn wins his seat by a small margin.
The closest of his London friends is his mentor, Lady Laura Standish, the daughter of the prominent Whig politician Lord Brentford. As their relationship develops, Finn considers asking for her hand in marriage, despite the great social and financial gulf between them. Lady Laura senses this, but despite her partiality for the man, monetary considerations and her own political ambitions convince her to marry the dour, extremely wealthy Robert Kennedy instead.
At first devastated, Finn soon recovers and becomes enamoured of a lovely heiress, Violet Effingham. This proves to be awkward, as both Lady Laura and Lord Brentford vehemently want her to marry (and hopefully tame) Lord Brentford's estranged son, the savage Lord Chiltern. In addition, Lady Laura encourages Finn to become acquainted with her brother. Finn and Chiltern become fast friends, which makes the situation even more uncomfortable. When Chiltern finds out that Finn is also courting Violet, he becomes infuriated and unreasonably demands that Finn withdraw. When he refuses, Chiltern insists on a duel. This is held in secret on the Continent and Finn is slightly wounded by Chiltern's shot. Eventually, Violet has to choose between her two main suitors; she somewhat fearfully decides in favour of her childhood sweetheart, Chiltern.
Meanwhile, Finn's parliamentary career gets off to a rocky start. Overawed by his august surroundings, he delivers a somewhat incoherent maiden speech. Eventually though, he becomes accustomed to his situation and grows adept at parliamentary proceedings. All is not smooth sailing however. When new elections are called, Finn is in a dilemma. Lord Tulla has reconciled with his brother and Finn has no chance of re-election. At this point, fortune favours him once again.
Late one night, Finn and Mr. Kennedy, now the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, depart Parliament at the same time. When they go their separate ways, Finn notices two men nearby who follow his colleague. Suspicious, he takes a shortcut and arrives in time to foil an attempt to garrotte and rob Kennedy. In gratitude for saving the life of his son-in-law, Lord Brentford offers him the seat for the pocket borough of Loughton. With the nobleman's support, the election is a foregone conclusion.
Finn's heroic feat exacerbates the growing rift between Lady Laura and her husband. Their temperaments clash; Mr. Kennedy disapproves of his wife's interest in politics. Moreover, to her intense dismay, Lady Laura finds she has great difficulty suppressing her true feelings for Finn and Kennedy becomes suspicious. Eventually, she becomes so desperately unhappy, she flees to the Continent, where English law cannot force her to return to her husband's household.
In the meantime, Finn makes the acquaintance of a charming, clever foreigner, Madame Max Goesler, the young and beautiful widow of a rich Jewish banker. More materially, he is appointed to a well paid government position, where he excels. It seems as if he is finally secure.
However, Lord Brentford learns of the duel with his son and withdraws his support for the next election. Second, Finn finds himself opposed to his own party on a particularly thorny issue. His scruples force him to resign his office.
With his political career in shambles, Finn seeks consolation from Madame Max. In an unexpected development, she offers him her hand and her wealth in marriage. Finn is greatly tempted, but in the end, returns to Ireland to marry his faithful, long-time sweetheart, Mary Flood Jones. As a parting reward for his hard work, his party obtains a comfortable sinecure for him in the Irish government.
Review: Phineas Finn is a book of many virtues and one unfortunate flaw. The flaw lies in the ending, of which I can say nothing here without giving away a bit of the plot. Let me just say that the ending is a bit of a "tack on." Trollope himself confessed in his autobiography that he botched the ending, and explains that when he decided to write a second novel starring Phineas Finn, he awkwardly had to correct the mistakes he made in the ending of the previous book.
The virtues of the book lie in part in its presentation of the social complexities of the British upper class in 1860s. While a political history of the period could explain the various ins and outs of the major pieces of legislation dealt with at the time, Trollope shows us how many individuals at the time actually felt about these issues from the inside. In this way, Trollope performs a service that no historian ever could. Virtually all the major political figures of the time, from Gladstone to Disraeli appear under thinly veiled aliases.
But the true heart of the book is Trollope's great characters. They do improper things, and feel improper emotions. Our hero falls in love with one woman, then another, feels attraction to another, and falls in love with yet another, and in general fails in his role as a great romantic hero. A woman marries someone she doesn't love, yet retains feelings for another, and suffers from the threat of a bad marriage. Another woman is attracted to two men, and must decide which. Two close friends love the same woman. I find all this emotional complexity to be extremely compelling.
Trollope's most compelling and interesting characters are nearly all female. In the book, Lord Chiltern seems cardboardish and unbelievable, the title character likable but not terribly vivid. But whenever Lady Laura, or Madame Goesler, or Violet Effingham take the stage, the novel comes to life. This is not unique to this novel. In nearly all his books, Trollope's most compelling characters are female.
Opening Line: “Dr. Finn, of Killaloe, in county Clare, was as well known in those parts,--the confines, that is, of the counties Clare, Limerick, Tipperary, and Galway,--as was the bishop himself who lived in the same town, and was as much respected.”
Closing Line: “What was the nature of the reply to Lord Cantrip the reader may imagine, and thus we will leave our hero an Inspector of Poor Houses in the County of Cork.”
Quotes: "She knew how to allure by denying, and to make the gift rich by delaying it."