PHINEAS AT BAY by John F.  Wirenius


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A political novel presents a detailed reinvigoration of a beloved Trollope-an character.

Phineas Finn is the eponymous hero of two novels in Anthony Trollope’s Palliser series, a political epic set in the 19th century. In the first book, the personable and dashing young Irishman heads to Victorian London to train as a lawyer and inveigles his way into high society. By the close of the second volume, Finn is weary after unsuccessfully standing for Parliament and enduring a grueling murder trial. Wirenius’ (First Amendment, First Principles, 2000) offering picks up the story in the 1890s, two decades after Trollope brought Finn’s tale to a close. Finn is appointed as counsel for Ifor Powlett-Jones, a Welsh miner charged with, among other things, criminal mischief, rioting, and assault after striking his foreman during a fracas following an explosion in a mine. The case becomes of further interest to the hero when he realizes that the mine is owned by William McScuttle, a significant figure in the Liberal Party, of which Finn himself is a member. In terms of his political standing, Finn appears to be disillusioned and drifting, looked on by members of his own party as an outsider. Wirenius captures a moment in a rapidly evolving political world as Finn becomes increasingly involved with the newly established Labour Party. The hero’s shifting sensibilities form only part of an intricately embroidered narrative that describes the social machinations—including the dangerous liaisons—that provide a backdrop to the political scene. At one point in the story, Finn even finds “himself dragged into a duel.”

Trollope’s political novels were fueled by his skillful use of detailed characterization to create a realistic social world animated by a large cast of individually distinguishable personalities. In this intriguing tale, Wirenius displays similarly acute powers of observation. This is exemplified by his elegant description of the social standing of a prominent socialist: “The Right Honourable John Oswald Theobald Phineas Standish—Lord Chiltern, in Society—was in a position that would have excited the disapprobation of his relatives and friends, knew it, and, flushed with emotion, did not care.” The author adopts an appropriately clipped evaluative tenor—which was employed by Trollope—to strip the character to his essence in the space of a sentence. Such is Wirenius’ stylistic understanding of Trollope that it is entirely possible to finish reading the 19th-century Phineas Redux and begin the contemporary elaboration in smooth transition. This is in no small part due to Wirenius’ depth of research, which he discusses in his afterword. The author has a profound knowledge of how Trollope writes—from the way he borrows characters from other authors to his tendency to keep the “dates of his novels vague.” Readers not up to speed with the Palliser series would benefit from perusing Trollope, although Wirenius’ thoroughly plausible tale can be read as a stand-alone novel. Fans of Trollope will surely delight in reuniting with their old favorite Finn, even if it is to form their own conclusions on how he compares to the master’s original rendering.

An expert and gracefully executed follow-up to Trollope’s Palliser series.

Pub Date: July 16th, 2014
ISBN: 978-1-4991-7732-9
Page count: 522pp
Publisher: CreateSpace
Program: Kirkus Indie
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 2019


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