The conservatives have been in control of the government for more than a year. The liberals, in planning a return to power, want to get every good man they can muster. Thirty years of age, Phineas Finn had retired from politics two years earlier to marry his childhood sweetheart and settle down in a modest but permanent position in Ireland. He is invited back to resume his political career. His wife had died in the interval, and he had saved enough to permit him to live two or three years without being given an office. The urging of his friends seems to imply that he will not have to wait long for an office, so he agrees to give up his security for the more exciting life of a member of Parliament. He is to run for the borough of Tankerville, which is held by a corrupt conservative named Browborough.
While awaiting the election, Phineas visits Lord Chiltern and Violet, who are happily married. Chiltern has at last found the occupation perfectly suited to his temperament and enthusiasm for hunting—master of the Brake Hounds. Also visiting the Chilterns are Adelaid Palliser and Mr. Maule, a gloomy and idle but rather pleasing young man, who is devoted to and loved by Adelaid.
In the Tankerville election, Phineas campaigns for separation of church and state. Although Browborough wins by seven votes, the seat is to be contested on evidence that Browborough bought votes. In a desperate effort to keep his party in power, the conservative leader also advocates separation of church and state.
On his way to visit Lady Laura Kennedy and her father in Dresden, Phineas is summoned by her estranged husband to his estate. Kennedy’s mind has become deranged; his one purpose in life is to get his wife back. He forbids Phineas from visiting her and accuses him of adultery. Although he knows he is not guilty, Phineas cannot reason with Kennedy. Later, in Dresden, Laura confides that her love for Phineas is the real reason behind the failure of her marriage; Phineas, however, has long felt nothing but friendship for Laura.
On his next visit to the Chilterns, Phineas sees Madame Marie Max Goesler. The first meeting is awkward because of their earlier relationship, but soon they are friends again. She tells Phineas that she has been acting as unofficial companion and nurse to the old duke of Omnium, now on his deathbed. Lady Glencora, the duke’s niece, has become her intimate friend.
Adelaid’s good breeding attracts the uncouth squire and fox hunter Spooner. Unaware of the subtleties of social behavior, Spooner feels he is more eligible than Maule, whose income is small. Spooner’s proposal of marriage is refused with horror, and Maule’s proposal is accepted. Maule and Adelaid feel that they can marry if his father will let them live in the abandoned Maule Abbey. The father, however, is opposed to his son’s marriage to a woman without a fortune. Angry at the implied reminder that the property will be his son’s after his death, he refuses the request.
Quintus Slide, representative of all that is bad in journalism, gives Phineas a letter written to his newspaper by Kennedy. The letter is a madman’s accusation, implying that Phineas and Laura are guilty of adultery. Slide intends to print the letter and enjoys the feeling of power its possession gives him; believing that Phineas is interested only in upholding the institution of marriage, he offers to give Phineas a day to persuade Laura to return to Kennedy. Instead, Phineas goes to Kennedy’s hotel to...
(The entire section is 1438 words.)