I’m rereading Trollope’s Parliamentary novels, which I read and
liked in college and may have reread some when the Masterpiece Theater
version starring Susan Hampshire was coming out in the 80’s, but
I certainly haven’t looked at them since. I really think Trollope is
underrated as a characterizer of bizarre people who manage to look
completely ordinary. But Phineas Finn is a fairly conventional
So far, I especially like the part when he finally gets up his
nerve to make his maiden speech in Parliament. The whole book is at
Text Center, University of Virginia Library, and the chapter this
happens in is The
First Speech, but since it’s tedious reading if you don’t know the
characters, here’s the performance anxiety part:
Phineas was determined to speak, and to speak on this evening if he could catch
the Speaker’s eye. Again the scene before him was going round before him; again things became dim, and again he felt his blood beating hard at his heart. But things were not so bad with him as they had been before, because he had nothing to remember. He hardly knew, indeed, what he intended to say. He had an idea that he was desirous of joining in earnest support of the measure, with a vehement protest against the injustice which had been done to the people in general, and to Mr Bunce in particular. He had firmly resolved that no fear of losing favour with the Government should induce him to hold his tongue as to the Buncean cruelties. Sooner than do so he would certainly “go among them” at the Banner office.
He started up, wildly, when Mr Palliser had completed his speech; but the Speaker’s eye, not unnaturally, had travelled to the other side of the House, and there was a Tory of the old school upon his legs — Mr Western, the member for East Barsetshire, one of the gallant few who dared to vote against Sir Robert Peel’s bill for repealing the Corn Laws in 1846, Mr Western spoke with a slow, ponderous, unimpressive, but very audible voice, for some twenty minutes, disdaining to make reference to Mr Turnbull and his politics, but pleading against any Reform, with all the old arguments. Phineas did not hear a word that he said — did not attempt to hear. He was keen in his resolution to make another attempt at the Speaker’s eye, and at the present moment was thinking of that, and of that only. He did not even give himself a moment’s reflection as to what his own speech should be. He would dash at it and take his chance, resolved that at least he would not fail in courage. Twice he was on his legs before Mr Western had finished his slow harangue, and twice he was compelled to reseat himself — thinking that he had subjected himself to ridicule. At last the member for East Barset sat down, and Phineas was conscious that he had lost a moment or two in presenting himself again to the Speaker.
He held his ground, however, though he saw that he had various rivals for the right of speech. He held his ground, and was instantly aware that he had gained his point. There was a slight pause, and as some other urgent member did not reseat himself, Phineas heard the president of that august assembly call upon himself to address the House. The thing was now to be done. There he was with the House of Commons at his feet — a crowded House, bound to be his auditors as long as he should think fit to address them, and reporters by tens and twenties in the gallery ready and eager to let the country know what the young member for Loughshane would say in this his maiden speech.
Phineas Finn had sundry gifts, a powerful and pleasant voice, which he had learned to modulate, a handsome presence, and a certain natural mixture of modesty and self-reliance, which would certainly protect him from the faults of arrogance and pomposity, and which, perhaps, might carry him through the perils of his new position. And he had also the great advantage of friends in the House who were anxious that he should do well. But he had not that gift of slow blood which on the former occasion would have enabled him to remember his prepared speech, and which would now have placed all his own resources within his own reach. He began with the expression of an opinion that every true reformer ought to accept Mr Mildmay’s bill, even if it were accepted only as an instalment — but before he had got through these sentences, he became painfully conscious that he was repeating his own words.
He was cheered almost from the outset, and yet he knew as he went on that he was failing. He had certain arguments at his fingers’ ends — points with which he was, in truth, so familiar that he need hardly have troubled himself to arrange them for special use — and he forgot even these. He found that he was going on with one platitude after another as to the benefit of reform, in a manner that would have shamed him six or seven years ago at a debating club.
He pressed on, fearing that words would fail him altogether if he paused — but he did in truth speak very much too fast, knocking his words together so that no reporter could properly catch them. But he had nothing to say for the bill except what hundreds had said before, and hundreds would say again. Still he was cheered, and still he went on; and as he became more and more conscious of his failure there grew upon him the idea — the dangerous hope, that he might still save himself from ignominy by the eloquence of his invective against the police.
He tried it, and succeeded thoroughly in making the House understand that he was very angry — but he succeeded in nothing else. He could not catch the words to express the thoughts of his mind. He could not explain his idea that the people out of the House had as much right to express their opinion in favour of the ballot as members in the House had to express theirs against it; and that animosity had been shown to the people by the authorities because they had so expressed their opinion. Then he attempted to tell the story of Mr Bunce in a light and airy way, failed, and sat down in the middle of it. Again he was cheered by all around him — cheered as a new member is usually cheered — and in the midst of the cheer would have blown out his brains had there been a pistol there ready for such an operation.
That hour with him was very bad. He did not know how to get up and go away, or how to keep his place. For some time he sat with his hat off, forgetful of his privilege of wearing it, and then put it on hurriedly, as though the fact of his not wearing it must have been observed by everybody. At last, at about two, the debate was adjourned, and then as he was slowly leaving the House, thinking how he might creep away without companionship, Mr Monk took him by the arm.
Trollope doesn’t state it that way, but I think everything he says
bears out my theory about freezing in public performances — that it
happens when the performer is more concerned with how people will
think about him than with what he has to say.