POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

07 December 2008

Edwin Drood #4 (chaps 13-16) July 1870

Dear Serial Readers,

Is anyone out there in Serial Reading Land? I would love to know that you're reading along serially, either the novel or these entries, or both! For the next selection, how about branching out with a Trollope or Collins novel? Check the MOUSEHOLD WORDS catalogue which includes both Trollope's HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT and Collins's THE EVIL GENIUS. Or Trollope's wonderful THE SMALL HOUSE AT ALLINGTON (a magazine serial) would be a nice change of pace. If you'd like to vote on one of these, or suggest another Victorian serial, please indicate your choice here or email me. We'll be ready to start the next novel in early January. And one more thing--I'd appreciate it if you'd email the link to SERIAL READERS to at least one other person, and encourage anyone to share this blog with book club readers. There was an article in the New York Times yesterday about book clubs including the online variety (Joanne Kaufman, "Fought Over Any Good Books Lately?") in which the mere suggestion of reading Trollope appears to prompt a violent reaction. I hope whoever wants to read Trollope joins THIS group!

This fourth (of six) installment of DROOD is superb! Rather than the "mystery of Edwin Drood" and his rather predictable disappearance at the hands of Jasper, we're prompted to pay close attention to the peripherals, especially the somersaulting mind and behaviors of Jasper, and the accumulation of clues, even circumstantial evidence that we know adds up to a false accusation against Neville.

Again, I marveled at all the allusions to time--the early reference to the "revolving year" (crucial to the serial form itself) as Miss Twinkleton's young ladies leave for the holiday season; the references to time of day as well as time of year in chapter 14 where Edwin's watch has stopped, the description of Edwin "surrounded by vestiges of old time and decay," the image of time torn asunder--the hands of the Cathedral clock destroyed by the night wind, and finally in chap 16 the discovery of Edwin's watch in the Weir, "run down, before being cast into the water." All these sundry references in the larger context of putting readers (both internal and external) on the watch--for the "mystery" of Edwin's disappearance, for signs of his body, for signs of Jack's guilt. The most melodramatic instance of this last item is Jasper fainting upon hearing that his motive for removing his nephew as an obstacle to his marriage plotting against Rosa no longer holds. And all this time I thought that illustration of the body on the floor *was* the Mystery of Edwin Drood!

Related to this halting of time is chapter fourteen, where Dickens employs that increasingly suspenseful present tense. I loved the staginess of this chapter which begins with sentence fragments without verbs at all, like stage directions to set the scene: "Christmas Eve in Cloisterham. A few strange faces in the streets..." Then the chapter divides into three parts, each following the key actors of the scene, all bound to converge at Jack's house for the fateful encounter, as each of these sections on, respectively, Neville, Edwin, John Jasper concludes with "And so *he* goes up the postern stair." Yet of course that pivotal scene is foreclosed from the narrative. We can only speculate and test our hunches against the narratives Neville and Jasper provide of last seeing Edwin.

The last point I want to mention is the treatment of Neville as suspect. Besides the heap of circumstantial evidence, all given with many large grains of salt, Dickens suggests the prejudice of racism--the mayor's assessment of Neville's guilt ("the case had a dark look") linked to Neville's "Un-English complexion," and then the passage about "the wildest frenzy and fatuity of evil report arose against" Neville. Here these rumors picture Neville as a ruthless imperious force who "had caused to be whipped to death sundry 'Natives.'" I found this passage especially double-edged, since on the one hand it seems to ridicule the ignorance of Cloisterham people about others across the globe, Neville included. On the other hand, Dickens seems to ridicule their ideas of "Natives" as "nomadic persons" who were "vaguely supposed in Cloisterham to be always black, always of great virtue..." Neville's "Un-English complexion" incriminates him in the eyes of these cloistered English people, yet the narrator sets the reader up as more worldly, less prejudiced, since we know--as much as we can for certain--who is responsible for Edwin's disappearance. And here I must mention the female opium eater Edwin encounters just before he goes to his uncle's house. He recognizes in her curious state the signs of opium usage he'd noted in Jack. But there is another mystery: how does this woman know that "Ned" is a "threatened name"? We know she must be the "haggard woman" of the opening of the novel in an opium den in London. But how does she make her way here with this remark about "Ned"? Although she's less a character than a suspense intensifier, I'm still intrigued by the female characters in this novel, and wish Helena had appeared in this installment!

I'm steeled for many unresolved pieces of this story, since I know Dickens had already died in July 1870 when these words were first read in the fourth number.

Serially devoted,

24 November 2008

Edwin Drood #3 (chaps 10-12) June 1870

Dear Serial Readers,

This third installment came out just before Dickens's death on 9 June 1870. I mention the coincidence because of the different ways death, or the culture of death, emerge in this number: allusions to Rosa's father's will, the ring from Rosa's mother's "dead hand" after drowning (kept by Mr. Grewgious who passes it on to Edwin for Rosa), and finally the "unaccountable sort of expedition" in the moonlit graveyard and the crypt (where Jasper again plies a companion with spirits of the alcoholic variety). All this attention to death and the realms and documents of the deceased does pave the way for an impending death. As Kari pointed out, the title sets up our expectations.

Although I had already read this installment before I read Julia's comment about nonverbal communication, her remarks do remind me of the many instances of what I'd call indirection, or oblique communication about what lies ahead (foreshadowing of sorts), as I'm compelled to read for clues. Take, for instance, the odd narratorial moment in chap 10 when Crisparkle visits Jasper and startles him awake: "Long afterwards he had cause to remember how Jasper sprang from the couch in a delirious state between sleeping and waking, crying out: 'What is the matter? Who did it?'" And then, during the conversation between Jasper and Crisparkle, the many times the word "perplexed" or "perplexing" describes Jasper's face from Crisparkle's perspective. Or later, Mr Grewgious's uneasiness about the ring he's given Edwin, or in the final chapter of the installment, the parenthetical remark about Jasper "always moving softly with no visible reason," after mentioning again the "unaccountable expedition" in the graveyard.

I was also struck by the attention to containers and receptacles and hidden or out-of-the-way spaces. My favorite passage comes early in this number, the description of Crisparkle's mother's "wonderful cabinet" in chapter 10. A comic version of the crypt of bones and ghosts a few chapters later, this "rare closet" has an usual locking mechanism that is a "double mystery," where the interior is "disclosed by degrees." Then the contents of condiments that people the shelves--I love this gorgeous little show of Dickens's descriptive powers which unfold a thick inventory of a Victorian kitchen cabinet! I wonder if this cabinet might work as an extended metaphor for the serial novel itself, a large container that houses many remarkably detailed small containers.

I want to invite everyone to think about how the serial format affects your process of reading here. I'd also love suggestions for links to other sites that might enrich our hypertextual networking around this Dickens novel! I'll post on #4 (chaps 13-15) in two weeks.
Looking forward to your comments--
Serial Susan

10 November 2008

Edwin Drood #2 (chaps 6-9) May 1870

Dear Serial Readers,

Apologies for my tardiness--somehow the world-outside-the-serial (aka American presidential election) distracted me from DROOD. But I'm back on track now, and will post on #3 installment (chaps 10-12) in two weeks on Nov 24th.

I'm going to frame my comments on #2 through those posted by other readers on the first installment. At the end of her post, Catherine mentioned the tension between Jasper and Ned, and Kari noted that Jasper seems to have a rather strong interest (perhaps "in love") in Rosebud. And Julia remarked on the accumulating suggestions of violence. In this installment, I had the sense that Jasper, with his mysterious mixing of mulled wine which he bestows on his guests Ned Drood and Neville Landless, had his own interests in provoking this "daggers drawn" scene between the two young men. Is this a set up or framing of sorts for the promised "mystery of Edwin Drood" to come, possibly his murder with Neville as suspect, but Jasper as perpetrator? Just guessing--I've not read this novel before! But the reading paranoia that Victorian novels (especially sensation and detective ones, which seem cousin genres to this novel) often perpetuate certainly has infected my high-alert for clues of what's to come.

The tone too is so curious--the quiet, quintessential English cathedral village of Cloisterham laced with very bizarre characters, odd eruptions of violence or cruelty or mystery, and many of the staple features of sensation fiction (drug use, the Gothic traces via old Catholic England with the Nun's House, the will plot, secrets accruing), yet the Dickensian humor too. Mr Grewgious with his Memoranda that even includes "Leave" provided a bit of comic relief after the weird "daggers drawn" incident and its gossipy aftermath.

Julia mentioned the way that rural England in the novel is joined to the wider world--a kind of Victorian globalizaiton with references across the British Empire. In this installment we meet those intriguingly strange "Landless" twins delivered to Cloisterham by Honeythunder. Is "Landless" an allusion to the colonized other, robbed of land by imperial forces? Or a marker of their in-between and geographically decentered status, not quite English, not quite Sinhalese or Indian, from both cultures or neither? From a "wretched existence" in Ceylon, both Neville and Helena are described in hybrid terms with lots of attention to their dark "gipsy" complexions, their hot tempers. Drood insults Neville about his "dark skin" and Jasper comments on "something of the tiger in his dark blood" when describing Neville to Crisparkle.

I'm especially intrigued by Helena, with the "slumbering gleam of fire" in her "intense dark eyes," after Rosa confesses to her that Jasper holds her under his Svengali-like power (even though three decades before Du Maurier's novel TRILBY introduces this character). She reminds me of other fiery, rebellious Dickens heroines, and I can't think things will end well for her.

What did you notice in this installment and where does this narrative seem to be heading?

Until next time,
Serial Susan

20 October 2008

Edwin Drood #1 (chaps 1-5) April 1870

Dear Serial Readers,

I hope you received your first installment of DROOD via Mousehold Words, or, if you prefer the book format, that you've acquired a copy (I recommend the Oxford edition). I've installed a "gadget" (see right margin) of the image that appeared on every cover of the six installments of DROOD. You can see at the top center a cathedral entryway, and buried at the bottom, a dark underground, crypt-like space, complete with a key and shovel above it, the stomping ground of Durdles the grave stonemason. I wonder if the titled "mystery" will have something to do with Durdles and his tombstones (or "Tombatism," as he puts it).

Other scenes anticipated or shown early in the novel encircle the wrapper for DROOD, including a wedding couple to the front of the cathedral, upperleft, and then at the bottom right, someone smoking a pipe beneath a serious cloud of smoke. This figure seems of an Orientalized nature to me--the clothes, the shoes, even the face. The image echoes the opening disorienting passages of Jack Jasper in a (presumably London) docklands opium den, with three doped companions, a "Chinaman, a Lascar, and a haggard woman." A Lascar, according to my Oxford English Dictionary, is a sailor from India or SE Asia (with lnks to Urdu and Persian army). The contrast between the quintessential English Cathedral Town and the outreaches of Empire frames the novel's opening. I wonder where the narrative is headed, geographically speaking, with Ned Drood's plans to marry Rosebud and head "to the East" (or rather, southeastward) to Egypt as a civil engineer (the Suez canal was opened in 1869, and British interests in the area were growing).

About Ned and Rosebud--I was intrigued to see Dickens roll out the arranged marriage plot so soon again, on the heels of OUR MUTUAL FRIEND, the novel that immediately precedes this one in the Dickens canon. Unlike Bella Wilfer and John Harmon, though, Ned and Rosebud (which I prefer to "Pussy") seem to be moving along steadily, their arguments notwithstanding, toward their predestined marital future. But I suspect there's a major roadblock up ahead.

One more thing--the novel so far seems to have strains of that most popular serialized novel of the decade, sensation fiction. I couldn't help notice all the neo-Gothic elements, the Catholicism hinted at in Clositerham's ancient past, with the Nun's House, and the crypt, yet on the surface, a quaint English village with its proper Anglican hierarchy of dean, verger, clerk. Despite this atmospheric emphasis on the deep past, the narration is thoroughly in the present tense for the duration of this installment. That strikes me as unusual. Will this present tense last? Where will it shift to the past tense?

Please post a comment on anything at all about this installment of the first five chapters. You don't need to be seasoned Dickens reader, or even up on Victorian novels of the day. You can pick up on something I've mentioned, or head out in another direction entirely. The plan is to read and comment on the next installment (chapters 6-9) in about two weeks. I'll post my next comment around Nov. 3rd, but if you'd like me to post yours instead, please email me your remarks!

In the fullness of serial time,

15 October 2008

Coming Attraction: The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Dear Serial Readers,

We're starting our next serial novel, Charles Dickens's The Mystery of Edwin Drood. We'll read this novel in the six installments in which it was originally written and published monthly from April to September 1870. Dickens died suddenly in June 1870, before he completed the novel. So we should have a lively discussion joining nearly a century and a half of readerly (and theatrical) speculations on this unwritten ending.

Here's how our reading schedule works. First, you can order the electronic delivery of your installments (in double-column format) from Mousehold Words (see sidebar for the link to this site). You can specify the schedule of delivery, from a limited set of choices. I suggest signing up for weekly delivery on Mondays (Saturday is the other option for weekly delivery), beginning this coming Monday October 20th. However, we'll discuss the installments on a biweekly schedule, starting next week. (Mousehold Words does not offer a biweekly delivery.) Our reading schedule means that the weeks of Oct 20, Nov 3, Nov 17, Dec 1, Dec 15, and Dec 28 either I or a guest blogger (one of you, I hope) will start off our conversation about the respective installment (#1 for Oct 20, #2 for Nov 3, etc). So be sure to check the blog and then post a comment on the installment we're discussing.

Of course, you can get a book version of the novel, and read that. I recommend the Oxford edition because it indicates on the top right of the left-hand page the installment. The first one consists of five short chapters, 36pp in the Oxford, or just over 19pp in the Mousehold Words format. I'll also include in my posts the next installment chapter spread, for those of you using editions without the serial notations.

Please circulate this website address to anyone who might possibly like to join us. If you have received this message by email, let me know if you prefer not to be notified each time I post on the website. Otherwise, I'll leave you on this list. If you haven't received an email notice of this post, but would like the reminder in the future, just email me. Anyone can join in!

Until next week,
Serial Susan

12 October 2008

Dombey #19-20 (chaps 58-62) April 1848

Dear Serial Readers,

Finis! I savored this concluding double number and will miss this wide cast of characters! The additional length of the last issue offers a textual fanfare of a finale. Apparently there were even more words in Dickens's initial ending, but he had to strike the last two paragraphs due to space restrictions. Those lines (reprinted in the Oxford edition), about the "voices in the waves," reiterate the watery, timeless or eternal present "voices" at the end of chap 16 when Paul dies. And they also echo the very opening lines of this number, a nice cyclical shape tied to the passage of "Time" within the story and even the passage of a year and more in the delivery and reading of the story.

And the novel concludes with a different repetition, the second generation of "Paul" and "Florence," with the past now improved in the present, the affective childhoods of this Paul and Florence much more promising given the rehabilitated Dombey.

The latency of the attention to the "Daughter after all" (as Miss Tox puts it in chap 16) continues in these last paragraphs about Dombey's secret "affection" for his granddaughter Florence: he "hoards her in his heart" and no one knows. While Dombey seems redeemed as a kindly grandfather at the end, Alice and Edith do not enjoy earthly redemption, although we do learn why they resemble each other. Both are evidently moribund in one way or another--the fallen women who perish for their transgressions.

I did appreciate Edith's resistant stance towards repenting--or rather her insistence on what amounts to a contingent repentance. It's in that section of chap 51 where Edith refers to Dombey's "own present" in relation to her "past." I found this notion of one's own present intriguing, a way to recognize the variety of presentnesses within and through the reading of the novel. Dickens continues to wield the present tense strategically in this final number, most notably perhaps when Florence returns to her wrecked father in the "ruin" of the house.

The "Retribution" chapter about the dismantling of the Dombey household--all in the present tense--makes evident that the "house" of Dombey has at least three different meanings: the business, the household--both staff and the material objects that are sold, and the family itself. It seems that only in the last sense does "Dombey and Son" survive and prosper, and only through the angelic and reproductive "Daughter after all."

Stay tuned for our next serial show, THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD!

Serially signing off from Dombey and Son,

29 September 2008

Dombey #18 (chaps 55-57) March 1848

Dear Serial Readers,

There's a powerful tempo to these last numbers that I'm finding really compelling at a time with plenty of serious reading competition going on in my daily life! The three chapters of #18 provide that delicious tonal range, from the melodramatic and monomaniacal to the soothingly sentimental.

I've often commented on Dickens's verb-tense switching in DOMBEY. What I found especially astounding in chap 55 on Carker's mad flight from France back to England was the suspension of verb tenses altogether. I marveled here at Dickens's verbal (without verbs no less) brilliance, how his style beautifully captures the frenetic fugitive. Especially effective was the long section (pp 817-19, Oxford UP) of prepositional phrases starting with "of"--the possessive and compulsive syntax that conveys Carker's mental condition. Sections like these surely seem like a postmodern Dickens to me--a different strain of psychological realism than we get in Eliot's novels. While I wouldn't say that this chapter renders Carker a sympathetic character, still I'm fascinated by Dickens's adroit handling of Carker's frenzy, something that reveals the flipside of his otherwise iron-clad controlling nature that now drives himself rather than manipulates others.
This chapter anticipates a later Dickens monomaniac and his demise, namely Bradley Headstone. I'm sure other readers can think of more parallels, more doubles. And speaking of doubles, I thought the railway "monsters" provided a phantasmagoric touch, a frightening modern machine that Dickens seems to link with Carker and with Dombey at the end of the chapter. Here I thought of Frankenstein and his creature and their mutual pursuit and flight.

The other two chapters offer comic relief and softer tones, with the obvious contrast of Florence's wedding from not only the one briefly mentioned at the start of chap 57, but more pointedly from the earlier marriage between Dombey and Edith.

What do you make of Florence and Walter sailing away from England? What's the significance of this exodus, that their cross-class match can't be sustained in a traditional, class-bound, materialistic society? Since others here have mentioned Gwendolen and DANIEL DERONDA, I also thought of the ending of Eliot's later novel--only Daniel and his new bride don't set sail in the narrative, while this chapter ends with the newlyweds at sea, in the present tense of those whispering waves "not bounded by the confines of this world, or by the end of time."

Only one more number to go! In my ongoing commitment to "part-numberness," I won't divide my posts on this last double part-issue (#19-20, chaps 58-62). But I will likely take two weeks--and aim for Oct. 13th.

Remember that DROOD starts on a biweekly schedule on Monday Oct. 20th. The parts are shorter in length, and we'll take two weeks per number, and there are only six. Sign up via Mousehold Words (see link on sidebar of blog) and spread the word!

Serially yours,

21 September 2008

Dombey #17 (chaps 52-54) February 1848

Dear Serial Reader(s),
We've been dwindling in commenting numbers these weeks. I wonder if you noticed that I didn't deliver a post last week? I'd like to claim that the boat carrying the part-issue numbers just didn't arrive, although I waited eagerly (wanting to know about the elopement of Edith and Carker) for hours and days. Yes, there was a delivery problem last week--between the pages and my eyes. But we're also nearing the end of this novel, and approaching a new serial reading adventure next month where I'm hoping that the shorter length of Drood (along with the delivery system of Mousehold Words--see sidebar) will increase our community of serial readers. Please do spread the word about the coming attraction.

So a few thoughts on this installment: a cleverly structured number with various groups trying to gather information about the shocking elopement of Edith and Carker in the first two chapters as a fine accretion of suspense leading to the last chapter where we finally see Edith and Carker in DIJON. I love the self-conscious construction and delivery of this "intelligence" of the elopement via Carker's variously abused associates throughout the number.
I'm also continually taken with the emphasis on maligned, abused, and furious women. Alice tells Harriet the story of Carker seducing and discarding her, a companion narrative to Edith's marriage market and elopement plot accounts. Alice's story reminded me of Esther Barton in Gaskell's novel of the same year this episode appeared. Then in the last chapter here, Edith delivers a powerful "I am a woman" speech to Carker in their Dijon quarters in which she echoes some of Alice's murderous sentiments, and we have the illustration to emphasize her imperial stature in contrast to his slimy and now cowering posture. Does this section redeem Edith from the sexual taint of the elopement? But this long delivery has another purpose, to fill in the narrative gap of the elopement plot from a few numbers ago.
More than earlier installments, these last few seem especially designed to get readers to read on, to discover what happens. Will Dombey murder Carker in this revenge plot where he's been set up as the proxy for at least two or even three wronged and furious women? Will Edith persist in turning her passionate anger toward herself? I suspect there are more deaths in store, of a very different tonality than Paul's sentimental death, or Mrs. Skewton's (aka Cleopatra) sardonic death, or even Walter's falsely reported death.
I'd wager that we don't get Dombey and Carker and Edith next time, since the pattern is usually a detour installment to build more craving for resolution. What's up with Florence, Walter, Cuttle, and will Old Sol return?

Next time: #18, chapters 55-57.

In serial time,

08 September 2008

Dombey #16 (chaps 49-51) January 1848

Dear Serial Readers,

Happy New Year! I mean, of course, January 1848, when the sixteenth installment first appeared, but for many of us serial readers, it is also the start of a new academic year. Like others, my comments will be brief here. Still, I'd like to continue on track, since we're so close to the end of the novel. I don't think I can manage reading the double-number (19-20) of the last installment in one week though, so I propose we take a week for each one. This means: #17 for Sept 15, #18 for Sept 22, #19 for Sept 29, and #20 for Oct 6. I also propose that we next turn to The Mystery of Edwin Drood for two reasons: only six parts and available for delivery via Mousehold Words. You can subscribe through Mousehold Words and have each part number delivered to you electronically on whatever schedule you request. Even if you prefer to read the novel in book form, these deliveries will serve as reminders, and simulate (virtually, of course) the part-issue publications for Dickens's original readers. I recommend a biweekly plan for Drood, beginning on Monday Oct. 20. We would then finish just around a different new year.

After the calamities of the last number, #16 delivers a generous heaping of Dickensian sentiment. Florence has lost her home and father (although I found some relief that she finally fled a "corner" house in which any semblance of family and home had withered and died), and now she finds a home of genuine solicitude and warmth. Where Dickens introduced a working-class angel into the middle-class Dombey household in number #1 through Richards, here he relocates his middle-class angel into a modest, East London, sea captain's home and shop. On Walter's somewhat anticipated return from the deep: I was interested that we don't actually get details on how Walter survived a shipwreck, and what we do get is conveyed in Cuttle's bare-bones story which serves to clue-in Florence to Walter's appearance, first through the illustrated shadow on the wall. I'm interested also in another reversal: Florence's proposal to Walter. Presumably her superior class station trumps gender here.

The final chapter, back at the Dombey domicile, marks this scene and tone shift with the use of the present tense, and with wry narratorial addresses, something we've seen often in the novel. The concluding line, "Mr Dombey and the world are alone together," accentuates the ironic treatment of solitude and isolation we've commented on.

Next week: #17, chaps. 52-54.
Please spread the word about Drood and "Mousehold Words"--every other week starting mid October!

Yours in seriality,

01 September 2008

Dombey #15 (chaps 46-48) December 1847

Dear Serial Readers,

Julia's comments about Carker's "lynx-eyed vigilance" remind me of the opening of this number (where that phrase appears). The first chapter--later titled "recognizant and reflective"--also underscores that Carker's sharp vision has its blind spots: deep in his own reflections riding about the city, he fails to take note of "the observation of two pairs of women's eyes." While we readers see the immediate effects of Carker's seduction of Edith (rendered via Florence's vantage point), we also see that there may be a revenge plot afoot by Alice Markwood, who has been established as a kind of mirror image of Edith. That Carker's power over others, especially women, may have its come-uppance, this along compels me to read on!

I found the middle chapter where Edith descends (and falls as a fallen woman) on the Dombey staircase a variation on melodrama, or even a precursor to sensation fiction, with lots of high drama and suspense as Florence senses something very very amiss. Yes, Dickens seems fond of the staircase trope, as we readers find in his later novel HARD TIMES.

But what was most intriguing to me in this installment is the lengthy narrative intrusion near the start of chapter 47, where Dickens dismantles any sturdy distinction between "natural" and "unnatural" in the context of the disintegrating Dombey marriage, and at the brink of Edith's elopement. Dickens's treatment here of sinfulness, corruption, and human nature seemed to me a strong echo of SONGS OF INNOCENCE AND EXPERIENCE, so much so that I almost expected some mention of Blake. But did Victorians read Blake? Take these lines, for instance: "Then should we stand appalled to know, that where we generate disease to strike our children down...infancy that knows no innocence, youth without modesty or shame, maturity that is mature in nothing but in suffering and guilt, blasted old age that is a scandal on the form we bear. Unnatural humanity!" Like the use of present-tense passages and chapters, this intervention seems another strategy to connect with readers in a tale about isolation that we read in solitude, although collectively (as Julia has pointed out).

'Tis the season (not December, when this number first appeared, but September, when the semester calendar resumes), so my posts will be shorter. But I'd like to continue with this serial readers blogging, even so! Should we read DORRIT or DROOD next? Let me know if you have a preference for shorter or long. But in any case, let's switch to a biweekly schedule.

Does anyone know if DOMBEY was ever adopted for stage or screen?

Until next week's #16 (chaps 49-51)--

Serially yours in September,

24 August 2008

Dombey #14 (chaps 42-45) November 1847

Dear Serial Readers,

I found this number more tightly wrapped together than usual with its intense focus on the Dombey plot, from Dombey's "confidential agent" to his estranged wife and haplessly, hopelessly miserable daughter. As I read through these four chapters, I thought about Julia's comments about isolation despite all the networking of plot lines; like so many of the characters in the novel, we as readers are likewise isolated as well as linked through this common project of serial reading. But I also thought about how anger, resentment, jealousy do unite several characters. The affective ties among Dombey, Edith, Carker, and Florence may not be sweetness and light, but there are definitely strong connections among them. Even hatred--rather than indifference--forges anew Dombey's relationship to his daughter.

When it comes to the depths of miserable marriages in Victorian novels, I don't tend (until now) to think of Dickens, but rather Eliot's depictions in MIDDLEMARCH (Dorothea and Casaubon, the Lydgates) or DANIEL DERONDA (Grandcourt and Gwendolen), or even more so, Isabel Archer's marriage in James's PORTRAIT OF A LADY. But Dickens gives us a finely wrought horrendous marriage, for both wife and husband, and for the daughter as well, more than any other Dickens portrayal I've encountered. Dickens's hallmark of sentimentality in this number has clearly leaped away from the saccharine to bloody hell.

Although the dismissal of "the Nipper" seemed an unexpected blow to Florence who no doubt will encounter even worse, I loved her defiant declaration to Dombey about his mistreatment of Floy, words that expand upon the narrator's admonishing interventions earlier in this installment: "Awake, unkind father! Awake now, sullen man!"

Edith's self-harming, her rage turned against herself rather than directed where it will have catastrophic effects, also reminded me of other Dickens heroines who are disabled or disfigured (Lady Dedlock, Esther Summerson, even Jenny Wren) in powerfully symbolic ways. Edith's blow to her hand accentuates her disabled power, her clipped agency, as a woman whose husband views her as his personal property, also magnified by Carker's role as "agent" of Dombey's will toward her. Then the installment concludes with Carker kissing Edith's "maimed" hand, surely a gesture pointing toward more disasters in store for Edith. But I also found fascinating the way Carker insinuates a kind of liaison with Edith as he points out that they are both bound and subject to Dombey's inflexibly selfish will.

Finally, what about that portrait in Carker's home, the woman who resembles Edith, who is even pictured in the first illustration? I love the way Dickens keeps up the tempo of these serial part issues with a scattering of different seeds of suspense and mystery to be worked out (or left over) in the remaining segments.

This reminds me that we have only FIVE numbers left (given that the last two--19/20--were published as a double installment). What about a shorter Dickens next--EDWIN DROOD (which was left unfinished by Dickens's untimely death)? There are only six numbers, and we could even read them at a slower, biweekly pace. I'd recommend this pace in any case, even if we turned to a longer novel, like LITTLE DORRIT. But do let me know if you're interested. I promised several potential readers that I'd give them a month's head's up for the next serial reading project.

Until next week and #15 (chap 46-48),
Serial S.

18 August 2008

Dombey #13 (chaps 39-41) October 1847

Dear Serial Readers,

Yesterday's newspaper acrostic had this clue: "Like a family in the first sentence of ANNA KARENINA." How about like a family in this novel, especially in this installment? What is it about those Victorian novelists (and their Russian contemporaries) and their unhappy families? Comments last week reflected on the ironic title of "The Happy Pair" (and possible alternatives to Dombey and Edith), but in this number we learn that Dombey's indifference toward his daughter has been transformed into "hatred" (a word Dickens pointedly uses). What surprised me about this section of the installment was the astute psychological realism of Dickens's portrayal of Dombey's disappointment in his marriage and its effect on his relationship with Florence, who had hoped for a different outcome. Sometimes Dombey seems not much more than the modern corporate automaton of Dickens's caricature; but there's a searing depth to Dombey's character in this chapter.

As everyone noticed with last week's number, personal power continues to play an important part in this segment as well. Since Dombey's regard of Edith has little power over her indifference toward him, his hatred of Florence threatens to have disastrous power. At the same time, Edith submits to Dombey's assertion of his power over her only for Florence's sake. So in effect, Florence--as the domestic angel in this perverse family--has power, or a positive influence, over Edith. Edith is certainly the saintly sinner. Besides her compassion for Florence, she forgives her mother's "part" in selling Edith in marriage, and reminds her mother whose guilty conscience disturbs her deathbed peace, or departure, rather, "to the invisible country far away." This phrase, repeated several times and recalling Paul's death (again, those talking waves and their mystery), also suggests a link to the colonial sites like Barbados, the destination of Walter's dubious voyage.

I continued to marvel at the networking of Dickens's multiplot serial novel. In this installment, we learn that the "withered and very ugly old woman" (403 Oxford) who offers to tell Edith's fortune in #9 when she first meets Dombey in Warwickshire is none other than Mrs. Brown and Alice's mother. Dickens also draws attention to the parallels between Edith and Alice here in chap 40 (although the name "Alice" never appears) despite their class differences, as women prostituted in marriage or otherwise. I expect there will be more connections between Edith and Alice through that arch villain Carker.

The use of verb tense also intrigues me in this number. I think I've observed this before on this blog, but it seems to me that Dickens's fluctuating between tenses is more pronounced in this novel than in others. What do you think? Here the present tense of chapter 41 again is linked to death; does the verb tense suggest the timelessness of death or eternity? And Edith listening to those waves at the close of the installment hints of her own end, in the future. But the present tense also seems to point toward the serial reader and the experience of reading the novel at intervals, like a series of past tenses intervening on present-tense daily life. And Dickens seems to address the reader with such directives like: "Draw the rose-coloured curtains..." (619). But I'm curious about Victorian temporalities and sense of time, as suggested by this vacillation between past and present, and even other verb tenses as well (Josh mentioned the narrator's "might have" constructions last week). What else does the present tense (and the alternation of tenses) signify? And how does the novel handle simultaneity, or the occurrence of events in different sections at approximately the same time?

To indulge in historical coincidental time for a moment in closing, I'd like to mention that this installment was first published in October 1847, the very month that JANE EYRE initially appeared in print. So imagine reading this number and JANE EYRE simultaneously!

For next week: #14, chapters 42-45 (4 chapters again, as in #12).

Serially suspended,

12 August 2008

Dombey #12 (chaps 35-38) September 1847

Dear Serial Readers,
A canceled flight among other things caused this one-day delay of this week's installment post. MJ again provides our lead-off commentary on number 12. Thanks, MJ!
Until next week (#13, chaps 39-41),
Serial Susan

Part 12 carries its own variation on the pattern we’ve seen throughout; this time three chapters focus on our central characters in the Dombey household, followed by one that moves outward to Miss Tox and the Toodles. I’ve found each of these last three or four parts to be more engrossing than the one that came before, and this one, with that amazing scene of Dombey watching Florence, reminded me once again that Dickens wrote for adults.

The chapter title “The Happy Pair” continues to expand its meaning as we read. At first it’s what we assume, an ironic commentary on the new Mr. and Mrs. Dombey. But then we have the “pair” of the apparently sleeping Dombey in the room with his daughter, and the very slight but real awakening of understanding on his part of what she might have meant to him, what he might have missed, and what might possibly yet be. This scene, with its hopeful culmination “checked and stifled” by Edith’s entrance is then replaced by Edith and Florence as a less ambiguously happy couple, though it ends with Florence’s nightmare.

We next have the “housewarming,” with its metaphors of ice and frost and scentless flowers, and the two camps of guests that personify and intensify the incompatibility of Dombey and Edith. Carker’s insinuations increase in frightening ways, as he masters and intimidates Edith. Mrs. Skewton’s stroke, and the removal and then the partial replacement of her youthful trappings--the rose-coloured curtains, intended to fool the doctors and allow her to recover more quickly--make her (at least to me) a bit more sympathetic a figure even as her pathetic characteristics increase. In a novel dealing so much with time, she represents the extreme of human efforts to pretend that it isn’t passing, that it hasn’t changed anything. We laugh at her, or feel disgusted by her, but I’d say that most of us have a little of that wishfulness in ourselves, too.

Finally, the chapter in which Miss Tox visits the Toodles brought to mind a number of things about how Dickens structures his novels. It took me a while to be fully immersed in the doings at Princess’s Place (even to remember them all)--Miss Tox watering her plants, and so on--but by Part 12 these motifs or character signals had become familiar and comfortable. Has this been the experience of other bloggers? It seems to me Dickens wins us over in this way, through insistent repetition somehow making us care about these apparently secondary characters. In the interactions between Miss Tox and “Biler,” I was reminded of Mrs. Sparsit and Bitzer in the later Hard Times, the spinster and teenage boy in league as spies. Dickens is clearly fascinated with this whole idea of spying and blackmail; we’ll see how it develops in Dombey and Son. I’ll add, however, that I do have a soft spot for Rob the Grinder (Grinder, Biler, always somehow in action . . .), who never wanted to be a Grinder but suffered because of Mr. Dombey’s misplaced and shortsighted charity.

Dickens’s humor remains wonderful: Mrs. Skewton’s dialogue, as in “not Cupid, but the other delightful creature,” and Rob’s account of Captain Cuttle attempting to help a customer when neither one knows what the requested purchase looks like.

04 August 2008

Dombey #11 (chaps 32-34) August 1847

Dear Serial Readers,

Yes, I certainly do look forward to my weekly reading portion (to reply to a comment from last week). I think this leisurely pace allows me to notice so much more along the way--lots of trees, even if a wider scope of the forest is sometimes harder to see than a quick, compressed reading might yield.

This number, after the revue/review of the last one, has the coherence that I've noticed with each installment. Again too, we are introduced to new characters, two women who seem mirror opposites, much like Florence (the good angel) and Edith (the fallen, desperate or despairing angel): Harriet Carker and Alice Marwood. And of course the finale underscores binaries and their undoing (the "many circles within circles" of the narrative) where the "high grade" mother/daughter dyad (Cleopatra and Edith) and the "low" version (Good Mrs Brown--although there's quite a bit of uncertainty about her name in this chap--and Alice) dovetail, or as Dickens puts it, "the two extremes touch" (Oxford 525).

Thematically this installment coheres around loss and gain, fallenness and (at least the hope of) redemption or restoration. Here we have the first chapter, about Captain Cuttle taking in the newspaper item that strongly indicates that Walter has drowned at sea (although we know enough to suspect this loss as final); the second chapter, about Harriet Carker's encounter with Alice, the fallen woman returned from the penal colony of Australia, and then the last chapter, about the lost daughter restored to her mother, much as this restoration isn't all sweetness and light.

I'm most struck, though, with Dickens's portrayal of Alice's rage and resistance. First, her refusal of customary moral redemption as she challenges Harriet, "Why should I be penitent, and all the world go free?...Who's penitent for the wrongs that have been done to me!" (Oxford, 510).
Then there's her return to her mother where she tells her life story, from "a child called Alice Marwood" to a "girl called Alice Marwood" to a criminal called Alice Marwood"--a story that echoes Edith's sardonic version to her mother, where enforced marriage or prostitution is simply a matter of class position. And finally, Alice spurns Harriet's charity, given further emphasis by the illustration (with the caption, "The rejected alms").

The potential of these two "fallen" women (Alice and Edith) overlapping and even encountering each other is set in play because of the Carker connection--and the suspense grows and grows! I can see how having to wait for the next installment intensifies the suspense. Does this delayed gratification make the desire for narrative fulfillment more thrilling?

See this link on Dickens and Urania Cottage, the home for "homeless" (or "fallen") women that Dickens began to support around the time he was writing Dombey. You'll find references to other fallen women in Dickens's novels, but no mention of this particular one.

And guess what? It's August, and this number was first published and read in August (some 161 years ago)! How's that for skewed simultaneity? And with the next installment, we've completed a full year's cycle of numbers, from October 1846 to September 1847.

Next time: number 12, chaps 35-38---four shorter chapters instead of the more habitual three.


28 July 2008

Dombey #10 (chaps 29-31) July 1847

Dear Serial Readers,

What a stupendous, show-stopping end to this installment! Often weddings are foreclosed from Victorian narratives (i.e., "Reader, I married him"). But in this case, Dickens goes all out (including some text from the marriage service itself) with a very theatrical performance of the wedding day, the entire chapter rendered in present tense, much like the temporality of the stage. We'd noticed earlier uses of present tense, particularly around Paul's death and funeral (#6), and there are reminders of this death, and the first death of the novel--the death of the first Mrs. Dombey, also in this chapter. I love how Dickens suggests the other-timeness of what are also ordinary, daily events here through his shift in verb tense: death and marriage. The setting of the church weds (pun deliberate) together Paul's baptism and funeral with this ominous marriage. And so many of the elements of theatre are apparent throughout chapter 31, including attention to costume (Dombey's "new blue coat, fawn-coloured pantaloons, and lilac wasitcoat"). Also, like a theatrical prompt script are the pointed stage directions, such as "Mr Dombey leaves his dressing-room" (Oxford 464) or "Now, enters Mr. Carker" (466), or "Forth, in a barouche, ride Mr. Dombey...." (467).

In serial time, the finale chapter of this tenth number is precisely the centerpiece of the entire narrative, the bullseye of the novel's twenty divisions. So I found especially intriguing the constant review (and revue) of a wide range of characters, where so many are named again and again in this one chapter crowded with witnesses of this wedding day, whether guests, participants, bystanders as servants or workers or neighbors. The large canvas of characters in of the Victorian multiplot novel is in full array here. Like a grand theatrical finale, nearly everyone--from Dombey to the pastry-cook--appears and reappears in ranking orders in the course of this present tense performance of the wedding day, from dawn to night, in almost a circular pattern (see one of the final paragraphs on "treading the circle of their daily lives"). Dickens's attention to temporality is exquisite.

There's also an element that's inscrutable on stage: the interior views of specific characters, namely Edith, Florence, and to some extent the nefariously toothy Carker. The first of these passages relates to Edith, from the external view at the church as "the good lady" or bride, but from a narratorial gaze, "There is no trace upon her face, of last night's suffering...." (467) that marks the disparity between internal and exterior perspectives. Dickens negotiates this division through questions in a few notable places: when Carker congratulates Edith (469), when the wedding party arrives at Feenix Halls (473), and then finally Dickens uses interrogative syntax but exclamatory punctuation when Edith departs on her wedding trip to Paris and leaves Florence: "Is Edith cold, that she should tremble! Is there anything unnatural or unwholesome in the touch of Florence...." (477).

The suspense of this entire number intensifies too--we know Edith knows that Florence is the tender young prey of the next marriage plot, and she means to save Florence from her own repeated fate of loveless marriages of convenience by making sure Florence is in her own home, not with her calculating "Cleopatra" of a mother, during Edith's honeymoon trip. Carker's teeth are very sharp indeed, and we know that his big bite is imminent.

I want to mention a possibility for this "Serial Readers" blog. Check out Mousehold Words, a website that offers several Victorian and American serials that are emailed to subscribers on a schedule they choose (weekly, monthly, daily, or some other way). Go to Mousehold Words and then click on "catalog of novels" to see what's available. I would propose for our next novel either "Little Dorrit" (soon to be available online) or, for shorter reading, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood." There are novels available too by several other authors. Even if you prefer to read a book rather than a screen, Mousehold Words deliveries could remind you when to pick up each installment.

Until next time, and part-issue #11, chaps 32-34,

Serial Susan

21 July 2008

Dombey #9 (chaps 26-28) June 1847

Dear Serial Readers,

I've noticed that since we've moved to the once-a-week installment, there have been fewer comments from out there in the bloggerland. Please don't feel obliged to post a long comment, but let us know we have a wider reading community than three!

For me, this number generated some suspense around marriage plotting. Since readers of the original installment would've encountered the two illustrations before the text of the chapters, they would've known from that second one, "Mr Dombey introduces his daughter Florence," that Florence was not going to return to the "quiet" or "dull" home she anticipates. Of course, they would've surmised as much from the previous chapters in Leamington where Edith tells her mother that Dombey "has bought me" (417).

That entire passage, with Edith telling her mother, "You gave birth to a woman" and comparing the marriage market to the slave market, really struck me. Edith lives up to her promise as an increasingly fascinating character, both her resigned indifference (although her sharpness and wit undercut this) and her surprising compassion toward her almost- stepdaughter Florence.

Since I'm far away from that original readership, I can't help comparing Edith to two (future) Dickens characters: Lady Dedlock (Bleak House, 1852-3) and Louisa Gradgrind (Hard Times, 1854). Whether Edith too has some powerful secret in her past to give definition to her seeming indifference, or just her first arranged marriage to an older man who died prematurely (ie, for Edith, before obtaining his inheritance), remains to be seen. We know she's lost a child, although the circumstances are very different from Lady Dedlock's secret. In the Leamington scenes with that predatory shark Carker fixing his penetrating eye on Edith, I kept thinking of Tulkinghorn watching Lady Dedlock. Even the tour of Warwick Castle seemed to anticipate the descriptions of Chesney Wold, another Victorian Gothic setting, in the later novel. Edith's speech to her mother about her lost childhood reminded me of Louisa's to her father where she bemoans the Gradgrindian approach to children's training where "facts" supplants "fancy" and "heart."

In many ways this episode, like the others, emphasizes a tension between past (see Mrs. S's nostalgia for "those darling byegone times" in ch 27) and modern times or modes of living, with the "alterations" of the "quiet home" in this last chapter 28 heralding an anxious updating and change for this household. What is in store for "Dreaming Florence" now? How will Carker manipulate information (about Walter) and the new Dombey marriage to his advantage? And how will Edith respond, both to Carker and to Florence? Although the chapter titles (I think) were added for the volume publication, not the original part-issue numbers, chapter 26's "Shadows of the Past and Future" captures the temporal disorientations and struggles of the novel.

There are two other aspects of this number that I was curious about, and wonder if any of you serial readers have thoughts about. First, the treatment of Major B's "Native" (also appearing in the first illustration), subjected to ridiculous abuse from his master. Is this supposed to be comical, and in what way? How does the Major's treatment of the nameless "Native" echo other kinds of ruthless behaviors in the novel? Edith does bring up the analogy between marriage and slave markets. And finally, that description of Mrs Skewton aka Cleopatra undressing for the night ( ch 27, 416) with the help of her maid who has the "touch of Death." Here "the painted object" becomes an ancient relic of her former self, almost a cadaver. What is this passage suggesting about old age and trying to disguise agedness?

For next time: number ten (halfway point!), chaps 29-31 for July 1847.

14 July 2008

Dombey #8 (chaps 23-25) May 1847

Dear Serial Readers,

You'll notice I've spruced up this blog a bit, including the pale green background to echo the color of the original wrappers to each part-issue number. I'm trying to install a counter too, since I suspect there are lurkers out there, but I have no clue if anyone other than those who post are checking in.

I'm continuing to train my reading ear or eye for the Dickens part-issue unit; these three chapters seem to fit together with a rhyme and reason I've grown accustomed to noticing. Where the previous #7 only glanced at Florence toward the end, #8 lingers on our favorite neglected daughter for two luxurious chapters. I appreciate that despite the growing cast of characters and networking plots, there are these delicious portions that do dwell on one beloved character. I also found a few references to spring flowers and warm weather, details that reminded me of the real time of May 1847 when readers first encountered these pages. In this number too we have the possibility of new characters, Jack Bunsby (chap 23), Kate and her aunt (and the poor loving father John and his ragged and ill daughter Martha) in chap. 24. Who knows if these are only fleeting presences, or if they'll grow in importance? And then there's the suspense of Sol Gillis's disappearance, a plot device that creates a bit of a cliffhanger at the end of the number, one that piggy-backs the "agony of suspense" ( 344) of Walter at sea, that very suspense that Capt Cuttle believes prompted Sol to suicide.

Last time, we commented on those curious narrative interventions, like the one at the end of #7 when the narrator addresses Diogenes, the dog. This installment opens with some very choice Dickensian prose: the use of fairy tale rhetoric to shore up realism. In those first passages that seem to reject fairy tale narrative conventions ("No magic dwelling-place...", "There were not two dragon sentries....", "There were no talismanic characters..." etc etc) Dickens brilliantly wields fairy tale language to insist on a bleaker realism for Florence at home alone in London. Yet his use of common objects in the Dombey house (Mirrors, boards, keys, fungus, dust, spiders) paints a very gothic setting, along with other details. I also noted the reference to temporality, not ordinary time, but one with "clocks that never told the time" or "told it wrong, and struck unearthly numbers" (338). Finally, that refrain: "For Florence lived alone" (with its variations), these repetitions that participate in Dickens's own hybrid formulation of fairy-tale (or romantic) realism.

This number concludes with a temporal reference similar to the confused or stalled time of Dombey House in the opening of chap 23, here at the very end of #8 where Capt Cuttle, installed in Sol's shop with its many chronometers, is "losing count of time" (384). Is serial time similar, both stalled and moving forward and backward too? Does this novel seem to stress the vagaries of time more than other Dickens novels, or is it just that we're reading this in a serially serious way?

For next week July 21: #9, chaps 26-28.

Sincerely serial,

07 July 2008

Dombey #7 (chaps 20-22) April 1847

Dear Serial Readers,

This week we have a guest lead-off blogger, MJ, who is about to depart on a 3-week trip and may not be able to post while traveling (but plans to keep up with the weekly reading schedule).
So this is from MJ:

What I found especially powerful in this part is the first chapter, in which Dombey reveals once again, and chillingly, the degree of his self-absorption.  His reaction to Paul’s death is both poignant and disturbing: poignant, because all parents who lose a child must feel that devastating sense of the loss of all their hopes, as well; disturbing, because all parents come to know that, regardless of their own hopes and dreams, their children will have plans and dreams of their own that might not coincide with what their parents have imagined for them.  We know that Paul Dombey, Sr. would never have asked, “What is money for?” so we can imagine that at some point he would have been very disappointed in his son; he would have lost him in another sense, and would probably have seen that loss as a betrayal.  His anger at Toodle’s wearing of crape is also revealing, as he is insulted by what we see as an act of kindness and sympathy.  Of course, Dickens understands all this, and
it is a profound and powerful chapter.

Later on I was interested to see that the Toodles continue to play an important role; I hadn’t expected that. I’m also interested in what others think about the exhortatory voice (if that’s the word) at the end of at least one of the chapters, e.g. when the narrator warns the reader and Florence about trouble ahead. I know Dickens does this elsewhere, too, but he seems to do it a lot in this novel. I find it overblown, but I also kind of enjoy it.

Carker and his teeth are becoming truly frightening!

THANKS, MJ! My comments dovetail nicely with yours.

First off, are more people catching the train (of serial blogging) here? Trains, railway lines, and the ever-growing networks of plot lines populate this number. That piece of crape in Mr. Toodle's cap as a sign of mourning for little Paul grates on Dombey, but it's this "community of feeling" (297) that seems to underwrite so many of the connections between characters and places, and even the activity of serial reading. This novel seems deeply interested in the process of mourning--so many different ways characters deal with Paul's loss (and then, there's Edith's indifference, perhaps also another form of dysfunctional mourning). Is there a parallel between mourning and the experience of reading as loss (and remembering)?

Then, Dickens launches into an extended metaphor that likens "the triumphant monster, Death" (298) to the train that relentlessly moves across the landscape via the proliferating tracks of the railway system. What intrigued me especially is this juxtaposition of the locomotive, a symbol of modern industrial progress, and death (the end or antithesis of progress). This reminds me too of an earlier post about the experience of time in these part-issue numbers and in reading these installments as both standing still and moving ahead (and sometimes back). Ambidextrous time?

Echoes and parallels--many serial readers have pointed these out, and they continue to grow, both in terms of characters and formal devices. More "new faces" (ch 21) in this number--Edith Granger, whose son died young too, becomes the object of Dombey's marriage plot through their parallel losses. What lies beneath her surface of studied indifference? She's the flipside of Florence, who vibrates with feeling. Dickens brings out the convergence of opposites in that startling address to Edith (the penultimate para of ch 20). This formal device, along with the use of the present tense, recurs at the end of the number (ch 22, 336) as the narrator commends Florence's dog Diogenes for growling protectively at Carker the Manager, who has marital designs on Di's mistress. Like MJ, I'm terrifically ambivalent about these narrative interventions--the tone seems a bit sappy for our late-modern tastes, but these intrusions are fascinating formal features of narrative, the kind Victorian novelists (I'm thinking George Eliot here) relish. While Dickens (and Eliot, later) at times addresses the reader, these intrusions by the narrator to characters (including a dog) are a different violation of narrative level (what some narrative theorists call "metalepsis"). What do you serial readers think of these moments?

As MJ also notes, the Toodles family is especially ubiquitous in this number. They seem to play a prominent role as network fibers--first Polly aka Richards, then Mr Toodles who appeals to Dombey about his errant son, and now Biler aka Rob, that eldest son to be installed at Sol's, as Carker plants him as Walter's substitute. Is Rob being set up as a possible suitor for Florence too? How many are angling for Florence now? Carker, Toots, Walter--someone else?

If anyone would like to take the lead for next time, just indicate this in your comment (and include your email address, if I don't know you). I encourage more guest lead-off bloggers!
Until next Monday 14 July (Bastille Day!)--#8, chapters 23-25, I remain,
Seriously Serial

27 June 2008

Dombey #6 (chaps 17-19) March 1847

Dear Serial Readers,

Once again, time caught my attention as I read this number. The middle chapter makes a clear shift to the present tense for the first few pages (253-56) as it describes that weird temporal state of bereavement, in this case for the Dombey household following Paul's death. Time warps, one's perception of time seems strangely suspended, and Dickens captures this beautifully with verbs and participles. The first paragraph of the chapter concludes: "It seems to all of them as having happened a long time ago; though yet the child lies, calm and beautiful, upon his little bed." There are also many details about rituals surrounding death including the closed shutters at the offices in the City, the funeral procession with the black horses and feathers, as the carriage moves from the house to the church to the graveyard. Before switching back to the familiar world of past-tense narration, this section concludes with a recognition of the weird juxtaposition between ordinary diurnal life and "vast eternity" (or timelessness) which must somehow patch the unfathomable void left by Paul's death.

Then in the final chapter that relays a different kind of departure, Walter's for Barbados, the oddness of time, or keeping time, comes up again, here with references to Uncle Sol's "relentless chronometer" (286) and to Captain Cuttle's silver watch that mistells time, but this can be adjusted by regularly moving the hands backwards. These two different references to time, to the strangeness of time when someone dear dies, and to the practical difficulties of keeping time, reminds me of our earlier discussion about serial readers's bifurcated sense of time: the narrative time, the way time works (or gets derailed) within the numbers and the periodical release of these installments that insures the interruptions of "real" time beyond the pages of the novel. How do you experience time as serial readers? Does this novel seem to accentuate time more than other Dickens novels, other Victorian novels, or is this only more apparent because of the timely way we're reading it?

I'll leave to others to remark on the father/daughter divide, Dombey's blindness about Florence as his "child" because she is not the "Son" (the bit about the inscription of the grave and her coming into his room at night). Florence we learn is all of 13 now, although she's been installed in a marriage plot since Walter rescued her on the streets of London at age 6. And what about that shoe fetish, Walter?

Number 7 (chaps 20-22) for Monday July 7th, and we'll try for a weekly reading from then on. I'm hoping more people can chime in, now that we're slowing down our reading time....

Yours in serials,

19 June 2008

Change in Reading Schedule: A Number a Week

Dear Serial Readers,

Let's bring our reading pace a bit more in line with the original publication schedule and now move to one installment per week, starting next week. I know a few more people have joined, or would like to chime in, but haven't been able to catch up with the reading. I will post on part-issue No. 6 (chaps 17-19) next Friday June 27th, and after that, on Mondays (starting July 7th for No. 7) until we finish. If we read the final double-number (19/20) in one week, as original readers did in one month, the date for concluding works out to September 29th. I know this will take longer (approximately four months from when we started), but then, it's still much compressed from the eighteen months of the original Oct 1846-April 1848 run.

In the meantime, if you have time, you may want to peruse the original part-issue numbers of Dombey and Son, if you have access to a library collection that holds these items. Those of you in Madison, WI can go to Special Collections in Memorial Library and look at them there. I'm hoping to do this myself next month to check out the advertisements (approximately 32 pages per installment!). These advertisements usually carry the title of the novel--so in this case called "The Dombey Advertiser"--and occasionally incorporate elements of the novel (characters, for instance) or even a letter to Dickens about a particular commodity.

Please comment if this new plan suits you---an installment a week (approximately 3 chaps) will make more room for other reading too!

Until Friday June 27, for No. 6 (chaps 17-19),
Serial Susan

17 June 2008

Dombey & Son #5 (chaps 14-16) Feb 1847

Dear Serial Readers,

I'm bereft. Although the foreshadowing wasn't subtle, this number that concludes with Paul's death had a coherence and force unlike the previous four. And we have the death of the entitled "Son" only a quarter through the novel! Like the first number's conclusion, this one reasserts "the Daughter after all!" Is this daughter a new character (many have observed that these installments seem to bring in a new character toward the end) now that she's the only surviving child? And will Florence's story expand beyond the marriage plot that's already been set in motion?

The pathos of the dying child narrative seems a prevalent ingredient in nineteenth-century fiction. I can't help but remember my mother's sardonic remark to me whenever I expressed fears of mortality as a child: "Don't worry, Darling, only the good die young!" Why is it that these moribund children are so "old fashioned"--preternaturally wise, good, observant? Little Eva in UNCLE TOM'S CABIN (1851-52) provides the moral center there, much like Paul's christianized goodness and love. The image of Florence and Paul with "their arms around each other" (ch 16, 240) reminds me of the death of Helen Burns in JANE EYRE, also published in 1847. These are just two of countless instances of the dying child as a source of spiritual, moral, and other kinds of redemption. Can anyone think of a child in a Victorian novel who dies early and isn't similarly "old fashioned"? How will this death affect Father Dombey, as well as Daughter Florence?

All the references to temporality, to sunsets and sunrises, to clocks and candles (mentioned as another way of telling time on 205) course through this number along with the river and the waves with their ways of marking the passage of time. I was particularly interested in the third-to-last paragraph about Paul's death as "the old, old fashion!" that even associates human extinction with the end of narrative: "The fashion that came in with our first garments, and will last unchanged until our race has run its course, and the wide firmament is rolled up like a scroll" (241). With the death of "and Son" at this fairly early point, where will the narrative go--to "Dombey and Daughter"?

For next time: part-issue number six, chaps 17-19 (originally published in March 1847)

Serially yours,

13 June 2008

Dombey & Son #4 (chaps 11-13) Jan. 1847

Dear Serial Readers,

This installment again prompts my thoughts about time, about the passage of time, both within the narrative and as experienced while reading the novel--or this part-issue number in particular.

Does the narrative seem to move slowly, and does this suggest that there's little happening, not much suspense or excitement or plot turns and twists, not enough compelling (character or plot) interest? I was thinking about the notion of pacing--fast-paced, absorbing reading or slow-paced reading that seems to demand more effort. But is slow reading necessarily wrong or an indication of a flaw? Does serial reading encourage a kind of slow-reading style, one that might be an acquired taste and clearly time-consuming, yet rewarding in its own way (like the slow-food movement)? And what hints accrue within the novel (especially around education) about how to read--fast, slow, close, distant, sporadically, selectively, or otherwise?

There are two places in these chapters that caught my attention around these questions. First, Doctor Blimber exemplifies a kind of distance reading quite literally as he "held a book from him at arm's length, and read" (ch 11, 157). The narrator indicates that this style of reading isn't admirable: "There was something very awful in this manner of reading. It was such a determined, unimpassioned, inflexible, cold-blooded way of going to work." This passage seems to promote reading that is variable, open, passionate, and perhaps not like "work." Blimber's pedagogy inculcates "fast" learning (and reading) around the clock in a methodical fashion: "The studies went round like a mighty wheel, and the young gentlemen were always stretched upon it" (ch 12, 173). Not a felicitous vision of reading and learning!

Two last thoughts on this number. One way in which the novel seems to move slowly is that we're watching Paul grow without large leaps so far (no. 1 on infancy, no. 2 second year of life, no. 3 age 5, and no. 4 age 6). It's sort of like watching plants grow (to use a favorite metaphor of Dickens's), not particularly thrilling since changes are slight. And Paul is paradoxically both young (in body) and old (in spirit), something that complicates the matter of his chronological aging. If he's prematurely old, are there hints that he'll die early too?

Finally, I noted how Florence manages to pursue both female and male curricula, how in addition to "her own daily lessons," each evening she "track[s] Paul's footsteps through the thorny ways of learning" (chap 12, 177). I guess we'll see whether Dickens endorses this mixed educational diet.

Yours in numbers,
Serial Susan

09 June 2008

Dombey & Son #3 (chaps 8-10) Dec. 1846

Dear Serial Readers,
Thanks MJ for politely indicating that I was off on the chronology of the initial part issue publication schedule. I've fixed these dates now, and I've added a well-known 1888 drawing of Dickens at his desk (presumably the one that just sold last week) with all his characters surrounding him.

Now we're up to #3, first released in Dec. 1846, and this brings me to today's topic: how can we read like those original readers? Obviously, we can't know about all the novels that follow, even though the resonances are so evident, especially around mistreated children and the woes of childhood, for poor and rich, but not quite alike. Mrs Pipchin as a "woman of system with children" makes me want to jump ahead, beyond 1846-47, to those other miserable pedagogical systems to come. But of course there's Squeers from Nickleby, and surely Dickens's original Dombey readers had in mind Squeers Academy when reading about Pipchin's "Castle."

About this "Castle" with its "Dungeon" quarters for particularly wayward children, I couldn't help but think of the Royal Pavilion at Brighton, the locale of Mrs. Pipchin's establishment. This pavilion, designed by John Nash and using Asian Indian motifs galore, is a major Brighton landmark that dates back to early nineteenth century, so presumably a structure early readers would have associated with Brighton. And it does seem like it's popped out of some elaborate Eastern fairytale. I visited the Royal Pavillion in Brighton in January 2005, and am attaching a photo I took--clearly an anachronism, but also the pleasures of blending my reading of this number with experiences beyond. As Josh points out, Dickens likes to mix fairy-tale romance and realism, and this Brighton portion provides such a concoction. But so does Brighton itself, outside the pages of the novel, at least in architectural design!

I have a few other thoughts about reading "as" serial readers (as the initial consumers of the novel). By reading an installment at a time, do these chunks take on a shape, a coherence of their own, quite apart from chapter divisions? Do we get a sense of "number three"-ness here, where all roads (or many characters so far) seem to lead to Brighton? Josh mentioned that so far Dickens seems to connect his plot line dots clearly, and Julia raises the question of speculation--what can we surmise based on our knowledge of Dickens's (previous) novels and the habits of Victorian narratives? I love this kind of speculation, something that Dickens's first readers, judging from part-issue reviews, also pursued. So, on the Tox/Dombey marriage plot: I'm of two minds here. First, Dombey is such a cold character that it seems unlikely that Miss Tox would end up with him. I imagine instead that a woman more his match will come along. But then, Miss Tox could wind up a humanizing influence, an angel in the house of Dombey and Son. But what will redeem Dombey? Is this possible even? Captain Cuttle seems more suitable for Miss Tox, to me.

I wanted to mention too that initial readers always encountered the two illustrations (per part-issue number) at the front of the installment, just prior to the first chapter. In this way the illustrations act as prefaces more than simply illustrations aligned with the referenced moment in the text (as they do in the Oxford edition). So I'm trying to look long and hard at those illustrations before reading each installment. Like the variation in the tone and mood of the chapters within a number, the two illustrations usually offer a kind of contrast. Here the austerity of "Paul and Mrs Pipchin" (on p. 111 in Oxford edition) differs from the other internal scene, this one of the Instrument Maker's shop (p. 130). In the first, Paul warily studies Mrs. P who stares at the fireplace where a kettle appears to be steaming, with a black cat perched nearby. The room is sparsely furnished compared to Sol Gills's shop where there are various gadgets to manipulate, ones for measuring time and space, plus his solicitous nephew Wally with his arm around Sol, and Captain Cuttle with his arm extended toward the dejected uncle and consoling nephew. Even the moneylender/pawnbroker Brogley is interacting with these gadgets in the backroom. So the contrast I see is idle hands, lack of engagement with people and objects in the first drawing, and lots of activity, with devices for hands and minds, and human connections too, in the second one. Dickens seems to offer a warmth scale that cools down quite a bit as one moves up the social class ladder (with adults, at least).

What is this serial reading experience like for you?

Serial Susan

06 June 2008

Number Two (chaps 5-7) Nov 1846

For me, this installment took off slowly, with the "bleak" (a word used a few times) Christening of Paul. But as I turned away from the pages about Dombey's library, I heard on the news that Dickens's desk was auctioned in London for a pretty penny (or hundreds of thousands of pounds). Check out the wrapper design (reproduced in the very first pages of the Oxford)--there are ledger books and a desk.
Chapter Six I loved. This movement out into the streets and northern neighborhoods (Camden Town) of London results in more substitutions--the temporary exchange of the Toodle and Dombey babies and then "Good Mrs Brown" substituting Florence's clothes for garments that amount to "a heap of rags." Do these exchanges suggest that social class is fluid or malleable, a matter of costume, manners, and the like? Polly Toodle aka Richards is a working-class angel in the Dombey home, a far better surrogate parent than Dombey to his children. Florence "lost" in the streets of London seems to have some happy benefits--her chance encounter with Walter Gay (and fairy tale romance plot--although Dickens does seem enchanted with little girl bridal imagery), and her being "found" or returned to her father's momentary regard. But this event entails a more serious loss, or "deprivation" of the working-class angel in the middle-class Dombey home.
The description of London in flux, its "hundred thousand shapes and substances of incompleteness" reminds me of Ford Madox Brown's painting WORK from around this same period--that sense of the modern Victorian city dug out, inside out, under construction (here, the "Railroad in progress"). Here's a link to that painting: http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/fmb/paintings/hikim2.html
I also noticed that, like the first installment, this number ends with the introduction of a new character--Major Bagstock.
For the next installment no. 3 (chaps 8-10), I'd be happy to paste in someone else's "review" first, if someone can email me one by Monday morning. All lurkers welcome, but active bloggers applauded! I look forward to more thoughts from all Serial Readers!
Serial Susan

02 June 2008

Dombey and Son: Part Issue No. 1 (Oct. 1846/June 2, 2008)

I do love the symmetry—or asymmetry—of this first number that begins with the entitled “Son” in the first sentence but ends (literally) with the much neglected and maligned “Daughter.” Lots of stimulating possibilities for little Florence including the marriage plotting at the very end of the installment.

I have two main thoughts about this first number: substitutions and time. There are several kinds of substitutions throughout these opening chapters: names “Son” for Paul, “Richards” for Polly Tottle, “Spitfire” for Susan Nipper, “Floy” for Florence. Then there’s the substitution of people—most notably the wet nurse (Polly) for the dead mother. I suspect there’s another replacement mother in store for us. The “Dombey and Son” business through overseas trade investments involves the substitutions of financial speculation. Then there’s realism itself as a representational practice where the novel, in this case, stands in for real life. And finally how we’re reading this novel in the initial part-issue serial installments as if we’re like those first Victorian consumers of Dickens. So I’m curious about the further work of substitutions in the novel, and in the ways we’re reading—and blogging about—this novel.

There are several references to time in this debut number of this serial novel (a form contingent on the regular monthly segments), from first paragraph that juxtaposes 48 years/hours of father/son, to the last chapter with Captain Cuttle’s “tremendous chronometer in his fob.” And then there’s the attention to ages and lifespans--the death of the mother and the birth of the son. Captain Cuttle qualifies himself as “old-fashioned,” temporally misplaced—an anachronistic character (shades of Miss Haversham of the later Dickens) who’s “fallen behind the times.” And this lamented condition of the “Instrument Maker” (maybe a substitute for the novel-maker?) and his shop constrasts with the Dombey business, a thoroughly modern commercial establishment.

I admit it’s difficult reading this number as if I’m reading it in November 1846, before the Veneerings and other multiple examples of Dickens’s disdain for newness, and his nostalgia for what’s been lost (in this installment, the lost mother). But in any case, I’m hooked on this story already. I’m amused by “Richards,” and I’m eagerly anticipating the story of the aggrieved “Daughter,” and the hazy prospects of the titular “Son” on whom the hopes and fortunes of Dombey (and the novel) depend; all in all, a nice mix of pathos, humor, familial complexity (“unhappy families” of Tolstoy’s famous opener), and the promise of intriguing currents as this serial journey gets underway. I’m curious to read your reactions to this number too, so please “comment” away.

For Friday June 5: part issue number two (chaps 5-7, first published in December 1846).

19 May 2008

Dombey and Son

Welcome serial readers!
Here's the plan. We'll read Dickens's DOMBEY AND SON in the twenty part-issue numbers, as originally published from Oct 1, 1846 to April 1, 1848. The Oxford edition (edited by Alan Horsman) indicates each part issue number on the top right of each lefthand page of the novel. I propose we read two installments per week, one for posting on Mondays, the other for posting on Fridays. I'll make sure there's a space for posting on each number and then we can each feel free to comment as we please. Please use "comments" here to indicate if you can start with the first installment (first four chapters) for June 2.

It looks like Amazon has some used (and new) copies of this edition: