POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

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).