POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

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