POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

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.