POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

27 December 2009

Wives and Daughters: #12 (chaps 33-36): July 1865

Dear Serial Readers,

You'll see the illustration for this installment alongside this post. That's Molly with the long dark hair, and Cynthia will her lighter hair piled up high. The caption, "Oh! it is no wonder!" are Molly's thoughts in chapter 34 when Cynthia comes to Molly's room after Roger's confession of love to Cynthia in the drawing-room below, and his departure on his scientific expedition for two years. The text suggests that Molly has just seen herself alongside Cynthia reflected in the mirror and compares herself unfavorably to "Cynthia's brightness and bloom." The episode makes clear that Molly is one who loves Roger and that the engagement *ought* to be between Molly and Roger if--Mrs. G wasn't so meddlesome to encourage that match or if Roger was a better reader of female character. One favorite textual bit for me was the long passage at the end of the previous chapter where the narrator recovers Roger's thoughts about his long voyage and Cynthia--the latter all filled with romantic platitudes: "the thought of her would be a polar star, high up in the heavens, and so on, and so on...." those "so on"s capture a certain impatience with Roger's obtuseness here, I think!

At the same time, it was gratifying (although frustrating for this to happen too late) for the scales to finally fall from Mr. Gibson's eyes about his wife's character and about the error of his "act" of marrying her. So perhaps Roger will correct his vision in a more timely fashion. Still, this novel anatomizes two uneasy, complicated households--Hamleys and Gibsons. The men (Hamleys) with their unwillingness or inability to truly communicate with each other in contrast to the inane and even harmful chatter of Mrs. G. Molly and Cynthia keep more to themselves too, especially Cynthia whose determination to keep her engagement to Roger a secret surely points to some other secret--perhaps a secret engagement to Preston?

There is one other lovely drawing for this #12 installment in the magazine--a small one at the very start of chapter 33, but pointing toward the moment in chap 34 when Molly throws open the windows longing to catch sight of Roger leaving. I have a softness for Victorian images of girls at windows looking outwards (as some of you know already). I'll put that image up too for you to see.

Next week, #13, chapters 37-40. Your thoughts about our next serial novel (or stories)? And this Slow Reading pace? How slow can you go?

Serially signing off,

21 December 2009

Wives and Daughters: #11 (chaps 30-32) June 1865

Dear Serial Readers,

With this #11 of 18 installments (the last one is very short), we're now well beyond the halfway mark. So, time to start thinking about the next serial novel. Please feel free to suggest possibilities, and I'll construct a poll, as I did last time when we chose between this novel, Trollope's Orley Farm, and Dickens's Little Dorrit. I'm also interested in reading early Dickens, his transatlantic novel, Martin Chuzzlewit. But perhaps a Wilkie Collins novel or Mary E. Braddon, or something else, possibly another Gaskell--her linked Cranford stories?

Because of reading serially in this weekly fashion, I'm finding the divulgence of a secret backstory of Preston and Cynthia increasingly suspenseful. The novel moves along in its full ordinariness, and yet I feel hungry for the revelation. The mounting tension between Preston and the squire is intriguing too, especially the attention to different practices of land use, limited resources, and the impoverished who live on the land, highlighted by the illustration (see sidebar) in the magazine, titled "The Burning of the Gorse" (with reference to the encounter between Squire Hamley and Preston, who is wearing the top hat, presumably).

I continue to marvel over Gaskell's handling of fine gradations of social class, whether it's Mrs. G (with her excess of names--as Daun has pointed out for us) telling Lady Harriet that they now follow the fashionably late dinner hour or the narrator mentioning that poor people are more candid about death "the leveller" than "is customary among more educated folk." It does seem to me that Gaskell supports fuller candour and straightforwardness, for all her characters, and in this way applauds some of the habits of the poorer classes whose behaviors might be labeled "vulgar" otherwise.

On the historical dating of the novel: I want to correct my earlier assertion (in response to Josh's comment) that the interest in the Cumnors in getting votes must place the novel post-1832 Reform Act. As Kari noted, Gaskell is a little loose with her temporalities. But still, I think it makes sense that the novel is set in the 1820s, and that the votes that Lady Harriet and her brother Lord Hollingford must be after (during the charity ball) belong to the fallen landed gentry like Squire Hamley. Gaskell punctuates these chapters with "in those days" to accentuate temporal changes, like the use of envelopes!

Molly once again comes off as the most astute reader in the group of women in the Gibson household. Cynthia, "a passive coquette," poses a reading engima whose "brilliancy" the narrator qualifies as "the glitter of the pieces of a broken mirror, which confuses and bewilders." Ah, the slow turn of the screw of suspense again! Molly is most vexed and angered in this segment by Cynthia's puzzling submission to her mother's marriage plotting directed at Roger now, instead of the ailing Osborne. Does Molly's irritation over Cynthia as "the conscious if passive bait" forecast her own refusal of prescribed roles later in the novel? We'll see!

Finally, it looks as if Roger is to have a manly adventure on a scientific expedition, much like the young Darwin (whose Cambridge professor recommended him as naturalist aboard the Beagle, which set sail in 1831). Enjoying greater mobility than their female counterparts, Roger and Osborne leave and return, while Molly's furthest ventures are to the Towers. It seems too that Roger's talents as a "careful observer" of nature are drawing some recognition (as the review of his article mentions), while we readers are left to notice Molly's qualities as a struggling reader of human natures, her own and others around her.

Next time, chapters 33-36 (the next installments include more than three chapters)--and, a rousing cheer for SLOW READING!

Yours in the fullness of serial time,

13 December 2009

Wives and Daughters: #10 (chaps 27-29) April 1865

Dear Serial Readers,

This past week I became a Serial Viewer by watching part one of the 1999 BBC adaptation of Wives and Daughters. It is really a splendid production with excellent casting and attention to period details. Like many recent adaptations of Victorian (and Austen) novels, it tends to be fairly faithful to Gaskell's text, but of course has these odd patches of pure invention--but nothing egregious so far. I stopped viewing just as Mrs. Hamley died and Cynthia arrived from France. Molly is exquisitely played by Justine Waddell, who seems to have a penchant for acting roles of Victorian heroines (with one exception--Natalie Wood): Tess (Tess of the d'Urbervilles), Laurie Fairlie (in The Woman in White), Estella (in Great Expectations, and even the invented wife of Van Helsing in the 2000 adaptation of Dracula. Keeley Hawes, who has the role of Cynthia, played Lizzie Hexam in Our Mutual Friend. I just can't imagine a more perfect Molly Gibson than Waddell's creation--amazing silent acting through facial expressions. I'm planning to watch just enough each week to keep up with the serial installments we're reading. Enough of my plug for serial viewership!

Not much comes out in this installment about Preston and Cynthia, except that when she learns he's to take Sheepshanks' (Dickensian name!) position as estate agent and live in Hollingford, she briefly contemplates going out as a governess to escape her "doom." Like Molly, I wonder what this "doom" could be--and can only imagine an unwanted marriage to Preston. There's also a hint that she's borrowed money from him.

The attention to reading characters continues--Molly fully sees Roger's romantic interest in Cynthia and wonders "how soon it would all end," since she can't imagine anyone declining an offer from Roger. In her modesty or self-suppression, Molly seems not to express even to herself at this point envy or pain over Roger's redirected interest, although she does object to him referring to Cynthia as her "sister"--but I thought this was more because he knew her initial unhappiness about her father's second marriage. Cynthia is not at all the kind of reader that Molly is, but we learn she's a good reader of boys if not books: "Instinctively she knew her men." So she understands Roger's interest in her is very different from his brother's, something her mother (who seems incapable of any accurate reading) fails to realize. Then Gaskell brings in another reader--"an older spectator"--who views the blooming romance (lopsided though it is) in a different way than Molly or Cynthia or Roger. Is this "said spectator" the hypothetical reader of the serial here? The episode ends with Osborne's "poetical and romantic" view of a reconciliation with his father brought about by the grandchild in the works. Clearly we're not meant to be readers of this sort. What kind of reader or readings does Gaskell seem to endorse most?

Serially suspended still,

06 December 2009

Wives and Daughters: #9 (chaps 24-26) March 1865

Dear Serial Readers,

This week's section of the novel is a gorgeous set-piece of an installment, moving from the little dinner party at the Gibsons to the Hollingford charity ball, with the preparations chapter sandwiched between as the interlude, with plenty of gossip and gown-gathering. I love reading in the format of these segments because I see the arrangement (like the nosegays Molly admires, but Cynthia pulls apart) of the chapter scenes in a way that fades away when we read chapters in whatever chunks we like. I know that Gaskell disliked the serial format when she was commissioned by Dickens to contribute a novel (North and South) to Household Words in weekly segments, but her experience providing the monthly installments of this novel to The Cornhill was different. For one thing, she wrote out the cluster of chapters as installments, something she did not do with the earlier serial. I'd love to find out more about this.

Back to the story: I loved the array of class-conscious details. These revolve mostly around Mrs. Gibson, and her hyper-sensitivity about dining (later hours meaning higher class status), dressing, and dancing partners, but Lady Harriet also injects some humor into this satirical treatment by speaking out about how the Towers family must dance with partners across class lines in order for Lord H to be relected. I was amused by the bit about the duchess and her diamonds, about how the people longed to catch a glimpse of the duchess, but she shows up in muslin, dressed à l'enfant and without jewels, and, worse, drinks beef-tea! When Lady Harriet goes over to the Browning sisters at the ball, a gesture we readers understand, Mrs. Gibson, without a shred of self-awareness, tells Molly about the Brownings: "If there is one thing I hate more than another, it is the trying to make out an intimacy with great people."

Last week, some of you readers talked about Molly's self-suppression, whether chosen or imposed, around Roger's attentions to Cynthia. In these chapters I like the glimmers of Molly's candor--her "spice of malice" in reply to her stepmother or her reputation as a "little truth-teller" to Lady Harriet. And her interest in scientific topics makes her enforced dancing with Lord H. somewhat a pleasure, even if he's not Roger. Mrs. G even advises Cynthia to read scientific books to attract the attentions of a lord! But poor Cynthia, she can barely read at all (indicated by the three-day-old newspaper she holds), since something is on her mind.

And about Cynthia's distraction the suspense builds, but in this low-keyed, underground way, around Preston. As other readers have mentioned, this is a different kind of suspense from sensation fiction and large-scale melodrama. But I am finding the mystery around Preston's power over Cynthia rather compelling, perhaps because of its subtle disturbance of the placid surface of the ordinariness of Holllingford life. What power does he have over Cynthia? She is clearly not free to reject him completely, even if she tosses his nosegay into the fireplace at home. Does he have some knowledge about her school days in France? I also enjoy how Gaskell aligns the reader with Molly here in reading Cynthia's discomfort, something no one else seems to notice.

For next week: chapters 27-29.

Serially submitted,

29 November 2009

Wives and Daughters: #8 (chaps 21-23) March 1865

Dear Serial Readers,

Terrific conversation among our serial readers group this week! I too noticed that exchange between Cynthia and Molly (the one Reader Ann comments on)--yes, a rather bold but bitingly true assertion that love for one's mother is cultivated rather than natural. Cynthia's ability to speak in such a candid way seems the flipside of her waffling, untrustworthy mother. I agree with Kari that Gaskell seems to wrap her critique of Mrs G/Hyacinth/Clare with a humorous even burlesque flair that transpose such moments into domestic comedy. Does this treatment compare with, say, Austen's rendering of Mrs. Bennett? Cynthia, as Josh points out, is also morally compromised (something she pins on the inadequate mothering she receives), something we see, but Molly doesn't--yet. Finally, I agree too with Daun that even a novel like Middlemarch is threaded with sensational plot lines, large or small.

See the illustration included with this installment--the magazine provided the caption: "Roger is introduced and enslaved." Was Roger's infatuation with Cynthia predictable? We know he's an acute reader of nature outdoors, and he was a competent reader of Molly herself when she was distressed about her father's new marriage. But what of his reading of Cynthia? I find her intriguing as a sensation heroine (see my comment last week) in a realist novel: she's "put on her armour of magic that evening--involuntarily as she always did," we're told, but then: "she could not help trying her power on strangers." So her power to bewitch is both beside herself and something that amuses herself. Yet her indifference to Roger, to what he has to say (the details of the senior wrangleship which Molly longs to hear), is also striking. There's something oddly jaded about her--too old beyond her seventeen years. The revelation of her backstory should be interesting! By the way, did anyone else notice that Roger calls Cynthia "Miss Gibson" (Molly is only eavesdropping on the conversation, so it's not likely she's being addressed) and then refers to Cynthia as "Miss Kirkpatrick" to Molly, at the end of chap. 21? Gaskell has been criticized for carelessness (or lack of originality) with names. But this made me wonder about the naming of a daughter who seems to have both her dead father's and her stepfather's surnames.

Gaskell reveals more about Osborne's secret marriage and his French wife through O's private meditations about how to support himself and his wife. Gaskell places this novel in the 1820s when Catholic Emancipation was the subject of national debate, but also clarifies that Aimee's religious and national differences aren't the only difficulties in Osborne's mind in order for her to be accepted by his father. Her class background too would "shock" the squire's "old ancestral pride." I found poignant Gaskell's attention to the hopes and expectations this parent places in his son, to somehow improve upon his own life course, to have a distinguished higher education, to marry well and so "restore the ancient fortunes of the Hamley family." Perhaps Hyancinth's wishes for Cynthia to marry Osborne is the comic version of all this.

So, back to suspense again. What is brewing, do you think? The consequences of revelations--Osborne's secret marriage, Cynthia's amorous past (something about Preston), what else?

Somewhat serially suspended,

23 November 2009

Wives and Daughters: #7 (chaps 18-20) February 1865

Dear Serial Readers,

You'll notice I added two images taken from the Feb. 1865 installment in The Cornhill. Typically there is a full-page drawing by George du Maurier before the first page of the installment, and then an embellished first letter of that installment. The drawing pertains to a scene in the segment--in this case "First Impressions" pictures Molly and Cynthia (although Cynthia's beauty is difficult to read here, although her greater height is evident). Du Maurier was a regular cartoonist for Punch and provided illustrations for serials until he himself turned to fiction--he illustrated his 1894 novel Trilby (which was serialized in Harper's Weekly).

If nothing else, the drawing does accentuate a moment in the installment, in this case "first impressions" between these step-sisters. While there were plenty of hints to suggest these girls might not be compatible, it seems that they are establishing a bond of affection (rather than the competition that has been set up, and perhaps will enter later into the plot). I found Cynthia most appealing in her appreciation of Molly. She also is wiser than her own mother, but (as Julia pointed out with the inversion of roles) perhaps that's not saying much!

This portion of the novel again reminded me of the popular sensation novels of the day, although different too in Gaskell's toned-down "every-day" version. First, Osborne's "secret" marriage and all the allusions to France (sensation novels almost always turn on a secret marriage or illegitimate birth or sexual liaison of some sort, and France is the prime location in Victorian novels for licentiousness). Then Cynthia enters, and my "first impression" is that she resembles a sensation heroine with her "power of fascination" and her "power of adaptation" (shades of Darwinian evolution here) and her flexible morals--my favorite line is when she tells Molly, "I must be a moral kangaroo!" This phrase rings nicely with Eliot's depiction of Lydgate as "an emotional elephant" (and I agree with Betsy about Mr. Gibson's obtuseness, much like Lydgate's in Middlemarch). Cynthia is an appealing character to me not only because she admires Molly, but also because she does have some self-awareness (in contrast to her mother) and a sense of humor too about her shortcomings.

And about suspense: it's evident there's some history between Cynthia and Preston. Could there be another secret marriage or secret engagement? Clearly Preston is keen on Cynthia, but her mother wants her daughter to marry up into the squire's family--hence Mrs. Gibson's interest in Osborne for Cynthia. Yet Gaskell allows for the dramatic irony here since we we know at least one secret marriage will thwart that desire, and if not, why then, there would be a bigamy plot, another staple of popular sensation novels! Preston is seeming more like a melodramatic villain to me--before, several characters sniffed at his class pretensions, but this time the narrator also finds him suspect and conniving. More suspense, but not the page-turning variety?

I've mentioned links to Middlemarch, and Julia suggests that Gaskell might have Eliot's earlier novel Silas Marner in mind too in her portrait of the two Hamley brothers. I should mention another possible companion text, a very interesting short story about two brothers--"Brother Jacob"-- by Eliot that appeared in this same magazine in July 1864, so just two months before the first installment of this novel.

Next week: chapters 21-23.

Serially yours,

14 November 2009

Wives and Daughters: #6 (chaps 15-17)-- Jan. 1865

Dear Serial Readers,

Just as we expected, the "New Mamma" has brought discontent, unhappiness, and even loss of employment to the Gibson home, yet she seems installed there--redecorating and all (of course she deplored the changes done for her)--for the long haul. Her clash with the servants is another class-laced portrait, especially interesting since she'd been a paid domestic employee herself at the Towers. It's difficult to find one shred of appealing quality about her, isn't it? And yet, Clare's shortcomings are really "everyday" ones, so terribly petty. I find compelling Gaskell's everyday ethics about the small stuff--like Gibson taking his meal quickly so he can get to the bedside of a dying patient or like Molly wishing to bring comfort to Mrs. Hamley.

I also am struck by all the fine details of class markers Gaskell explores. Where her earlier novels Mary Barton and North and South explore class conflict between "masters" and "men" in the realm of factory work, this one also has quite a bit to say about the gradations of social class in Hollingford, England. For instance, Clare (or, "Mrs. Gibson" now) claims her new name is a "sad come-down after Kirkpatrick." And there's the classing of food again--this time, it's not just cheese that offends the new Mamma, but also the early dinner hour. How interesting too that the Methodist cook seems to prefer a diet that follows Leviticus restrictions against pork and "swine-flesh" of Jewish dietary laws.

And speaking of Hollingford, I can't help thinking of Middlemarch. I'm finding parallels between these novels, most sharply between the doctors (Gibson, Lydgate) and their unsuitable, selfish, and conspicuously consuming wives (Clare and Rosamond). But Gibson is a different kind of doctor--he's not "Dr Gibson" but "Mr Gibson" in the novel, a title which implies his training. He's a practitioner who treats disease and by doing so cares for the ill, but he does not have the prestige of a physician who actually diagnoses the disease--that's why Dr. Nicholls, "the great physician of the county," is called in to confirm Gibson's fear about Mrs Hamley. (By the way, another proper name with real-life echoes: "Nicholls" was the name of Charlotte Bronte's husband, someone Gaskell wrote about in her biography of Bronte). Eliot's novel has much to say about medical reform, but I find that Gaskell seems to focus on palliative care--"to make the last struggle easier" as Molly puts it--or bringing comfort at the end of life not just to the dying but to the family.

Kari made a comment last time that suggests that Gaskell is rather gentle with her handling of suspense. I am interested in this question because suspense seems also a technical necessity for a serialized novel--what else would compel readers to go for the next issue of the magazine? What is the nature of suspense in this novel, then? We know that Mrs. Hamley is going to die before long. And we know that Cynthia will return and there will be some complications here between her and her mother and possibly Preston's interest in her, which of course Clare will dislike immensely. And the Hamley brothers will return now from Cambridge--Osborne a big disappointment, but also what's up with him? There are hints that there's more going on with his life than his parents know. He's turned into more of an adventurer than a scholar, with his knowledge of London entertainment and Continental travels. And Roger, the second son, who we can guess will increasingly become the hero? So what kind of suspense is this? How is your curiosity piqued or fed within and between installments?

Next time, chapters 18-20.

Serially yours,

08 November 2009

Wives and Daughters: #5 (chaps 12-14) December 1864

Dear Serial Readers,

I agree that there are hints afloat to suggest that the domestic reign of Hyacinth (aka Mrs Gibson, by the end of this installment--I think I counted FOUR different proper names for her this time) will not be especially pleasant for Molly. I also think that when Cynthia does appear from France it's likely there will be some battling wills between this mother and daughter.

I liked how the actual wedding is pushed to the background in this installment which introduces two new characters--Preston and Osborne. Like the attention to cheese eating last time, these chapters too are filled with the fine distinctions of social class: (1) Roger not imagining his romantic ideal could possibly be a surgeon's daughter, (2) the narrator, with that startling intervention ("Attend, Phoebe, to the present moment..."), chiding this character for even fancying that Gibson would consider marrying her, (3) Lady Harriet's unkind condescension of the Browning sisters as "Pecksy and Flapsy"--and Molly's offense that Harriet would treat this "class of people" as "a kind of strange animal," and (4) Lady Harriet's disdain for Preston as "that underbred fop." To Lady H's credit, she takes Molly's offense to heart and pays a visit to the Brownings. To what extent will the novel critique class snobbery or promote some mild cross-class affiliations? Not sure. Gaskell pairs class and gender in interesting ways--the different kinds of femininity (Lady Cumnor, Mrs. Hamley, Miss Browning, Mrs Kirkpatrick) and masculinity (see below) that each seem shaped by material circumstances.

There seems to be a new romance plot brewing via Preston, the land-agent--his muscular manliness contrasts strongly with Osborne's delicate and "effeminate" appearance. Yet he seems conniving too--his lavish attention to Molly perhaps meant to stir jealousy in someone else, Miss Kirkpatrick, I'd guess, from his comments about her beauty. By the way, this issue of The Cornhill includes an illustration before the installment titled "Unwelcome Attentions" with Preston hovering over the dark-haired Molly. I've included it in the sidebar.

Osborne seems a Keatsian kind of guy--"beautiful and languid-looking." Molly tries to sort out her imagined or "ideal" Osborne with "the real" Osborne who clashes with the ideal that is drawn from literary models. The same might apply to Roger who also doesn't measure up to an ideal (or conventionalized) notion of masculinity, but perhaps represents a new version of manliness. I agree with you (Kari, I think) that Roger is the most pleasing of the male characters so far, especially in his kind attention to Molly. And she's already learning about the bees (if not the birds) from him! Roger introduces Molly to a different set of books, not fiction or poetry, but the natural historian Huber on bees.

Briefly, on the contents of the Dec. 1864 issue of the magazine: I didn't find these items to be particularly relevant to the chapters, as I did last month/week. The issue began with the installment from *Armadale* and then an article about the improving relations between England and France through "the bar" or convening of English and French lawyers in London; another item about a popular artist who had recently died; and an article about "Salvers," or those who dredge up salvage from shipwrecks.

Next time: chapters 15-17 for January 1865. Happy New Year! (and a new marriage....)

Serially yours,

02 November 2009

Wives and Daughters: #4 (chaps 10-11) November 1864

Dear Serial Readers,

Two chapters this time, both about the second marriage plot--Gibson's proposal to Clare (aka "Hyacinth" and "Mrs. Kirkpatrick") and Molly's reaction to this news. Were you surprised at all the attention and care lavished on these three characters and their various perspectives on this impending marriage? I thought Molly's heart-wrenching reaction to the news of this stepmother on the horizon was wonderfully detailed and varied in the wide range of confused feelings--anger, hurt, fear, surprise, worry, shy curiosity. Gaskell doesn't reduce Clare to a caricature of the wicked stepmother, but clearly she's not an idealized angel either, but rather human-scale in this "every-day" slice of realism, with her own interest in relinquishing the drudgery of schoolteacher. But what did you make of the proposal scene itself, in chap. 10? I loved the narrator's shifting between his and her viewpoints in this proposal that seems overdetermined, Gaskell suggests, by the social attitudes that dictate a second marriage is the best solution for Mr G's domestic woes, for Mrs K's hard lot as a schoolteacher and single mother, and for Molly as unmothered in a house of men. Yet there's much to suggest discomfort too with this overscriptedness.

It occurs to me that Victorian novels are loaded with second marriages of one sort or another, although at what point in the narrative the second marriage enters varies (late, for instance, in Middlemarch and in Jane Eyre). Any thoughts about this second marriage, at least the preview we get in these chapters through the shifting focus on Molly, Clare, and Mr. G? My favorite bit of class comedy was when Clare asks Molly to report on her father's pet likes and dislikes, and discovers to her dismay that he eats cheese! Cheese apparently was a food associated with unrefined tastes, with a strong smell, according to Clare! I also loved Roger Hamley's attempts to comfort Molly either directly (in his awkwardness with words) or indirectly as her "Mentor," leading her out of her misery through distractions. That passage reminded me of Gaskell's preface to her first novel, Mary Barton where she mentions that she turned to fiction writing as a distraction from "circumstances"--she doesn't clarify this, but biographical accounts attribute fiction writing as her husband's suggestion after the death of her very young son.

Reading these two chapters I became curious about what else appeared in the pages of The Cornhill in November 1864. I was quite astonished to see how several items seemed tooled to this novel's interests! Here are the contents of that issue, in order:
1. The lead item is the Prologue (first 3 chapters) of Wilkie Collins's sensation novel Armadale (the only one he published in this magazine)
2. "Middle-Class Education in England" by Harriet Martineau--this article is on female education and begins with this sentence: "If the education of middle-class Boys is a vague and cloudy subject to treat in writing, what is that of Girls?"
3. "A Tête á Tête Social Science Discussion"--complementing the above article is this story told by a father whose wife has just given birth to their ninth daughter--no sons. The narrative takes the form of a discussion by the narrator/father and his friend on the Woman Question, especially about how and whether a woman can support herself outside of marriage. There is also discussion of women's higher education.
4. "The New Mamma"--a drawing presumably referring to the scene between Molly and Clare (see sidebar)
5. The installment of this novel occurs here, in the center of this issue
6. "The Scottish Farm Labourer"--an informative article on this topic. Mr. Gibson is Scottish by background, and this subject of farm labour might figure later in the novel.
7. "At Rest"--consolation poetry about the death of a child, signed B.R.
8. "Col. Gordon's Exploits in China"--a travelogue/imperial adventure account by this explorer
9. "The Public Schools Report"--this item in the form of a letter responding to a report on boys public schools, especially Eton, printed in the July issue.

So, here you have the full context for this slice of our serial novel! Next time: chapters 12-14.

Serially Seconding,

25 October 2009

Wives and Daughters: #3 (chaps 7-9) October 1864

Dear Serial Readers,

To respond briefly to comments from last week: yes, reading books seems showcased early on in this novel, with Molly's reading Scott, Mrs. Hamley reading Hemans, the squire reading newspapers and journals, Gibson's more eclectic reading diet, and Roger reading "scientific books" in contrast to Osborne's poetry. "Reading" also means studying, in the scholastic sense used at British universities, and at that time "reading" natural history was certainly less common and supported than reading poetry, which I think was probably aligned more closely with philosophy and theology as a fitting course of study for young men at Cambridge preparing to enter the Anglican clergy. The squire mentions to Molly that "they don't take honours in Natural History at Cambridge," an indication of its lower academic status at this time (late 1820s perhaps). I do love the attention to the pleasures of reading immersion--whether Molly being "deep" into Scott's novel or even the pleasures of reading the flora and fauna of the gardens outdoors.

To continue now with this week's installment: while we meet Roger Hamley, we don't see much evidence of his reading nature; the narrator insists that he would not even notice Molly as a "formed beauty" because she is in "a state of feminine hobbledehoyhood." This word jumped out at me, since those of us who read an earlier serial in The Cornhill, namely Trollope's The Small House at Allington, heard much about Johnny Eames's "hobbledehoyhood." And now, the feminine version!

But if Molly at seventeen seems unripe for that romance plot, we have two middle-aged widowed characters, the former governess at the Towers and Molly's father who is primed for a second marriage to untangle "the Gordian knot of domestic difficulties," which include the averted "calf-love" incident. Gaskell gives lots of details of the converging circumstances of, on the one hand, this single father who can't manage his household, and, on the other, Clare Kirkpatrick, the struggling single mother schoolmistress who's already lost several governess positions. While marriage might promise solutions to their respective problems, there are ample hints that other forms of knottiness might lurk on the horizon of such an alliance. Clare's character is not particularly encouraging despite her early kindness when Molly visits the Towers at age 12, and Gibson, we know, is shortsighted in the realm of human complexities not of a medical nature. I do find the subject of second marriages in Victorian novels surprisingly common--"every-day" as the subtitle suggests.

On "invalid" women, I was interested in an implied comparison of Mrs. Hamley and Lady Cumnor, the first, truly ailing from some disease (as well as from inactivity and longing for her beloved son), the second, perhaps hypochondrical due to her social position as a pampered woman of wealth with grown children and little to engage her. Those passages reminded me of Gaskell's treatment of Mrs. Carson as a "do-nothing" lady in her first novel Mary Barton.

Finally, the character who really intrigued me this time is Lady Harriet, the youngest daughter of Lord and Lady Cumnor, who delivers a wry and sharp assessment of the current status of elite female education at home through governesses and masters. I hope to see much more of Lady H. in installments to come!

Next time, only two chapters--10 and 11.

Serially signing off for now,

18 October 2009

Wives and Daughters: #2 (chaps 4-6) September 1864

Dear Serial Readers,

I'm also intrigued by the direct or indirect attention to education so far in this novel you've noted--Julia's comments on the Cumnor charity school in contrast to Lowood in Jane Eyre and Joshua's on Mr. Gibson's attitude toward literacy. Then there's quite a bit here about the public school educations of the two Hamley sons (perhaps in contrast to Molly's meagre education by Miss Eyre).

I must say, though, that I understood Gibson's reluctance for Molly to learn too much as pertaining to his feelings about her growing up. Perhaps because I have a seventeen year old daughter myself who is currently in the process of applying to college, I was struck by the Hamleys and Gibson wrestling with their children's increasing autonomy and departures from home. Around the time Gaskell began working on this novel, her daughter Florence married in 1863. Gaskell handles Gibson's fears about Molly leaving with terrific irony since his concern about the "calf-love" threatened by Edward Coxe compels him to send Molly away from him to Hamley, where, of course, two sons are bound to visit on holiday from school.

Gibson's uneasiness about Molly growing up and leaving him has two other parallels: Mrs. Hamley missing her sons, especially the poetic Osborne (who presumably takes after her in contrast to the outdoorsy, naturalist Roger, more like the father) and then Molly's fear at the end of this installment about the possibility of his father remarrying, an event that would necessarily affect the intimacy of this father and daughter. Rather than "Wives and Daughters" a more inclusive title would be "Parents and Children." These opening segments make evident a focus on changes in parent/child relationships as children move into adulthood. This is especially so for Molly and her father. Yes, the serpent in the Edenic garden of Molly's childhood does emerge as this installment closes with the squire considering, "To be sure, a step-mother to a girl is a different thing to a second wife to a man." How will the next one end, I wonder?

Returning to the theme of literacy, I also noted the attention to reading in these chapters--reading books (poetry, novels, scientific writing), reading human nature, and reading nature.
Characters are sorted by their reading tastes or abilities--Molly reads historical novels (Scott, in this instance), while the squire tells Molly about Roger's remarkable capacity to read natural history through nature--"his eyes are always wandering about, and see twenty things where I only see one." As a doctor, Gibson is an astute reader of nature as it affects human bodies, but (returning to my comment last time) we get the sense that he's not a sharp reader of his own feelings and motivations: "He did not want to lose the companionship of his child, in fact; but he put it to himself in quite a different way." Other observations about reading practices in these chapters?

Finally, I wanted to mention the subtitle of this novel, although I don't know if it appeared with the original magazine serialization: "An Every-Day Story." I like this accent on ongoingness, on commonness, rather than the extraordinary. I'm hoping that one of these weeks some one of us will peak at the original Cornhill appearance of these chapters to see what other everyday stories surrounded segments of the novel. I'll try to remember for next week: chapters 7-9.

Serially submerged,


11 October 2009

Wives and Daughters: #1 (chaps 1-3) August 1864

Dear Serial Readers,

Off we go on another Victorian serial adventure--this one with the auspicious beginnings of a fairytale "rigmarole." The fairytale motif is evident and sweet, with allusions to Goldilocks when Molly falls asleep under the cedar tree and later wakes inside the grand house in Clare's bed. But there are other tales suggested in these opening pages--perhaps Cinderella with the ordinary people taken by serial carriage rides to the Towers festival, but also an evident wink at Jane Eyre through Molly's governess's name. I couldn't help seeing echoes in a reverse chronological direction, with Mr. Gibson, the new doctor to Hollingford, who had studied in Paris, as a precursor to Eliot's Lydgate who arrives in Middlemarch near the opening of that novel, and in the days before the passage of the First Reform Bill. I wonder how else Eliot's Middlemarch (1871-72) might be compared to this novel.

I also wonder about the role of sleep in building a new fictional world--Molly falls asleep in what appears to her as an Edenic dreamland, although she suffers from the hothouse atmosphere too. I began thinking about sleep and visionary realms in the early pages of novels--this too reminds me of the opening of Eliot's The Mill on the Floss where the narrator falls asleep while looking back in time. Is falling into a new narrative world like the opening of a dream? There is something gently parodic about Gaskell's use of the fairytale motif too in this first segment of the novel, which concludes with an assertion about Molly's "very happy childhood." Is some serpent, some apple, some Eve, to intrude upon this quaint English paradise? Mr Gibson is a fond father, but seems a bit emotionally dense--I recall Eliot's description of Lydgate as "an emotional elephant."

The brief glimpses of the greenery of the Towers as well as Lady Agnes's lecture on orchids and attention to the taxonomy of plants also reminded me of Gaskell's Job Legh, a working-class naturalist in her first novel Mary Barton. Charles Darwin was a distant cousin of Gaskell's, and there's a character, soon to appear, supposedly modeled after the young Charles Darwin who preferred botanising or geologising in the hills to his studies at Cambridge. Botany was also a popular activity for women to pursue as a hobby but also as a way to educate themselves about the natural world.

I look forward to your thoughts about this dreamy opening! For next week, the second installment includes chapters 4-6. There were 18 installments altogether printed in The Cornhill Magazine.

Serially yours,

25 September 2009

Upcoming Serial: Gaskell's Wives and Daughters

Dear Serial Readers,

The results of the poll are clear: Elizabeth Gaskell's
Wives and Daughters, serialized monthly in The Cornhill from August 1864 to January 1866, is our next Victorian serial. Yes, this is the same magazine that ran Trollope's Small House of Allington. I recommend the Oxford UP edition (see sidebar) because the table of contents provides the installment divisions. But no matter about this, since I'll indicate each week what group of chapters comprise the next installment. We'll begin in two weeks (to allow time for people to obtain copies), and I'll aim to post on the first installment, chapters 1-3, on Sunday October 11th. Please spread the word! As an added attraction, there is a lovely BBC adaptation of this novel, and I have a copy for anyone nearby to borrow--or perhaps we'll have a serial viewing party!

In the meantime, do share your thoughts on the ending of
Romola! You can insert comments at the end of the previous post below!

Serially yours,

20 September 2009

Romola #14--chaps 68-Epilogue (August 1863)

Dear Serial Readers,

We've reached the final installment! I'm eager to hear your thoughts about the ending of this novel. The Epilogue follows a fairly conventional pattern of Victorian fiction by fast-forwarding eleven years from Savonarola's execution to May 1509, but then we see a domestic scene rather uncommon to conclusions of Victorian narratives--not the pared-down nuclear family of mother, father, child as in the closure of Jane Eyre, but instead three adult women and two children! I suppose one could argue that Romola, who finally is able to assert herself, if only provisionally, as scholar where she is Lillo's teacher and evident head of this household, inhabits a typically masculine position. Yet Lillo calls her "Mamma Romola." Tessa is curiously silent in this closing vision which finds her rounder and plumper and "astonished...at the wisdom of her children." Even so, I'm intrigued by this family without men. Two immediate precursors come to mind: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh (also set in Italy--perhaps such alternative arrangements only imaginable out of Britain) and Christina Rossetti's fairytale narrative poem, "Goblin Market" where the last stanza imagines a family circle of two women and children, but no mention of men as part of this community. With R's household shrine, Savonarola does hold a place in Romola's moral universe--not as the great prophetic religious leader, but as a human-sized man who had once rescued her in need.

I had wanted to upload one of Leighton's final illustrations for this serial, but I'll describe it instead. There's a very striking image of Romola "Drifting Away." But the only "drifting" I can find in this image is the word in the caption. Her arms are muscular, and she has a firm grasp of the sail rope, and her glance outward looks determined, even stern, and even somewhat like portraits of Savonarola! This visual portrayal seems a bit at odds with Eliot's words, and also looks nothing like her other heroines (Maggie Tulliver and Mirah and Gwendolen H. G.) who appear in boating scenes. Leighton's image (but for the costume and the mountains in the distance) might suit Dickens's Lizzie Hexam, the female waterman of Our Mutual Friend. Despite this seeming disparity, Romola does exert much strength and direction once she wakes up from this drifting away and returns to the land, and this unwavering action continues through the epilogue.

What about Romola's entering (wandering) into that scene of the plague, with the wandering Jews viewed by the ignorant villagers as the source of this pestilence? Eliot next wrote "The Spanish Gypsy," a dramatic poem also inspired by her travels in Italy, and in Spain, in which she contemplates the meanings of racial identity. In this novel, Romola is recalled to life and from the water by the crying "Hebrew" child Benedetto who is eventually converted, while Romola herself is transformed by the villagers into the legendary blessed lady who came over the sea to rescue them. This mode of turning to others, helping others in need, seems the one act of redemption Eliot affirms. Given the novel's skepticism about religious belief and superstition, where does the novel end up on the religion question here? What kind of Christian is Romola, with her household shrine for Savonarola?

Like Kari and Julia, I did find the attention to Savonarola's struggle with ambition and belief fascinating, especially given my temptation to identify Eliot (in her work as novelist) with this character! She was at a pivotal point in her own career, as a widely respected great author (although castigated for her personal relationship with a married man). At the same time, Eliot's own conflicts with conventional religious practice and belief and with public fame are well documented through her letters and journals.

At the same time, I continued to see links between Romola and Sav. In the full spectrum of this historical novel, Romola serves as an important witness of Savonarola's rise and fall. Yet at the moment when Savonarola is led before the crowd to be degraded and executed, the narrator merges the consciousnesses of these two grand characters where Romola sees and hears the crowd just as Savonarola does. Is Romola at the end more a modified, better, version of Savonarola than she is of Bardo, or is she a mixture of both, are both the male models inspiring this very large (tall!) female character?

I was surprised that the Epilogue did not rejoin the work of the Proem, and foreground the reader's passage from 1509 back to the present tense. Instead of the sweep of a historical epic, the narrative ends in this small-scale, domestic realm of Renaissance Florence, perhaps striking for the contrast to the grander strokes of the Proem.

Dear Serial Readers: what will we read next? According to the poll I installed at the bottom of this page, there is a marked preference for Gaskell's Wives and Daughters, with Trollope as second, but not a close second. I am eager to choose something that everyone will be able to keep up with on a weekly basis, and more will join the conversation. The poll will remain open for the next week, and then I'll announce the final winner. But Gaskell seems likely. We'll start in October--I'll post the reading plan in a week. In the meantime, please feel free to email me if you'd like to receive emails each time I've posted on the blog (or alternatively, if you'd like me to remove your address from this forwarding list).

Serially sufficed, (for now),

13 September 2009

Romola #13--chaps 62-67 (July 1863)

Dear All Serial Readers,

Don't forget to cast your vote for our next serial! At this point, Gaskell's Wives and Daughters is the front-runner, with Trollope's Orley Farm in second place. So far, no votes for Dickens. Even if you're unlikely to read along, don't be shy about asserting your right to vote! You'll find the poll at the very bottom of this page.

And so we're on the home stretch--only the last and fourteenth installment of Romola remains for next time. I'd love to hear about your experiences reading in this serially format, either as a newcomer to this novel or as a re-reader, but this time in these deliberate segments.

This installment, as I'd anticipated, doesn't touch directly on Romola at all, but does mention her briefly toward the end, as Tito reminds himself of his "mistake of falling in love with Romola." But in a way she's in the background with the waterside imagery that ends this part too. As we've all mentioned from time to time, rivers and other watery images abound in Eliot's novels--but this is true for other Victorian writers. I did work out, however, that Romola's water isn't the same as the Arno that brings together Tito and Baldassarre, since Viareggio (where Romola has gone) is on the coast.

What did people make of the coincidence of Tito washing up on Baldassarre's shore? This perverse sense of justice--this scene of the betrayed and the betrayer, the pursued and the pursuer--reminded me of a scene toward the end of Dickens's Our Mutual Friend (Headstone and Riderhood), a novel Dickens would've been working on when this novel was serialized in 1863. And maybe also the last pages of Frankenstein? While Eliot seems critical of Baldassarre's obsession with revenge, she does allow him this fulfillment--after all, Tito is still alive, barely, and so Baldassarre, also barely alive, uses his last strength to accomplish what he has desired for so long, almost since he entered into this novel. Is this really justice, though, in Eliot's moral scheme of things?

I did find it interesting that Tito had planned to bring Tessa and her children with him on his flight out of Florence. This seemed an interesting twist where the "other" secret wife would be elevated to the position of a full-time wife, while Tito has no thoughts for Romola's future (didn't he notice she'd gone missing?). But then, this twist does not work out as Tito had planned. The final installment will surely bring back Tessa and Romola, so stay tuned.

And Savonarola? I found him especially sympathetic in these pages as we find him struggling with an inward collision between belief and knowledge, between faith and facts. He believes in miracles in the abstract, but his "keen perception of outward facts" convinces him that he would not walk through a trial by fire. Not unusual with Eliot, she unfolds an anatomy of faith here which centers on the need for it rather than assessing its validity. How life-like, life-sized, and even modern somehow seems Sav in these scenes. And Tito, well, no question he was happy to sell Sav (or his letter) down the river for his own gain. I do find Tito a kind of moral lesson throughout for Eliot--but since Tito seems incapable of change or productive moral reflection, I also began to see him more as a plot device.

For the last few chapters, I'm also interested in how Eliot will return to the now/then stitching together that was so evident in the first chapters--or will she?

Please vote early and often for the next serial! I'll announce next week, and we'll start the first week of October.

Serially steadfast,

04 September 2009

Romola #12--chaps 57-61 (June 1863)

Dear Serial Readers,

Only two more short installments of Romola left after this week! With that in mind, I've installed a new feature on this blog--a poll for our next selection! To see this poll, scroll all the way to the BOTTOM of this screen. The choices are different from my earlier proposals. I should mention that I'm also working on a project analyzing Victorian serials through a digital data instrument my colleague Mike Witmore has been developing called Docuscope. You'll see in the top right sidebar I've linked Mike's blog Wine Dark Sea where he elaborates on docuscoping and how he's used it to identify lexical features that distinguish Shakespeare's genres.

My project, at least for now, will compare Dickens and Gaskell, one writer very attuned to the serial form as a novelist-editor-conductor of periodicals in which he ran some of his novels, the other not an editor-conductor, and very ambivalent about the serial form--the spatial constraints, the need for any breaks at all (apparently Gaskell tended to write with little initial attention to chapter divisions). So I'm proposing for next time either a Dickens novel or Gaskell's last novel Wives and Daughters which was also (like Romola) serialized in The Cornhill. And like Dickens's Drood, which we read here last year, Gaskell died just before she was able to complete the final installment! But she was much much closer than Dickens was with Drood! And for a third choice, I suggest Trollope's Orley Farm, one of his stand-alone novels (not part of a series, like Small House), and published in four-chapter (short) segments. So, please enter your vote on this poll--I've allowed an option for more than one choice!

Mike's "Wine Dark Sea" blog reminds me of the end of this installment--Romola's drifting out to sea. Quite a bit of suspense set up here, and I would predict that Eliot intensifies this suspense by withholding Romola from the next and penultimate installment to insure readers return for the last! Romola's moral and spiritual rudderlessness--and all the dreamily drifting and gliding out to sea--reminds me of Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss who finds herself in a similar position on the Floss, although she is not alone like Romola! But it's interesting how Eliot returns to the moral dilemmas of her heroine in this fashion. I loved the mixed images too here--Romola's physical competence getting the boat into the sea and unfurling the sails (showing that she's the ever-quick study of a student!) and at the same time total suspension about what to do, where to go, now that she has no one at all to follow, neither a husband nor a spiritual father nor a godfather. Interesting that she doesn't return to her original idea (on her first flight disguised as a religious sister) to seek out the celebrated woman scholar Cassandra Fedele in Venice. Earlier I was impressed too by her determination to witness her godfather's execution, although the ultimate moment is eclipsed from her--"then she saw no more"-- by a fainting spell? And with the narration focused through her eyes, we also don't see the final moments of Bernardo's beheading.

As Julia mentioned about the ending of #11, the public and private overlap and converge in interesting ways in this installment too. But these "tangled threads" for Romola also sour her sense of clear fellowship and connection--to any man, at least. I also saw a resemblance between Romola and Sav during the "Pleading" chapter, Romola's interview w/ Sav that Tito has manipulated Romola into seeking. Sav's "never-silent hunger after purity and simplicity" is thwarted by a "tangle of egoistic demands, false ideas, and difficult outward conditions." Even if the demands and conditions differ for Romola, to some extent the contours of her dilemma seem parallel to Savonarola. Eliot modeled Romola after Barbara Leigh Bodichon Smith, who was a woman with a striking presence and lofty ideals and who campaigned through public lectures on behalf of women's rights at this time. I've read of at least one Victorian woman who was motivated to start a woman's "philosophical society" (where people discussed articles or presented their own work) after hearing a speech by Smith.

For next time, #13, chapters 62-67--and then one more installment after that. So I would expect we'll start our next serial the week of Sept. 21st. Don't forget to vote!

Serially at Sea,

28 August 2009

Romola #11--chaps 52-56 (May 1863)

Dear Serial Readers,

Are you reading this? Are you reading Romola? Are you on vacation? Or--more likely--are you NOT on summer schedule anymore? This past week there was not a single comment, the first time since I started the blog. Only three more installments to go. Then what?

This week, I found the opening and closing chapters especially intriguing. In the first, we have Camilla, "chief among the feminine seers of Florence," who has a vision about Romola that she "separate herself from the enemy of God"--while Sav seems the obvious referent here, Tito is also possible. I love the way prophecy shapes this narrative throughout, from its earliest pages. How is the narrator a kind of prophet too, foretelling futures?

"The Other Wife" chapter that closes this May 1863 number brings Romola to Tessa's home where she is able to ascertain, to her keen disappointment, that Tessa is not Tito's lawful wife. The chapter makes clear though that Romola increasingly sees herself as Tessa's and Tessa's children's surrogate mother or guardian by a higher law of human obligation. In this segment, Romola resembles both Tito and Savonarola at different points. Like Tito, she has rescued Tessa from harrassment in the marketplace; but Romola also compares herself to Tito whose great transgression is his "light abandonment of ties" from Baldassarre. But here too Romola is drawn to Sav as a model--not just the "sacredness of obedience" (why she returns to Tito in the first place), but now she also sees the "sacredness of rebellion" and determines to live apart from Tito (and, presumably, in some kind of relationship to Tessa and her children). Again, this segment of the story makes me think of sensation fiction of the 1860s, the bigamy novels and secret wives or husbands that also envision different, more flexible, intimate configurations than monogamous heterosexuality. There are some strong echoes with the domestic arrangements here of Marian Evans and George Henry Lewes (where Marian's earnings from her books help support George's son's from his "lawful" marriage to Agnes).

I also thought about the Pre-Raphaelites and their paintings, such as William Holman Hunt's "The Awakening Conscience," this one of a "kept woman" in her gilded cage in St. John's Wood, London, presumably the man's "other wife" much like Eliot's rendition of Tessa. I also see surprising echoes forward to Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles--this time again with Tessa's account to Romola of her "marriage" to "Naldo"--what Tessa in her childlike innocence thought valid, but clearly it was a false marriage. Hardy had such a marriage scene too between Tess and Alec, one that was published as a separate installment later after the original run of Tess in a magazine; this contrived marriage ceremony was then excised from the full novel. Of course Hardy surely read *this* novel!

Next time, the installment is also short, and I hope to have more company in reading--and more ideas about our next reading project. Or would you like a long vacation? For next week: chaps 57-61.

Serially yours,

20 August 2009

Romola #10--chaps 47-51 (Apr 1863)

Dear Serial Readers,

In this latest installment, it seems that the plot lines and characters are converging, the suspense building as we know, inevitably, Tessa and Romola will discover their marriages to the same man (and perhaps by association to each other). Ah, the delicious dramatic irony when Tessa tells Romola that her prized trinkets were gifts from her husband!

First, on the question of Eliot's seemingly apolitical heroine, as Kari observes. I would not say this is typical of Eliot's female characters, but I do think Julia has a good point here--that often Eliot foregrounds an ethical imperative in terms of how rather than what one does with these questions of the day. In this instance, "the day" hovers across two different historical moments as the narrator does urge readers to notice the collisions and convergences of Renaissance Florence and Victorian England.

This past week I have been corresponding with Donald Weinstein, a historian of the Italian Renaissance who is currently finishing a book on Savonarola for Yale UP. I should mention that Don is the father of my longtime friend Betsy, one of my many attempted recruits for this blog! Although Don objected to aspects of Romola (the saintly title character as too idealized, the excessive display of knowledge of Florentine culture, overeliance on coincidence--such as Romola in this episode encountering Tessa), he did find Eliot to be spot-on in her assessment of Sav. Comparing Eliot's judgment of Savonarola with those of his contemporaries like Machiavelli, Donald Weinstein offers this: "If no more able than they (or than any of us ) to see into the heart of the man, George Eliot, perhaps as clearly as anyone, saw his predicament: having won fame as a prophet by speaking truth to power, Savonarola discovered that in the exercise of power truth unalloyed by compromise is an impossible ideal."
We'll see the wisdom of these words in the upcoming installments!

I loved the description of the "pyramid of vanities" in chapter 49 (I also agree with Julia's reading of the chapter titles, especially those referencing characters like Romola). The image of this monstrous edifice filled with stuff I found so fascinating--a tower of babel-like conglomeration of "marketable abominations." Eliot's depiction of the squad of young "beardless" inquisitors, the boys in white moving around the streets extracting from people (mainly women) the Anathema seemed too a comment on totalitarianism in any form--I kept thinking of the Hitler Youth League.

What do you think the "pyramid of vanities" suggests about books, bibliophilia, scholarship, print, even the novel? There seems throughout the novel something precarious about printed (hand and then press--at this historical transition) words--the power of words and the displacement or attempt to eradicate that power by other powers.

Next time: #11 (May 1863): chaps 52-56. Only three more short installments after that! After that, I'm inclined to turn to Eliot's very first foray into fiction--her three stories published in Blackwood's in 1857, later collected into a volume as Scenes from Clerical Life.

Serially yours,

12 August 2009

Romola #9--chaps 42-46 (Mar 1863)

Dear Serial Readers,

Last time I mentioned how the bigamy plot, secrecy, and suspense reminded me of the popular sensation novels serialized in the 1860s. But this time, I'm thinking: GOTHIC. I admit that these illustrations (see sidebar) by Leighton prompts thoughts of this genre, one that usually involved some kind of intrigue around Catholicism, monasteries and convents, corrupt ascetics, monks with amazing powers and sexual appetites. The Gothic is especially suggestive in the final chapter of the installment, and the illustration which had the caption "A Dangerous Colleague," perhaps one that might be applied to any of the three figures in the scene: most obviously Spini, but also Tito, and then there's Romola, who witnesses this exchange about a plot against Sav, and responds with a threat to divulge all at San Marco. I liked how this episode concludes with Romola recovering some sense of her own power to thwart Tito, something she can only do by living near him (so her submissive retreat home seems somewhat vindicated).

But in this serial number, before she's an alter-"Dangerous Colleague" to Tito, she's also the "Visible Madonna," in contrast to the "Unseen Madonna," that "mysterious hidden image" enclosed within the tabernacle--unseen to all, of course, but the omniscient narrator, and us readers (although there is far more detail given to the brocade curtains that conceal than the "Pitying Mother" inside). This hidden madonna in contrast to the visible Romola suggests more layers, more that cannot be fully represented to the eye or ear. Here I'm reminded of Julia's comment about the non-verbal or textual powers weilded in this novel--Sav's voice, some spiritual force, or sexual force (Tito and his women) that can't quite be translated into words?

What do you think of these images that were included in the installment? Romola is definitely cloaked in the second ("Dangerous Colleague") as she recedes into the wall, but she's also the attentive eavesdropper. In the first, she is a feminine Saint--? Which one attracted all the little children and fed the animals, or am I mixing up my saints here? I thought her dress in this image looked faintly Victorian.

Like Julia, I've thought of Eliot's penchant for discussions about political and philosophical and cultural questions, either in a club setting (the one Julia mentioned in Daniel Deronda) or the Rucellai Gardens dinner scene. But in both of these, only men, and only hand-picked men, are included. I thought Baldassarre, as interloper who gets tossed out and imprisoned, might also be aligned with women, also barred from these group exchanges. There are other kinds of conversational gatherings with a more popular format--the gossip of Nello's barber shop, or, in Middlemarch, tea parties or pub gatherings, offer a broader range of views and include women and people of diverse class positions as active participants.

I want to end this post by talking about serial reading, what else? I have a bit of blog envy, I admit, after watching the film "Julie and Julia" last weekend. Clearly I'm no Julie Powell writing about cooking Julia Child's French recipes, and so no surprise this blog about serial reading isn't suited to zillions of hits. But I don't think this blog is like other reading blogs either. I have a friend who keeps a blog A Book a Week where she reviews and grades the books she reads. But this reading project isn't about a book a week, but a book over many many weeks, as these novels were written and first read. I'd love to hear more about your experiences reading in this way, rather than immersing yourself thoroughly in the pages of a Victorian novel for days on end until you finish, without a mindful break.

In the spirit of multiple reading endeavors at a time, rather than the one-and-only-book at a time, I thought I'd list my reading this past week. I'm not including incidental reading (newspapers, magazines, blog articles--including Facebook), but books or essays. In all cases I read only parts (with the exceptions of the short items, not the books), but in some cases I finished a book, or started a book, or read in the middle, like this installment of Romola.

What did your reading menu look like this past week? Even if you're not reading Romola, but you area reading this, can you share your range of reading this week? Here's mine, a mix of work-related and sheer pleasure, and in no particular order:
Fetish Lives by Gail Jones, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (Pulitzer prize winner book),
Darwin's Worms by Adam Phillips (read on my Kindle!), The Closed Door by Dorothy Whipple,
three sequels to Ibsen's A Doll's House by G. B. Shaw, Walter Besant, Eleanor Marx and Israel Zangwill, Heretical Hellenisms: Women Writers, Ancient Greece, and the Victorian Cultural Imagination by Shanyn Fiske, "The Task of the Translator" by Walter Benjamin (in translation).

Besides parts of these books, and others, I'll also be reading chaps 47-51, the April 1863 installment of Romola. I was thinking, for the next Serial Readers pick, linked short stories that were serially published, either Eliot's Scenes of Clerical Life or Sherlock Holmes. Any other ideas?

Serially signing off,

03 August 2009

Romola #8--chaps 38-41 (Feb 1863)

Dear Serial Readers,

What's up now with Romola doing an about-face, and heading back home, like the ever dutiful daughter she is, after Fra Girolamo (aka Savonarola) reprimands her about fleeing Florence and her marital pledge? In the previous installment, Romola's determination to leave Tito and her home, her preference for freedom alone over a marriage with a deceitful (if she only knew!) husband, came across as bold and forthright. But Eliot seems to show that ironically it's Romola's strong will that also makes her so pliable, first by her father, then her husband, and now this religious father. Before I throw the book across the room in exasperation over all the Fra's lecturing Romola for shirking her duties to her husband and to her city, his bullying her into a submissive child (why can't she resist??), I want to pause to consider Eliot's liberal distribution of flawed characters, especially these mighty men and their abuses of power. Also, I suppose Romola's retreat underlines how difficult it is to defy social conventions, in this case, sticking to those wedding vows.

I also see the bigamy motif in a symbolic way here--Romola (like Maggie Tulliver before her, and Dorothea and Gwendolen later) seems wedded to two conflicting principles or impulses, both fierce and both compelling: self-assertation and self-renunciation, or, egoism and selflessness. The problem for me is that this binary falls especially hard on women in Eliot's novels, which may be what she's angling for her readers to notice. Certainly Bardo, Sav, and Baldassarre might be considered to be self-serving in their individual passions. But Romola is chastened and returns like a bad child to her home in the Via de' Bardi--"Instead of taking a long exciting journey, she was to sit down in her usual place." Eliot often shows this circular itinerary, where her female characters in particular (think of Maggie here) attempt to strike out on their own, only to be forced back.

Rather than an adventure narrative for Romola of the usual kind men seem to enjoy (Tito's mobility in contrast to Romola's lack of mobility), perhaps Eliot will unfold a different kind of realist narrative, perhaps one of creatively making do? What does it mean that the tabernacle is now empty, the crucifix outside rather than inside? Layers of insides and outsides, as readers have pointed out! The lure of spiritual passion, even with the troubling element of ascetism, is a favorite Eliot theme--something both Maggie and Dorothea wrestle with. Romola's interactions with this crucifix (a symbolic image of "Supreme Offering," Sav tells R) will be interesting to track, no doubt--first locked up with suspicion, then used as a prop in a disguise, now visibly placed in her home.

Meanwhile, Tito seems like a Teflon pan--no charge against him (Baldassaree, Romola) seems to stick. Again, the contrast with Romola here might speak to gender privilege--what this superficially suave, appealing young man can accomplish, lies and treachery and all, in contrast to what his virtuous, passionate, determined wife (not to mention his father and his other wife) cannot do. Baldassaree's attempt to expose Tito comes across as naive, and it's not surprising he, rather than the object of his revenge, ends up in prison. I did find noteworthy that Baldassarre's transformation (short and ineffectual as it is) seems inspired by the printed word, once those "black marks become magical." He is resusciated by the power of these visible Greek letters on a page which then rekindle "that sense of mental empire which belongs to us all in moments of exceptional clearness." The value and power of words, once again, whether printed or the "arresting voice" of spoken language.

I know that there are serial readers out there who are indeed reading Romola now, but are hesitant to blog along here. Please please join the conversation--a quick one or two sentences is fine, even a question or an observation--whatever you can manage! I promise to scan more of Leighton's illustrations next time--one titled "The Visible Madonna" (the title of one of the chapters).

Next installment: chapters 42-46 for March 1863. Only five more installments after that!

Serially submitted,

26 July 2009

Romola #7--chaps 33 -37 (Jan 1863)

Dear Serial Readers,

Building on Julia's comment about Eliot's treatment of Romola's bad marriage, it's interesting that while the narrator seems to forbid Romola to divulge Tito's betrayal and the strains within their marriage, in this installment Romola disguises herself and takes flight. I found this particularly interesting--this concerted attention to "the act of quitting a husband who had disappointed all her trust" at a historical moment (post 1857 Divorce Act) when women's legal ability to extricate themselves from a harmful marriage was gaining more attention, and Eliot had her own particular interests in the legal complexities that made divorce impossible even if both parties desired this (she and her partner G.H. Lewes could not legally marry because Lewes was unable by law to divorce his wife Agnes although she had already had children with another man and they had not lived together for years). For Romola, too, "the law of her affections" trumps the law of church or state: "She was not acting after any precedent, or obeying any adopted maxims."

I'm intrigued too by how Romola's activities around her divorce from Tito are so self-empowering, even prompting her to scholarly pursuits as she hopes to consult Cassandra Fedele, "the most learned woman in the world," The note in my edition describes Fedele (1465-1558) as "renowned throughout Italy for her Greek and Latin learning." I think Eliot's concluding line to the installment is rather radical for its times (double times even--early modern and Victorian): "She was free and alone." Better "free and alone" than enslaved through marriage--that the novel opens up this space beyond marriage and domesticity for young women is, to my mind, quite remarkabale.

As Emily pointed out, Eliot develops her characters through object relations. As Romola prepares to flee her marriage, the betrothal ring and the tabernacle almost become characters themselves in the scene. I hope Maura will continue with her reading of Eliot's use of the Ariadne myth here, especially with a chapter titled: "Ariadne Discrowns Herself"!

This episode reminded me how much Eliot's novel seems to negotiate some of the common threads of the popular sensation novels that were ubiquitous serials in magazines in the 1860s. The "bigamy plot"--a staple in sensation fiction--becomes more apparent in this installment where we see Tessa and her "bambino" cloistered in the country where she occasionally sees her husband "Messer Naldo" (aka Tito) when he pays his visits. Tito is two-timing, living as occasional husband to two different women here. This kind of betrayal of Romola's trust, one she doesn't even know about, is then coupled with his betrayal toward his father Baldassarre whom he encounters as Tessa's new "stranger." Romola's flight from Florence also parallels Tessa's, and I'm wondering if they too will encounter each other, just as Tessa meets Baldassarre. While I wasn't surprised that Baldassarre spurned Tito's self-serving attempt at reconciliation, I also don't think revenge sits well in Eliot's moral universe. As a historical novel too I find this a bigamous narrative--wedded to the past of 1492 and the present of print publication time, 1862-63. There are so many textual markers of "then and now," so that readers might be encouraged to read the past of Renaissance Florence as a disguise for modern Britain?

Disguises and feigned identities also populate sensation narratives. But Romola's disguise as a religious sister (who then resembles her brother Dino/Fra Luca) seems a way for Eliot to approach the question of spirituality and belief despite Romola's "contempt from childhood" for the religious devotion of "howling fanatics and weeping nuns." Eliot often seems interested in how to manage a life of genuine spiritual and moral integrity coupled with intellectual engagement, where belief and reason are not in opposition. Perhaps Eliot also is working out this question through her use of the prophetic narrative, like Fra Luca's dying vision. Savonarola, we're waiting for your return here! Maybe next time--chapters 38-41.

Serially yours,

19 July 2009

Romola #6--chaps 27-32 (Dec 1862)

Dear Serial Readers,

In this segment we get a solid glimpse into the quagmire-marriage of "the young wife" (chap 27). In the collision between Romola and Tito--the "revelation" of the last chapter in the installment, divergent temporalities underwrites this conflict. Tito's interest in his own self-serving present, with an eye to the conveniences and comforts of the immediate future, jars with Romola's reverence for the past, for the power of memory, the trust of her dead father. It's also clear which relationship to time Eliot endorses. How does Savonarola fit into this temporal scheme?

This is approximately the half-way point of the full novel--the unraveling of the marriage already in full swing. Rather than the suspense of courtship we have the suspense of marital dissolution, or perhaps the possibilities for Romola given a culture where the wife along with her inheritance is her husband's property. Again, it's interesting to think about this novel as an early one in a continuum of Eliot's novels about troubled marriages. If we use the later ones to predict this earlier one (or, the past repeating the future), will Tito die or disappear?

I'm curious too about the dispersal of Bardo's library despite his desires (and Romola's to realize them) that his collection of books, manuscripts, and antiquities form a memorial to him and a kind of national or city-state archive. Since Eliot heavily researched the Italian Renaissance in the British Museum, it's intriguing to think about this element in relation to the Victorian equivalent of Bardo's dream. By 1862 Richard Owen was already supervising the transfer of the natural history collection at the British Museum elsewhere--to South Kensington eventually. Apparently Antonio Panizzi, Italian political refuge who was the principal librarian and creator of the Round Reading Room at the British Museum, had no interest in the science collection. We might think of Romola as the preservationist, Tito as the deaccessionist who disperses objects (Baldassarre's ring, Bardo's library) of the past for his own gain.

Tito informs Romola that the books were purchased for the Duke of Milan--I'll leave the hint of a Shakespearian allusion here to Maura!

Next week, installment #7 (Jan. 1863)--chaps 33-37).

Serially yours,

10 July 2009

Romola #5--chaps 21-26 (Nov 1862)

Dear Serial Readers,

Thanks for these collective comments on the last installment. Yes, Tito's striking gift to Romola of the tabernacle with the crucifix hidden inside prompts many intriguing readings (thanks Maura for all the mythology allusions). I wonder too about the role of religious passion, especially for women, a subject that engages Eliot's attention from Maggie Tulliver to Dorothea Brooke and Mirah Lapidoth. After all, the crucifix is also a token or totem from her brother, the last object his eyes beheld before his death, and it's also affiliated with Savonarola. Yet this symbol (of sacrifice, martyrdom) is enclosed from view.

Like Julia, I noticed a pattern of deferred expectations with this installment. As in her later novels, Eliot postpones a view of the new marriage--I remember this sort of narrative structure both with Dorothea's marriage to Casaubon and Gwendolen's to Grandcourt. Like those later ones, we can assume that trouble lies ahead for Romola, who has no idea of Tito's moral laxity, his betrayal of Baldassarre (who appears in this episode at the Duomo), his mock-marriage to Tessa. I'm intrigued though by Tito's character, not a wholesale despicable villain, but one of mixed qualities. I find the later Eliotic husbands increasingly repugnant in contrast.

As for Romola cloistered, like the crucifix in the tabernacle, in her father's house and even in his library, I find many intriguing contrasts between interior and exterior spaces, perhaps comparable to the temporal juxtapositions of historical past and present. This installment opens with an unequivocal statement of the date of the scene--the seventheenth of November 1494--for this November 1862 Cornhill episode. The arrangement of this segment outside and inside the Duomo again highlights exteriority and interiority. Exactly a year earlier, on November 14, 1861, George Eliot signed the signature book of the British Museum as "Marian Evans Lewes," where she conducted research for this novel under the domed space of the circular reading room in the heart of London, opened first in 1857. This installment initially reminds us that "the fortunes of Tito and Romola were dependent on certain grand political and social conditions which made an epoch in the history of Italy"--a juxtaposition or networking of personal and "grand political" histories. Through Savonarola, a "real" historical figure of much renown, Eliot links the individual story of Romola with these "certain grand political and social conditions." Rather than Romola's eclipse in the narrative so far, I've been more struck by Savonarola's cameo appearances.

To return to Maura's comments here, Eliot seems intent on patriarchal powers and their effects: Bardo (the private, familial father) and Savonarola (the public prophet) on Romola, but also Baldassarre and Tito. Is there a gendered element here, the daughter's devotion in contrast to the son's betrayal (Dino as well as Tito)? In this episode outside/inside the Duomo, there is the moment of recognition, when Baldassarre and Tito see one another.

By the way, I've scanned Frederick Leighton's drawing, "The Blind Scholar and His Daughter," which accompanied the first installment of the novel. You can see that in Leighton's reading of the scene, Romola, an active figure above the manuscript and with her hand adjusting the light, towers over Bardo.

Next week, installment #6--chapters 27 ("The Young Wife"--Romola or Tessa, or both?) through 32. I hope more serial readers have caught up, and will join the conversation!

Serially sincere,

P.S. For those of you who read Small House, Lily Dale and family and friends do continue in the sequel The Last Chronicle of Barset, although more as minor figures. In chapters 15-16, we learn that Alexandrina Crosbie has died, and while Lily has remained "faithful" to Crosbie, so has Johnny Eames remained "faithful" to Lily. The stalled marriage plot of Lily Dale continues...

18 June 2009

Romola #4--chaps 15-20 (Oct 1862)

Dear Serial Readers,

I'm going to write something very short right now and look forward to your thoughts on this installment. Everyone has such fantastic observations. Alicia's makes me think of the particularly anachronistic flavor of the narrative, and, as she points out, how Eliot weaves in this blurring of times into a descriptive passage.

What did you think of Savonarola's debut at Fra Luca's (Dino's) deathbed? I was struck by his "rich, strong voice" as a very physical presence for Romola. And what did you think about Fra Luca's vision, or, foreshadowing as inspired prophecy? How will this prophetic vision shape the narration as it continues? The use of prophecy suggests another kind of temporal blurring. There's much much more--so, your thoughts on this installment?

I will be traveling without my computer from June 19-July 5, so I'd like to propose some catching up time for all of us. The fifth installment is chapters 21-26, and that's what I'll post on the week of July 6th. I hope we'll all be.... on the same page by then!

Serially soon,

11 June 2009

Romola #3--chaps 11-14 (Sept 1862)

Dear Serial Readers,

Are you finding it difficult to keep up, to keep going, with this serial novel? I ask because several people indicated their intention to join the serial blogging this time, but unless you post here, I don't know who is reading along. Please do comment, even if you're not finding a way to keep going along with the installments. Kari found the novel rough to enter into, but more engaging later on--so don't be deterred by the Proem and first chapters, and the piles of scholarly allusions.

Julia mentioned last time the tension between inner life and external appearances of characters; this difference made me think of the narrator's occasional remarks about Florence "then" (within the narrative time frame) and "now" (the temporality of narration, presumably around 1862). I also see Kari's point--that there isn't much focus on Romola early on to warrant the title of the novel. This contrast of attention reminds me of the first books of Daniel Deronda which readers have thought might well have been titled "Gwendolen Harleth" instead. So maybe Eliot likes to warm up to her entitled characters--although I'm not sure that's the case with her other male-titled novels, Adam Bede, Silas Marner, Felix Holt. But if you are interested in Romola, be assured that you'll see much much more of her as the novel progresses!

Still, "Tito Melema" might seem a better title for these early segments. I'm finding this character a bit perplexing as a (early) modern villain in that he's difficult to dismiss as totally terrible; yes, his external appearances and manners are alluring, especially to young women, but we know he's ethically challenged. But again, Eliot's psychological realism plays with such complexities. In any case, thanks to Tito's multiple attractions, there seems to be a bigamy marriage plot unfolding, much like the "bigamy novels" of sensation writers like Mary E. Braddon.

Julia also mentions the suspense around Fra Luca that closes the second installment. This time, we have the mounting suspense around Fra Luca (aka Dino) revealing Tito's betrayal to Romola as well as Tito's feigned marriage to Tessa--presumably another transgression to be revealed to Romola at some point.

Next time, installment four--chapters 15-20. I hope to hear from more of you Serial Readers lurking out there! Even a sentence or fragment of a comment is welcome!

Serially yours,

04 June 2009

Romola--chaps 6-10 (Aug 1862)

Dear Serial Readers,

Like Julia, I too am re-reading Romola, although it might as well be a new reading since so much is surprising me in the language and echoes to other plot lines. Last week there was an op-ed in the newspaper on the pleasures and value of re-reading. When I first read this novel, I was a tourist in Florence and assiduously retraced the steps of characters in pages of chapters, such as Tito's in this installment.

This time, I do not have Florence at my disposal, but I am noticing how this novel--one that seems to take prophetic vision as a subject for thinking about narrative--does anticipate other fictions. In this segment, Tito's moral dilemma about his obligation to rescue his father and his rationalizing not doing so seems a draft for Bulstrode in Middlemarch. What obligations are binding from the past and which can we slough off out of self-interest or indifference or failure of memory? Eliot unwraps the anatomy of guilt: "Under every guilty secret there is hidden a brood of guilty wishes, whose unwholesome infecting life is cherished by the darkness."

The other echo I found here is very surprising--Tessa reminds me of Hardy's Tess! There are many parallels between Tessa and Tess, Tito and Alec. But then, this story of chance seduction of an innocent beauty likely has many many versions and sources.

This echoing for me is set in play by Eliot's attention to the then/now, past/present ties that punctuate the story so far. Next time, I'll take a look at what else was appearing in the pages of The Cornhill alongside the chapters from the novel--next week, chapters 11-14.

And what about all the erudite allusions? Eliot is distinguishing this novel from "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists" (her 1856 essay title). The thickness of scholastic showcasing reminds me too of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh (1856), surely a text Eliot had in mind while writing this novel.

Looking forward to your comments--what echoes do you hear?

Signing off,
Serial Susan

26 May 2009

Hello, Romola--chaps 1-5 (July 1862)

Dear Serial Readers,

Welcome to a collaborative reading of George Eliot's Romola. Here is the plan: each week I'll post a short entry on the installment of the novel. At the end of this post you can click "comment" (there will be a number, showing how many have left comments); you'll see a box where you can respond in any way you like to this segment. If you are purchasing or borrowing a copy, I recommend the Oxford edition because it includes the monthly divisions in which the novel was originally published in The Cornhill Magazine. But I'll also indicate weekly which chapters to read for the next installment, so any edition of the novel works (even the online version mentioned in the sidebar). Next week: chapters 6-10.

A bit of background first: George Smith, publisher of the magazine, secured the rights to publish Romola in The Cornhill only three weeks after Eliot began writing the novel. He paid her ten thousand pounds, an unprecedented sum, far more than any author had received at the time. Although originally Eliot agreed to write the novel in 12 parts of 32 pages each, in the end she wrote 14 installments. Because of the enormous amount of meticulous research Eliot folded into this historical novel, it was never received as "popular," but many critics considered it her "greatest." Henry James called Romola "the most important of George Eliot's works...the one in which the largest things are attempted and grasped."

As I began reading the novel, I marveled at how Eliot's narrator becomes a virtual tour guide conducting readers back in time to early modern Florence. The "Proem" (a word that almost suggests a hybrid genre--part prose, part poem--that suits the hybrid time of then/now) establishes how "we" might view a culture "three centuries and a half ago" (five centuries for us) from the present vantage point of "now" (a word that comes up often). This shuttling back and forth between "then" and "now" mediates the brief tour of the major sites of Florence including Brunelleschi's Duomo, the Pitti Palace, the Ponte Vecchio. If you are lucky enough to read this novel while touring Florence, you'll discover how the narrative provides an itinerary through the city, even calling attention to changes between "then" of 1492 and "now" of 1862. But if you're not able to make it to Florence, this novel is packed with historical and visual details, much like a thorough guidebook. The story only unfolds between the lines of this virtual tour, so I can imagine if early readers were eager for story over exposition, they might've felt impatient at first.

The first chapter uses Tito, a "stranger," as a stand-in for the reader as foreigner in Florence in 1492. Like any tourist, Tito is first eager to find food, lodging, and some money (and a pretty girl to seduce perhaps), as he orients himself in this city. Nello the barber is quite the networker--his clientele brings him lots of information through conversation, sort of the hub or pulse of the gossip and news of the city.

Given all the scholarly knowledge of Renaissance Florence that Eliot pours into this opening, the final chapter of the installment about "the blind scholar and his daughter" seems almost ironic. Bardo is dependent on Romola in order to pursue his scholarship (much like Dorothea and Casaubon a decade later in Middlemarch), and yet he complains about "the wandering, vagrant propensity of the feminine mind" and regrets his son's absence. Bardo does concede that Romola has "a wide-glancing intelligence" and a "man's nobility of soul," and Romola mentions Cassandra Fedele, a Venetian woman scholar, as her role model.

Two more quick observations before signing off. First, I was intrigued by the references to the new print technology of the era--the printing press--and Bardo's resistance to "these mechanical printers who threaten to make learning a base and vulgar thing." Shades of today and the digital divide, the anxiety of the Kindle, perhaps? Second, as close readers of Eliot know, webs and rivers are favorite extended metaphors, and both crop up in the early pages of this novel. The Proem describes fifteenth-century Florentine culture as "a strange web of belief and unbelief," also echoing the 1860s in the wake of Darwin's Origin of Species, an era of increasing agnosticism and atheism.

Please feel free to add brief comments--I promise briefer ones too, and I'll also include some of Frederic Leighton's wonderful illustrations that accompanied the Cornhill installments.

Starting serially,

17 May 2009

Farewell, Small House

Dear Serial Readers,

As you may have guessed by my silence last week, I decided to read the last two installments of Small House before posting a final comment on the novel. As Julia noted, the chief characters seem almost perverse in that they do what they shouldn't do, yet we are not surprised. Lily declines Johnny's second proposal and he accepts this answer (as a "lackadaisical lover"), despite all the head-shaking of others.

I'm intrigued by a shift in the fate of the marriage plot that the end of this novel marks. There is one marriage (and another promised--Cradell and Amelia R), true, for this "happy" ending, but these are relatively minor characters and not the hero and heroine. At least, Bell seems a fainter narrative interest than her sister Lily. The Crosbies go through a total separation, he "again a happy man" (title of chap 56) because she has left him and gone indefinitely with her mother to Baden-Baden. For both Alexandrina and her mother, marriage "had by no means been the thing she had expected." Instead, we have sighs of relief to be out of these marriages.

Lily's refusal to marry Johnny, her steadfast faithfulness to the unfaithful Crosbie, seems "perverse" (a word used by the earl to describe her), a stubborness that seems too principled for her own good. But maybe not. The narrator does push the question of whether Lily as "an old maid"--if her "life be blank, lonely, and loveless to the end"--could still be happy, as she insists she is. With this question hanging at the novel's closure (but not the serial's end), I was intrigued that she and Mrs Dale go through the business of restoring their places at the Small House rather than moving on. While this might seem a regression rather than progress, I think the plans for renovation--the new paint, for instance--suggest that these Dale women at the Small House will be different, improved, brighter, richer. Lily's uncle has given her the small fortune of three thousand pounds, the exact amount he's given Bell on the occasion of her marriage. So Lily doesn't require marriage for material security. And at her sister's marriage "no one...was so gay as Lily." Is this noble suffering, or something else, a new kind of heroine on the horizon, one who can enjoy an independence quite apart from marriage?

For his part, Johnny's removal from Mrs. Roper's lodgings to the Great Western Hotel establishes him too as a new kind of hero, a post-hobbledeyhoy hero, as the narrator leaves him "without any matrimonial prospects" (end of the penultimate chapter).

To find out about the fate of this unmarried new heroine and hero, I have already started reading The Last Chronicle of Barset where Lily appears in the second installment. But in these digital pages, I bid farewell to Trollope and his odd heroes and heroines for now, since next week we'll start on Romola--the first five chapters. If you are receiving this post automatically, let me know if you are not planning to read Romola next, so I can remove your email address from the list. Or, let me know if you'd like an email notice whenever a new post appears on the installments.

Serial salutations,