POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

29 March 2009

The Small House at Allington--chaps 37-39 (Sept 1863)

Dear Serial Readers,

I was amused to open up my browser to the homepage of the Independent where I found this headline: "The Return of Scarlet Fever." I'm assuming that's roughly the equivalent of the scarlatina Lily falls ill with--yet another in the series of falls suffered by Lily and her family.

Mrs Dale's and her daughters' decision to vacate the "Small House" (somewhat rash and precipitous, as the narrator encourages us to believe, yet also believeable) does seem to me more of the unraveling of marriage plots the novel seems committed to carrying out in its own way. That is, if anyone entertained thoughts that the squire might in his elder years marry his deceased brother's widow (the deceased wife's sister was a popular second marriage option for Victorian widowers), this segment puts a firm end to such speculations. And the same with the cousin marriage plot between Bell and Bernard. Still, I was intrigued by the pride of the Dale women, that they should not be beholden to their benefactor brother-in-law or uncle and his wishes that they marry accordingly. Here is a blatant refusal of the old marriage of convenience, and a rousing endorsement of marriage for love, but with the understanding that such marriages may not come to pass at all (w/ Lily, because Crosbie foolishly placed money over love).

Trollope hints that this desire for independence in matters of marriage can be quite literally costly to women--we know that "lodgings" (that odious, vulgar word) or whatever housing the Dale women are able to acquire will be meager and beneath the modest paradise of their "Small House" with its treasured garden (and gardener Hopkins from the Big House). Is this self-imposed expulsion of sorts from a Barsetshire Eden? Or the unmaking of such illusory prelapsarian imagery in Trollope's ordinary kind of realism?

Nevertheless, this segment makes clear an emptied out Small House at Allington, or at least, vacated by the Dale women whose residence there, and perhaps a dismantling of some kinds of marriage plots.

Thoughts out there, anyone? And even if you're not reading along now, or if you've already finished (as I know at least one Serial Reader has confessed), let me know your vote for our next serial novel.

Sparingly serial, this time,

22 March 2009

The Small House--chaps 34-36 (August 1863)

Dear Serial Readers,

In the August 1863 issue of The Cornhill, in which these three chapters appeared, was the final installment of George Eliot's Romola, her only novel serialized in a magazine. Since we're beyond the midpoint of Small House, my thoughts are turning toward the next serial, starting in May. How about Romola, or if that doesn't suit, either Eliot's first published fiction, the three stories that make up Scenes from Clerical Life (all published in Blackwood's) or Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford stories which were serialized in Dickens's Household Words? Or, we could read the sequel to Small House, The Last Chronicle of Barset (which appeared in 32 installments, so you can judge how much longer than this 20-part Small House). Or another Dickens? I'd be up for Curiosity Shop or Martin Chuzzlewit or Little Dorrit. Please feel free to propose another title, or express your interest in one of these! So many people tell me, Oh, if I could find out a month or two ahead of time, I'd join the serial reading! We'll see!

This installment seemed a tight package, all about the boys, and the fulfillment of the anticipated thrashing of Crosbie. For all the talk about marriages and about domesticity and women, there seems to be a fair amount of segregated scenery of men plotting or women trying to survive. Like Kari, I'm beginning to think that Bell, and Mrs Dale (we had such hopes for her character to sally forth!), and maybe eventually Lily, all seem to recede into their private spheres or that "Small House" while we see more and more of Crosbie and Eames and their affiliates. In the end, there's little gender mixing, is there? Ironically, given the title of the novel, there seems less attention to domestic scenery and certainly domesticity isn't a safe or comforting space at all, whether the "small" or "great" or even boarding houses.

One line that jumped out at me this time was the allusion to Crosbie's "floating castle in the air" (ch 35) as he envisions himself begging Lily's forgiveness. Earlier "castles in the air" were the territory of Johnny Eames's dreams of Lily Dale! What does it mean that both men share these dreams, another way (like their clerkhoods) the men seem more closely aligned with each other than with any woman. And then their coming together in the first-class train carriage which leads to the physical altercation at Paddington station, and more precisely, into "Mr. Smith's book-stall...among the newspapers," the very items that publish and misconstrue this ungentlemanly (clerky?) "combat" the next day!

This publicity surely won't sit well with Lily who has had difficulty enough with her house servants's knowledge of her jilting. Now, how about the reaches of the London newspaper? The episode ends, ominously, I think, with talk about whether Lily will forgive Johnny for his punching Crosbie. Meanwhile, we know that Amelia (Roper, not Gazebee--although both choice surnames!) has the breach of promise in mind, yet another potential embarrassment for Eames. So, things aren't looking terrifically hopeful for Johnny and Lily.

Crosbie's sensitivity over his exposed body and public humiliation parallels Lily's private version. Crosbie does have some finer moments even in this installment--when visiting his soon-to-be in laws in St. John's Wood, he tells an amusing story about his ancestor "Cookey" who "came over with William the Conqueror," a choice morsel about his vulgar antecedents and about the porous borders between cooks and nobles. Castles in the air, indeed.

Next time, chapters 37-39, along with your (anyone reading this post, spread the word) votes for the next serial!

Suspiciously serial,

17 March 2009

The Small House at Allington--chaps 31-33 (July 1863)

Dear Serial Readers,

Yes, as Maura suggests, it seems like Amelia R. is being squeezed out, or rather, she's supplied just a side-dish interest. But she's bound to return. Another Trollopian (also a Medievalist, like one of our current bloggers) who's not reading with us now, but knows this novel, commented to me the other day about Trollope's extraordinary talent with grayness, especially in the realm of men (and even has one character suitably named John Gray in the Palliser series)--that is, grayness in terms of morally and socially (class position) in-between--perhaps even in terms of gender as well, at least the hobbledehoy boys who are not your Christian muscular vintage of masculinity. Perhaps there's some connection between ordinariness and grayness here.

After my comment last week about all the pages devoted to the unmaking of Lily's marriage plot, I thought how there is so much more energy devoted not to marrying, but to the undoing of engagements and potential marriages, if not to the marriages themselves. Do you think Dickens typically devotes so much space to unmaking marriage plots?

That said, this installment exhibits lots of exuberance on the part of senior men (especially the earl and the squire--who NOW considers pitching in some funds for Lily's settlement this time around after refusing Crosbie--live and learn) around Johnny and Lily! I love this part, the male biddies, or the chief biddy, Earl De Guest, who has taken up Eames's suit and Lily's redemption through this marriage plot. Worrying about marrying off daughters and nieces usually seems the province of women, like Mrs. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. So I loved the scheming commitment of the earl to cementing the tie between J and L.

On the other hand, there's attention to not just unmaking (or remaking) marriage plots, but to the fall out of marriage entirely. In a brief exchange, the earl and the squire admit that "the time" of marriage "has never come to you and me"--and the narrator alludes to their respective disappointments in love long ago. But rather than the pathetic old maid figure, we get something different: "We have retricked our beams in our own ways, and our lives have not been desolate." What about the possibility of an unmarried elderly female character who has "retricked her beams"? I don't think we have much evidence along these lines in this novel, but perhaps elsewhere in Trollope. Or can widows "retrick" their beams?

Next week, chapters 34-36.

Serially supposing,

09 March 2009

The Small House at Allington--chaps 28-30 (June 1863)

Dear Serial Readers,

Crosbie's jilting of Lily Dale--can you recall such a protracted event as the composition, delivery, and reception of this letter? Trollope's postal service career might suggest a humorous subtext to the drama of the letter, again with post-mistress Mrs. Crump, but finally the letter is signed, sealed, delivered, and Lily is released from her first marriage plot, at the midpoint of the novel. Lily's remarkable composure over Crosbie's letter is perhaps not surprising, nor her flashes of anger, although I hope to see more of her spirited reaction in future chapters.

When the squire converses with Mrs. Dale about possible punishments for this scoundrel (whom we know even falls short on this score), they reject the breach of contract option because of the necessary publicity such a legal proceeding would impose on Lily (who finds it difficult to bear the knowledge that her parlour-maid knows she's been jilted). It seems more likely that Amelia Roper would be less hesitant about public scandal over a breach of contract from Johnny Eames; Trollope makes clear the class dimensions of responses to failed or half-hearted or messed-up proposals from men.

Meanwhile, Johnny can stand up to a bull in a park but cannot withstand Amelia's advances in her mother's back parlour. Chap. 29 concludes, "Oh, Johnny Eames! But then a woman in such a contest has so many points in her favour." Amelia's "points" parallel Alexandrina's with Crosbie. Yet neither of these supposedly empowered women is presented in an appealing light because Trollope also reveals the limits of these "so many points." Still, all four women in these various courtship plots--Lily, Bell, Amelia, Alexandrina--do seem to have more backbone or stamina than the men, even when jilted.

I must say I'm relieved to get beyond Crosbie's jilting letter, although I myself would love to see Mrs Dale thrash Crosbie on her daughter's behalf, even if this thrashing is verbal. But I'm finding Trollope's suspense rather common--"suspense is ordinary," I'd say. Maybe this is the reason I have no difficulty sticking to the weekly installments and not reading ahead. Since Kari and Maura have both mentioned reading beyond, I thought I'd qualify my faithful adherence to the originally apportioned segments!

Next time, chapters 31-33.

Steadily serial,

02 March 2009

GUEST LEAD BLOG--Trollope #9 chaps 25-27

The Small House at Allington
Chapters 25-27

I had a hard time stopping at the end of chapter 27 because I so wanted to read until Crosbie finally figured out how to let Lily know that he is jilting her. So, I decided to read this section again, as I imagine I would have if magazine serials were my main reading.
As I was reading again, I was struck by the importance given to Squire Dale's inability to understand Crosbie's behavior, even titling Chapter 27 "On My Honour, I do not Understand It." I wondered what Squire Dale imagined that Lily would suffer-emotional or social pain? In reading 19th-century novels, I often imagine that marriage is one aid to survival both economically and socially, and Trollope does make it clear that the widows in this novel do suffer in both ways. Not that they are snubbed by the de Courcys, but that they are somewhat lonely and economically stretched. But when Lily was ready to break it off with Crosbie because she sensed distance in him, she claimed she would not marry, nor did she need to, if she does not marry Crosbie.
I felt such satisfaction at Squire Dale riding to defend Lily, but I found myself wondering: does he imagine the loss for Lily in the same way that the narrator does? What does each think she will lose by losing her hopes of/planned marriage to Crosbie? This led me to the second question: What is the point of marriage in this novel? Is it the romantic love and lifelong companionship that this child of the 20th century imagines? Why does Alexandrina want so badly to marry? Just to escape her father? Why does Lily at least for a while think she doesn't need it? And Crosbie is certain that he will never love Alexandrina de Courcy.
It's intriguing that the chapter between Squire Dale first expressing that he can't understand it and the chapter with that title we see the de Courcy's at home: a picture of a painful marriage and painful family life.
I will keep watching for what the novel and different characters think about marriage and what about love-what qualities do make someone worthy of love according to the novel? It does seem to prize love above marrying for social status or in order to be wealthy.