POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

27 April 2009

The Small House at Allington #17 (chaps 49-51) Jan. 1864

Dear Serial Readers,

Thanks Julia for your perspective in light of your happiness and virtue conference! I also wanted to share an insight I had about this novel while hearing a wonderful lecture last week on "Global Trollope" by Trollope scholar Mark Turner. He stressed how transitoriness is crucial in Trollope's serials, just as Trollope himself was frequently in motion through his travels for the postal service as he traversed both local and global networks. Movement in Trollope, Mark Turner explained, is about spread and diffusion rather than cohesion.

This very observation makes me think of the eponymous "Small House," now the site of emptying and evacuation as its inhabitans move elsewhere. The chapter about the Dale women packing up their house gives a very different kind of inventory of household goods than, say, Alexandrina shopping for carpets in London. And Trollope stresses the class difference here when the narrator points out that often the labor of relocating falls to others offstage, presumably servants and other hired help, while the family "goes for a fortnight to Brighton" and then on return finds the crockery installed in new cupboards. Household objects pass through the hands of the Dale women in this chapter--a very tangible emptying out of the once-central "Small House." At first I'm tempted to align this emptying out of the house with the emptying out of the marriage plot for Lily, since the two seem entwined, and Lily also declines the invitation to Guestwick Manor, thus thwarting the plan to unite her with Johnny Eames. But this first chapter also, without fanfare, marks Bell's engagement to Dr. Crofts.

I admit I'm fond of the Roper establishment in London as a kind of "low" comic relief to the Barsetshire small and great houses. The all-service "little back room behind the dining parlor" and across from the kitchen stairs functions as the closet space where the only private encounters can occur. I found this cramped room balanced well the opening scene of packing up and moving on from the Small House. This episode begins with the Dale women making plans to relocate, and closes with Johnny doing the same--so yes, transitoriness, diffusions, departures rather than anchored and secure locales.

Next week, #18, chaps 52-54. Only two more after that! What's next? I read somewhere that Trollope considered The Last Chronicle of Barset his best novel. It's available in a Penguin edition, and also via Project Gutenberg.
Or should we return to Dickens, this time, Little Dorrit? I get the sense that Romola is off the list. Any others?

Serially yours, for more serials,

22 April 2009

The Small House at Allington #16 (chaps 46-48) Dec. 1863

Dear Serial Readers,

Only four more installments--we're on the final month of this novel. I'd like to settle on the next serial very soon, so that those who need to get started, or at least get a hold of a copy of the novel, can do so before May 25, when I'll launch the first post. So--the next Trollope (The Last Chronicle at Barset) or Romola or Wives and Daughters or Little Dorrit? Another way to consider the question: stay with Dickens or Trollope, or try another (in this instance, a woman) writer--Eliot or Gaskell?

This week's three chapters were for me as dull as dishwater, or rather, as dull as a dreary, claustrophobic marriage, as the small realm of London lodgers (although I did find this the most interesting portion), and as Johnny Eames's decidedly mixed promotion to personal secretary. Since I tend to find Trollope's female characters more satisfying, this episode too was a rather plodding reading experience, much like the scenes depicted. I was interested in Julia's comment about how the narrator's interventions suggest elastic temporalities. But this installment seemed to me about narrow spaces and the burdens of ordinary time in a bad marriage or an office job.

The narrator's comments only reinforce that Crosbie now has sufficient punishment for jilting Lily. But this is no surprise! Nor is Johnny Eames's dubious promotion as Sir Raffle's personal secretary, and his suspended desires--not wanting Amelia Roper but not quite wanting to relinquish her to Cradell (despite what he says). Indeed, the narrator remarks that Johnny is "still floundering in the ignorance of his hobbledehoyhood"--perhaps the most protracted state of suspended maturation ever!

This novel certainly makes the alternatives to marriage far more appealing--or at least, the Dale women, who are on the brink of emptying out the "Small House" for a new home, seem to have a better prospect than the Crosbies with their overfurnished rooms or the Lupexes in their cramped lodgings. Although Trollope dwells primarily on Crosbie's marital misery, the narrator does allow that "he was better off than his wife, for she had no office to which she could betake herself"--although that office is no picnic for Crosbie either. That Alexandrina seems determined not to have a baby reinforces the impression that this is a loveless marriage in body and spirit.

Okay, I get why Crosbie has to be punished, but why Johnny Eames? Why is he stalled in his marriage plot or his career as a clerk? He seems convinced that Lily will not accept him, despite all the support and encouragement he's received from her uncle and the earl.

I feel relief I'm past this installment, and look forward to chapters 49-51 and the return of the Dale women next time. Like cold gray days in spring, these unengaging episodes by contrast make reading other story lines and scenes more pleasurable.

Serially suspended,

14 April 2009

The Small House at Allington--chaps 43-45 (Dec 1863)

Dear Serial Readers,

A quiet week, this past, with no activity from anyone else on this blog. I found this latest installment also very satisfyingly balanced unlike many earlier ones. The first chapter on Planty Pal's transgressive desires for a married woman is the upper-class version of Mrs Lupex. Planty's uncle, the Duke, however, dispenses with serious advice that his newphew should steer clear of an unwise affiliation if he does want to see his way to an ample inheritance. Uncles with monetary and marital advice seem abundant in Victorian novels, clearly in this one.

The last two chapters of this installment are mirrors: Valentine's Day at Allington and Valentine's Day in London. First Lily imagines Crosbie's marriage that morning, initially playing the part of "the forlorn damsel in a play-book" and then becoming that damsel and dissolving in "convulsive sobs." Then we have the dreaded wedding event itself in London where everything and everyone is cold, cold, cold. Clearly there's not going to be a passionate union here. The honeymoon travel to Folkestone is quite depressing, with Alexandrina more concerned with the state of her bonnet than kisses from her new husband, while Crosbie constantly thinks of Lily and how differently she'd behave had she been his partner on this honeymoon. I immediately thought of Middlemarch, and Dorothea's honeymoon in Rome with Casaubon, but this one lacks the grand historical scenery and the metaphoric meanings of the Vatican Museum with its sculptures. This is Trollope's thorough-going realism, sordid, frigid, and completely dreary.

The only other scene I wanted to remark on has to do with Lily and Bell reading books. Lily tries in her preoccupied state on the morning of Crosbie's wedding to read a novel, but finds it totally unengaging, even calls it "the greatest rubbish I ever attempted to read." And adds that she'd rather read Pilgrim's Progress about which she says: "I never can understand it, but I rather think that makes it nicer." What does this reading preference suggest about Lily's occasionally perverse character? Bell, predictably, says, "I hate books I can't understand."

Next week, chaps 46-48. We have 5 installments left. What's next? Romola? Another Trollope? Please vote!

Serially silent?

05 April 2009

The Small House at Allington--chaps 40-42 (Oct 1863)

Dear Serial Readers,

You'll find a Millais illustration I meant to post last week since it accompanied the #13 installment with Mrs Dale's interview with her brother-in-law.

I found this a satisfying installment in part because of the variation in plot lines across the three chapters: from the wedding preparations for Crosbie and Alex'ina, including some nice London neighborhood hopping for houses and homewares, to the Roper lodging house and the state of the Lupex marriage, and finally to the Small House with Lily rallying to her pre-engagement spunk.

The novel is heading toward a totally disastrous marriage for Crosbie and Alexandrina, and perhaps a stalemate for Johnny and Amelia Roper, as well as for Johnny and Lily, who seems rather committed to her marriageless condition now. I'm interested in the extent to which this novel of the mid-Victorian period does contemplate the possibilities for women outside marriage. Perhaps the novel is attempting to revitalize the spinster from its pathetic caricature status. I know Lily is too young to be a spinster at this point, and Mrs Dale is a widow, so that moniker doesn't suit her either.

What I enjoyed this time: the crinoline and carpets scene in Bond Street where Ladies Amelia and Alexandrina sit in state as customers at the carpet emporium with Crosbie as an accessory eager to make a retreat to the office. Trollope's attention to the details of Victorian commodities here, and to the labor of the shopworkers who must haul about the mountains of carpet for the Ladies As to examine. This kind of detail is part of Trollope's droll realism--this ordinary realm of washing-stands, kitchen things, and the like, along with the terms of payment including discounts. Along with Trollope's "reveal codes" on the labor necessary to maintain appearances in a London household is the bit where Crosbie recalls waiting for the St John's Wood door to be opened for him as Richard the doorman changes from his work clothes to his livery clothes.

As for the melodrama around Mrs Lupex presumably gathering funds to elope, I loved that instead she'd gone out on a jaunt with some lady friends to Hampton Court, although delighting in giving her husband the impression that "his bird was flown."

In short, this episode suggests matrimony as a cage to be built, flown, or altogether avoided or downright refused, or perhaps, in the case of Crofts and Bell, to be reconsidered on a different plan altogether. Maybe there will be a different menagerie here--Crosbie and Bell, along with B's sister and mother?

Next week, chaps 43-45. Cast your vote for Romola or Wives and Daughters, or the sequel to this novel?

Serially, once again,