POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

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,

08 May 2009

Next up: ROMOLA by George Eliot

Dear Serial Readers,

With only two more installments left of our current Trollope serial, I want to announce the next serial, one that actually overlapped with Small House in the pages of the Cornhill magazine in 1862-63. We'll start reading George Eliot's Romola the end of this month. The novel appeared in 14 monthly installments starting July 1862 with chapters 1-5. I propose we begin with an installment a week and increase to two installments a week later in the summer. The serial parts were lavishly illustrated by Frederic Leighton and I'll try to include some of those drawings. I've put one in the sidebar.

Besides purchasing or borrowing an edition of the novel (I like the Oxford, but there's a good Penguin edition as well), you can download it from the Gutenberg Project. Please spread the word and get some version of the text. I'm also eager for guest bloggers, especially the last week of June and first week of July when I'll be traveling.

I know this choice may disappoint some of you, but there were so many different preferences. I promise we'll try Gaskell or Dickens or Collins next time.

Serially Satisfied,

03 May 2009

The Small House at Allington #18 (chaps 52-54) Feb. 1864

Dear Serial Readers,

I was intrigued to find in this episode an implied comparison between Johnny Eames (who constructs his "castles in the air") and the serial fiction writer. The narrator observes, "He would carry on the same story in his imagination from month to month...." (chap 52). Yes, it does seem to me that Trollope has a special fondness for his hobbledehoyish hero, but it was this passage that tempted me to indulge in that promiscuous identification between character and author! The tedium of Johnny's clerk-work, where even the promotion to private secretary promises no relief from day to day, contrasts with his creative energies "from month to month," although of course Trollope suggests a kind of repetition here as well. But this "same story" could also remind us of the series (rather than the serial), or the sequels to each story or novel. As Trollope approaches the conclusion of this novel in the Barsetshire series, readers can contemplate the promise of another "same story"--like the suspense about the next season in a favorite television series (will there be another season of "Mad Men"?).

Along with this mild allusion to the serial and the series forms, I was intrigued by the references to packing up the Small House and, in this installment, even the possibility of unpacking and restoring all those items back in their places. In a way, this packing up of the house and the removal of the Dale women correlates with the novel's impending closure--and the possibility of a suspended ending through the series where readers can be restored to the "Small House" and its environment of characters in the next novel. Again, these serial novels often ran in twenty parts (like Dickens' part issue numbers), so readers would've anticipated the end at this point, the eighteenth installment. Trollope wrote The Last Chronicle of Barset--the concluding serial of the series--in 1866-67 (two full years after Small House) and it was published in 32 separate weekly parts from December 1866 to July 1867. By that time he'd already launched the Palliser series with Can You Forgive Her?

As we near the end of this serial, I'm still on the fence about the next. I wish someone would post a very strong interest in one of these three: Romola, Little Dorrit, Wives and Daughters. Does one have a special appeal for summer reading? Rather than an installment a week, I had thought we'd do two at a time.

Still serially stalling,