POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

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...