POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

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,