POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

25 September 2009

Upcoming Serial: Gaskell's Wives and Daughters

Dear Serial Readers,

The results of the poll are clear: Elizabeth Gaskell's
Wives and Daughters, serialized monthly in The Cornhill from August 1864 to January 1866, is our next Victorian serial. Yes, this is the same magazine that ran Trollope's Small House of Allington. I recommend the Oxford UP edition (see sidebar) because the table of contents provides the installment divisions. But no matter about this, since I'll indicate each week what group of chapters comprise the next installment. We'll begin in two weeks (to allow time for people to obtain copies), and I'll aim to post on the first installment, chapters 1-3, on Sunday October 11th. Please spread the word! As an added attraction, there is a lovely BBC adaptation of this novel, and I have a copy for anyone nearby to borrow--or perhaps we'll have a serial viewing party!

In the meantime, do share your thoughts on the ending of
Romola! You can insert comments at the end of the previous post below!

Serially yours,

20 September 2009

Romola #14--chaps 68-Epilogue (August 1863)

Dear Serial Readers,

We've reached the final installment! I'm eager to hear your thoughts about the ending of this novel. The Epilogue follows a fairly conventional pattern of Victorian fiction by fast-forwarding eleven years from Savonarola's execution to May 1509, but then we see a domestic scene rather uncommon to conclusions of Victorian narratives--not the pared-down nuclear family of mother, father, child as in the closure of Jane Eyre, but instead three adult women and two children! I suppose one could argue that Romola, who finally is able to assert herself, if only provisionally, as scholar where she is Lillo's teacher and evident head of this household, inhabits a typically masculine position. Yet Lillo calls her "Mamma Romola." Tessa is curiously silent in this closing vision which finds her rounder and plumper and "astonished...at the wisdom of her children." Even so, I'm intrigued by this family without men. Two immediate precursors come to mind: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh (also set in Italy--perhaps such alternative arrangements only imaginable out of Britain) and Christina Rossetti's fairytale narrative poem, "Goblin Market" where the last stanza imagines a family circle of two women and children, but no mention of men as part of this community. With R's household shrine, Savonarola does hold a place in Romola's moral universe--not as the great prophetic religious leader, but as a human-sized man who had once rescued her in need.

I had wanted to upload one of Leighton's final illustrations for this serial, but I'll describe it instead. There's a very striking image of Romola "Drifting Away." But the only "drifting" I can find in this image is the word in the caption. Her arms are muscular, and she has a firm grasp of the sail rope, and her glance outward looks determined, even stern, and even somewhat like portraits of Savonarola! This visual portrayal seems a bit at odds with Eliot's words, and also looks nothing like her other heroines (Maggie Tulliver and Mirah and Gwendolen H. G.) who appear in boating scenes. Leighton's image (but for the costume and the mountains in the distance) might suit Dickens's Lizzie Hexam, the female waterman of Our Mutual Friend. Despite this seeming disparity, Romola does exert much strength and direction once she wakes up from this drifting away and returns to the land, and this unwavering action continues through the epilogue.

What about Romola's entering (wandering) into that scene of the plague, with the wandering Jews viewed by the ignorant villagers as the source of this pestilence? Eliot next wrote "The Spanish Gypsy," a dramatic poem also inspired by her travels in Italy, and in Spain, in which she contemplates the meanings of racial identity. In this novel, Romola is recalled to life and from the water by the crying "Hebrew" child Benedetto who is eventually converted, while Romola herself is transformed by the villagers into the legendary blessed lady who came over the sea to rescue them. This mode of turning to others, helping others in need, seems the one act of redemption Eliot affirms. Given the novel's skepticism about religious belief and superstition, where does the novel end up on the religion question here? What kind of Christian is Romola, with her household shrine for Savonarola?

Like Kari and Julia, I did find the attention to Savonarola's struggle with ambition and belief fascinating, especially given my temptation to identify Eliot (in her work as novelist) with this character! She was at a pivotal point in her own career, as a widely respected great author (although castigated for her personal relationship with a married man). At the same time, Eliot's own conflicts with conventional religious practice and belief and with public fame are well documented through her letters and journals.

At the same time, I continued to see links between Romola and Sav. In the full spectrum of this historical novel, Romola serves as an important witness of Savonarola's rise and fall. Yet at the moment when Savonarola is led before the crowd to be degraded and executed, the narrator merges the consciousnesses of these two grand characters where Romola sees and hears the crowd just as Savonarola does. Is Romola at the end more a modified, better, version of Savonarola than she is of Bardo, or is she a mixture of both, are both the male models inspiring this very large (tall!) female character?

I was surprised that the Epilogue did not rejoin the work of the Proem, and foreground the reader's passage from 1509 back to the present tense. Instead of the sweep of a historical epic, the narrative ends in this small-scale, domestic realm of Renaissance Florence, perhaps striking for the contrast to the grander strokes of the Proem.

Dear Serial Readers: what will we read next? According to the poll I installed at the bottom of this page, there is a marked preference for Gaskell's Wives and Daughters, with Trollope as second, but not a close second. I am eager to choose something that everyone will be able to keep up with on a weekly basis, and more will join the conversation. The poll will remain open for the next week, and then I'll announce the final winner. But Gaskell seems likely. We'll start in October--I'll post the reading plan in a week. In the meantime, please feel free to email me if you'd like to receive emails each time I've posted on the blog (or alternatively, if you'd like me to remove your address from this forwarding list).

Serially sufficed, (for now),

13 September 2009

Romola #13--chaps 62-67 (July 1863)

Dear All Serial Readers,

Don't forget to cast your vote for our next serial! At this point, Gaskell's Wives and Daughters is the front-runner, with Trollope's Orley Farm in second place. So far, no votes for Dickens. Even if you're unlikely to read along, don't be shy about asserting your right to vote! You'll find the poll at the very bottom of this page.

And so we're on the home stretch--only the last and fourteenth installment of Romola remains for next time. I'd love to hear about your experiences reading in this serially format, either as a newcomer to this novel or as a re-reader, but this time in these deliberate segments.

This installment, as I'd anticipated, doesn't touch directly on Romola at all, but does mention her briefly toward the end, as Tito reminds himself of his "mistake of falling in love with Romola." But in a way she's in the background with the waterside imagery that ends this part too. As we've all mentioned from time to time, rivers and other watery images abound in Eliot's novels--but this is true for other Victorian writers. I did work out, however, that Romola's water isn't the same as the Arno that brings together Tito and Baldassarre, since Viareggio (where Romola has gone) is on the coast.

What did people make of the coincidence of Tito washing up on Baldassarre's shore? This perverse sense of justice--this scene of the betrayed and the betrayer, the pursued and the pursuer--reminded me of a scene toward the end of Dickens's Our Mutual Friend (Headstone and Riderhood), a novel Dickens would've been working on when this novel was serialized in 1863. And maybe also the last pages of Frankenstein? While Eliot seems critical of Baldassarre's obsession with revenge, she does allow him this fulfillment--after all, Tito is still alive, barely, and so Baldassarre, also barely alive, uses his last strength to accomplish what he has desired for so long, almost since he entered into this novel. Is this really justice, though, in Eliot's moral scheme of things?

I did find it interesting that Tito had planned to bring Tessa and her children with him on his flight out of Florence. This seemed an interesting twist where the "other" secret wife would be elevated to the position of a full-time wife, while Tito has no thoughts for Romola's future (didn't he notice she'd gone missing?). But then, this twist does not work out as Tito had planned. The final installment will surely bring back Tessa and Romola, so stay tuned.

And Savonarola? I found him especially sympathetic in these pages as we find him struggling with an inward collision between belief and knowledge, between faith and facts. He believes in miracles in the abstract, but his "keen perception of outward facts" convinces him that he would not walk through a trial by fire. Not unusual with Eliot, she unfolds an anatomy of faith here which centers on the need for it rather than assessing its validity. How life-like, life-sized, and even modern somehow seems Sav in these scenes. And Tito, well, no question he was happy to sell Sav (or his letter) down the river for his own gain. I do find Tito a kind of moral lesson throughout for Eliot--but since Tito seems incapable of change or productive moral reflection, I also began to see him more as a plot device.

For the last few chapters, I'm also interested in how Eliot will return to the now/then stitching together that was so evident in the first chapters--or will she?

Please vote early and often for the next serial! I'll announce next week, and we'll start the first week of October.

Serially steadfast,

04 September 2009

Romola #12--chaps 57-61 (June 1863)

Dear Serial Readers,

Only two more short installments of Romola left after this week! With that in mind, I've installed a new feature on this blog--a poll for our next selection! To see this poll, scroll all the way to the BOTTOM of this screen. The choices are different from my earlier proposals. I should mention that I'm also working on a project analyzing Victorian serials through a digital data instrument my colleague Mike Witmore has been developing called Docuscope. You'll see in the top right sidebar I've linked Mike's blog Wine Dark Sea where he elaborates on docuscoping and how he's used it to identify lexical features that distinguish Shakespeare's genres.

My project, at least for now, will compare Dickens and Gaskell, one writer very attuned to the serial form as a novelist-editor-conductor of periodicals in which he ran some of his novels, the other not an editor-conductor, and very ambivalent about the serial form--the spatial constraints, the need for any breaks at all (apparently Gaskell tended to write with little initial attention to chapter divisions). So I'm proposing for next time either a Dickens novel or Gaskell's last novel Wives and Daughters which was also (like Romola) serialized in The Cornhill. And like Dickens's Drood, which we read here last year, Gaskell died just before she was able to complete the final installment! But she was much much closer than Dickens was with Drood! And for a third choice, I suggest Trollope's Orley Farm, one of his stand-alone novels (not part of a series, like Small House), and published in four-chapter (short) segments. So, please enter your vote on this poll--I've allowed an option for more than one choice!

Mike's "Wine Dark Sea" blog reminds me of the end of this installment--Romola's drifting out to sea. Quite a bit of suspense set up here, and I would predict that Eliot intensifies this suspense by withholding Romola from the next and penultimate installment to insure readers return for the last! Romola's moral and spiritual rudderlessness--and all the dreamily drifting and gliding out to sea--reminds me of Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss who finds herself in a similar position on the Floss, although she is not alone like Romola! But it's interesting how Eliot returns to the moral dilemmas of her heroine in this fashion. I loved the mixed images too here--Romola's physical competence getting the boat into the sea and unfurling the sails (showing that she's the ever-quick study of a student!) and at the same time total suspension about what to do, where to go, now that she has no one at all to follow, neither a husband nor a spiritual father nor a godfather. Interesting that she doesn't return to her original idea (on her first flight disguised as a religious sister) to seek out the celebrated woman scholar Cassandra Fedele in Venice. Earlier I was impressed too by her determination to witness her godfather's execution, although the ultimate moment is eclipsed from her--"then she saw no more"-- by a fainting spell? And with the narration focused through her eyes, we also don't see the final moments of Bernardo's beheading.

As Julia mentioned about the ending of #11, the public and private overlap and converge in interesting ways in this installment too. But these "tangled threads" for Romola also sour her sense of clear fellowship and connection--to any man, at least. I also saw a resemblance between Romola and Sav during the "Pleading" chapter, Romola's interview w/ Sav that Tito has manipulated Romola into seeking. Sav's "never-silent hunger after purity and simplicity" is thwarted by a "tangle of egoistic demands, false ideas, and difficult outward conditions." Even if the demands and conditions differ for Romola, to some extent the contours of her dilemma seem parallel to Savonarola. Eliot modeled Romola after Barbara Leigh Bodichon Smith, who was a woman with a striking presence and lofty ideals and who campaigned through public lectures on behalf of women's rights at this time. I've read of at least one Victorian woman who was motivated to start a woman's "philosophical society" (where people discussed articles or presented their own work) after hearing a speech by Smith.

For next time, #13, chapters 62-67--and then one more installment after that. So I would expect we'll start our next serial the week of Sept. 21st. Don't forget to vote!

Serially at Sea,