POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

25 October 2009

Wives and Daughters: #3 (chaps 7-9) October 1864

Dear Serial Readers,

To respond briefly to comments from last week: yes, reading books seems showcased early on in this novel, with Molly's reading Scott, Mrs. Hamley reading Hemans, the squire reading newspapers and journals, Gibson's more eclectic reading diet, and Roger reading "scientific books" in contrast to Osborne's poetry. "Reading" also means studying, in the scholastic sense used at British universities, and at that time "reading" natural history was certainly less common and supported than reading poetry, which I think was probably aligned more closely with philosophy and theology as a fitting course of study for young men at Cambridge preparing to enter the Anglican clergy. The squire mentions to Molly that "they don't take honours in Natural History at Cambridge," an indication of its lower academic status at this time (late 1820s perhaps). I do love the attention to the pleasures of reading immersion--whether Molly being "deep" into Scott's novel or even the pleasures of reading the flora and fauna of the gardens outdoors.

To continue now with this week's installment: while we meet Roger Hamley, we don't see much evidence of his reading nature; the narrator insists that he would not even notice Molly as a "formed beauty" because she is in "a state of feminine hobbledehoyhood." This word jumped out at me, since those of us who read an earlier serial in The Cornhill, namely Trollope's The Small House at Allington, heard much about Johnny Eames's "hobbledehoyhood." And now, the feminine version!

But if Molly at seventeen seems unripe for that romance plot, we have two middle-aged widowed characters, the former governess at the Towers and Molly's father who is primed for a second marriage to untangle "the Gordian knot of domestic difficulties," which include the averted "calf-love" incident. Gaskell gives lots of details of the converging circumstances of, on the one hand, this single father who can't manage his household, and, on the other, Clare Kirkpatrick, the struggling single mother schoolmistress who's already lost several governess positions. While marriage might promise solutions to their respective problems, there are ample hints that other forms of knottiness might lurk on the horizon of such an alliance. Clare's character is not particularly encouraging despite her early kindness when Molly visits the Towers at age 12, and Gibson, we know, is shortsighted in the realm of human complexities not of a medical nature. I do find the subject of second marriages in Victorian novels surprisingly common--"every-day" as the subtitle suggests.

On "invalid" women, I was interested in an implied comparison of Mrs. Hamley and Lady Cumnor, the first, truly ailing from some disease (as well as from inactivity and longing for her beloved son), the second, perhaps hypochondrical due to her social position as a pampered woman of wealth with grown children and little to engage her. Those passages reminded me of Gaskell's treatment of Mrs. Carson as a "do-nothing" lady in her first novel Mary Barton.

Finally, the character who really intrigued me this time is Lady Harriet, the youngest daughter of Lord and Lady Cumnor, who delivers a wry and sharp assessment of the current status of elite female education at home through governesses and masters. I hope to see much more of Lady H. in installments to come!

Next time, only two chapters--10 and 11.

Serially signing off for now,

18 October 2009

Wives and Daughters: #2 (chaps 4-6) September 1864

Dear Serial Readers,

I'm also intrigued by the direct or indirect attention to education so far in this novel you've noted--Julia's comments on the Cumnor charity school in contrast to Lowood in Jane Eyre and Joshua's on Mr. Gibson's attitude toward literacy. Then there's quite a bit here about the public school educations of the two Hamley sons (perhaps in contrast to Molly's meagre education by Miss Eyre).

I must say, though, that I understood Gibson's reluctance for Molly to learn too much as pertaining to his feelings about her growing up. Perhaps because I have a seventeen year old daughter myself who is currently in the process of applying to college, I was struck by the Hamleys and Gibson wrestling with their children's increasing autonomy and departures from home. Around the time Gaskell began working on this novel, her daughter Florence married in 1863. Gaskell handles Gibson's fears about Molly leaving with terrific irony since his concern about the "calf-love" threatened by Edward Coxe compels him to send Molly away from him to Hamley, where, of course, two sons are bound to visit on holiday from school.

Gibson's uneasiness about Molly growing up and leaving him has two other parallels: Mrs. Hamley missing her sons, especially the poetic Osborne (who presumably takes after her in contrast to the outdoorsy, naturalist Roger, more like the father) and then Molly's fear at the end of this installment about the possibility of his father remarrying, an event that would necessarily affect the intimacy of this father and daughter. Rather than "Wives and Daughters" a more inclusive title would be "Parents and Children." These opening segments make evident a focus on changes in parent/child relationships as children move into adulthood. This is especially so for Molly and her father. Yes, the serpent in the Edenic garden of Molly's childhood does emerge as this installment closes with the squire considering, "To be sure, a step-mother to a girl is a different thing to a second wife to a man." How will the next one end, I wonder?

Returning to the theme of literacy, I also noted the attention to reading in these chapters--reading books (poetry, novels, scientific writing), reading human nature, and reading nature.
Characters are sorted by their reading tastes or abilities--Molly reads historical novels (Scott, in this instance), while the squire tells Molly about Roger's remarkable capacity to read natural history through nature--"his eyes are always wandering about, and see twenty things where I only see one." As a doctor, Gibson is an astute reader of nature as it affects human bodies, but (returning to my comment last time) we get the sense that he's not a sharp reader of his own feelings and motivations: "He did not want to lose the companionship of his child, in fact; but he put it to himself in quite a different way." Other observations about reading practices in these chapters?

Finally, I wanted to mention the subtitle of this novel, although I don't know if it appeared with the original magazine serialization: "An Every-Day Story." I like this accent on ongoingness, on commonness, rather than the extraordinary. I'm hoping that one of these weeks some one of us will peak at the original Cornhill appearance of these chapters to see what other everyday stories surrounded segments of the novel. I'll try to remember for next week: chapters 7-9.

Serially submerged,


11 October 2009

Wives and Daughters: #1 (chaps 1-3) August 1864

Dear Serial Readers,

Off we go on another Victorian serial adventure--this one with the auspicious beginnings of a fairytale "rigmarole." The fairytale motif is evident and sweet, with allusions to Goldilocks when Molly falls asleep under the cedar tree and later wakes inside the grand house in Clare's bed. But there are other tales suggested in these opening pages--perhaps Cinderella with the ordinary people taken by serial carriage rides to the Towers festival, but also an evident wink at Jane Eyre through Molly's governess's name. I couldn't help seeing echoes in a reverse chronological direction, with Mr. Gibson, the new doctor to Hollingford, who had studied in Paris, as a precursor to Eliot's Lydgate who arrives in Middlemarch near the opening of that novel, and in the days before the passage of the First Reform Bill. I wonder how else Eliot's Middlemarch (1871-72) might be compared to this novel.

I also wonder about the role of sleep in building a new fictional world--Molly falls asleep in what appears to her as an Edenic dreamland, although she suffers from the hothouse atmosphere too. I began thinking about sleep and visionary realms in the early pages of novels--this too reminds me of the opening of Eliot's The Mill on the Floss where the narrator falls asleep while looking back in time. Is falling into a new narrative world like the opening of a dream? There is something gently parodic about Gaskell's use of the fairytale motif too in this first segment of the novel, which concludes with an assertion about Molly's "very happy childhood." Is some serpent, some apple, some Eve, to intrude upon this quaint English paradise? Mr Gibson is a fond father, but seems a bit emotionally dense--I recall Eliot's description of Lydgate as "an emotional elephant."

The brief glimpses of the greenery of the Towers as well as Lady Agnes's lecture on orchids and attention to the taxonomy of plants also reminded me of Gaskell's Job Legh, a working-class naturalist in her first novel Mary Barton. Charles Darwin was a distant cousin of Gaskell's, and there's a character, soon to appear, supposedly modeled after the young Charles Darwin who preferred botanising or geologising in the hills to his studies at Cambridge. Botany was also a popular activity for women to pursue as a hobby but also as a way to educate themselves about the natural world.

I look forward to your thoughts about this dreamy opening! For next week, the second installment includes chapters 4-6. There were 18 installments altogether printed in The Cornhill Magazine.

Serially yours,