POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

29 November 2009

Wives and Daughters: #8 (chaps 21-23) March 1865

Dear Serial Readers,

Terrific conversation among our serial readers group this week! I too noticed that exchange between Cynthia and Molly (the one Reader Ann comments on)--yes, a rather bold but bitingly true assertion that love for one's mother is cultivated rather than natural. Cynthia's ability to speak in such a candid way seems the flipside of her waffling, untrustworthy mother. I agree with Kari that Gaskell seems to wrap her critique of Mrs G/Hyacinth/Clare with a humorous even burlesque flair that transpose such moments into domestic comedy. Does this treatment compare with, say, Austen's rendering of Mrs. Bennett? Cynthia, as Josh points out, is also morally compromised (something she pins on the inadequate mothering she receives), something we see, but Molly doesn't--yet. Finally, I agree too with Daun that even a novel like Middlemarch is threaded with sensational plot lines, large or small.

See the illustration included with this installment--the magazine provided the caption: "Roger is introduced and enslaved." Was Roger's infatuation with Cynthia predictable? We know he's an acute reader of nature outdoors, and he was a competent reader of Molly herself when she was distressed about her father's new marriage. But what of his reading of Cynthia? I find her intriguing as a sensation heroine (see my comment last week) in a realist novel: she's "put on her armour of magic that evening--involuntarily as she always did," we're told, but then: "she could not help trying her power on strangers." So her power to bewitch is both beside herself and something that amuses herself. Yet her indifference to Roger, to what he has to say (the details of the senior wrangleship which Molly longs to hear), is also striking. There's something oddly jaded about her--too old beyond her seventeen years. The revelation of her backstory should be interesting! By the way, did anyone else notice that Roger calls Cynthia "Miss Gibson" (Molly is only eavesdropping on the conversation, so it's not likely she's being addressed) and then refers to Cynthia as "Miss Kirkpatrick" to Molly, at the end of chap. 21? Gaskell has been criticized for carelessness (or lack of originality) with names. But this made me wonder about the naming of a daughter who seems to have both her dead father's and her stepfather's surnames.

Gaskell reveals more about Osborne's secret marriage and his French wife through O's private meditations about how to support himself and his wife. Gaskell places this novel in the 1820s when Catholic Emancipation was the subject of national debate, but also clarifies that Aimee's religious and national differences aren't the only difficulties in Osborne's mind in order for her to be accepted by his father. Her class background too would "shock" the squire's "old ancestral pride." I found poignant Gaskell's attention to the hopes and expectations this parent places in his son, to somehow improve upon his own life course, to have a distinguished higher education, to marry well and so "restore the ancient fortunes of the Hamley family." Perhaps Hyancinth's wishes for Cynthia to marry Osborne is the comic version of all this.

So, back to suspense again. What is brewing, do you think? The consequences of revelations--Osborne's secret marriage, Cynthia's amorous past (something about Preston), what else?

Somewhat serially suspended,

23 November 2009

Wives and Daughters: #7 (chaps 18-20) February 1865

Dear Serial Readers,

You'll notice I added two images taken from the Feb. 1865 installment in The Cornhill. Typically there is a full-page drawing by George du Maurier before the first page of the installment, and then an embellished first letter of that installment. The drawing pertains to a scene in the segment--in this case "First Impressions" pictures Molly and Cynthia (although Cynthia's beauty is difficult to read here, although her greater height is evident). Du Maurier was a regular cartoonist for Punch and provided illustrations for serials until he himself turned to fiction--he illustrated his 1894 novel Trilby (which was serialized in Harper's Weekly).

If nothing else, the drawing does accentuate a moment in the installment, in this case "first impressions" between these step-sisters. While there were plenty of hints to suggest these girls might not be compatible, it seems that they are establishing a bond of affection (rather than the competition that has been set up, and perhaps will enter later into the plot). I found Cynthia most appealing in her appreciation of Molly. She also is wiser than her own mother, but (as Julia pointed out with the inversion of roles) perhaps that's not saying much!

This portion of the novel again reminded me of the popular sensation novels of the day, although different too in Gaskell's toned-down "every-day" version. First, Osborne's "secret" marriage and all the allusions to France (sensation novels almost always turn on a secret marriage or illegitimate birth or sexual liaison of some sort, and France is the prime location in Victorian novels for licentiousness). Then Cynthia enters, and my "first impression" is that she resembles a sensation heroine with her "power of fascination" and her "power of adaptation" (shades of Darwinian evolution here) and her flexible morals--my favorite line is when she tells Molly, "I must be a moral kangaroo!" This phrase rings nicely with Eliot's depiction of Lydgate as "an emotional elephant" (and I agree with Betsy about Mr. Gibson's obtuseness, much like Lydgate's in Middlemarch). Cynthia is an appealing character to me not only because she admires Molly, but also because she does have some self-awareness (in contrast to her mother) and a sense of humor too about her shortcomings.

And about suspense: it's evident there's some history between Cynthia and Preston. Could there be another secret marriage or secret engagement? Clearly Preston is keen on Cynthia, but her mother wants her daughter to marry up into the squire's family--hence Mrs. Gibson's interest in Osborne for Cynthia. Yet Gaskell allows for the dramatic irony here since we we know at least one secret marriage will thwart that desire, and if not, why then, there would be a bigamy plot, another staple of popular sensation novels! Preston is seeming more like a melodramatic villain to me--before, several characters sniffed at his class pretensions, but this time the narrator also finds him suspect and conniving. More suspense, but not the page-turning variety?

I've mentioned links to Middlemarch, and Julia suggests that Gaskell might have Eliot's earlier novel Silas Marner in mind too in her portrait of the two Hamley brothers. I should mention another possible companion text, a very interesting short story about two brothers--"Brother Jacob"-- by Eliot that appeared in this same magazine in July 1864, so just two months before the first installment of this novel.

Next week: chapters 21-23.

Serially yours,

14 November 2009

Wives and Daughters: #6 (chaps 15-17)-- Jan. 1865

Dear Serial Readers,

Just as we expected, the "New Mamma" has brought discontent, unhappiness, and even loss of employment to the Gibson home, yet she seems installed there--redecorating and all (of course she deplored the changes done for her)--for the long haul. Her clash with the servants is another class-laced portrait, especially interesting since she'd been a paid domestic employee herself at the Towers. It's difficult to find one shred of appealing quality about her, isn't it? And yet, Clare's shortcomings are really "everyday" ones, so terribly petty. I find compelling Gaskell's everyday ethics about the small stuff--like Gibson taking his meal quickly so he can get to the bedside of a dying patient or like Molly wishing to bring comfort to Mrs. Hamley.

I also am struck by all the fine details of class markers Gaskell explores. Where her earlier novels Mary Barton and North and South explore class conflict between "masters" and "men" in the realm of factory work, this one also has quite a bit to say about the gradations of social class in Hollingford, England. For instance, Clare (or, "Mrs. Gibson" now) claims her new name is a "sad come-down after Kirkpatrick." And there's the classing of food again--this time, it's not just cheese that offends the new Mamma, but also the early dinner hour. How interesting too that the Methodist cook seems to prefer a diet that follows Leviticus restrictions against pork and "swine-flesh" of Jewish dietary laws.

And speaking of Hollingford, I can't help thinking of Middlemarch. I'm finding parallels between these novels, most sharply between the doctors (Gibson, Lydgate) and their unsuitable, selfish, and conspicuously consuming wives (Clare and Rosamond). But Gibson is a different kind of doctor--he's not "Dr Gibson" but "Mr Gibson" in the novel, a title which implies his training. He's a practitioner who treats disease and by doing so cares for the ill, but he does not have the prestige of a physician who actually diagnoses the disease--that's why Dr. Nicholls, "the great physician of the county," is called in to confirm Gibson's fear about Mrs Hamley. (By the way, another proper name with real-life echoes: "Nicholls" was the name of Charlotte Bronte's husband, someone Gaskell wrote about in her biography of Bronte). Eliot's novel has much to say about medical reform, but I find that Gaskell seems to focus on palliative care--"to make the last struggle easier" as Molly puts it--or bringing comfort at the end of life not just to the dying but to the family.

Kari made a comment last time that suggests that Gaskell is rather gentle with her handling of suspense. I am interested in this question because suspense seems also a technical necessity for a serialized novel--what else would compel readers to go for the next issue of the magazine? What is the nature of suspense in this novel, then? We know that Mrs. Hamley is going to die before long. And we know that Cynthia will return and there will be some complications here between her and her mother and possibly Preston's interest in her, which of course Clare will dislike immensely. And the Hamley brothers will return now from Cambridge--Osborne a big disappointment, but also what's up with him? There are hints that there's more going on with his life than his parents know. He's turned into more of an adventurer than a scholar, with his knowledge of London entertainment and Continental travels. And Roger, the second son, who we can guess will increasingly become the hero? So what kind of suspense is this? How is your curiosity piqued or fed within and between installments?

Next time, chapters 18-20.

Serially yours,

08 November 2009

Wives and Daughters: #5 (chaps 12-14) December 1864

Dear Serial Readers,

I agree that there are hints afloat to suggest that the domestic reign of Hyacinth (aka Mrs Gibson, by the end of this installment--I think I counted FOUR different proper names for her this time) will not be especially pleasant for Molly. I also think that when Cynthia does appear from France it's likely there will be some battling wills between this mother and daughter.

I liked how the actual wedding is pushed to the background in this installment which introduces two new characters--Preston and Osborne. Like the attention to cheese eating last time, these chapters too are filled with the fine distinctions of social class: (1) Roger not imagining his romantic ideal could possibly be a surgeon's daughter, (2) the narrator, with that startling intervention ("Attend, Phoebe, to the present moment..."), chiding this character for even fancying that Gibson would consider marrying her, (3) Lady Harriet's unkind condescension of the Browning sisters as "Pecksy and Flapsy"--and Molly's offense that Harriet would treat this "class of people" as "a kind of strange animal," and (4) Lady Harriet's disdain for Preston as "that underbred fop." To Lady H's credit, she takes Molly's offense to heart and pays a visit to the Brownings. To what extent will the novel critique class snobbery or promote some mild cross-class affiliations? Not sure. Gaskell pairs class and gender in interesting ways--the different kinds of femininity (Lady Cumnor, Mrs. Hamley, Miss Browning, Mrs Kirkpatrick) and masculinity (see below) that each seem shaped by material circumstances.

There seems to be a new romance plot brewing via Preston, the land-agent--his muscular manliness contrasts strongly with Osborne's delicate and "effeminate" appearance. Yet he seems conniving too--his lavish attention to Molly perhaps meant to stir jealousy in someone else, Miss Kirkpatrick, I'd guess, from his comments about her beauty. By the way, this issue of The Cornhill includes an illustration before the installment titled "Unwelcome Attentions" with Preston hovering over the dark-haired Molly. I've included it in the sidebar.

Osborne seems a Keatsian kind of guy--"beautiful and languid-looking." Molly tries to sort out her imagined or "ideal" Osborne with "the real" Osborne who clashes with the ideal that is drawn from literary models. The same might apply to Roger who also doesn't measure up to an ideal (or conventionalized) notion of masculinity, but perhaps represents a new version of manliness. I agree with you (Kari, I think) that Roger is the most pleasing of the male characters so far, especially in his kind attention to Molly. And she's already learning about the bees (if not the birds) from him! Roger introduces Molly to a different set of books, not fiction or poetry, but the natural historian Huber on bees.

Briefly, on the contents of the Dec. 1864 issue of the magazine: I didn't find these items to be particularly relevant to the chapters, as I did last month/week. The issue began with the installment from *Armadale* and then an article about the improving relations between England and France through "the bar" or convening of English and French lawyers in London; another item about a popular artist who had recently died; and an article about "Salvers," or those who dredge up salvage from shipwrecks.

Next time: chapters 15-17 for January 1865. Happy New Year! (and a new marriage....)

Serially yours,

02 November 2009

Wives and Daughters: #4 (chaps 10-11) November 1864

Dear Serial Readers,

Two chapters this time, both about the second marriage plot--Gibson's proposal to Clare (aka "Hyacinth" and "Mrs. Kirkpatrick") and Molly's reaction to this news. Were you surprised at all the attention and care lavished on these three characters and their various perspectives on this impending marriage? I thought Molly's heart-wrenching reaction to the news of this stepmother on the horizon was wonderfully detailed and varied in the wide range of confused feelings--anger, hurt, fear, surprise, worry, shy curiosity. Gaskell doesn't reduce Clare to a caricature of the wicked stepmother, but clearly she's not an idealized angel either, but rather human-scale in this "every-day" slice of realism, with her own interest in relinquishing the drudgery of schoolteacher. But what did you make of the proposal scene itself, in chap. 10? I loved the narrator's shifting between his and her viewpoints in this proposal that seems overdetermined, Gaskell suggests, by the social attitudes that dictate a second marriage is the best solution for Mr G's domestic woes, for Mrs K's hard lot as a schoolteacher and single mother, and for Molly as unmothered in a house of men. Yet there's much to suggest discomfort too with this overscriptedness.

It occurs to me that Victorian novels are loaded with second marriages of one sort or another, although at what point in the narrative the second marriage enters varies (late, for instance, in Middlemarch and in Jane Eyre). Any thoughts about this second marriage, at least the preview we get in these chapters through the shifting focus on Molly, Clare, and Mr. G? My favorite bit of class comedy was when Clare asks Molly to report on her father's pet likes and dislikes, and discovers to her dismay that he eats cheese! Cheese apparently was a food associated with unrefined tastes, with a strong smell, according to Clare! I also loved Roger Hamley's attempts to comfort Molly either directly (in his awkwardness with words) or indirectly as her "Mentor," leading her out of her misery through distractions. That passage reminded me of Gaskell's preface to her first novel, Mary Barton where she mentions that she turned to fiction writing as a distraction from "circumstances"--she doesn't clarify this, but biographical accounts attribute fiction writing as her husband's suggestion after the death of her very young son.

Reading these two chapters I became curious about what else appeared in the pages of The Cornhill in November 1864. I was quite astonished to see how several items seemed tooled to this novel's interests! Here are the contents of that issue, in order:
1. The lead item is the Prologue (first 3 chapters) of Wilkie Collins's sensation novel Armadale (the only one he published in this magazine)
2. "Middle-Class Education in England" by Harriet Martineau--this article is on female education and begins with this sentence: "If the education of middle-class Boys is a vague and cloudy subject to treat in writing, what is that of Girls?"
3. "A Tête á Tête Social Science Discussion"--complementing the above article is this story told by a father whose wife has just given birth to their ninth daughter--no sons. The narrative takes the form of a discussion by the narrator/father and his friend on the Woman Question, especially about how and whether a woman can support herself outside of marriage. There is also discussion of women's higher education.
4. "The New Mamma"--a drawing presumably referring to the scene between Molly and Clare (see sidebar)
5. The installment of this novel occurs here, in the center of this issue
6. "The Scottish Farm Labourer"--an informative article on this topic. Mr. Gibson is Scottish by background, and this subject of farm labour might figure later in the novel.
7. "At Rest"--consolation poetry about the death of a child, signed B.R.
8. "Col. Gordon's Exploits in China"--a travelogue/imperial adventure account by this explorer
9. "The Public Schools Report"--this item in the form of a letter responding to a report on boys public schools, especially Eton, printed in the July issue.

So, here you have the full context for this slice of our serial novel! Next time: chapters 12-14.

Serially Seconding,