POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

27 December 2009

Wives and Daughters: #12 (chaps 33-36): July 1865

Dear Serial Readers,

You'll see the illustration for this installment alongside this post. That's Molly with the long dark hair, and Cynthia will her lighter hair piled up high. The caption, "Oh! it is no wonder!" are Molly's thoughts in chapter 34 when Cynthia comes to Molly's room after Roger's confession of love to Cynthia in the drawing-room below, and his departure on his scientific expedition for two years. The text suggests that Molly has just seen herself alongside Cynthia reflected in the mirror and compares herself unfavorably to "Cynthia's brightness and bloom." The episode makes clear that Molly is one who loves Roger and that the engagement *ought* to be between Molly and Roger if--Mrs. G wasn't so meddlesome to encourage that match or if Roger was a better reader of female character. One favorite textual bit for me was the long passage at the end of the previous chapter where the narrator recovers Roger's thoughts about his long voyage and Cynthia--the latter all filled with romantic platitudes: "the thought of her would be a polar star, high up in the heavens, and so on, and so on...." those "so on"s capture a certain impatience with Roger's obtuseness here, I think!

At the same time, it was gratifying (although frustrating for this to happen too late) for the scales to finally fall from Mr. Gibson's eyes about his wife's character and about the error of his "act" of marrying her. So perhaps Roger will correct his vision in a more timely fashion. Still, this novel anatomizes two uneasy, complicated households--Hamleys and Gibsons. The men (Hamleys) with their unwillingness or inability to truly communicate with each other in contrast to the inane and even harmful chatter of Mrs. G. Molly and Cynthia keep more to themselves too, especially Cynthia whose determination to keep her engagement to Roger a secret surely points to some other secret--perhaps a secret engagement to Preston?

There is one other lovely drawing for this #12 installment in the magazine--a small one at the very start of chapter 33, but pointing toward the moment in chap 34 when Molly throws open the windows longing to catch sight of Roger leaving. I have a softness for Victorian images of girls at windows looking outwards (as some of you know already). I'll put that image up too for you to see.

Next week, #13, chapters 37-40. Your thoughts about our next serial novel (or stories)? And this Slow Reading pace? How slow can you go?

Serially signing off,

21 December 2009

Wives and Daughters: #11 (chaps 30-32) June 1865

Dear Serial Readers,

With this #11 of 18 installments (the last one is very short), we're now well beyond the halfway mark. So, time to start thinking about the next serial novel. Please feel free to suggest possibilities, and I'll construct a poll, as I did last time when we chose between this novel, Trollope's Orley Farm, and Dickens's Little Dorrit. I'm also interested in reading early Dickens, his transatlantic novel, Martin Chuzzlewit. But perhaps a Wilkie Collins novel or Mary E. Braddon, or something else, possibly another Gaskell--her linked Cranford stories?

Because of reading serially in this weekly fashion, I'm finding the divulgence of a secret backstory of Preston and Cynthia increasingly suspenseful. The novel moves along in its full ordinariness, and yet I feel hungry for the revelation. The mounting tension between Preston and the squire is intriguing too, especially the attention to different practices of land use, limited resources, and the impoverished who live on the land, highlighted by the illustration (see sidebar) in the magazine, titled "The Burning of the Gorse" (with reference to the encounter between Squire Hamley and Preston, who is wearing the top hat, presumably).

I continue to marvel over Gaskell's handling of fine gradations of social class, whether it's Mrs. G (with her excess of names--as Daun has pointed out for us) telling Lady Harriet that they now follow the fashionably late dinner hour or the narrator mentioning that poor people are more candid about death "the leveller" than "is customary among more educated folk." It does seem to me that Gaskell supports fuller candour and straightforwardness, for all her characters, and in this way applauds some of the habits of the poorer classes whose behaviors might be labeled "vulgar" otherwise.

On the historical dating of the novel: I want to correct my earlier assertion (in response to Josh's comment) that the interest in the Cumnors in getting votes must place the novel post-1832 Reform Act. As Kari noted, Gaskell is a little loose with her temporalities. But still, I think it makes sense that the novel is set in the 1820s, and that the votes that Lady Harriet and her brother Lord Hollingford must be after (during the charity ball) belong to the fallen landed gentry like Squire Hamley. Gaskell punctuates these chapters with "in those days" to accentuate temporal changes, like the use of envelopes!

Molly once again comes off as the most astute reader in the group of women in the Gibson household. Cynthia, "a passive coquette," poses a reading engima whose "brilliancy" the narrator qualifies as "the glitter of the pieces of a broken mirror, which confuses and bewilders." Ah, the slow turn of the screw of suspense again! Molly is most vexed and angered in this segment by Cynthia's puzzling submission to her mother's marriage plotting directed at Roger now, instead of the ailing Osborne. Does Molly's irritation over Cynthia as "the conscious if passive bait" forecast her own refusal of prescribed roles later in the novel? We'll see!

Finally, it looks as if Roger is to have a manly adventure on a scientific expedition, much like the young Darwin (whose Cambridge professor recommended him as naturalist aboard the Beagle, which set sail in 1831). Enjoying greater mobility than their female counterparts, Roger and Osborne leave and return, while Molly's furthest ventures are to the Towers. It seems too that Roger's talents as a "careful observer" of nature are drawing some recognition (as the review of his article mentions), while we readers are left to notice Molly's qualities as a struggling reader of human natures, her own and others around her.

Next time, chapters 33-36 (the next installments include more than three chapters)--and, a rousing cheer for SLOW READING!

Yours in the fullness of serial time,

13 December 2009

Wives and Daughters: #10 (chaps 27-29) April 1865

Dear Serial Readers,

This past week I became a Serial Viewer by watching part one of the 1999 BBC adaptation of Wives and Daughters. It is really a splendid production with excellent casting and attention to period details. Like many recent adaptations of Victorian (and Austen) novels, it tends to be fairly faithful to Gaskell's text, but of course has these odd patches of pure invention--but nothing egregious so far. I stopped viewing just as Mrs. Hamley died and Cynthia arrived from France. Molly is exquisitely played by Justine Waddell, who seems to have a penchant for acting roles of Victorian heroines (with one exception--Natalie Wood): Tess (Tess of the d'Urbervilles), Laurie Fairlie (in The Woman in White), Estella (in Great Expectations, and even the invented wife of Van Helsing in the 2000 adaptation of Dracula. Keeley Hawes, who has the role of Cynthia, played Lizzie Hexam in Our Mutual Friend. I just can't imagine a more perfect Molly Gibson than Waddell's creation--amazing silent acting through facial expressions. I'm planning to watch just enough each week to keep up with the serial installments we're reading. Enough of my plug for serial viewership!

Not much comes out in this installment about Preston and Cynthia, except that when she learns he's to take Sheepshanks' (Dickensian name!) position as estate agent and live in Hollingford, she briefly contemplates going out as a governess to escape her "doom." Like Molly, I wonder what this "doom" could be--and can only imagine an unwanted marriage to Preston. There's also a hint that she's borrowed money from him.

The attention to reading characters continues--Molly fully sees Roger's romantic interest in Cynthia and wonders "how soon it would all end," since she can't imagine anyone declining an offer from Roger. In her modesty or self-suppression, Molly seems not to express even to herself at this point envy or pain over Roger's redirected interest, although she does object to him referring to Cynthia as her "sister"--but I thought this was more because he knew her initial unhappiness about her father's second marriage. Cynthia is not at all the kind of reader that Molly is, but we learn she's a good reader of boys if not books: "Instinctively she knew her men." So she understands Roger's interest in her is very different from his brother's, something her mother (who seems incapable of any accurate reading) fails to realize. Then Gaskell brings in another reader--"an older spectator"--who views the blooming romance (lopsided though it is) in a different way than Molly or Cynthia or Roger. Is this "said spectator" the hypothetical reader of the serial here? The episode ends with Osborne's "poetical and romantic" view of a reconciliation with his father brought about by the grandchild in the works. Clearly we're not meant to be readers of this sort. What kind of reader or readings does Gaskell seem to endorse most?

Serially suspended still,

06 December 2009

Wives and Daughters: #9 (chaps 24-26) March 1865

Dear Serial Readers,

This week's section of the novel is a gorgeous set-piece of an installment, moving from the little dinner party at the Gibsons to the Hollingford charity ball, with the preparations chapter sandwiched between as the interlude, with plenty of gossip and gown-gathering. I love reading in the format of these segments because I see the arrangement (like the nosegays Molly admires, but Cynthia pulls apart) of the chapter scenes in a way that fades away when we read chapters in whatever chunks we like. I know that Gaskell disliked the serial format when she was commissioned by Dickens to contribute a novel (North and South) to Household Words in weekly segments, but her experience providing the monthly installments of this novel to The Cornhill was different. For one thing, she wrote out the cluster of chapters as installments, something she did not do with the earlier serial. I'd love to find out more about this.

Back to the story: I loved the array of class-conscious details. These revolve mostly around Mrs. Gibson, and her hyper-sensitivity about dining (later hours meaning higher class status), dressing, and dancing partners, but Lady Harriet also injects some humor into this satirical treatment by speaking out about how the Towers family must dance with partners across class lines in order for Lord H to be relected. I was amused by the bit about the duchess and her diamonds, about how the people longed to catch a glimpse of the duchess, but she shows up in muslin, dressed à l'enfant and without jewels, and, worse, drinks beef-tea! When Lady Harriet goes over to the Browning sisters at the ball, a gesture we readers understand, Mrs. Gibson, without a shred of self-awareness, tells Molly about the Brownings: "If there is one thing I hate more than another, it is the trying to make out an intimacy with great people."

Last week, some of you readers talked about Molly's self-suppression, whether chosen or imposed, around Roger's attentions to Cynthia. In these chapters I like the glimmers of Molly's candor--her "spice of malice" in reply to her stepmother or her reputation as a "little truth-teller" to Lady Harriet. And her interest in scientific topics makes her enforced dancing with Lord H. somewhat a pleasure, even if he's not Roger. Mrs. G even advises Cynthia to read scientific books to attract the attentions of a lord! But poor Cynthia, she can barely read at all (indicated by the three-day-old newspaper she holds), since something is on her mind.

And about Cynthia's distraction the suspense builds, but in this low-keyed, underground way, around Preston. As other readers have mentioned, this is a different kind of suspense from sensation fiction and large-scale melodrama. But I am finding the mystery around Preston's power over Cynthia rather compelling, perhaps because of its subtle disturbance of the placid surface of the ordinariness of Holllingford life. What power does he have over Cynthia? She is clearly not free to reject him completely, even if she tosses his nosegay into the fireplace at home. Does he have some knowledge about her school days in France? I also enjoy how Gaskell aligns the reader with Molly here in reading Cynthia's discomfort, something no one else seems to notice.

For next week: chapters 27-29.

Serially submitted,