POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

26 December 2010

Miss Marjoribanks 3 (April 1865--chaps 9-12)

Dear Serial Readers,

To begin by responding to last week's conversation--I admit I'm stymied by this novel so far, like Plotaholic's "bad faith" suspicion. I agree with Kari that Lucilla's ambitions to enter "social politics" through her community organizing of the Thursday Evening affairs resemble Glencora's social hostess work in Trollope's Palliser novels (a model or companion series for Oliphant's). But I'm less convinced that the tone of the novel prompts amusing affection for Lucilla with her domestic campaign, her warfare in a teacup. So tiresome becomes the repetition of Lucilla's professed mission to give comfort to dear papa who seems not to need or desire it. Is this refrain meant to convey something like gentle ridicule? I cannot say that I admire or even feel terribly interested in Lucilla's machinations, although I find the attention to decorative renovations (the use of green that suits Lucilla's appearance) in concert with the reshaping of Grange Lane society intriguing. But for all these strategems, including her deft handling of Tom's proposal, it's inevitable that she will marry someone by the end, and that someone is likely to be cousin Tom. This is rank speculation, dear Plotaholic and like-minded readers! I have never read this novel!

The characters I'm most drawn to are the Lake sisters. Here is where Oliphant best sketches the finer points of class distinction in Carlingford. I loved the detail that Barbara's six-times washed muslin comes off as a very different shade of white than Lucilla's pristine frock. More compelling than Lucilla's so-called devotion to papa is Barbara's confused feelings of resentment and cautious ambition, her mixture of "fright" and "spite" or "shyness" and "temper." And I also liked the fancy that the aspiring young MP Mr Cavendish could become her own private hero--that this dream springs from the novels Barbara reads. Lucilla does deserve credit here for the "heterogeneous elements" that she draws together for these Thursday Evenings.

A few other favorite details from this segment seem directed in different ways to the question of women as agents and objects of looking: the Brown sisters' photographic glass-house next door facilitates Lucilla's camera-ready poses and Rose Lake as "the little Mistress of the Design School" who teaches drawing (like her father). Visual appearances, from the Marjoribanks drawing room to the dress and manner and even body (Rose's life classes at the Design School) all warrant self-conscious notice.

But my jury is still out on the title character, whether her frequently remarked "genius" is deserved, whether her energetic social engineering is only frustrated and misdirected energy after all. I just can't quite parse the tone.

Next week: chapters 13-16.

Serially slipping,

20 December 2010

Miss Marjoribanks 2 (March 1865--chaps 5-8)

Dear Serial Readers,

I am happy to turn the lead for this week's conversation over to ReaderAnn. I'll chime in at some point (overloaded right now in various ways). For next week's #3 installment, chapters 9-12. Thanks to all for contributions--a lively start!
Serial Susan

From Reader Ann:

Lucilla is a complex young woman, I'm just not sure yet quite who. She is, of course, well distinguished by her desire to be a comfort to dear papa. By the end of Chapter Five, she shows attributes of not only a conqueror and ruler, but also a "leader of mankind." So far, if she is not out and out manipulating people and situations, she is engaging in "simple reconnaissance" in route to exercising her will. Still, I am watching and warming to her, like her father as he gets to know his daughter, seemingly
for the first time. Early in Chapter six he bemoans the "blunders of Providence," and by the end is taking tea with a daughter cleaver beyond his wildest dreams. Is it Oliphant¹s gentle, ironic touch that makes Lucilla so likeable, or is it something within Lucilla¹s character that will be only gradually revealed? For my part, I'm crazy for anyone who differentiates "Evenings" from "parties," and knows how to pull off the former.

We meet so many new women, from Miss Barbara Lake, shy, injured,unappreciated, the perfect foil to Lucilla, to the zealot Mrs. Bury and the veiled Mrs. Mortimer whom we may never see again. I love watching how Lucilla responds to the varieties of women, and to the, so far, few men. For all her confidence and intention, she is fearful of something, and vulnerable. A dream about sorry Tom is all it takes for her to steer clear of him in the rudest of ways for someone as socially astute as Lucilla.

I've rarely been so eager see how a plot will thicken. Will her father remain enchanted by her? Will some uncontrollable love interest undo her? Despite Lucilla's persistent claim about the aim of her life, I end up wondering: What is it she really wants?

By the way, like Josh, I noticed the lack of sentimentality around the mother's death, but I didn't stop to be thoughtful about it. I chalked it up instead to the one line about Dr. M, "too busy a man to waste his feelings on mere sentiment."

12 December 2010

Miss Marjoribanks 1 (Feb 1865--chaps 1-4)

Dear Serial Readers,

Welcome back Serial Readers!

So much humor (ironic? sardonic? something else?) here in this opening installment that brings us the remarkable Lucilla Marjoribanks. Of course I'm intrigued by Q. D. Leavis's connection between this heroine and Jane Austen's Emma and George Eliot's Dorothea, but I see far more of Rosamond Vincy than Dorothea. What's an ambitious, capable, intelligent young woman to do, given the limited sphere of domesticity in which she has the opportunity to reign, especially if she wants to be a social reformer of sorts? And given her formal education at Mount Pleasant, where her "active mind" has been "condemned over again to verbs and chromatic scales"? Oliphant's opening chapters almost read like a riff on Ruskin's "Of Queens' Gardens"--even with some garden imagery. Yes, Lucilla seems the consummate arranger, with her light-speed renovations of the drawing-room space which she illuminates. She is "Lucilla" for a reason.

Lucilla has the makings of a strong-minded domestic goddess with a hint of the sensation heroine lurking beneath her determination. In the pages of the same journal, a few years later, Oliphant had this to say about sensation novels: "What is held up to us as the story of the feminine soul as it really exists underneath its conventional coverings, is a very fleshy and unlovely record." I gather Lucilla is a different creature from the sensation heroine who "waits now for flesh and muscles, for strong arms that seize her, and warm breath that thrills her through" (this also from Oliphant's review "Novels"). Perhaps all this libidinal energy is displaced or sublimated through her passion for managing the home. She clearly doesn't relish the prospective visit of her cousin Tom who probably lacks the suitable flesh and muscles Oliphant claims female readers yearn for. Lucilla seems instead to recoil from flesh (about meat on the plate, I'm not sure yet--but I love all the details about Nancy's sauces--gravy-beef and all).

I can't resist a link to a serial novel we've read in these blog pages--Gaskell's WIVES AND DAUGHTERS (the words "wives and daughters" appear in chapter two here). By Feb. 1865 when this novel was launched in Blackwood's, Gaskell's novel, also about a widower doctor and his young daughter, was in its sixth monthly installment. Gaskell's "Hollingford" seems close to Oliphant's "Carlingford," although here Gaskell was echoing Oliphant who'd already published novels, like SALEM CHAPEL, in her Carlingford series.

So the suspense of sorts--will Miss M's Thursday evenings prove "a revolution in the taste and ideas of Carlingford"? We must wait for next time, chapters 5-8.

For those of you who are new to "Serial Readers," I encourage you to post a comment (short is fine--a sentence or two if you like!) in the box at the bottom of this entry where you'll also see a link to other comments, once posted. If you're getting the weekly posts emailed to you, let me know if you don't want your address on this list. Or if you're not getting those posts, let me know if you do want me to add you to that list!

Serially started again,

19 November 2010

Next Serial, Coming Soon! Margaret Oliphant's Miss Marjoribanks

Dear Serial Readers,

Instead of Gaskell's CRANFORD, we'll start reading a novel by a new writer for this blog, Margaret Oliphant's MISS MARJORIBANKS, serialized initially in BLACKWOOD's EDINBURGH MAGAZINE from February 1865 to May 1866. It appeared in fifteen monthly installments (with a gap in the January 1866 issue), so we'll take fifteen weeks to read it.

Q. R. Leavis described this novel's Lucilla Marjoribanks as "the missing link" between Austen's Emma and Eliot's Dorothea Brooke, yet "more entertaining, more impressive and likeable than either." This novel is the fourth in a series of seven titled THE CHRONICLES OF CARLINGFORD, but like Trollope's series (CHRONICLES OF BARSETSHIRE, a likely model for this one; we've read one of those--THE SMALL HOUSE AT ALLINGTON), these novels stand alone and don't require moving through the novels in order.

There are several volume editions available. The Penguin edition (see cover image) provides asterisks to show the serial breaks, but I will also include that information for each upcoming reading segment. You can also find the novel in an electronic version either through Victorian Women Writers Project or the link to the left here. If you know of another online source, please post a comment here about that!

We'll begin our reading in about a month, with the first installment (chapters 1-4)for the week of December 13th (I'll post a comment around that date). We should finish the novel the week of March 21st.

So do get ready, Serial Readers, for this next reading adventure! Pass the news along to anyone who might be interested.

Serially yours,

19 September 2010

The Moonstone (installments from August 1868), Blake, Cuff, Betteredge, Epilogue

Dear Serial Readers,

At long last, I am back to wrap up this serial reading! I enjoyed the variety of these last installments, from Franklin Blake's continuation, after Jennings' journal, of the story, and then the remarkable Sargeant Cuff's detective work, followed by Candy's letter about Jennings' death, and then--I know at least two of you serial readers were pleased--the return of Gabriel Betteredge as narrator.

I loved how he brings to a near-close the narrative with his ringing endorsement of the prophetic power of fiction (his beloved ROBINSON CRUSOE) as the new secular bible--he mentions his pleasure in pointing this out to Franklin Blake with the feeling that he's "converted" Blake to this new religion of English fiction! Can you imagine someone using this novel in a similar way?

Rather than the colonizing tendencies of Robinson C., this novel ends with a reversal of colonial conquest: the Epilogue describes the Moonstone's global journey as it is returned to its original home in the forehead of the statue of the Hindu god of the Moon from (as Murthwaite mentions) "the bosom of a [English] woman's dress!" But then he concludes with a few provocative questions that perhaps the Moonstone (and whatever else it signifies) may travel again: "Who can tell?"

According to the design of the novel, many can tell! I believe we have not encountered another novel in these screen-pages of "Serial Readers" that includes so many different tellers. I find this variety works well with the serial form.

Some lingering questions: the undisclosed secret of Ezra Jennings' sad life? and the thematic links between him, as outsider, with the wandering Murthwaite, who describes himself as "semi-savage" with hybrid origins, like Jennings. Interesting too that this novel both opens and closes in India, yet most of its settings are in England. I saw some interesting links to a novel that appeared some decades later, namely DRACULA--it also begins and ends in the "East" (Transylvania of Eastern Europe) and it also suggests the power of the colonized to regain and even extend their property and power.

I look forward to your comments on this novel!

My relative silence in these pages/screens suggests that I am compelled to take a recess from "Serial Readers"--the first hiatus in the twenty-eight months of the life of this reading log! Here is my proposal: we will reconvene in the second half of November with the linked stories of Elizabeth Gaskell's CRANFORD, first published in Dickens' HOUSEHOLD WORDS (from Dec. 1851-May 1853). We will begin with the first two installments, which include the first four chapters of most modern editions (through the chap titled "A Visit to an Old Bachelor"). I'll plan to post on these first installments the week of November 15th.

In the long meantime, please enjoy your serial readings and viewings, wherever they may take you! See you here in two months (and before, with all comments on the end of THE MOONSTONE).

Serially stalling,

08 September 2010

The Moonstone (installments from July 1868), Blake's narrative, Ezra Jennings' journal

Dear Serial Readers (and non-readers),

Many of us regular serialists have fallen behind due to the season! I am determined though to post on the final installment, which is short, for next time. I am also considering taking a brief recess from this serial reading, and would love to know if a month off would be disastrous? Or we could continue, but I'm afraid I'd still need help from other serial readers. Next up is one we've considered before: Gaskell's CRANFORD stories. Let me know what you think about how to proceed--either email me or comment here!

Meanwhile, thanks again to Kari for the following on the July 1868 installments of THE MOONSTONE. For next time, what remains.....

In looking up Betteredge’s story of the night of the birthday party/diamond disappearance, I was reminded how fond he is of Godfrey, and especially was that night. I’m a little surprised that Miss Clack isn’t fonder of him, because a lot of what Betteredge likes in Godfrey is what Miss Clack likes. But Miss Clack also no doubt notes Betteredge’s greater reliance on Robinson C. than on church.
I was struck, and tried to convey, how little Miss Clack focuses on love—certainly the least loving narrator of all.
I also wanted to go back briefly to last week’s reading and F Blake’s focus on his “manhood”—working it up to get the strength to go see Rachel, and losing it when she tells him she couldn’t sleep because she was thinking about him. Wow! Sexual tension! That may be the most open sexual tension I’ve seen in much of our Victorian reading (though I know it often lurks in cupboards and such), and at that moment, Franklin is “almost unmanned.”
I figured Ezra Jennings was trustworthy when F Blake liked him, even though Betteredge calmly says everyone dislikes him. It’s interesting that Ezra’s story is so similar to Franklin’s, in some ways.
I don’t see much about Ezra’s voice that marks him clearly distinctive from other narrators—did anyone else? And one last word: will the diamond be in the buzzard or the Cupid? Any significance to both winged creatures losing their flight?

01 September 2010

The Moonstone (installments from June 1868), Blake's narrative, chaps. 4-8

ReaderAnn returns this week with the following observations. I'm looking for one more lead poster for next week, then I hope to be back on the track for the very last installment of THE MOONSTONE! Thanks to all readers! --Serial Susan

***I'll comment without giving away any new developments in deference to
readers not caught up. Though I will say I have no new sense of who the
thief might be, and I¹m afraid I might end the book not knowing for sure.

In this installment I particularly enjoyed the Franklin Blake chapters, the
voices within voices, if you will. I don't recall other chapters like this
one, though there might have been. Here, through Blake, there is the happy
return, from my point of view, of Betteredge. And from Betteredge's hand,
there is the very, very, very long letter from Rosanna Spearman, whose voice
is entirely believable as the hard-life girl with the crooked shoulder,
hopelessly in love.

I must say I miss Cuff, and I paged back to the Table of Contents to see
when he returns. Sad to say, there will be no more Clack!***

For next time (July 1868): more Blake, chaps 9-10; Ezra Jennings' journal. Only one more installment after that, then.....??

24 August 2010

The Moonstone (installments from May 1868): Clack chaps. 6-7, Bruff chaps 1-3, Blake chaps 1-3

I am grateful to Serial Susan for allowing me to write the lead entry on the text for this week, as I have had a few suggestions that I have hoped to share with the entire group. First, I would like to suggest that after we complete this worldly book, we turn to a course of enlightening and strengthening reading for the better guidance of our spirits. Yes! The Strength of our Spirits! I suggest not that we read about Christ, nor about God, but proper, beautiful, English, moral readings, which I will be happy to mark for all readers to help you find the most profitable sections, where you might wonder “is this me?” Tracts such as “Satin in the Library,” “The Serpent of Suspense,” and “The Letters and Remembrances of Mrs. Molly Earnest-Prune” would be excellent places for our group to begin. I find this serial group so happily suited to such readings, as it gives us the time for pious reflection on each section before advancing to the next.
I know that you, my serious serial reader friends, will understand the comfort and joy I felt at dear Mr. Godfrey finding himself free of the distractions and, I fear, profaning attentions of Rachel, allowing him to return to his Ladies and Charities. The later slander which the odious Mr. Blake’s and Betteredge’s narratives hint at about Godfrey, are merely the vile jealousy of lesser men.
Were Kari writing this herself, instead of ceding the space to me, I must in honesty acknowledge that she would speculate as to the possibility of a doppelganger for Mr. Blake. But OH! What a sadly German term for a sadly profane concept, and how sorrowful I am to consider that she would so profligately waste time on wondering about what might happen when she might use that time modestly and honorably at charitable work, such as preventing young children from stealing candy or handing out tracts warning about profanity at sporting events.
How joyful I am that I have had this opportunity to share just a few improving ideas with the group! I thank Serial Susan for the opportunity, and I hope to be asked to comment again!

For next week, continue with Mr. Blake’s narrative, as in June 1868, Chapters 4-8 were released.

17 August 2010

The Moonstone (installments from April 1868), Clack's Narrative, chaps 1-5

Dear Serial Readers,

So Lady V. dies suddenly, Rachel has accepted Godfrey's proposal of marriage, but we don't know the contents of that will Lady V. signed, Bruff drew up, and Clack witnessed, but divulged nearly nothing about. So there's some suspense afoot about the impending revelation of that will. I suspect there will be some connection between with the "outrages" against moneylender Luker (a Dickensian pun-name) and Godfrey.

Clack's Tracts! What a hilarious voice this one is--with her sowing those tracts, planting them around Lady V's house and then, after they're all returned, determining to send them in small fragments inside envelopes! I had heard that some read this novel as anti-imperialist, and it does seem that Collins is having a field day with his send-up of Clack's evangelizing, missionary zeal--all her clap-trap about "the true Christian never yields...our mission" and the related "Glorious, glorious privilege" where "we are the only people who are always right." Her Sunday-School Style is such a distinctive way of reading--what she attends to is so different from Betteredge. Again, how characters affect circumstance, or read events.

After my comment last week about how we don't know a master editor of these narratives, I found that answer quite quickly: Clack relays that Franklin Blake has requested her witnessing account and is paying her for it! So we know he has a vested interest in the disclosure of the full truth of what happened, from different eyes/I's.

For next time, the five installments from May 1868: the rest of Clack, chaps 6-7, then the narrative of Bruff, chaps 1-3, then Franklin Blake's, chaps 1-3. So three different narrators next time--should be interesting!

Serially suspicious,

09 August 2010

The Moonstone (installments from March 1868) chaps. 16-23 (end of Betteredge's narrative)

Dear Serial Readers,

So Gabriel Betteredge's narrative comes to an end! I wonder how Miss Clack (who sounds like a character piece from the board game CLUE) will proceed. I'm intrigued that we're prepared for the next witness (and Betteredge tells us that we're in effect judges, the narratives are testimonies) whom we've barely seen (one of the guests at Rachel's birthday dinner), rather than a more predictable witness, like Lady Verinder or Franklin Blake.

Collins mines the lengthy reportage in newspapers of court trials. What do you make of this scheme where the novel itself is the trial proceedings, the narratives the testimonies, and we readers the judges? Julia mentioned this structure, in relation to the question of what details to include, what to omit, and how Collins's allows Betteredge to "wander"--something not permitted in a courtroom testimony. Those of you who've read Collins's THE WOMAN IN WHITE may remember this style of interlocking witness-narrators. And, as Josh points out, and ReaderAnn echoes, these wandering details (like GB's fondness for Robinson Crusoe) illuminate the effects of character on circumstance (or on relating events).

But one difference here is that there is no master narrator (like Walter Hartright), or at least, we don't know who is telling Gabriel Betteredge to tell his version, to stick to his "own experience," not to wander, not to be "too familiar." And how has he heard that "you are likely to be turned over to Miss Clack"?

This mix of the personal with the impersonal, the up-close character-narrator with the abstract editor more distanced, imprecise, reminds me too of Franklin Blake's mini lecture on the different ways of reading the mystery of the missing Diamond: what he calls "the Objective-Subjective view," which encompasses both reading "from the inside-outwards" (the Subjective) and, presumably, the outside-inwards. Like Josh said last time, we're fed bits of information and clues, enough to keep us craving more--that "detective-fever" which Gabriel B. also calls an "infection."

So, if you have caught this fever, and want your cure to come fast, how do you stop reading ahead? Or does the slow reading/curing approach to this infection have some pleasures too?

Any thoughts about Rachel's financial needs that might motivate her to raise money on the Moonstone? Actually, she's been quite an enigma throughout, yet, like Rosanna, seems susceptible to passionate moods or mood swings. I'm reminded how women, especially uneducated, working-class women, were often regarded as conducive to seances and spiritualist contacts in the Victorian craze for such things, around the time Collins is writing. So with this gender binary (women are guided by feelings, men by reason), I'm curious to see how our female narrator Miss Clack will address the question of the Disappeared Diamond. Certainly Betteredge's emotions surface often in his narrative, especially his disdain/admiration for Cuff. I'm also amazed by all the details of the household staff, how many servants appear in the pages of GB's narration, from the gardener and cook to page boys and the different levels of housemaids--a vast and hierarchical structure, to be sure.

Finally, it occurs to me that there's a parallel between Cuff as the private detective and Betteredge as house-steward: both are privy to family secrets, to information regarding this "family scandal."

Next time, Miss Clack's Narrative: chaps. I-V. For the week after next, I'd be grateful if one of you would mind taking the lead post? I'll be traveling that week and am not likely to be able to post in a timely fashion! Just let me know here or by email.

Yours in serial secrets,

04 August 2010

The Moonstone (installments from Feb. 1868)--chaps. 10-15 (Betteredge's narrative, continued)

Dear Serial Readers,

Thanks for all these terrific posts!

In this past set of chapters we're introduced to the "celebrated character" of Sergeant Cuff. Although original readers would not have made this comparison, I thought of the Watson/Holmes pairing in Conan Doyle's Sherlock stories. Like Watson, Betteredge is the earnest narrator who, despite his attentiveness, simply cannot *see* in the ways that Cuff does. I was struck too by Cuff as a reading master, by his repeated lessons about how to be a good reader of clues, of everyday, ordinary things and events and characters. These lessons, within the narrative, are directed at Betteredge, but do we too profit from the scenes of Cuff's instruction? I read somewhere that detective novels, sensation fiction, and more generally the enterprise of reading, can stimulate a kind of paranoia, where details overwhelm us to suspect everywhere the possibilities of clues, of hidden meanings. Betteredge seems an average, close reader, attentive and able to draw obvious conclusions. But Cuff is a different kind of reader, a master reader who makes startling connections. What makes him so?

My other observation, perhaps proof that I'm reading in a different way here, is that there are evident "curtain scenes" with the end of each installment, much more so than I'd noticed in Dickens' serials. Even if you're reading an edition of THE MOONSTONE that does not show the serial breaks, you can probably tell where they fall because of the dramatic suspense with which Betteredge ends that chapter or section. Chap. 10 ends with Betteredge's "The next thing to tell is the story of the night." This would be the night when the Diamond disappears. And this is also the break between the Feb. 1 & Feb. 8, 1868 installments. Then chap. 11, which includes two different installments, notes that division with, "..and out walked Rosanna Spearman!" And the very last of these five Feb. 1868 installments ends with Betteredge hearing Lady V's voice calling to them, on the heels of Cuff's assertion that some scandal is about to "burst up in the house." Perhaps these marked divisions are part and parcel of sensation fiction that stimulate the reader on for more episodes. Did such provocative endings to installments actually stimulate sales, get readers to buy the next edition of the magazine, in this case?

So I'm curious how Julia's "DailyLit" option for today's serial reader would affect these deliberate "curtain scenes" from the original serialization? Am I finding these suspenseful accents because I know that's where the installment ended when Collins first wrote it and Dickens published it? Surely I'd read the novel's new divisions in the DailyLit mode differently! I wish I had the patience to try out the experiment!

Next time: the remainder of Betteredge's narrative, chaps 16-23.

Serially struck,

28 July 2010

The Moonstone (installments from Jan. 1868): prologue through chaps 1-9

Dear Serial Readers,

Here we are in a new serial reading country--the metaphor works too since, like Little Dorrit, this one opens out of England, this time in India. This is the first serial novel we've explored on these bloggy pages that is regarded as "sensation fiction"--a genre of Victorian popular reading that was always serialized first in magazines, either monthly ones, or weekly ones, like this one--Dickens' ALL THE YEAR ROUND. You can see the top of the first page from that weekly, the early Jan. 1868 issue that launched this novel, and sold for 2d, two pence (the monthly magazines were usually a shilling, or 12d, so this was quite a good deal!) Like Dickens, Collins wrote as the serial was being issued, usually a month or two ahead of schedule. Sensation fiction (like many of Dickens' novels) traded in suspense and secrecy, disguises and masquerades, and were designed to keep readers coming back for the next segment, like (as this one is regarded) a good mystery. Critics sometimes complained that sensation novels favor plotting over character, rather than the other way round. I see the emphasis on the plotting here, and marvel at how the timeline of the plot echoes serial time, the very dates that head each installment. What do you think? Too much emphasis on plotting? Do you get a sense of these distinct characters too?

Collins uses multiple narrators here (and in some of his other novels), and the first four segments, from Jan. 1868, are largely from Betteredge (nice Dickensian pun name!), the Verinder house-steward. What do you make of him as a narrator and whom is he addressing? All the attention to his *telling* of the story of the Moonstone certainly highlights the way this story is delivered to us.

The romance plotting, the servants taking bets about which cousin Rachel will marry, is humorous, and also interesting for this attention to the below-the-stairs (class) view of the "gentlefolk" (as Betteredge puts it). Yet when an engagement or marriage is previewed in the opening sections, there's bound to be complications. Cousin marriage, while 'normal' in nineteenth-century novels, even from Austen's EMMA, becomes more complicated as the century advances.

I'm also struck by the attention to alternative forms of knowledge--occultism (even if through Betteredge's Orientalism), clairvoyance, dreams and visions, drugs. Since some of us read Dickens's DROOD in this format, I want to mention that Dickens was writing DROOD just after MOONSTONE was issued in his magazine. I had not previously thought of DROOD as a companion text, but perhaps it is!

Finally, I'm fascinated by a thing (the upper-case Diamond--also "mere carbon") as something like a mute character, or the Moonstone as a fetish attached to multiple kinds of values and powers and debts: familial revenge, colonial theft, monetary worth, spiritual or occult powers, or the meaning of a jewel as gift to a young woman. The sheer attention to the displaying of the Diamond to Rachel and her family on her birthday compares with Betteredge's detailed description of her own body and face!

Looking forward to your thoughts as we embark on this *Moonstone* expedition!
Thanks Julia for the link to online versions of this novel. As I've redesigned this site, I've also done some housekeeping, including the righthand column where I've noted the serials we've read and when we read them, as well as two links to downloadable versions (including THE MOONSTONE--try Project Gutenberg).

For next week: Betteredge's narrative continued, chaps 10-15 (Feb. 1868)

Serially shimmering,

19 July 2010

Little Dorrit, Parts Nineteen/Twenty, II, chaps 30-34 (June 1857)

Dear Serial Readers,

I can hardly believe we've reached the end of this novel we began reading in March (and when I was in London and took the photo of the Thames)! I found this one of the most satisfying, if somewhat predictable (but not entirely so), of Dickens' novels. I'm eager for your reviews! Apologies for the length of this post--and there's so much I'm leaving out!

First, I was so intrigued by Josh's recollection that Shaw thought this novel was more "seditious" (the word Shaw used) than Marx's CAPITAL. Here's a link to an article a few years ago that mentions this: "Why Dickens is so relevant today..." Shaw was a great admirer of Marx, a Socialist, and member of the Fabian Society. What seems to me most startling and radical about Dickens' portrayal of financial speculation, greed, and the pervasive networks of capitalism is the sense of accountability or responsibility from so many different quarters. In this light, Arthur's recriminations over a wreckless investment (even if he did not act with the rank ruthlessness of Merdle), or his resolve to take consequences, suggests a model of shared responsibility; the same with Pancks, expressed through his noble, hilarious, and satisfying rant on Casby's Principle of the Squeeze in Bleeding Heart Yard. In other words, Dickens doesn't rest content with eliminating a few outlier criminal crooks, like Merdle or Rigaud, but shows how they're part of a huge network of characters who profit from others' losses: Casby, Mrs. Clennam, Flintwinch, and many more.

This shared responsibility seems a far cry even from today's response to financial crimes and misdemeanors, and a widespread refusal to see the vast interconnections between speculation, fraud, gains and losses. See Paul Krugman's recent op-ed where he notes the contradiction of the position that argues, on the one hand, that extending aid to the unemployed is unthinkable in this era of national deficits, and on the other hand, that reducing tax cuts for the rich is equally unthinkable.

In this novel, all players and speculators are linked together in the intricate webwork of the plot and the circulations locally and abroad of money, or paper documents about money (such as the iron box with that codicil of the Clennam will, which trades hands, crosses borders, and involves legacies uniting Arthur's real mother and Little Dorrit). The only way truly to leave the vast debtor's prison which is, in a sense, the world of the novel (which opened in a quarantine prison of foreigners in Marseilles), is to realize and accept the implications of one's debts, to see that one is in a debtor's prison in the first place, something perhaps Dorrit Senior, with his delusions of grandeur, never quite managed to do. Or perhaps living in a state of indebtedness is vastly preferable to the alternative. Maybe that's why Marshalsea is a more genuine place in contrast to all the scenes of fraudulent pretenses. And maybe that's why "Little Dorrit" insists on this name rather than "Amy" as one that emphasizes smallness (grating though I find that choice--and doesn't "Amy" come from the French "amie" or 'friend'?)

What did you think of Mrs. Clennam's secret and her justification of her possession of the baby Arthur from his nameless mother and the related suppression of the codicil? So many miserable women in this novel (including Miss Wade, with her brief curtain bow in Calais)! Amy Dorrit is certainly the model held up for women to emulate, and Tattycoram seems to rehabilitate herself in that direction. But I think Pancks and Clennam and even Doyce, are male models of the right ways to speculate and conduct responsible financial and interpersonal relations.

Did you notice how the last chapter opens with "a voice" reading to Arthur in prison, Amy's reading something like a Dickens novel of fancy that encourages imaginative speculation that is soothing and replenishing in contrast to the immediate environment? Is this a panacea, or a way to curtail trading on others' losses?

The whole ending, marriage too, reminded me of the ending of a later Dickens novel, Our Mutual Friend, where Lizzie Hexam nurses Eugene back from the edge of death and marries him. Dickens likes unlikely angels (from lower class or modest origins or inclinations) to rescue his fallen men back to life. There are many such pairings throughout his novels. But what also struck me in this finale, with the long-foreshadowed marriage, was Amy's active role. She is the one who makes a full confession of her love to Arthur, and her desire to share her "fortune" with him--she in effect reverses their roles and so becomes his mother, rather than his child.
On Julia's comparison with Jane Eyre: in Bronte's novel Jane's fortune allows her to approach Rochester on the class ladder and to free herself from financial dependence on him as (former) employer. In this way, Jane can return to Rochester as a closer equal, even one with the power to see and to lead (Amy is similar in this respect). Here, Amy has either lost her fortune (as did her siblings) through bad speculations or destroys it, at least symbolically, through the burning of the codicil, in order to demonstrate that she and Arthur are equals. I see this ending too as part of Dickens' desire for a world of social and even financial equals--rather than the peaks and valleys of the rich upper class and lower working class and destitute.

Finally, I loved the sudden collapse of the House of Clennam. This reminded me of the role of houses, edifices, even bodies in Dickens that collapse or seem on the brink of some disaster (Bleak House, Krook's own spontaneous combustion, the House of Dombey, just to name a few) as richly symbolic.

Yes, this novel grew on me in startling ways, as some of you have mentioned too. I'm glad I'm teaching it this fall! I've also just ordered the 2008 BBC adaptation, which earned much praise.

Now, onto a novel that was serialized in Dickens' magazine All the Year Round: Wilkie Collins' THE MOONSTONE! As I mentioned earlier, we'll read each week the four installments published weekly in the course of a month. I'll list the chapters for our weekly reading, but also the original divisions in case you want to follow the flavor of the serial form, and divide these readings up according to the original weekly installments (which you could read in four daily sittings each week).
For next week: The Moonstone, Prologue through chapter 9 (January 1868: Prologue-chap 3; chaps 4-5; chaps 6-7; chaps 8-9).

Serially Sailing (to India....),

12 July 2010

Little Dorrit, Part Eighteen, II, chaps 27-29 (May. 1857)

Dear Serial Readers,

Julia's comment makes me see some affinities between the world of crime, money, corruption in this novel and in more recent serials like The Wire, and the connections across social class and institutional divides. Yes, the remaining mystery--saved up for the double-number finale (next week!)--is the unraveling of Mrs. Clennam's money-related crimes, and the nature of "the commodity" Blandois had offered to sell to her. I'm also a first-time reader of this novel, so I can only speculate. But I suspect this secret around the Clennam household will go far in explaining many of Arthur's early questions when he first returned to London at the start of the novel. Maybe he and Amy are half-siblings, although I think that's far-fetched! Still, in the spirit of wild speculation! There is a tightening of the scene and action in these last installments too--these three chapters set in Marshalsea, and the last five, at least according to their titles (Closing in, Closed, Going, Going!, Gone)all plot-driven around resolutions.

I was also thinking there are different kinds of avarice at work in this novel. Obviously there's plenty of money-greed. But there's people-greed too (even self-greed), and here Amy Dorrit's overwhelming determination to sacrifice herself to a father/figure (now, Arthur, who continues to call her "my child") is a prime example. But like the range of money mishaps and crimes, there seems to be good and bad forms of this personal avarice. Young John is another stellar example--he knows Amy is in love with Arthur and his struggle to quell his jealousy by telling Arthur suggests the good kind of people-avarice. Young John's gravestone fantasy ending with the cap-fonted "MAGNANIMOUS" humorously announces that such self sacrifice might also desire recognition. I loved that tombstone inscription--in part because it provides another angle on what appears to be Amy's selfless devotion. In other words, this seeming self abnegation might not be so purely selfless after all. With so much giving, there's the pleasure one takes in that form of virtue. Now Mrs. Clennam seems the wrong kind of avaricious person and I suspect we'll learn more about that in the concluding chapters. There are the in-between comic kinds too, like Fanny.

Next week--all the rest! How many of you have truly played by these "Serial Reader" rules and *not* yet finished the novel at this point? It is a different kind of reading experience, isn't it, to move in small and steady increments like this?

Starting the week of July 26: The Moonstone!

Serially speculating to the end,

05 July 2010

Little Dorrit, Part Seventeen, II, chaps 23-26 (April 1857)

Dear Serial Readers,

New design features available, so I did some redecorating. I don't think I'll hold on to the background though--too busy.

This installment did surprise me--I had no idea that Amy and Arthur would be reunited through the Marshalsea romance (and, the poverty-is-better-than-wealth conceit) again! At least, that's how things wind up, with Arthur, and his altered fortunes, weeping for need of Amy's devotion. And of course we know that Amy was most happy tending to her father in prison, and now Arthur, long a father figure in the making for her, is back at the old home, waiting her return. But Arthur going into debtor's prison seems so clearly a kind of martyrdom, his insistence that he take the punishment for ubiquitous financial crimes of others, because his speculations have caused harm to his innocent partner Doyce, even though Arthur was never motivated by self-gain (unlike the likes of Merdle and Barnacles).

So many passages in this section could, with a bit of tweaking, come straight out of our own times--ruthless financial speculation that causes the ruin of many due to the unethical conduct of a few--Wall Street 2008 echoes here, as well as suicide--try Googling "financial suicides" and you'll see what I mean--the rate spiked in late 2008, early 2009. Merdle's suicide in the public Baths surprised me--quite spectacular and gruesome, seemed to echo Marat's death in his tub, meant to look like suicide although the work of Charlotte Corday. Even Merdle's weapon--Fanny's penknife--seems an allusion to Marat's death, and the 1793 painting by Jacques-Louis David, which shows pen and knife and letter (see sidebar).

The extended bit about "Physician" and "Bar" rolls out all the cliches about lawyers as low-life manipulators, but also the physician as "a great reader" and the modern-day confessor, or the one who penetrates into (or is told) the secrets of others. Dickens aligns Physician with "reality" through this ability to gain knowledge beyond people's surfaces. Is Physician in this sense like the narrator of a realist novel?

Finally, Dickens also attributes an "equality of compassion" to Physician, and here I want to return to Kari's comment last week on the subject of compassion and Miss Wade's Narrative. Through Miss Wade's story, Dickens seems to ask why would someone spurn compassion, or refuse to see compassion as anything more than pity and condescension? I see here a kind of struggling with certain profiles of liberalism and social justice--not so much (as Kari puts it), "she made me do it" (that Miss Wade is so miserable that her mistreatment is really her own fault due to that bad temper), but "we gave them every opportunity, and still they persisted in their bad, mad, ways." This is a long way of saying that perhaps Dickens is showing the limits of compassion, or that sometimes compassion is simply not enough. I don't think he provides answers here, but does generate lots of questions about social and psychological behaviors that seem puzzling, reprehensible, or worse. Is Miss Wade taking in Tattycoram motivated by compassion, by revenge, by something else?

Nevertheless, compassion will rule the day in the world of this novel, I bet. Even Young John shows some compassion as he reserves that special room (ie, where William Dorrit once lived) in Marshalsea for Arthur. And we know how Little Dorrit, aka Amy, longs for the old Marshalsea days when she could provide solace and comfort to her father. Now she'll get another chance to return. But is this compassion at its best? There are still many threads (including the secret about Blandois and his mother which Clennam tried to extract from Affery)to be worked through to the end. And Fanny's baby in the works!

Only two more installments (since the final one is a double issue)! We'll finish this novel in two weeks (I'll post the last on this novel on July 19), and then we're launching THE MOONSTONE!
Next week, #18, part ii, chaps 27-29.

Serially speculating,

28 June 2010

Little Dorrit, Part Sixteen, II, chaps 19-22 (Mar. 1857)

Dear Serial Readers,

The part of this installment I found most interesting was Miss Wade's narrative addressed to Arthur. A note in the Penguin edition relays that Dickens' biographer John Forster dismissed this as THE WEAKEST chapter of the novel, and that Dickens "ruefully conceded." Besides the fact that I'd never consider voting for the worse chapter of a Dickens novel in the first place, I think that this "History of a Self Tormentor" does highlight the problem of the woman's voice in Dickens' novels. Some aspects of Miss Wade's story reminded me of Esther Summerson's (in BLEAK HOUSE) description of her ambiguous and shameful origins and her treatment by various guardians and masters and mistresses. And in some ways Miss Wade's narrative works as counterpart to Amy Dorrit's with her low birth in a debtors' prison. But unlike Amy who is selflessly devoted to her father, despite his abuse, disregard, and petty selfishness, Miss Wade has "an unhappy temper" as well as "the misfortune of not being a fool" (which fuels that temper).

Dickens seems to recognize plentiful causes of resentment and anger from his female characters, especially those oppressed by their class position as well as by gender, but his portrayals remain curiously ambivalent, at least to me. And maybe that's the reason Forster finds this such an unsuccessful chapter. Rather than "suffer and be still"--the motto of Victorian angels of true womanhood--Miss Wade and her other Dickensian sisters (Louisa Gradgrind, Edith Dombey, Alice Marwood, Hortense, to name only a few preceding this one) are vengeful and spiteful and proud. Yet there is something to be said for their insistence on their due, on equality rather than bondage (whether in employment or marriage), on treatment without condescension. Miss Wade's early recognition of Harriet aka Tattycoram as a Sister of the Bad Temperment might even imply a kind of fledgling feminist alliance, but Dickens does not bolster this alliance whatsoever. Instead, this "bad temper" of feeling and reacting to injustice (rather than the Amy Dorrit model of endurance) amounts to self torment only. Still, this measly chapter did make me reflect on the problem of women's voices throughout this novel (as well as in other Dickens novels)--from Flora's prolix ramblings to Mr F's Aunt's equally garbled, if telegraphically concise, articulations to Fanny's hot-cold, mercurial temper, to Affery's perplexing visions and Mrs Clennam's evasions. What did you make of this chapter? I was uncertain why Miss Wade would address her story to Arthur in the first place, except to set him straight about Gowan. Like Amy, Arthur is the recipient of many revelations, just as he is seeking some disclosure about Blandois and his mother.

As for the death of the Dorrit brothers, I can only account for this double death by thinking they were two parts of a whole--the proud, pompous, and self-centered William balanced by the attentive, sympathetic, kindly Frederick. I can only imagine too that their double deaths liberate Amy from her continued servitude (with her happy temper) to these men, as surely she would've remained devoted to her uncle if he had survived her father. Not to mention the added oppressions by a new stepmother in the form of Mrs. General. At least she's spared that disaster by her father's timely death! Now maybe she's free to shift her filial devotion to someone else, along the lines of the new father figure of Arthur Clennam.

I was also intrigued by more wandering and traveling out of England in this installment--Miss Wade as another wanderer who has traveled in Marseilles, London, Venice, Calais.

After next week (chaps 23-26 in part II), we have only two more installments, since the last (#19=20) is a double one. So get your MOONSTONE copy lined up soon!

Serially stirred up,

20 June 2010

Little Dorrit, Part Fifteen, II, chaps 15-18 (Feb. 1857)

Dear Serial Readers,

Fanny's marriage is no surprise, nor is her Pa's (if only you could read my lips!) caution to Amy that marriage is a "responsibility imposed on you by your position." But stay tuned. Amy won't succumb to this marriage of convenience for wealth and stature.

What did surprise me in this installment is the attention to Dorrit's discomfort and curiosity. He's proud, proud, proud, we know, but he also bristles under the scrutiny of the Chief Butler, even assuming that this servant has some knowledge of the Marshalsea days. When Flora approaches him about the missing Blandois/Rigaud, he shows curiosity about this foreigner he remembers him from the Gowans in Venice. Dorrit's visit to the Clennams forces him from the tony Mayfair district to the "uglier" sections of London--a near-return to the Marshalsea vicinity (although across the river). His interview of Mrs. Clennam exhibits unusual questions from him here--although why he wants to know about Blandois isn't clear to me. But perhaps we'll see more plot strand knitted together. What is the mystery behind Blandois and the Clennam family, Blandois and Miss Wade?

Dorrit also relents a bit in his arrogant pride when Young John Chivery visits, although he cautions Young John not to mention their conversation. What did you make of the description of Dorrit's journey back to Rome, as an escape expedition from England and from his past, but also as more opportunity for "castle-building"? The moral message of material affluence is clear here and prevalent in many Dickens novels. But I suspect Dorrit's fanciful castle will crumble very soon. But how?

Before I forget, for you Facebookers, there is actually a "Mr F's Aunt" page on Facebook. I joined. For next week, part ii, chaps 19-22 ("Who Passes By...").

Yours in Serial Secrets,

14 June 2010

Little Dorrit, Part Fourteen, II, chaps 12-14 (Jan. 1857)

Dear Serial Readers,

I'd like to start with Dickens's extended trope of the epidemic, that "moral infection" that corrupts British society (both at home and overseas), from Bleeding Heart Yard and the Circumlocution Office to "Britons" in Rome (the black Thames and the yellow Tiber). This disease concerns financial speculation, the widespread practice of investing in a paper economy where value is removed from the objects (bills) that stand in for real worth. In the conversation between Arthur and Pancks, his "Eastern pipe" is a steady prop, a reminder of British international speculation and the traces of imperial investments threaded through the novel.

This is what I find so intriguing in many of Dickens' novels--he seems to caution his readers against ruthless, unchecked, self-serving financial speculation at the same time that he's clearly a proponent of literary speculation. By this kind of speculation, I mean the wonder of reading, the play of conjecturing about outcomes without knowing for certain. Even realism might be like financial speculation in a paper economy: after all, realist novels pose analogies between fictional and real worlds, one standing in for the other, but crucially different. Both Arthur and Amy are good speculators, characters who wonder at the world, who are curious about others, but are also risk-aversive.

In this installment, Fanny seems a dangerous speculator in her engagement to Sparkler: she seems to know he's a bad penny along with his Merdles connections, but she's determined to take "her own imperious self-willed step" into the marriage. Amy, however, does not adhere to speculations of this sort, since she tells her sister that poverty is better than marriage without love. This makes me think that Amy will either end up with Arthur or alone. Fanny also identifies Mrs. General as a kindred speculator, and seems to think she'll be the next Mrs. Dorrit. And here Fanny chooses her poison, Mrs. Merdle rather than Mrs G as mother-in-law, or the position of wife rather than daughter. Marriage is the kind of speculation women are usually able to pursue in Dickens' universe.

Further speculations on Serial Readers: we have five installments left of Dorrit, which will bring us to late July. Our next serial novel will be Wilkie Collins' THE MOONSTONE, first serialized in Dickens's magazine ALL THE YEAR ROUND in weekly installments in 1868. Once again, I'd like to speed up this slow reading schedule and suggest that we read each week the four weekly installments published by Dickens' magazine each month. This means we'd take eight weeks to read THE MOONSTONE instead of eight months. The reading each week will be longer than usual, probably closer to 70-80 pp rather than 40+pp. With some advance notice, I thought this might be manageable. Let me know what you think of this plan!

Serially speculating,

08 June 2010

Little Dorrit, Part Thirteen, II, chaps 8-11 (Dec. 1856)

Dear Serial Readers,

As always, your comments are terrific! I definitely see Julia's point about the Gothic cast to Dickens' rendition of places as a way to align and blur the London prison and the Continental European landscapes. Amy's letter to Arthur at the close of this installment makes a related point as her "travelling mind" links the shadows cast in old Italian cities (specifically here, the shadow cast by the tower of Pisa) with shadows on the walls in Marshalsea. All her observations of the wonders of Italy seem to lead back to life before the "change in our fortunes" when she had a sense of purpose--perhaps part of the "homesickness" she confesses to Arthur in this letter, though I suspect he is very much the object of that homesickness.

It occurs to me that Amy is struggling to do what Arthur has also resolved to do--to repress or cast overboard, down the river, an unrequited love by dedicating herself selflessly (without hope of mutuality) to Arthur. It seems possible that Arthur and Amy will end up together in this story, and less likely that Pet/Minnie will unite with Arthur. Not that I think her marriage with Gowan will last, or that he will last (somehow I suspect he's headed for a full demise, maybe foreshadowed by Blandois's treatment of their dog), but now that she has a son, I can't imagine that she can remarry another man. Perhaps we'll have the new domestic triangle at the end of the novel--Arthur, Amy, and Minnie---with son. It seems many mid-Victorian narratives end this way. I'm thinking here of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh--which had just been published when Dickens was writing these installments and is full of Italian scenery. The Dorrits and Gowans in Italy recall the many expats, artists and writers too, British and American, in Florence in the 1850s. I wonder if Dickens ran an article on the subject in Household Words?

Also a major Gothic motif, secrets flood the chapter on the Clennam household where Blandois appears, after his mysterious encounter with Miss Wade and Tattycoram. Through Arthur, we're seeing so many puzzling pieces, still to be fit together--if all of them can be. What is Blandois's relationship to the Clennams and to Flintwinch? Why does Miss Wade have dealings with him? What are the deeper secrets that haunt the Clennam family? "What is going on here?" as Arthur puts it to Affery. Blandois seems like a stock villain figure, curling moustache and all--from stage melodrama--what is he doing here?

I noticed too that this number is set almost entirely in London, just as the twelfth installment is in Italy, with Little D's letter as a link between the two places. Her letter reminds me too of Esther Summerson's narration in Bleak House--the modest, self-effacing feminine voice that jars with its sharp, acute perceptions of other people and circumstances. And just as John Jarndyce renames Esther with all kinds of nicknames, so has Arthur names Amy "Little Dorrit" as she reminds him (and us) in this letter. What do you make of that?

Finally, Serial Readers just had its second year birthday! I posted initially on this forum on June 2, 2008 on the first installment of Dombey and Son. Happy Birthday, Serial Readers, and may the third year be filled with more slow reading pleasures!

Next week, II, chaps 12-14 (for Jan. 1857)

Serially in secrets,

31 May 2010

Little Dorrit, Part Twelve, II, chaps 5-7 (Nov. 1856)

Dear Serial Readers,

That paragon former of surfaces, Mrs. General, aka the governess who is not to be named as such, cautions Amy not to say the "vulgar" word "Father," but to use "Papa" instead. Then follows a string of acceptable "p" words, part of her varnishing the surface of her pupil into a suitably well-polished appearance. "Prunes and Prism" becomes the delightful code for social varnish. What I loved here is Dickens' attention to the surface of language, to the mere spectacle of sounds that go together--whether Papa, potatoes, poultry, or prunes and prisms--quite apart from meaning. A language writer, Dickens, before the day! I also liked the aural affinity between "prism" and "prison," a key theme of the narrative. Amy Dorrit is the antithesis to the varnishing principle (a precursor to the Veneerings of Our Mutual Friend), here with her aversion to surface shaping and her ability to see beyond surface displays.

The other passage in this installment that jumped out was in the last chapter ("Mostly, Prunes and Prism") where Little D. speculates on the similarities between expats abroad and prisoners in Marshalsea--how similar both ways of living seem to be, with a "general unfitness for getting on at home." This made me think about how often Dickens' novels highlight the discomforts of home life or the elusiveness of home. Perhaps, as Tolstoy's famous first sentence of Anna Karenina suggests, that's the stuff of fiction, or the nineteenth-century novel at any rate. But this novel is especially insistent on the displaced persons experience, the travelers in quarantine in Marseilles, the Marshalsea prisoners, and now the expats in Geneva, Venice, and Rome. And then people, like Amy and like Arthur, who don't "fit" with the family they're in. Lots of wandering, searching, or is this also fleeing?

That "Papa" Dorrit (as Mrs. G insists) is "concerned" about Amy might suggest some finer qualities to his character, but this concern seems more to do with his discomfort that she is not adapting to the new, elevated station of the Dorrits and that her not fitting in could embarrass him. Dickens also seems fascinated with inept fathers, whether out-and-out cruel or just very self-centered and short-sighted or otherwise impaired. This pair of the selfish and limited father and the deserving, dutiful (sometimes to a fault), and overlooked or rebuked daughter reminds me of the pair from Dickens' most immediately previous novel Hard Times: Gradgrind and Louisa. But there are legions of similar pairs, including Dombey and Florence or, much later, Gaffer Hexam and Lizzie, or Jenny Wren and her father. There is of course the abused or neglected or unappreciated son too, and this reminds me that Arthur has yet to appear in these chapters abroad. But we know Amy has written to him, so perhaps soon there will be news.

Next week, chaps 8-11 (4 chaps).

Serially sauntering,

27 May 2010

Little Dorrit, Part Eleven, II, chaps 1-4 (Oct. 1856)

Dear Serial Readers,

To carry on from Julia's post (welcome back, Julia!), yes, Amy Dorrit's unconscious departure from Marshalsea parallels her birth there. And in this next installment, she struggles with the 'unreality' of her new life of wealth and elevated station, in contrast to the 'real' life of London poverty and prison, and an active life of work in contrast to doing nothing but watching (which has value of its own). Her experience of new-found wealth is all about loss and estrangement, from her father explicitly (but also from beloved others left behind)now that she can provide no service of comfort or material support to him.

The first chapter of this section parallels the opening of the novel, both outside England and both about three groups of travelers who intersect at a convent rather than a prison or holding cell for foreigners in quarantine. Of course our favorite villain with the moustache is here too, as in the opening installment. He's almost a leitmotif, as he bounces in and out of view, but I suspect there will be more to Rigaud as we move on.

While I found the opening chapter disorienting, which seems perfect in a way, much like Little D in her new position in life, out of Marshalsea, and London, and England. I loved the way the last chapter, Amy's letter, fills in the narrative gaps of that opening chapter too--at least some of them. Why the Dorrits are a large traveling ensemble, rather than installed in some estate in England, is unclear, but of course this movement is something Father Dorrit couldn't do before, and now they have the disposable wealth to travel in style. Amy's uncle seems the only one in the family group with an inkling of genuine affection and concern for Amy. I also noticed the attention to geographical borders once again, as in the opening--this time between Switzerland and France and Italy--and then the lovely fairytale unreality of Venice, for Amy, who travels on her own about this watery city. Actually, I was reminded of Lucy Snowe at one point--"the little figure of the English girl who was always alone"--and realize that Villette had been published recently before this novel was underway.

The meeting between Amy and Pet seems familiar Dickens territory: the modest "little" heroine awed by the more majestic "beautiful" heroine--Lizzie meeting Bella in Our Mutual Friend, or Esther meeting Lady Dedlock in Bleak House. I still think Dickens is hinting at a future romantic union between Arthur and Amy, but I'm not sure if Pet has to die first, or how Arthur will resolve his unrequited love there.

Next week, II, chapters 5-7 (3).

Serially suspended,

18 May 2010

Little Dorrit, Part Ten, chaps 33-36 (Sept. 1856)

Dear Serial Readers,

Halfway point, and now we see the binary plot: poverty, first half, riches, second half. I suspect all won't be so rosy with the riches, given the shoals of Barnacles out in the great ocean of London, given the many signs of William Dorrit's haughtiness.

Speaking of the Barnacles, who attend Pet's wedding in shoals, I realized that Darwin was publishing about barnacles just a year or two before Dickens wrote this. My friend Rebecca Stott has written a beautiful book, Darwin and the Barnacle, on Darwin's fascinating and protracted studies of these little sea creatures with a propensity to attach themselves everywhere possible and with the most bizarre shapes and sexual parts. I think this Slow Reading pace does make lots of space for speculating. Darwin certainly was a master of Slow Reading, a speculator of nature and natural histories. Pancks in this novel also speculates (the word "speculation" occurs early in chap 35) about the Dorrits of Dorchester connection--his researching here called "moleing"--"this new verb." Pancks' description of his process of moleing does sound similar to Darwin's painstaking work on barnacles over decades and on bringing to light his great discovery of descent via natural selection: "he had alternated from sudden lights and hopes to sudden darkness and no hopes, and back again, and back again." "Speculation" of course has a different meaning in relation to finance, and the word also appears in this chapter around the Ruggs family. By the way, Rebecca is currently writing a book, "Speculators," about evolutionary theories before Darwin!

But onto the grand finale of this number, and this first half of the novel: the release of the Dorrits from Marshalsea, a parade of pomp and circumstance. There are too many hints that wealth will not make Dorrit a better man, that his pride, arrogance, egoism will swell out of proportion in the midst of his new affluence. Dickens has many tales of men spoiled and perverted by wealth--Dombey before Dorrit (in order of publication). And Amy? What does her fainting that prevents her from changing that "ugly old shabby dress" mean? Rather than parading with the family through the prison gates, she's carried out by Arthur. She of all the Dorrits shows some ambivalence about this change of fortune.

All the editions I've looked at begin again with chapter one for the second part of the novel, so I'll use that too. But in case you have sequential chapters, I'll also indicate the number of chapters to read for the upcoming installment.

Next week: II, chaps 1-4 (4).

Serially speculating,

10 May 2010

Little Dorrit, Part Nine, chaps 30-32 (August 1856)

Dear Serial Readers,

I invite someone to skip (as in DNR, Do Not Read) an installment, and then comment on your reading experience of the next. I know from reading letters Victorian readers sent to newspapers, that sometimes people did skip installments, sometimes more than one or two or three, and then picked up the serial later on (like watching serial dramas on TV). With Dickens especially, perhaps there's something satisfying about each number, quite apart from the diligent reader who is always trying to keep all the plot lines and characters, major and minor, in order. But does that seem outrageous, this suggestion, for discontinuous reading? Let us know if you try the experiment!

Kari mentioned the way the narrative seems to set up expectations and then disappoint, or turn in an entirely different direction. We're prompted toward constant speculations, like hers, about what might happen--interesting idea that Tattycoram and Miss Wade may be victims of the Clennams' past transgressions. But with this #9 installment we're promised via Plancks at the end of chap 32 (and the installment) some kind of resolution--SOON. What is his discovery and what will he "break" to Little D? I would guess that the FATHER of the Marshalsea is about to be released, and then we'll get to see what happens to him and his "little" daughter when they experience this new freedom of mobility. Rigaud is a cosmopolitan man "of no country," he tells us (as Blandois), from "half a dozen countries." And yet his character is not a model we're encouraged to adopt.

This number also plays up Arthur as a limited reader--he just cannot fathom that Amy is in love with him. I'm amused by the blindness given his emotional contortions about even entertaining romantic notions toward Pet who is half his number of years (something he says to LD). Okay, so we get the "Princess" tale about the "little" woman's secret (as if "little" and Amy's nickname weren't enough), and we see that Arthur's blindness is contrasted by Maggy's insight here. Still, Arthur remains clueless. But, like Kari's precaution, I wonder if this is a reading lesson for us too, that we may think we know where this novel is headed, we may think we see clearly, but we'll learn differently.

To me, one of the most remarkable passages in this installment is the metaleptic moment, where the future breaks into the perpetual present of the narrator's storytelling as if it is in the past ("metalepsis" as collision of (a) time within the story and (b) the time of the narration of that story). This is after Amy delivers a string of "no"s when Arthur suggests maybe one day she will have a different interest for her heart than her father. "The time came when he remembered it well, long afterwards, within those prison walls; within that very room." The verb tense--"the time came"--makes this a confusing comment--since that past tense is actually a future point. But this odd remark by the narrator does portend the falling of the scales of misreading (or confusion) from Arthur's eyes. Still, we don't know what that illumination on his part will mean.

As if the curious verb tense isn't enough to alert us to the emphasis on temporalities in this novel, the segment begins (chap 30) with Rigaud's interest in Mr Clennam's watch, a family heirloom with "DNF" engraved on it as a motto for not a person's initials, but for the motto DO NOT FORGET. But how can we help but forget, given all the myriad details and all the passage of time that erodes memory? Yes, this odd engraving on the watch is linked to the "secrets in all families" (or here, the Clennams), but I also took this as part of the long reading lesson of the narrative itself--here, the warning not to forget what we've read, when perhaps some forgetting, especially if we're misreading or led astray in our reading (like Arthur's reading of Amy), might be more helpful than remembering.

Next time, chaps 33-36.

Serially sober,

04 May 2010

Little Dorrit, Part Eight, chaps 26-29 (July 1856)

Dear Serial Readers,

This week, ReaderAnn has generously written a post to launch our conversation. I'll have the opportunity now to offer a comment later this week! Thank you, ReaderAnn!
For next week, chapters 30-32. --Serial Susan

For some reason, the moral and philosophical tone of the first paragraph of this installment immediately seemed such different territory from the fortune tellers and conspirators of the previous installment that I felt as if we'd been on a detour and now have returned to Dickens. Arthur's moral tug of war plays throughout the chapter, first in his conversation with Doyce, who wants A.'s company in disparaging Gowan (how tempting!). All the while, though, A. advocates for fairness and generosity over judgment. What do you make of the many references to "nobody" and "Nobody" and "somebody"? It all started in Chapter 16, when he made the "resolution" not to fall in love with Pet. Who is Nobody? Somebody?--Anyone?

No rest for the weary, A. is up against it again in his encounter with Gowan, and then he's blindsided by the "dreaded" invitation to meet G.'s mother. Taxing as the day was for poor A., I appreciate his enduing it for what was rendered in narrative: Mrs G. "who must have had something real about her, or she could not have existed, but it was not her hair or her teeth or her figure or her complexion...." Then there was the "Refrigerator" who had "iced several European courts in his time," and the talk of Barnacles and Stiltstalkings. All great fun and the perfect set up for what Mrs G. really wanted to talk with A. about--that plebeian, Miss Mickles/Miggles, Pet.

Dickens has been letting Pancks lurk in the shadows, with notebook and without purpose, until now. In Chapter 27, it seems clear that Pancks will be the one who at last "brings to light" why A.'s mother took in Little D.

I was very happy to meet up with Miss Wade and Tattycoram again. Tattycoram's "if only I'd had a mother" woes remind me of Gaskell's Cynthia, but never mind. How will Miss Wade and Tatty play in how things develop?

In Chapter 28, what seemed A.'s mere rebound musings about falling in love with Pet suddenly appear to have been more serious. Doesn't his attitude seem a bit patronizing when he spots Pet's error in thinking that one day her father and Mr G. will fully appreciate one another? Or is his a fair perspective, given the difference in age and experience?

Doubles come up again--Pet's dead twin, who, Mr Meagles observes, grew as Pet grew and changed as she changed. He continues, "I feel tonight, my dear fellow [Arthur], as if you had loved my dead child very tenderly, and had lost her when she was like what Pet is now." What? Then, in the Chapter, "Nobody's Disappearance," it's back to the river of Chapter 16, where and when Nobody first appeared. Poor Arthur tosses the roses, "pale and unreal in the moonlight," that Pet had given him, and they "floated away upon the river." Is he "over" Pet? If A. is not Nobody, who is he? Will this river flow through the entire novel? Will it return Pet to A.?


25 April 2010

Little Dorrit, Part Seven, chaps 23-25 (June 1856)

Dear Serial Readers,

I am thinking of changing this enterprise from "Serial Readers" to "Slow Readers." I would love to hear your thoughts on what this slow reading is like for you, how it differs from other ways of reading Dickens or reading novels or any kind of immersion reading that you enjoy. Does reading installments on the once-a-week plan pose problems, does it enhance suspense or confusion or enjoyment or frustration? Does reading this way give you an awareness of part-ness, of the craft of Dickens's serializing each number, each set of chapters, as an integral text, like the episode of a television serial? Please reply even if you're not caught up or reading along with this program these days!

As for Part Seven of Little Dorrit, I enjoyed the mix of scenes and the play with different kinds of secrets, from the larger mystery behind Dorrit's imprisonment and the connection with the Clennams, to "the Planck mysteries." What is Planck's fortune-telling about? Is he really on a mission to get Little D to accept John Chivery, or is this fortune telling about something else? His watching Little D made me think of how many eyes are upon this needlewoman, from Arthur to the narrator. But what would be Planck's motivation to facilitate her marriage to John Chivery? Then there's Little D's own secret, which she hints at in the story of the Princess and the "little tiny woman" and the "Shadow of someone" she holds onto in secret. I took Little D's fairy tale to be about her own secret love of Arthur Clennam. Plancks's fortune telling also seems a kind of foreshadowing with the hint that he will have some role, if behind the scenes, in Little's future.

I confess I enjoy Flora and Mr F's Aunt (although I take Kari's point about the caricature of women here)! Such an interesting pair whose words underscore the challenges of verbal communication: Flora with her lack of commas and full-stops (her "loquacity" and "scattered words" as a "loose talker") and Mr F's Aunt whose relative terseness still produces words that are difficult to comprehend--as if each suffers from different kinds of aphasia--Flora can produce only metonymic strings and streams of words, or untamed syntax of too much context, while MFA (Mr F's Aunt) economic sentences that have no evident relationship to her verbal environment or the speech acts of others around her. Perhaps Dickens is highlighting different problems of styling narrative threads in a serial, multiplot novel.

Finally, I was struck by the passage on foreigners following Cavelletto's treatment at the factory and Bleeding Heart Yard. Since Dickens wrote this after Gaskell's NORTH AND SOUTH, with its portrayal of poor Irish workers breaking the factory workers' strike, I wondered if Dickens was widening this canvas of refugees in England by including an Italian who has come from France? The passage (in chap 25) seems to assail English chauvinism and builds sympathy for "the foreigner" through the sarcastic treatment of the "Bleeding Hearts": "they had a notion that it was a sort of Divine visitation upon a foreigner that he was not an Englishman, and that all kinds of calamities happened to his country because it did things that the England did not...." Given that Dickens did not always handle foreigners or foreign places (I'm thinking of Mrs Jellyby's philanthropic work in BLEAK HOUSE) with particular care, this criticism of English ethnocentricity (along with the foolish comments characters like Flora make about China) stood out for me.

Next week, chapters 26-29. Please do chime in, even if you're not at this point in the novel--as my opening questions encourage!

Serially sailing,

19 April 2010

Little Dorrit, Part Six, chaps 19-22 (May 1856)

Dear Serial Readers,

Kari's questions first: the note in your edition about a chapter missing in the MS probably refers to the volume edition which appeared AFTER the original part number serial publication of this novel. Most contemporary book editions of Dickens are based on what is deemed the most recent authorized version of his novels, but there are increasingly more editions that do use the original serial text. The quality and quantity of changes between Dickens' editions (from original serial to later volume) most likely varied, but with few exceptions these changes were very minor. So I'm confident that all the chapters from part five were in the original part issue number, although I'd have to confirm this by looking directly at that initial print issue (which I can do, since Wisconsin's Special Collections has a copy).

And we know that Dickens did continue writing his novels AS they were being published in the installments--typically he was two months ahead, so that when PART SIX of Dorrit appeared, he was likely finishing PART EIGHT. And we know that he read the reviews that appeared in the press of each part issue number, and that at least with one of his novels (OUR MUTUAL FRIEND) he actually changed his plans in response to reader reactions to the earlier installments. I like to think of consuming these novels over even increments of time as "slow reading," but we might also say that Dickens followed a "slow writing" pattern that followed closely on the schedule of his monthly (in the case of eight of his novels) segments of three or four chapters.

Onto Part Six: the social satire of the Merdles is familiar Dickens fare, and puts me in mind of his Veneerings, of his last completed novel, OUR MUTUAL FRIEND. I do find intriguing how he remakes London geography a bit differently in each novel--this one (like OUR MUTUAL FRIEND, but also different) aligns social class position with neighborhood, so in this segment we have Harley Street, Cavendish Square with the likes of the Merdles, in great contrast to the Marshalsea Southwark area to the south and east, or the Clennam household, or even the Meagles on the suburban outskirts. These areas of the city almost figure as characters in themselves, so powerfully particular is Dickens' language for each of them. Harley Street of the Merdles names characters by their function or profession and with the articles dropped off: Treasury, Bar, Admirality, Bishop, Society. Then there's "the bosom" for the Mrs.--here a body part as synecdoche (rather than a profession or public position). What did you make of the bracelet bribery story concerning Mrs M (and her son Sparkler) and Fanny Dorrit? All the bit about daughters, "classical" and faithful or otherwise (like Amy in contrast to Fanny) reminds me of Lear and his daughters--a modern equivalent. We expect Little Dorrit to be richly rewarded at the end--but we'll see.

There is the pointed contrast between the marriage proposals received by the two Dorrit sisters: Sparkler's mother bribes Fanny to comply with her wishes that this marriage not take place, while John Chivery's mother appeals to Arthur Clennam to urge Amy (although "Little" seems the preferred name) to accept--perhaps another instance where the poorer people have hearts superior to their social superiors. What do you think of Arthur's "fancy" about "the hopeless unattainable distance" (a fancy repeated at the end of the installment)? Is this his hope that Amy/Little will marry him someday? I think this fledgling fancy would fit with Dickens's obsession with dutiful daughters as objects of fetishized attention. There are so many Dickens heroines who are devoted to unworthy fathers (Florence Dombey, Louisa Gradgrind, Lizzie Hexam, Jenny Wren as four, the first two from novels that appeared before this current one). Big Dorrit (or the Father of the Marshalsea) is an ambivalent one in this instance--he is kind, but so very weak. Arthur Clennam seems to regard Little as the daughter of his philanthropic (or guilt-by-association) urges, or "his poor child." So perhaps he offers a substitute for the father who would marry the devoted daughter? Then again, the family positions are jumbled up too: Little is Maggy's "Little Mother," and certainly acts as if the mother of her father. Then the bit where she tells Arthur on the bridge that she must go home to her prison, that the prison is her "home"--how domesticity incarcerates women is a favorite theme of many Victorian novels too.

Next week, part seven, chapters 23-25.

Serially yours,

13 April 2010

Little Dorrit, Part Five, chaps 15-18 (April 1856)

Dear Serial Readers,

I didn't especially enjoy this installment, much like a so-so episode of "Mad Men" or something equivalent in serial viewing. I suppose Mrs. Flintwinch's second "dream" confirms there's some mystery afoot between Mr. F. and Mrs. C., but then again, we already knew that. "Time shall show us," as the narrator intones, but that time hasn't come about, yet. Is Mrs. F's dreaming supposed to pose as an allegory for reading the novel, where there's some mixing up, some secret we can only partially decipher at this point? Did you think some crucial tidbit was revealed, something my sloppy reading missed?

About Arthur's long ramble out of London--again, sort of like the larger meandering narrative that moves in and out of London, in and out of England, in and out of a core preoccupation with the back story of Clennams and Dorrits. Arthur Clennam seems to have (or be insinuated in)multiple romantic attachments, whether in the past to Flora, or in his uneasily restrained fantasies about Pet, or through his narrative obsession with Amy Dorrit. I can't see the connection with Pet/Minnie, the age difference notwithstanding (and surely not so unusual in Victorian tales). Little Dorrit's refusal of John Chivery, who seems a nice enough son-of-a-turnkey, does fortify her character, her devotion to her father's fragile station in life. I can only imagine her revising her repudiation of marriage (or her desire for aloneness) once her father is reclaimed in some way, and surely Arthur is pursuing this salvation. Is his wobbly attraction to Pet a way to show he has choices as a consumer in the marriage market? or that his choices too are limited by circumstances beyond his control?

Another element in my frustration with this number has to do with teasing (by mere mention in one case and slight appearance in the other) about Tattycoram and Miss Wade. I would like to see more of their particular discontents, more of their stories, but that desire was serially deferred! Maybe next time--chapters 19-22.

Serially stalled,

06 April 2010

Little Dorrit, Part Four, chaps 12-14 (March 1856)

Dear Serial Readers,

I did want to provide some London touring here, and it happens that just last Friday and Saturday I was walking around areas mentioned in this section of the novel: Southwark (just behind today's Tate Modern) and St George's Church, Borough Street (both near today's Imperial War Museum). You'll see here a photo I took from a bridge over the Thames looking toward the Waterloo Bridge; Blackfriars Bridge is just beyond Waterloo Bridge to the east.

This installment introduces a few new characters, including the Plornishes, Mr Casby and Flora Finching. I love how Dickens frequently endows his characters with verbal traits, and that's especially true with this cast--from Mrs. Plornish's 'not to deceive you' and Plornish's 'no ill-conwenience' to Flora's syntax of commas without full-stops and Mr. F's Aunt's non-sequiturs. Nearly every character seems to have linguistic features that even overshadow facial ones. Flora's circumlocutionary habit mirrors in this small way the Circumlocution Office, and Mr. F's Aunt (her name notwithstanding) another instance of perplexity and verbal style.

I was also struck by Dickens's accentuating not just places but temporalities, something that has particular significance in a serial novel released across time. Flora's name emphasizes the ephemerality of youth (along with the vagaries of erotic attraction and love). But for all her silliness and overgrown state (in contrast to Arthur's memory of her as a "lily"--now transformed into a 'peony'--), I was impressed that Flora *knows* she speaks nonsense ("I am sure I don't know what I am saying")and she *knows* that aging is a liability for women, but not so for men. Some interesting lines too about the Present, the Past, the Future (along with Dickens's agile and varied use of verb tenses, something we noticed with DOMBEY AND SON). Still, for my own personal reasons, I would hope for a finer character named "Flora"!

The final chapter of this number, "Little Dorrit's Party," returns to the notion, raised by earlier comments here, of human resourcefulness under bleak conditions of poverty and incarceration. After all, Amy Dorrit's "party" consists of the stars shining in the night sky when she and Maggy are shut out of their home in Marshalsea Prison. This point also seems to accord with the value Dickens places on Fancy in HARD TIMES, his previous novel. What did you make of the prostitute who speaks to Little D. in the London streets at night? I was also intrigued by the narrative attention to point of view--at least the gesture of giving this "history" to "Little Dorrit's eyes"--although she is still caught within the gaze of Arthur Clennam (and the narrator's and the reader's) who follows her from his room in Covent Garden. By the way, do you think that's Cavelletto who has been injured by the Mail collision? Why else would we get this London street mishap? The networking web of Dickens's multiplotting continues....

Next week, chapters 15-18!

Serially yours,

28 March 2010

Little Dorrit Part Three, chaps 9-11 (Feb. 1856)

Dear Serial Readers,

Dickens's Circumlocution Office dovetails so wonderfully with his rendering of institutional misery and mismanagement. Of course, I couldn't help but think of the Court of Chancery from his previous serial novel BLEAK HOUSE. How timely still is the "science" of government satire on "how not to do it." I wonder too if "circumlocution" especially suits Dickens' narrative style here--both the circuitously (at best) related variety of chapters within an installment and more broadly his serial structure where plot lines and characters move in and out of focus. Is there a center, or just meandering to various places?

I was surprised too that this installment concludes with the chapter out of London, out of England, as the Marseilles prisoners journey northward in France, toward Paris and England. This moving back and forth between London and out of England really intrigues me in this circumlocutionary narrative! Also in this number Clennam describes himself as a "stranger in England"--so the foreign and strange are accentuated both in this center character (if there is a center, which seems both Clennam and A. Dorrit) and in the various ex-centric movements away from Dorrits and Clennams and England altogether. Don't know what to make of the brief appearances of Meagles (and his Circumlocution office post) and the disguised convicted Rigaud and the Italian Cavalletto, who flees from the French inn from his former prisonmate.

Maggy reminds me of Dickensian disabilities--how Dickens sometimes uses disabled characters to showcase virtue (either via the character or someone--like Amy Dorrit--who shows compassion) or some moral perversion. I was also interested in Doyce, the wronged inventor with patents problems--

Next time, chapters 12-14.

Serially sailing,

22 March 2010

Little Dorrit Part Two, chaps 5-8 (Jan. 1856)

Dear Serial Readers,

Thanks for all those comments! I will keep mine short because I am here to do research of a different sort. Like Josh, I was struck by the paratactic (as in parataxis) style of the first installment where there are different scenes and casts of characters that don't seem linked together at all--except only loosely by the theme of imprisonment. As a reading act of faith to persevere--perhaps that depends on being an experienced reader of Dickens, as Julia suggests (although, strictly serially speaking, someone reading the first installments of DORRIT in late 1855-early 56 wouldn't know the MUTUAL characters). But yes, Dickens is a very particular kind of reading experience, as all of you mention in different ways. This novel seems to intensify what it means to try to catch your bearings in a vast fictional landscape. I am so struck by the opening chapters set on foreign soil, rather than London or the English countryside. Will we exit England again in this novel?

This second installment provides some back story about the "little" needlewoman Amy Dorrit (although her first name appears very rarely)--the Child of the Marshalsea prison. Arthur's suspicion seems to drive his curiosity (and ours) about her--and I'm interested to see how this "secret" wrongdoing--the "fall" behind the debtor Dorrit in prison--emerges. Is one of the Dorrit children fathered by Mr. Clennam? Why would Mrs. Clennam want to make amends by hiring the Child of the Marshalsea? I was also intrigued by the rather detailed portrait of Mrs. Dorrit in labour--in confinement while in confinement!

I'm sure you all know that when Dickens was 12, his father was imprisoned for 3 months for debt, and young Charles had to suspend his schooling to work in a factory. So Dickens's lavish attention to the social problem of the imprisonment of debtors has this strong autobiographical keynote. Odd too that despite the horrors of the place and the idea of a child born there and raised there, bits of humor and humanity shine through the bleakness.

Next week, number three, chapters 9-11.

Serially yours,

15 March 2010

Little Dorrit Part One, chaps 1-4 (Dec. 1855)

Dear Serial Readers,

Ah, but it's nice to be in the familiar realm of a Dickens serial once again, after the detours of the short fiction of Collins and Gaskell (thanks, Julia, for those illuminating comments about Gaskell's linked stories). And yet this first installment is so disorienting--with the theme of travelers subject to imprisonment and quarantine in this border crossing into Dickens' shadowy world. I can't recall another Dickens novel with such an engrossing yet perturbing opening! The first chapter seems the stuff of melodrama and penny numbers (cheap crime fiction) with this tale of Rigaud (who calls himself "a citizen of the world"--a modern cosmopolitan unanchored to any place) imprisoned for murdering his wife whom he claims committed suicide (if accidentally) in her fury. She, in his account, sounds like a familiar Dickens familiar--the angry, vengeful woman--shades of Hortense from his previous serial. But this crime is ambiguous, based on Rigaud's account which is muddy enough.

Then we move to quarantine quarters in Marseille where assorted English characters are halted en route, including two more angy females--Tattycoram and Miss Wade. The travails of travel certainly don't encourage transnational journeys, but there is also so much emphasis on not moving, on the wretchedness of being indoors (or outdoors for that matter) in the last chapters in London. Arthur Clennam's story is the one anchor that keeps this early narrative afloat--and a familiar type too, the unhappy child of abusive, cruel parents.

Lots of doubles too, just to insure our disorienting plunge into this Dickensian world: Pet's dead sister, Mrs. Flintwich's dream where she sees her husband in stereo, both asleep and awake, and the odd doubling of the dream--is it hers, or Mr. F's? The installment ends with this unsettling vision where the outside and inside of dream, of visionary experience, is difficult to access. Is this the climate of Dickens's fictional world, one that blurs dreams and reality? And finally the mysterious girl in the shadows, Little Dorrit. Who is she? To be continued.....

I'm writing from London now, although not the hallucinatory and stifling quarters of the Clennam Cheapside home, but from the British Library, Euston Road. I'm hoping to be able to take some photos of locales in the novel and upload them.

Next week, chapters 5-8.

Serially stimulated,

06 March 2010

The Grey Woman (All the Year Round, Jan. 11 & 18, 1861): portions 2 and 3

Dear Serial Readers,

I am glad Julia is writing about the Gothic, so she can illuminate us on this story! Too bad that the French maid's potential threat hinted about at the close of portion one turns out to be illusory, yet I don't think we're getting "mock Gothic" here as we do with Austen's novel. Still, the story seems more Gothic than contemporary sensation fiction, in part because of the setting on the European Continent, the emphasis on the elaborate chateau with secret passageways, the two women hiding and eavesdropping, the villainous husband and his criminal society of men who seem to murder without much in the way of interesting motivation. And the entire fugitive episode (lots of "wandering") occurs when Anna is pregnant! So much for middle-class Victorian women's "confinement"! There *are* elements--disguise and cross-dressing and bigamy--that populate sensation fiction. Oddly perhaps, this story reminded me of the section of Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (a novel Gaskell knew) where Cassie and Emmeline disguise themselves and hide inside and then flee. Only the problem is that there's no Simon Legree here, no compellingly corrupt villain or social evil driving their flight, disguise, wandering. Just a naive (silly?) young woman who tries to do as she's bidden, and ends up with a wicked husband she flees due to the resourcefulness of her French maid.

I wonder if part of the problem is the limited space of the short story, a container too tight for this kind of narrative, at least for Gaskell. Collins's "Miss or Mrs"--even though printed in one number--did have the episodic structure of the twelve dramatic "scenes," and some interesting plot complications and plenty of dialogue and variety. Anna's long prosaic ("grey") letter to her daughter and the telling of her flight from her murdering husband made me sleepy rather than on edge with suspense. I did not care about any of these many murders and deaths, although Gaskell is so skilled with portraying affecting deaths in her novels. I wonder too how Gaskell's foray here into the Gothic might compare with Victorian ghost stories as a subset of the Gothic? "The Grey Woman" seems a kind of ghost, a shadow of a past self, a more haunting presence (although I did not feel haunted).

Next week we'll start another Dickens serial--Little Dorrit--with the first four chapters, published in December 1855. My next post, and three after that one, will be from London, so I'm hoping Dickens supplies some good local scenery!
As for this Gaskell story, I can only sign off as:

Serially soporific,

28 February 2010

The Grey Woman (ALL THE YEAR ROUND, 4 Jan. 1861): Portion One

Dear Serial Readers,

First, the news you're naturally eager to know: our next serial will be---Dickens' Little Dorrit!! I realize that the winner of the poll was a different Dickens serial, but for complex reasons I've decided to assert my serial authority and move ahead with this wonderful, favorite (for legions) Dickens novel. The first installment is chapters 1-4. You can download the novel from the two sites I've mentioned (and both linked in the sidebar on the right). I'll post my first entry on this novel the week of March 15th from London!

Now, to the story for today: Gaskell's "The Grey Woman." How different from Collins! The narrative gets off to a very slow start, a bit hard to latch onto--not much in the way of plotting at all. And the focus is so clearly on one character, who is also the embedded narrator (once we get through the framework of the German tourist who sees the portrait of a beautiful woman known as "The Grey Woman" because of some terrible terror she endured).
The straight expository-narrative style, hardly broken by dialogue, is also tedious reading, at least compared with most serials that offer variation in styles across chapters. Collins' story with its "scenes" accentuates this feature.

That the long narration is in the form of a letter to Anna's daughter Ursula is also difficult to assess since we have no sense of the daughter or the nature of her estrangement from her mother. Yes, like Ursula, we're to judge for ourselves after we get Anna's account. That set-up, that the reader of the letter is to act as judge, is similar to other sensation novels--I'm thinking of The Woman in White, published around the same time as this story. But unlike Collins' novel, it seems unlikely that we're going to get Ursula's side (or any other side) of this story. The frame and embedded narratives are supposedly to heighten authenticity--this really happened since the outside narrator has no vested interest in the characters or events, and there's a document (the letter) that supposedly certifies the authenticity.

I can only hope that the Gray Woman's account is worthy of all this fuss--clearly we're getting a tale of a bad marriage to a foreigner (oh those French, always a problem from the British perspective, even if circuitous), and the new maid of middle age and from Paris is certainly going to spell trouble. The chateau seems like a ne0-Gothic setting with secret passageways, mysterious doors.

Next week: the final two "portions" (although each published in consecutive weeks) of this story. But do line up your copies of Little Dorrit now!

Serially stalling,