POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

31 January 2010

Wives and Daughters: #17 (chaps 55-59): Dec. 1865

Dear Serial Readers,

I want to begin with Daun's comment about Molly as our most dependable close observer who at key moments seems to get swallowed up by event-ness and loses hold of the narrative focus. I loved too Daun's comparison with other Victorian heroines as would-be or partial narrators (like Esther in Bleak House). At this juncture in Wives and Daughters something else is going on which might account for Molly's falling away momentarily: Gaskell is preparing to establish Molly as the object of the culminating courtship plot.

Molly's transformation, or the transformation in her relationship with Roger, comes about in these chapters, so that the final page makes clear that Roger's "too late" has to do not with the condition of his jilted heart but his fears that Molly would not have him. Perhaps because I've been watching the Masterpiece Theatre "Emma," I've been mulling over this narrative challenge to convert a quasi- sibling attachment (like Emma and George Knightly) into a romantic one. Gaskell has several devices to get this transformation underway: first, Cynthia safely married away in London (see sidebar for this installment's illustration--Cynthia and Henderson in the garden, with Roger and Molly overhearing from the window) and Molly's illness have the double advantage of releasing Molly from Cynthia's train and removing her to the Towers, to a new scene for Roger to encounter Molly in a new way; second, Molly's advocate (and sharp-eyed matchmaker) Lady Harriet who brings her to the Towers to restore her to health, so that Molly sheds her duckling girlhood and takes on a swanish glow of womanhood in the eyes of the Towers society. I loved the veritable sexual selection scene (chap 58)when Roger's changing interest in Molly is piqued by his notice of the attentions of Sir Charles--the triangulation of desire, this is sometimes called!

As we approach the ending (such as Gaskell was able to complete and Greenwood was able to conjecture), I have a few questions. It's clear that Molly and Cynthia are matched with suitable men for each. But I'm curious about Preston and about Lady Harriet. At first I thought Lady Harriet is the perfect candidate for the revamped, recuperated spinster since she's clearly not of the same cliched mold as the Browning sisters (although Gaskell does try to give them some more complex traits than mere stereotype usually permits). But then, this character is entitled by class position: the "Lady" protects her from the ignominious "Miss" after all. Wealthy women can, Gaskell suggests, act with intelligence, independence, and pleasure.

I'm also curious about Preston. Is he simply a prop, a figure to complicate Molly's reputation via town gossip and to give more substance to Cynthia's dubious judgment? Or is he only the dangerous suitor in a moral tale about girls who attempt to make their own romantic arrangements without benefit of a reliable social vetting network (such as Cynthia has with Henderson)? I think there's more to this character; at one point, as estate agent, Preston seems to represent a different approach to land use reform. But if he drops out completely, then I'm not so sure. Maybe Gaskell just didn't pursue this character beyond the prop status.

Are there other characters for whom you're wanting closure? I suspect Hamley Hall will mean a reconstituted family: the grandfather, French daughter-in-law, grandson, and the prodigal son (once he returns from his six month expedition) and his new bride (our old and favorite Molly). Molly, as Roger's intended wife, will appease the squire sufficiently (he's dropped so many hints about how much he'd love Molly for his daughter in law) so that he'll presumably accept Aimee too.

There is still the problem of money in the Molly-Roger match on the horizon, since he isn't heir to Hamley Hall and Molly doesn't appear to have any assets to bring to the marriage. But perhaps a collective household of Hamleys will ease this problem, at least for the moment. So although there's little left, although we know Gaskell died before writing the full end of this novel, I think we'll be close.

Next time, just a short installment (for Jan. 1866), one chapter and Greenwood's postscript.

And here's the link to Project Gutenberg's pdf of Wilkie Collins's novella, "Miss or Mrs?"
You can download it to your screen (and print it out) or to a device like a Kindle or iPhone or (eventually) the iPad!

Serially submitted,

24 January 2010

Wives and Daughters: #16 (chaps 51-54): Nov. 1865

Dear Serial Readers,

Gaskell and death: this installment features Osborne's (anticipated) death and its rippling effects, including the squire's intense sorrow along with his retreat from the pit of grief through the charm of an unexpected (to him) grandchild. Here is du Maurier's illustration (see above) with the caption "Maman, maman!" when baby Roger Stephen Osborne Hamley cries out as his mother swoons with the apprehension that Osborne has died. And of course there's Molly, always quick to offer solace.

I liked Gaskell's recognition of the limits of and harm to Molly as caregiver extraordinaire. After all, her father routinely turns to her to convey unpleasant news to others, and here she's back at Hamley Hall tending to a bereft father and daughter-in-law. Molly's mental and physical exhaustion isn't surprising, and it's through the wonderful Lady Harriet's letter that Cynthia promptly returns from London to her step-sister's side. As Josh mentioned, Cynthia's affection for Molly and recognition of her worth has the added benefit of elevating Cynthia in our eyes. In addition, her assertion, "Molly, Roger will marry you!" attests to her perceptive abilities and the romantic logic that's been clear to us for a while now. Also, Cynthia's evident concern for Molly helps to balance her violent rejection (as Julia mentioned) at the end of the last installment. What will become of Cynthia? Do you suppose she'll end up married to Henderson of London rather than Preston, or not married at all? That last option, the "old maid" she finds herself most suited for, somehow seems unlikely to me because marriage is what ultimately redeems and rewards young female characters of novels of this era. And Cynthia, while erring, does have redeeming qualities too.

I think the squire is a wonderful character too, his gruffness in human relations clearly not due to hardness, but to clumsiness around emotions. By the way, if any of you happened to watch the Masterpiece Theatre "Emma," the actor Michael Gambon, who plays Emma's father, also has the role of Squire Hamley in the BBC adaptation (he also plays Dumbledore for you Harry Potter fans). Mr. Gibson is a similar portrait of this masculine emotional awkwardness (Eliot's "emotional elephant" for her doctor character, Lydgate). Do any of the younger men suggest an improvement in this department? Roger's early sensitivity to Molly's distress over her father's remarriage might be one such indication. Others?

I've mentioned in an earlier comment how Gaskell often treated death in more detail and complexity than I find in many other Victorian novels. This November 1865 installment is especially poignant on the subject since Gaskell died suddenly on November 12th while at tea with family members in a new home she had purchased with her income as a writer. At that point, she had already written the December installment, and had a chapter finished of the final installment, to appear in January 1866. I hope you all have an edition of the novel that includes Frederick Greenwood's (editor of the The Cornhill) postscript. I'll be interested to hear whether you also find the novel's conclusion rather evident, despite its unfinished state. We'll have a very very short installment in two weeks.

Next time, chaps 55-59, for December 1865. Then the last chapter Gaskell wrote, along with Greenwood's postscript for the week after (Feb. 7th). If you don't have the postscript handy, just email me and I'll send it to you. Then we'll take a couple of weeks to read Wilkie Collins's "Miss or Mrs?" novella. You can download this from Project Gutenberg. If you happen to have a Kindle or Sony Reader you can download/upload for free onto such a device! Or else you can just print it out (or read on your screen). I'm looking forward to reading the story on my Kindle, so that I can blend our latest reading technology with the Victorian corollary--paper periodical literature that allowed for cheaper, easier, more rapid circulation.

Until next time,
Serial Susan

12 January 2010

Wives and Daughters: #15 (chaps 46-50): Oct. 1865

Dear Serial Readers,

Kari wrote last week that she was disappointed there's no sex, quite a surprise for a novel laced with sensational plot elements (secret marriages, multiple engagements, blackmail). I was amused because to me, perhaps over-seasoned in the codes of Victorian language, there's sex aplenty! True, no graphic accounts of bodies naked and entwined and in spasms. But I suspect that Gaskell's contemporary readers would've understood the depths of Cynthia's transgressions by those repeated solitary encounters in the woods (which Du Maurier's illustration spotlights), the exchange of the promise of her body in marriage for money (and the sideways allusion to prostitution, the commerce of sex that was a big big topic in Victorian culture), her rather careless enjoyment of many men (Roger, Mr. Coxe, Preston, and now the marriage offer from Mr. Henderson) drawn to her (sensation heroines as bigamists or as having clandestine affairs), and then her education in France--a culture symbolizing to British Victorians a hotbed of sexual license for women!

This episode especially focuses on Cynthia's propensity to attract men in the form of FOUR proposals, as well as her "Jilting Jessy" behavior. One comment I found especially intriguing is when Cynthia replies to her mother's warning that she'll end up old maid, she says, "I sometimes think I am the kind of person of which old maids are made!" Typically the Victorian "old maid" or spinster stereotype is sexlessness, but I think Cynthia is suggesting otherwise--her inability to love someone despite her evident sexual attraction. In any case, Gaskell casts a different light on spinsterhood cliches, especially through the character of Lady Harriet, Molly's great champion in the slander scandal of this installment. I suspect that Cynthia can only redeem herself by marrying Preston in the end, that her behaviors suggest that she has has as good as shared a bed with him! But alas, as Kari notes, no obvious sex here. But you have to imagine something beyond those layers of clothing, or the gaps between the surreptitious trysts in the lonely lane! That Molly's reputation is tainted for those two brief encounters with Preston adds more fuel to the signifying fire of Cynthia's clandestine meetings with and engagement to Preston.

The illustration for this installment is, alas, sideways in the margin here--it shows Lady Harriet asking Preston a few questions as she determines that Molly has taken the heat for Cynthia's indiscretions. Lady Harriet is a gem--and delightfully portrayed in the BBC adaptation. The small drawing inserted into the text of the installment's first chapter shows the moment when Mr. Gibson grabs Molly's arms and hurts her as he demands to know why those rumors have been circulating about her. I thought the moment was disturbing--the suggestion of Mr. Gibson's physical violence--and it's highlighted in the magazine image. I vaguely recall a moment in Gaskell's first novel Mary Barton that suggests a father's physical abuse of his daughter.

In this issue of the magazine, there's also an article in this Oct. 1865 issue titled "Maori Sketches" by "Miss Morris." I had just read some fascinating scholarship on Charlotte Yonge's The Daisy Chain (1856) and learned that some of that novel is set in New Zealand. Perhaps "Maori Sketches" might have formed a provocative travel piece alongside Mrs. Gibson's brief mention of Roger in "unhealthy" and "savage" and "cannibal" Africa.

Maybe because "Serial Readers" is a kind of digital book club, I was especially interested in the brief mention of the Hollingford Book Society at the start of the installment. This local book society is an attempt to circumvent the higher subscription fees and selection of books (a form of censorship, some writers complained) of the large scale circulating libraries like Mudie's in London (with subscribers all over England). Grinstead, the Hollingford bookseller, acts as the local agent and manager for the society. It's also interesting that Gaskell makes clear that some members of this society do not actually read books, but are members for the social prestige, "a test of gentility" rather than desire for education or love of literature. Once again, Gaskell shows that books have multiple uses. As the town's "centre of news and gossip" the book society members are implicated in the spreading of the scandal about Molly and Preston, gossip that makes clear the harm of hasty or careless reading of events.

Please take a moment to vote again for our next selection, and then I'll announce that decision next week! Only two more episodes left of this delicious novel! Next week: chapters 51-54. What will happen? Will Osborne rally or die? Will his secret wife and child be disclosed as Cynthia's secret has come out? I suspect we'll be getting more of the Hamleys soon. And will Molly's steadfastness be rewarded when Roger returns (if he does)? Will Cynthia marry Preston or Henderson, or neither one?

Serially yours,

10 January 2010

Wives and Daughters: #14 (chaps 41-45): Sept. 1865

Dear Serial Readers,

I made this installment's full-page illustration (by George Du Maurier) especially visible, as you can see, because it captures the moment when Molly comes upon Cynthia and Preston in the "lonely path" in the wood! The pair does appear rather uneasy with Molly's appearance, while we don't quite see her face--note that she's dressed in a light-colored dress, those unruly tresses (according to Mrs. G) lying on her cape. Your thoughts about this illustration? It appeared just before the start of this September 1865 installment.

This episode (the five chapters together) does align the two sensation plots, as Julia mentioned last time, Cynthia's secret engagement (a wink at the infamous "bigamy plots" of Mary E. Braddon's sensation heroines like Lady Audley and Aurora Floyd) and Osborne's secret marriage, which he briefly tells Molly about at the end of the installment. When I found this illustration in the magazine, I also came across the installment of the Wilkie Collins sensation novel that was simultaneously running at the time--Armadale.

But what do you make of Cynthia's story of her engagement to Preston? Schoolgirl folly? We also have Preston's brief account to Molly. I like the ambiguity, the range of possible explanations or excuses--Cynthia again pleads she really had no motherly guidance as a young girl should, yet of course neither does Molly, and it's impossible to imagine Molly in such straits. Even Cynthia notes that Molly's "grain is different" (when Molly tries to say she would've behaved in the same way)--so that it's not all nurture or training or maternal influence that entirely explains their difference.

I once wrote a book on confession scenes in Victorian novels (but not this one), so I was especially interested in the chapter, "Cynthia's Confession." Imagine how her tale of this secret engagement (in exchange for £25 for clothes!) would've been received by Mr. Gibson or by one of the Hamley men (although perhaps Osborne would've been more sympathetic--)!

But what struck me most in this installment were letters--how Cynthia is so letter-ladden (or has so many letters attached to her) with the ones she received from Roger, but Molly longs to read, and her own letters to Preston which he threatens to use as blackmail. Molly is relatively "letterless"--a word Gaskell actually uses to describe her one day after the post arrives. I just came across an interesting article on a new scholarly book by Catherine Golden titled Posting It: The Victorian Revolution in Letter Writing. Golden points out that before the introduction of the penny post in 1840, recipients rather than senders had to pay for the postage (which was more expensive). There are multiple references to letters throughout the novel (perhaps not so unusual for its day), but in this particular set of chapters the possession of letters matters to the blackmail plot and Preston's power over Cynthia. Yet with Roger's letters from Africa, it's Cynthia who has control, and Gaskell makes this very evident by showing how much Molly craves to know the contents of the letters while Cynthia seems hardly interested! It occurs to me that letters are serial texts too, written and read over time in installments, so in a way correspond to the very form that this novel takes.

On the poll for our next reading (only THREE more portions left of this novel!)--so far, the three (unlinked) Collins stories are the favorite pick. We could read Armadale instead, although I did like the idea of stories for a change. Please vote early and vote often! I'll announce the next selection in TWO weeks. And then I'd like to take one week to write about book clubs--to hear what your experience of books clubs have been, or what you hear about them from friends and family--maybe even some testimonials? This blog is an e-book club. And I should mention here that "Serial Readers" had a nice shout out from my friend Ellen, on her blog Elenabella. I'm hoping we'll have more voters and readers as a result--thanks, Ellen!

Next week: chaps. 46-50.

Yours in serial secrets,

03 January 2010

Wives and Daughters: #13 (chaps 37-40): August 1865

Dear Serial Readers,

Finally a bit of progress with Cynthia's "secret" relationship to Preston! Perhaps though this progress is only a playful tug at the chain of suspense. What do we learn? Do you get the impression that she may be secretly engaged to Preston, especially since she mentions to Molly that she might marry him "after all"? And how does money enter into this history, do you suppose? Cynthia mentions the "horrid poverty" and "money matters" that complicated her and her mother's life at Ashcombe, where Preston was the estate agent. This installment ends with the gossip wheels churning by Miss Browning who has put "two and two together" (more dangerous readers, like Mrs G) to decide that Molly was in the lane with Preston. We readers know, as clear as day, that it was Cynthia with Preston. I continue to see Cynthia as a domesticated sensation heroine--her repeated confession of an inability to love as a sentimental heroine might (and as Molly can), her concern with material and monetary matters, her bewitching appearance that seems to draw every young man--fickle Mr. Coxe included, her association with France (with its scandalous status in Victorian culture) and the repeated hints at her "secrets" and her claim that she's not "good"--that she's a "good hater" even!

Just two other comments: on depression and death. While I do understand that illnesses, especially mental ones, are historically and culturally variable, Gaskell's description of Molly's "low" spirits of hopelessness does seem very much like depictions on TV ads (and elsewhere) today about depression. About death--just Gaskell's allusion to the euphemisms parleyed instead of direct words when Cynthia considers risks to Roger's life in Africa. Gaskell is perhaps the most candid of Victorian writers I know on this subject of death, something she handles very differently than, say, Dickens.

If you scroll down all the way to the bottom of this blog, you'll see the new poll I've installed to figure out our next serial reading, to begin in February. I'd like to try short stories rather than another long novel. So I've proposed three possibilities: (1) George Eliot's "Scenes from Clerical Life" stories which were published in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine in 1857 (3 thematically linked stories); (2) Elizabeth Gaskell's "Cranford" stories, published over several years in Dickens's Household Words and now usually read together as if a novel by the same name; (3) 3 stories by Wilkie Collins which are not linked thematically or otherwise: "Miss or Mrs?", "The Haunted Hotel," "The Guilty River." Please do go to this poll (bottom of this blog) and vote soon--and forward this link if you think you know anyone who might be more interested in a relatively short serial reading experience (3 to 5 weeks, depending on which one we select).

Daun suggested sensation fiction. There is at this moment a serial reading blog around Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White. Paul Lewis manages this endeavor and they're currently at installment #7 (1 per week). Email if you'd like to get the installments: womaninwhite@paullewis.co.uk

I also put up the first page of this installment from the Cornhill in the sidebar because it shows Roger in Africa, a scene we never see directly and barely indirectly. I hope you can manage to see this image although it's so small!

For next week: #14, chapters 41-45 (yes, 5 chapters).

Serially searching,