POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

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,

21 February 2010

Miss or Mrs? Scenes 7-12 (Christmas Number 1871, THE GRAPHIC )

Dear Serial Readers,

Did you find anything humorous at all, about this family Christmas tale? I think precisely its appearance in the Christmas issue seems delightfully ironic--especially with such scene settings as the final one on Xmas Eve in RT's Somerset house: "The scene in the drawing room represented the ideal of domestic comfort." Lovely "domestic comfort" indeed--with an underaged daughter secretly married to her sweetheart and planning to elope Xmas morning also her 16th birthday, with her officially betrothed plotting to murder her father in order to obtain necessary funds to rescue himself from financial fraud, just to name a few of the intrigues afoot! Would this be entertaining reading to offset any seasonal malaise at holiday time? Would it stir up any suspicions for parents or prompt some scheming by children? So different from Dickens's sentimental "Christmas Carol"!

And how would suspense work given that the entire story is contained in the one issue? Perhaps the scene divisions (and even the asterisks or other inscribed breaks) might offer pausing spots for a serially suspenseful reading experience. I did love the melodramatic flavor of the entire story--with the shifting scenes (s0 many! the sea, suburban Muswell Hill, West End London, the City, East End London, Somerset country estate--both exterior and interior sets) and the staging of exaggerated feelings. Just before the end of the ninth scene, after Turlington learns from Lady W's stepdaughter about Natalie's secret marriage, those rather "extra" stepdaughters have an outburst (via the narration) of anxiety: "The Graybrookes! Now he knew it, what would become of the Graybrookes? What would he do when he got back? ....What would happen? Oh, good God! what would happen...." These stepdaughters never appear on stage again, but I loved that melodramatic flair, in case readers need coaching about the suspense!

As for the the drunken East End accomplice, the eloping hero in disguise at the right time and place, and finally the jammed gun and the foolishness of fiddling with it as RT did, somehow all the machinations of the murder and elopement and whatnot plots reminded me of a Victorian version of "Law and Order" or "SVU" (what I prefer to call "SUV")--only a quick few minutes to wrap all this up, and the audience knows precisely what will or won't happen (the villain will be killed or apprehended, the damsel in distress and the hero saved)!

I'm very interested to read some of Gaskell's serialized short stories. I was hoping to find one that was only two installments due to my upcoming London trip two weeks from now. But Gaskell's are either one installment or three, or many more. For next week and the week after, let's read "The Grey Woman" which was serialized in three short installments in All the Year Round (Jan 5, 12, 19, 1861). We'll read the first installment ("portion 1") for next week, and then portions 2-3 for March 7th. Again, you can download Gaskell's stories from two different websites: Many Books or Project Gutenberg. See the links to these sites in the sidebar to the right.

After "The Grey Women" I'm not sure whether to continue with Gaskell's stories or to go to Eliot's three "Scenes of Clerical Life" or move on to a long serial novel--Dickens's Martin Chuzzlewit interests me because of its transatlantic (American) sections. So--please vote early and often in the poll I've installed below! I'll announce just before my London flight where Serial Readers goes next!

Serially shorter,

14 February 2010

Miss or Mrs? Scenes 1-6 (Christmas Number 1871, The Graphic)

Dear Serial Readers,

What a contrast to Gaskell's Wives and Daughters is this heavily-plotted Collins novella! Even in the first half, scenes one-six, I marveled over the compressed plot elements--presumed murder of foreigner on a boat, commercial fraud, arranged engagement vs. secret engagement, clandestine marriage, suspense that the clandestine marriage will be discovered in time, and the set-up for bigamy, even embedded in the title. By the way, I love titles of novels that are questions--such as Trollope's Can You Forgive Her? --because of the way they immediately engage the reader in the act of reading and judging. Can you think of other interrogative titles?

With all this suspense, it's interesting to note that the entire story was printed in one issue, the Christmas number of The Graphic, on Christmas Day 1871. And then, to emphasize this date, Natalie's birthday is Christmas Day, and of course the elopement plot is contingent on her sixteenth birthday, and her marriage to Turlington one week later on New Year's Day. I wanted to see the original Christmas Number online at least, but learned that the database for the Nineteenth Century British Periodicals (British Library) does not include Christmas Numbers! Still, I did see advertisements of this particular holiday gift volume, advertised as "A Christmas Story...equal in quantity to a one volume novel" with 12 illustrations and one large plate titled "Saved!"--all this for the price of a shilling. As you can see in the sidebar, I found one of the illustrations online, this one presumably of Natalie and Launce.

What did you make of the emphasis on "scenes" or places for each chapter, the melodramatic staging of this story? Unlike Gaskell's slow-paced serial, this story is about scenes and plot points, not much on character, here a list of "persons in the story" in the front matter. (By the way, why aren't the church clerk, the clergyman, and especially his wife who speaks in the story listed here?) Each setting is so different--the private yacht at sea, the London suburb, and the various locales of Victorian London. I was also intrigued by the attention to storytelling itself--the embedded tales told by Sir Joseph and his sister Lavinia, and their disagreements about the story, about how to tell it. I found all this amusing, and wondered even if Collins were offering a kind of parody of melodrama and sensation fiction (a form he is identified with creating). There is the damsel in distress here, Natalie the underage heiress, and two men battling to possess her via marriage, whether lawful or not--the one marked as villainous, namely Turlington, with his name very suggestive of Dickens' dastardly lawyer Tulkinghorn in Bleak House, and the other Launce, the doctor (maybe an allusion to Alan Woodcourt, also from Dickens' novel?) Yet (like sensation fiction) there is also attention to women not as hapless, passive victims (often the case in standard melodrama), but as entering actively into the intrigue--the second Lady Winwood (who is younger than her stepdaughters!) and the perspicacious clergyman's wife and perhaps even Lavinia.

So much conniving around marriage, and so much hilarity around different stock notions of marriage--the paper marriage of convenience (and the problem of a paper economy where value is mercurial at best--hence, Turlington's financial difficulties) and the love match (with a hero of the name "Launcelot"--is this a joke about the knight in shining armor who goes to some lengths to effect this clandestine marriage?)!! What do you make of Natalie's racial otherness, her ancestry associations to French Caribbean Martinique, not unlike Rochester's secret wife Bertha in Jane Eyre? One theory is that Natalie's "mixed blood" is to explain how a fifteen year old "girl could be sexually mature enough to attract these men, as if pure-blooded "English" girls could not be so erotically precocious. But it seems there's lots of emphasis on exploiting her youthful inexperience.

Eager for your responses! Next week we'll finish these scenes (7-12). Then I'd like to move on to Gaskell's magazine stories. But perhaps we can return to Collins later--perhaps even his novel Man and Wife. serialized in 1870 both in London and New York.

Scenically yours,
Serial Susan

07 February 2010

Wives and Daughters: #18 (chap 60 + postscript)--Jan. 1866

Dear Serial Readers,

One thing for sure: Gaskell is a far superior writer, in my estimation, than Frederick Greenwood! The clash between their styles and voices made this closure especially jarring for me. Greenwood of course has nothing much to add to the plot--so our questions about the Gibson marriage, Lady Harriet, Mr. Preston, etc. are not addressed. After embellishing the predictable (Roger returns and marries Molly), Greenwood's postscript is more along the lines of a review. And here I was quite fascinated by his discussion of Cynthia--"one of the most difficult characters which have ever been attempted in our time"--and his comparison between her and Eliot's Tito! Greenwood credits Eliot with the finer "splendid achievement" over Gaskell's Cynthia, but then Lewes was the editor of *The Cornhill* while Greenwood was the sub-editor (and Eliot was Lewes's "wife"). All the attention Greenwood pays to Cynthia and Osborne both highlighted the novel's similarity to sensation fiction, and at the same time he begged to differ, to defend Gaskell's fiction from other popular novels that present "an abominable wicked world, crawling with selfishness and reeking with base passions."

Yet in a way I found what Gaskell had written, even to the last trivial words from Mrs. G who delights over news that her well-married daughter is bringing her a new shawl, is more compatible with Gaskell's usual mild closures, such as we have in *North and South* where the key marriage is merely on the horizon, and the closing words are not words of romance or future events. I did feel slightly uneasy at the repetition of Roger's farewell--complete with Molly (who has to compete with her stepmother at the window) watching his departure, and his "last turning." See the lovely rain-streaked illustration, his white handkerchief like a flag of romantic surrender, bright in the gloomy atmosphere--but Molly doesn't know this surrender for sure. Given the accentuated comparison with Roger's first leave-taking for Africa, and the assorted turn of events he found when he came home, this ending does seem to me rather suspended, unfinished, yet perhaps in keeping with a new kind of closure Gaskell explores. I couldn't help but think of the ending of Bronte's *Villette* too, the obligatory trip across the British Empire that defers the promised reunion of the lovers. For those of you who don't know this novel, Bronte supplied two possible outcomes: shipwreck and death during the homeward voyage, and a miraculous return.

As for Josh's interesting comment about external and internal obstacles to marriage plots: I did think there was one "external" issue regarding Molly and Roger--namely, money. And this seems to be addressed on both sides: Mr. G tells Roger that Molly does have an inheritance that he hasn't told her about; and in the postscript Greenwood tells us that Roger becomes a professor at a scientific institution (sounds more like Huxley here than Darwin) and "wins his way in the world handsomely." Money is that key external obstacle that rears its head in most every Victorian novel!

Perhaps the most satisfying element of closure was the arrangement for Aimee and the young heir to live so close to the squire, but in their own separate place--a different composition of a family here.

Now, for future reading, dear Serial Readers! I relish shorter fiction for a while, in part because I'll be in London during the month of March and have less time and access for blogging around. Here's my proposal for the next two items: Collins's story "Miss or Mrs?" over two weeks, and then Gaskell's "Cousin Phillis" and other Gaskell magazine stories. Collins's story is rather long for the one issue of *The Graphic* in which it appeared (the special Christmas issue of December 1871). It's arranged as a drama in 12 scenes, so for next week, scenes 1-6, and then the rest for Feb. 21. Again you can download this story from Project Gutenberg or from MANY BOOKS, a very user-friendly website of free books with many downloading formats available (for Kindle, for other devices, as pdfs etc).

Serially somewhat satisfied,