POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

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,