POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

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,