POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

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.?