POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

28 June 2010

Little Dorrit, Part Sixteen, II, chaps 19-22 (Mar. 1857)

Dear Serial Readers,

The part of this installment I found most interesting was Miss Wade's narrative addressed to Arthur. A note in the Penguin edition relays that Dickens' biographer John Forster dismissed this as THE WEAKEST chapter of the novel, and that Dickens "ruefully conceded." Besides the fact that I'd never consider voting for the worse chapter of a Dickens novel in the first place, I think that this "History of a Self Tormentor" does highlight the problem of the woman's voice in Dickens' novels. Some aspects of Miss Wade's story reminded me of Esther Summerson's (in BLEAK HOUSE) description of her ambiguous and shameful origins and her treatment by various guardians and masters and mistresses. And in some ways Miss Wade's narrative works as counterpart to Amy Dorrit's with her low birth in a debtors' prison. But unlike Amy who is selflessly devoted to her father, despite his abuse, disregard, and petty selfishness, Miss Wade has "an unhappy temper" as well as "the misfortune of not being a fool" (which fuels that temper).

Dickens seems to recognize plentiful causes of resentment and anger from his female characters, especially those oppressed by their class position as well as by gender, but his portrayals remain curiously ambivalent, at least to me. And maybe that's the reason Forster finds this such an unsuccessful chapter. Rather than "suffer and be still"--the motto of Victorian angels of true womanhood--Miss Wade and her other Dickensian sisters (Louisa Gradgrind, Edith Dombey, Alice Marwood, Hortense, to name only a few preceding this one) are vengeful and spiteful and proud. Yet there is something to be said for their insistence on their due, on equality rather than bondage (whether in employment or marriage), on treatment without condescension. Miss Wade's early recognition of Harriet aka Tattycoram as a Sister of the Bad Temperment might even imply a kind of fledgling feminist alliance, but Dickens does not bolster this alliance whatsoever. Instead, this "bad temper" of feeling and reacting to injustice (rather than the Amy Dorrit model of endurance) amounts to self torment only. Still, this measly chapter did make me reflect on the problem of women's voices throughout this novel (as well as in other Dickens novels)--from Flora's prolix ramblings to Mr F's Aunt's equally garbled, if telegraphically concise, articulations to Fanny's hot-cold, mercurial temper, to Affery's perplexing visions and Mrs Clennam's evasions. What did you make of this chapter? I was uncertain why Miss Wade would address her story to Arthur in the first place, except to set him straight about Gowan. Like Amy, Arthur is the recipient of many revelations, just as he is seeking some disclosure about Blandois and his mother.

As for the death of the Dorrit brothers, I can only account for this double death by thinking they were two parts of a whole--the proud, pompous, and self-centered William balanced by the attentive, sympathetic, kindly Frederick. I can only imagine too that their double deaths liberate Amy from her continued servitude (with her happy temper) to these men, as surely she would've remained devoted to her uncle if he had survived her father. Not to mention the added oppressions by a new stepmother in the form of Mrs. General. At least she's spared that disaster by her father's timely death! Now maybe she's free to shift her filial devotion to someone else, along the lines of the new father figure of Arthur Clennam.

I was also intrigued by more wandering and traveling out of England in this installment--Miss Wade as another wanderer who has traveled in Marseilles, London, Venice, Calais.

After next week (chaps 23-26 in part II), we have only two more installments, since the last (#19=20) is a double one. So get your MOONSTONE copy lined up soon!

Serially stirred up,

20 June 2010

Little Dorrit, Part Fifteen, II, chaps 15-18 (Feb. 1857)

Dear Serial Readers,

Fanny's marriage is no surprise, nor is her Pa's (if only you could read my lips!) caution to Amy that marriage is a "responsibility imposed on you by your position." But stay tuned. Amy won't succumb to this marriage of convenience for wealth and stature.

What did surprise me in this installment is the attention to Dorrit's discomfort and curiosity. He's proud, proud, proud, we know, but he also bristles under the scrutiny of the Chief Butler, even assuming that this servant has some knowledge of the Marshalsea days. When Flora approaches him about the missing Blandois/Rigaud, he shows curiosity about this foreigner he remembers him from the Gowans in Venice. Dorrit's visit to the Clennams forces him from the tony Mayfair district to the "uglier" sections of London--a near-return to the Marshalsea vicinity (although across the river). His interview of Mrs. Clennam exhibits unusual questions from him here--although why he wants to know about Blandois isn't clear to me. But perhaps we'll see more plot strand knitted together. What is the mystery behind Blandois and the Clennam family, Blandois and Miss Wade?

Dorrit also relents a bit in his arrogant pride when Young John Chivery visits, although he cautions Young John not to mention their conversation. What did you make of the description of Dorrit's journey back to Rome, as an escape expedition from England and from his past, but also as more opportunity for "castle-building"? The moral message of material affluence is clear here and prevalent in many Dickens novels. But I suspect Dorrit's fanciful castle will crumble very soon. But how?

Before I forget, for you Facebookers, there is actually a "Mr F's Aunt" page on Facebook. I joined. For next week, part ii, chaps 19-22 ("Who Passes By...").

Yours in Serial Secrets,

14 June 2010

Little Dorrit, Part Fourteen, II, chaps 12-14 (Jan. 1857)

Dear Serial Readers,

I'd like to start with Dickens's extended trope of the epidemic, that "moral infection" that corrupts British society (both at home and overseas), from Bleeding Heart Yard and the Circumlocution Office to "Britons" in Rome (the black Thames and the yellow Tiber). This disease concerns financial speculation, the widespread practice of investing in a paper economy where value is removed from the objects (bills) that stand in for real worth. In the conversation between Arthur and Pancks, his "Eastern pipe" is a steady prop, a reminder of British international speculation and the traces of imperial investments threaded through the novel.

This is what I find so intriguing in many of Dickens' novels--he seems to caution his readers against ruthless, unchecked, self-serving financial speculation at the same time that he's clearly a proponent of literary speculation. By this kind of speculation, I mean the wonder of reading, the play of conjecturing about outcomes without knowing for certain. Even realism might be like financial speculation in a paper economy: after all, realist novels pose analogies between fictional and real worlds, one standing in for the other, but crucially different. Both Arthur and Amy are good speculators, characters who wonder at the world, who are curious about others, but are also risk-aversive.

In this installment, Fanny seems a dangerous speculator in her engagement to Sparkler: she seems to know he's a bad penny along with his Merdles connections, but she's determined to take "her own imperious self-willed step" into the marriage. Amy, however, does not adhere to speculations of this sort, since she tells her sister that poverty is better than marriage without love. This makes me think that Amy will either end up with Arthur or alone. Fanny also identifies Mrs. General as a kindred speculator, and seems to think she'll be the next Mrs. Dorrit. And here Fanny chooses her poison, Mrs. Merdle rather than Mrs G as mother-in-law, or the position of wife rather than daughter. Marriage is the kind of speculation women are usually able to pursue in Dickens' universe.

Further speculations on Serial Readers: we have five installments left of Dorrit, which will bring us to late July. Our next serial novel will be Wilkie Collins' THE MOONSTONE, first serialized in Dickens's magazine ALL THE YEAR ROUND in weekly installments in 1868. Once again, I'd like to speed up this slow reading schedule and suggest that we read each week the four weekly installments published by Dickens' magazine each month. This means we'd take eight weeks to read THE MOONSTONE instead of eight months. The reading each week will be longer than usual, probably closer to 70-80 pp rather than 40+pp. With some advance notice, I thought this might be manageable. Let me know what you think of this plan!

Serially speculating,

08 June 2010

Little Dorrit, Part Thirteen, II, chaps 8-11 (Dec. 1856)

Dear Serial Readers,

As always, your comments are terrific! I definitely see Julia's point about the Gothic cast to Dickens' rendition of places as a way to align and blur the London prison and the Continental European landscapes. Amy's letter to Arthur at the close of this installment makes a related point as her "travelling mind" links the shadows cast in old Italian cities (specifically here, the shadow cast by the tower of Pisa) with shadows on the walls in Marshalsea. All her observations of the wonders of Italy seem to lead back to life before the "change in our fortunes" when she had a sense of purpose--perhaps part of the "homesickness" she confesses to Arthur in this letter, though I suspect he is very much the object of that homesickness.

It occurs to me that Amy is struggling to do what Arthur has also resolved to do--to repress or cast overboard, down the river, an unrequited love by dedicating herself selflessly (without hope of mutuality) to Arthur. It seems possible that Arthur and Amy will end up together in this story, and less likely that Pet/Minnie will unite with Arthur. Not that I think her marriage with Gowan will last, or that he will last (somehow I suspect he's headed for a full demise, maybe foreshadowed by Blandois's treatment of their dog), but now that she has a son, I can't imagine that she can remarry another man. Perhaps we'll have the new domestic triangle at the end of the novel--Arthur, Amy, and Minnie---with son. It seems many mid-Victorian narratives end this way. I'm thinking here of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh--which had just been published when Dickens was writing these installments and is full of Italian scenery. The Dorrits and Gowans in Italy recall the many expats, artists and writers too, British and American, in Florence in the 1850s. I wonder if Dickens ran an article on the subject in Household Words?

Also a major Gothic motif, secrets flood the chapter on the Clennam household where Blandois appears, after his mysterious encounter with Miss Wade and Tattycoram. Through Arthur, we're seeing so many puzzling pieces, still to be fit together--if all of them can be. What is Blandois's relationship to the Clennams and to Flintwinch? Why does Miss Wade have dealings with him? What are the deeper secrets that haunt the Clennam family? "What is going on here?" as Arthur puts it to Affery. Blandois seems like a stock villain figure, curling moustache and all--from stage melodrama--what is he doing here?

I noticed too that this number is set almost entirely in London, just as the twelfth installment is in Italy, with Little D's letter as a link between the two places. Her letter reminds me too of Esther Summerson's narration in Bleak House--the modest, self-effacing feminine voice that jars with its sharp, acute perceptions of other people and circumstances. And just as John Jarndyce renames Esther with all kinds of nicknames, so has Arthur names Amy "Little Dorrit" as she reminds him (and us) in this letter. What do you make of that?

Finally, Serial Readers just had its second year birthday! I posted initially on this forum on June 2, 2008 on the first installment of Dombey and Son. Happy Birthday, Serial Readers, and may the third year be filled with more slow reading pleasures!

Next week, II, chaps 12-14 (for Jan. 1857)

Serially in secrets,