POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

28 July 2010

The Moonstone (installments from Jan. 1868): prologue through chaps 1-9

Dear Serial Readers,

Here we are in a new serial reading country--the metaphor works too since, like Little Dorrit, this one opens out of England, this time in India. This is the first serial novel we've explored on these bloggy pages that is regarded as "sensation fiction"--a genre of Victorian popular reading that was always serialized first in magazines, either monthly ones, or weekly ones, like this one--Dickens' ALL THE YEAR ROUND. You can see the top of the first page from that weekly, the early Jan. 1868 issue that launched this novel, and sold for 2d, two pence (the monthly magazines were usually a shilling, or 12d, so this was quite a good deal!) Like Dickens, Collins wrote as the serial was being issued, usually a month or two ahead of schedule. Sensation fiction (like many of Dickens' novels) traded in suspense and secrecy, disguises and masquerades, and were designed to keep readers coming back for the next segment, like (as this one is regarded) a good mystery. Critics sometimes complained that sensation novels favor plotting over character, rather than the other way round. I see the emphasis on the plotting here, and marvel at how the timeline of the plot echoes serial time, the very dates that head each installment. What do you think? Too much emphasis on plotting? Do you get a sense of these distinct characters too?

Collins uses multiple narrators here (and in some of his other novels), and the first four segments, from Jan. 1868, are largely from Betteredge (nice Dickensian pun name!), the Verinder house-steward. What do you make of him as a narrator and whom is he addressing? All the attention to his *telling* of the story of the Moonstone certainly highlights the way this story is delivered to us.

The romance plotting, the servants taking bets about which cousin Rachel will marry, is humorous, and also interesting for this attention to the below-the-stairs (class) view of the "gentlefolk" (as Betteredge puts it). Yet when an engagement or marriage is previewed in the opening sections, there's bound to be complications. Cousin marriage, while 'normal' in nineteenth-century novels, even from Austen's EMMA, becomes more complicated as the century advances.

I'm also struck by the attention to alternative forms of knowledge--occultism (even if through Betteredge's Orientalism), clairvoyance, dreams and visions, drugs. Since some of us read Dickens's DROOD in this format, I want to mention that Dickens was writing DROOD just after MOONSTONE was issued in his magazine. I had not previously thought of DROOD as a companion text, but perhaps it is!

Finally, I'm fascinated by a thing (the upper-case Diamond--also "mere carbon") as something like a mute character, or the Moonstone as a fetish attached to multiple kinds of values and powers and debts: familial revenge, colonial theft, monetary worth, spiritual or occult powers, or the meaning of a jewel as gift to a young woman. The sheer attention to the displaying of the Diamond to Rachel and her family on her birthday compares with Betteredge's detailed description of her own body and face!

Looking forward to your thoughts as we embark on this *Moonstone* expedition!
Thanks Julia for the link to online versions of this novel. As I've redesigned this site, I've also done some housekeeping, including the righthand column where I've noted the serials we've read and when we read them, as well as two links to downloadable versions (including THE MOONSTONE--try Project Gutenberg).

For next week: Betteredge's narrative continued, chaps 10-15 (Feb. 1868)

Serially shimmering,

19 July 2010

Little Dorrit, Parts Nineteen/Twenty, II, chaps 30-34 (June 1857)

Dear Serial Readers,

I can hardly believe we've reached the end of this novel we began reading in March (and when I was in London and took the photo of the Thames)! I found this one of the most satisfying, if somewhat predictable (but not entirely so), of Dickens' novels. I'm eager for your reviews! Apologies for the length of this post--and there's so much I'm leaving out!

First, I was so intrigued by Josh's recollection that Shaw thought this novel was more "seditious" (the word Shaw used) than Marx's CAPITAL. Here's a link to an article a few years ago that mentions this: "Why Dickens is so relevant today..." Shaw was a great admirer of Marx, a Socialist, and member of the Fabian Society. What seems to me most startling and radical about Dickens' portrayal of financial speculation, greed, and the pervasive networks of capitalism is the sense of accountability or responsibility from so many different quarters. In this light, Arthur's recriminations over a wreckless investment (even if he did not act with the rank ruthlessness of Merdle), or his resolve to take consequences, suggests a model of shared responsibility; the same with Pancks, expressed through his noble, hilarious, and satisfying rant on Casby's Principle of the Squeeze in Bleeding Heart Yard. In other words, Dickens doesn't rest content with eliminating a few outlier criminal crooks, like Merdle or Rigaud, but shows how they're part of a huge network of characters who profit from others' losses: Casby, Mrs. Clennam, Flintwinch, and many more.

This shared responsibility seems a far cry even from today's response to financial crimes and misdemeanors, and a widespread refusal to see the vast interconnections between speculation, fraud, gains and losses. See Paul Krugman's recent op-ed where he notes the contradiction of the position that argues, on the one hand, that extending aid to the unemployed is unthinkable in this era of national deficits, and on the other hand, that reducing tax cuts for the rich is equally unthinkable.

In this novel, all players and speculators are linked together in the intricate webwork of the plot and the circulations locally and abroad of money, or paper documents about money (such as the iron box with that codicil of the Clennam will, which trades hands, crosses borders, and involves legacies uniting Arthur's real mother and Little Dorrit). The only way truly to leave the vast debtor's prison which is, in a sense, the world of the novel (which opened in a quarantine prison of foreigners in Marseilles), is to realize and accept the implications of one's debts, to see that one is in a debtor's prison in the first place, something perhaps Dorrit Senior, with his delusions of grandeur, never quite managed to do. Or perhaps living in a state of indebtedness is vastly preferable to the alternative. Maybe that's why Marshalsea is a more genuine place in contrast to all the scenes of fraudulent pretenses. And maybe that's why "Little Dorrit" insists on this name rather than "Amy" as one that emphasizes smallness (grating though I find that choice--and doesn't "Amy" come from the French "amie" or 'friend'?)

What did you think of Mrs. Clennam's secret and her justification of her possession of the baby Arthur from his nameless mother and the related suppression of the codicil? So many miserable women in this novel (including Miss Wade, with her brief curtain bow in Calais)! Amy Dorrit is certainly the model held up for women to emulate, and Tattycoram seems to rehabilitate herself in that direction. But I think Pancks and Clennam and even Doyce, are male models of the right ways to speculate and conduct responsible financial and interpersonal relations.

Did you notice how the last chapter opens with "a voice" reading to Arthur in prison, Amy's reading something like a Dickens novel of fancy that encourages imaginative speculation that is soothing and replenishing in contrast to the immediate environment? Is this a panacea, or a way to curtail trading on others' losses?

The whole ending, marriage too, reminded me of the ending of a later Dickens novel, Our Mutual Friend, where Lizzie Hexam nurses Eugene back from the edge of death and marries him. Dickens likes unlikely angels (from lower class or modest origins or inclinations) to rescue his fallen men back to life. There are many such pairings throughout his novels. But what also struck me in this finale, with the long-foreshadowed marriage, was Amy's active role. She is the one who makes a full confession of her love to Arthur, and her desire to share her "fortune" with him--she in effect reverses their roles and so becomes his mother, rather than his child.
On Julia's comparison with Jane Eyre: in Bronte's novel Jane's fortune allows her to approach Rochester on the class ladder and to free herself from financial dependence on him as (former) employer. In this way, Jane can return to Rochester as a closer equal, even one with the power to see and to lead (Amy is similar in this respect). Here, Amy has either lost her fortune (as did her siblings) through bad speculations or destroys it, at least symbolically, through the burning of the codicil, in order to demonstrate that she and Arthur are equals. I see this ending too as part of Dickens' desire for a world of social and even financial equals--rather than the peaks and valleys of the rich upper class and lower working class and destitute.

Finally, I loved the sudden collapse of the House of Clennam. This reminded me of the role of houses, edifices, even bodies in Dickens that collapse or seem on the brink of some disaster (Bleak House, Krook's own spontaneous combustion, the House of Dombey, just to name a few) as richly symbolic.

Yes, this novel grew on me in startling ways, as some of you have mentioned too. I'm glad I'm teaching it this fall! I've also just ordered the 2008 BBC adaptation, which earned much praise.

Now, onto a novel that was serialized in Dickens' magazine All the Year Round: Wilkie Collins' THE MOONSTONE! As I mentioned earlier, we'll read each week the four installments published weekly in the course of a month. I'll list the chapters for our weekly reading, but also the original divisions in case you want to follow the flavor of the serial form, and divide these readings up according to the original weekly installments (which you could read in four daily sittings each week).
For next week: The Moonstone, Prologue through chapter 9 (January 1868: Prologue-chap 3; chaps 4-5; chaps 6-7; chaps 8-9).

Serially Sailing (to India....),

12 July 2010

Little Dorrit, Part Eighteen, II, chaps 27-29 (May. 1857)

Dear Serial Readers,

Julia's comment makes me see some affinities between the world of crime, money, corruption in this novel and in more recent serials like The Wire, and the connections across social class and institutional divides. Yes, the remaining mystery--saved up for the double-number finale (next week!)--is the unraveling of Mrs. Clennam's money-related crimes, and the nature of "the commodity" Blandois had offered to sell to her. I'm also a first-time reader of this novel, so I can only speculate. But I suspect this secret around the Clennam household will go far in explaining many of Arthur's early questions when he first returned to London at the start of the novel. Maybe he and Amy are half-siblings, although I think that's far-fetched! Still, in the spirit of wild speculation! There is a tightening of the scene and action in these last installments too--these three chapters set in Marshalsea, and the last five, at least according to their titles (Closing in, Closed, Going, Going!, Gone)all plot-driven around resolutions.

I was also thinking there are different kinds of avarice at work in this novel. Obviously there's plenty of money-greed. But there's people-greed too (even self-greed), and here Amy Dorrit's overwhelming determination to sacrifice herself to a father/figure (now, Arthur, who continues to call her "my child") is a prime example. But like the range of money mishaps and crimes, there seems to be good and bad forms of this personal avarice. Young John is another stellar example--he knows Amy is in love with Arthur and his struggle to quell his jealousy by telling Arthur suggests the good kind of people-avarice. Young John's gravestone fantasy ending with the cap-fonted "MAGNANIMOUS" humorously announces that such self sacrifice might also desire recognition. I loved that tombstone inscription--in part because it provides another angle on what appears to be Amy's selfless devotion. In other words, this seeming self abnegation might not be so purely selfless after all. With so much giving, there's the pleasure one takes in that form of virtue. Now Mrs. Clennam seems the wrong kind of avaricious person and I suspect we'll learn more about that in the concluding chapters. There are the in-between comic kinds too, like Fanny.

Next week--all the rest! How many of you have truly played by these "Serial Reader" rules and *not* yet finished the novel at this point? It is a different kind of reading experience, isn't it, to move in small and steady increments like this?

Starting the week of July 26: The Moonstone!

Serially speculating to the end,

05 July 2010

Little Dorrit, Part Seventeen, II, chaps 23-26 (April 1857)

Dear Serial Readers,

New design features available, so I did some redecorating. I don't think I'll hold on to the background though--too busy.

This installment did surprise me--I had no idea that Amy and Arthur would be reunited through the Marshalsea romance (and, the poverty-is-better-than-wealth conceit) again! At least, that's how things wind up, with Arthur, and his altered fortunes, weeping for need of Amy's devotion. And of course we know that Amy was most happy tending to her father in prison, and now Arthur, long a father figure in the making for her, is back at the old home, waiting her return. But Arthur going into debtor's prison seems so clearly a kind of martyrdom, his insistence that he take the punishment for ubiquitous financial crimes of others, because his speculations have caused harm to his innocent partner Doyce, even though Arthur was never motivated by self-gain (unlike the likes of Merdle and Barnacles).

So many passages in this section could, with a bit of tweaking, come straight out of our own times--ruthless financial speculation that causes the ruin of many due to the unethical conduct of a few--Wall Street 2008 echoes here, as well as suicide--try Googling "financial suicides" and you'll see what I mean--the rate spiked in late 2008, early 2009. Merdle's suicide in the public Baths surprised me--quite spectacular and gruesome, seemed to echo Marat's death in his tub, meant to look like suicide although the work of Charlotte Corday. Even Merdle's weapon--Fanny's penknife--seems an allusion to Marat's death, and the 1793 painting by Jacques-Louis David, which shows pen and knife and letter (see sidebar).

The extended bit about "Physician" and "Bar" rolls out all the cliches about lawyers as low-life manipulators, but also the physician as "a great reader" and the modern-day confessor, or the one who penetrates into (or is told) the secrets of others. Dickens aligns Physician with "reality" through this ability to gain knowledge beyond people's surfaces. Is Physician in this sense like the narrator of a realist novel?

Finally, Dickens also attributes an "equality of compassion" to Physician, and here I want to return to Kari's comment last week on the subject of compassion and Miss Wade's Narrative. Through Miss Wade's story, Dickens seems to ask why would someone spurn compassion, or refuse to see compassion as anything more than pity and condescension? I see here a kind of struggling with certain profiles of liberalism and social justice--not so much (as Kari puts it), "she made me do it" (that Miss Wade is so miserable that her mistreatment is really her own fault due to that bad temper), but "we gave them every opportunity, and still they persisted in their bad, mad, ways." This is a long way of saying that perhaps Dickens is showing the limits of compassion, or that sometimes compassion is simply not enough. I don't think he provides answers here, but does generate lots of questions about social and psychological behaviors that seem puzzling, reprehensible, or worse. Is Miss Wade taking in Tattycoram motivated by compassion, by revenge, by something else?

Nevertheless, compassion will rule the day in the world of this novel, I bet. Even Young John shows some compassion as he reserves that special room (ie, where William Dorrit once lived) in Marshalsea for Arthur. And we know how Little Dorrit, aka Amy, longs for the old Marshalsea days when she could provide solace and comfort to her father. Now she'll get another chance to return. But is this compassion at its best? There are still many threads (including the secret about Blandois and his mother which Clennam tried to extract from Affery)to be worked through to the end. And Fanny's baby in the works!

Only two more installments (since the final one is a double issue)! We'll finish this novel in two weeks (I'll post the last on this novel on July 19), and then we're launching THE MOONSTONE!
Next week, #18, part ii, chaps 27-29.

Serially speculating,