POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

26 December 2010

Miss Marjoribanks 3 (April 1865--chaps 9-12)

Dear Serial Readers,

To begin by responding to last week's conversation--I admit I'm stymied by this novel so far, like Plotaholic's "bad faith" suspicion. I agree with Kari that Lucilla's ambitions to enter "social politics" through her community organizing of the Thursday Evening affairs resemble Glencora's social hostess work in Trollope's Palliser novels (a model or companion series for Oliphant's). But I'm less convinced that the tone of the novel prompts amusing affection for Lucilla with her domestic campaign, her warfare in a teacup. So tiresome becomes the repetition of Lucilla's professed mission to give comfort to dear papa who seems not to need or desire it. Is this refrain meant to convey something like gentle ridicule? I cannot say that I admire or even feel terribly interested in Lucilla's machinations, although I find the attention to decorative renovations (the use of green that suits Lucilla's appearance) in concert with the reshaping of Grange Lane society intriguing. But for all these strategems, including her deft handling of Tom's proposal, it's inevitable that she will marry someone by the end, and that someone is likely to be cousin Tom. This is rank speculation, dear Plotaholic and like-minded readers! I have never read this novel!

The characters I'm most drawn to are the Lake sisters. Here is where Oliphant best sketches the finer points of class distinction in Carlingford. I loved the detail that Barbara's six-times washed muslin comes off as a very different shade of white than Lucilla's pristine frock. More compelling than Lucilla's so-called devotion to papa is Barbara's confused feelings of resentment and cautious ambition, her mixture of "fright" and "spite" or "shyness" and "temper." And I also liked the fancy that the aspiring young MP Mr Cavendish could become her own private hero--that this dream springs from the novels Barbara reads. Lucilla does deserve credit here for the "heterogeneous elements" that she draws together for these Thursday Evenings.

A few other favorite details from this segment seem directed in different ways to the question of women as agents and objects of looking: the Brown sisters' photographic glass-house next door facilitates Lucilla's camera-ready poses and Rose Lake as "the little Mistress of the Design School" who teaches drawing (like her father). Visual appearances, from the Marjoribanks drawing room to the dress and manner and even body (Rose's life classes at the Design School) all warrant self-conscious notice.

But my jury is still out on the title character, whether her frequently remarked "genius" is deserved, whether her energetic social engineering is only frustrated and misdirected energy after all. I just can't quite parse the tone.

Next week: chapters 13-16.

Serially slipping,

20 December 2010

Miss Marjoribanks 2 (March 1865--chaps 5-8)

Dear Serial Readers,

I am happy to turn the lead for this week's conversation over to ReaderAnn. I'll chime in at some point (overloaded right now in various ways). For next week's #3 installment, chapters 9-12. Thanks to all for contributions--a lively start!
Serial Susan

From Reader Ann:

Lucilla is a complex young woman, I'm just not sure yet quite who. She is, of course, well distinguished by her desire to be a comfort to dear papa. By the end of Chapter Five, she shows attributes of not only a conqueror and ruler, but also a "leader of mankind." So far, if she is not out and out manipulating people and situations, she is engaging in "simple reconnaissance" in route to exercising her will. Still, I am watching and warming to her, like her father as he gets to know his daughter, seemingly
for the first time. Early in Chapter six he bemoans the "blunders of Providence," and by the end is taking tea with a daughter cleaver beyond his wildest dreams. Is it Oliphant¹s gentle, ironic touch that makes Lucilla so likeable, or is it something within Lucilla¹s character that will be only gradually revealed? For my part, I'm crazy for anyone who differentiates "Evenings" from "parties," and knows how to pull off the former.

We meet so many new women, from Miss Barbara Lake, shy, injured,unappreciated, the perfect foil to Lucilla, to the zealot Mrs. Bury and the veiled Mrs. Mortimer whom we may never see again. I love watching how Lucilla responds to the varieties of women, and to the, so far, few men. For all her confidence and intention, she is fearful of something, and vulnerable. A dream about sorry Tom is all it takes for her to steer clear of him in the rudest of ways for someone as socially astute as Lucilla.

I've rarely been so eager see how a plot will thicken. Will her father remain enchanted by her? Will some uncontrollable love interest undo her? Despite Lucilla's persistent claim about the aim of her life, I end up wondering: What is it she really wants?

By the way, like Josh, I noticed the lack of sentimentality around the mother's death, but I didn't stop to be thoughtful about it. I chalked it up instead to the one line about Dr. M, "too busy a man to waste his feelings on mere sentiment."

12 December 2010

Miss Marjoribanks 1 (Feb 1865--chaps 1-4)

Dear Serial Readers,

Welcome back Serial Readers!

So much humor (ironic? sardonic? something else?) here in this opening installment that brings us the remarkable Lucilla Marjoribanks. Of course I'm intrigued by Q. D. Leavis's connection between this heroine and Jane Austen's Emma and George Eliot's Dorothea, but I see far more of Rosamond Vincy than Dorothea. What's an ambitious, capable, intelligent young woman to do, given the limited sphere of domesticity in which she has the opportunity to reign, especially if she wants to be a social reformer of sorts? And given her formal education at Mount Pleasant, where her "active mind" has been "condemned over again to verbs and chromatic scales"? Oliphant's opening chapters almost read like a riff on Ruskin's "Of Queens' Gardens"--even with some garden imagery. Yes, Lucilla seems the consummate arranger, with her light-speed renovations of the drawing-room space which she illuminates. She is "Lucilla" for a reason.

Lucilla has the makings of a strong-minded domestic goddess with a hint of the sensation heroine lurking beneath her determination. In the pages of the same journal, a few years later, Oliphant had this to say about sensation novels: "What is held up to us as the story of the feminine soul as it really exists underneath its conventional coverings, is a very fleshy and unlovely record." I gather Lucilla is a different creature from the sensation heroine who "waits now for flesh and muscles, for strong arms that seize her, and warm breath that thrills her through" (this also from Oliphant's review "Novels"). Perhaps all this libidinal energy is displaced or sublimated through her passion for managing the home. She clearly doesn't relish the prospective visit of her cousin Tom who probably lacks the suitable flesh and muscles Oliphant claims female readers yearn for. Lucilla seems instead to recoil from flesh (about meat on the plate, I'm not sure yet--but I love all the details about Nancy's sauces--gravy-beef and all).

I can't resist a link to a serial novel we've read in these blog pages--Gaskell's WIVES AND DAUGHTERS (the words "wives and daughters" appear in chapter two here). By Feb. 1865 when this novel was launched in Blackwood's, Gaskell's novel, also about a widower doctor and his young daughter, was in its sixth monthly installment. Gaskell's "Hollingford" seems close to Oliphant's "Carlingford," although here Gaskell was echoing Oliphant who'd already published novels, like SALEM CHAPEL, in her Carlingford series.

So the suspense of sorts--will Miss M's Thursday evenings prove "a revolution in the taste and ideas of Carlingford"? We must wait for next time, chapters 5-8.

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Serially started again,