POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

30 December 2011

Washington Square 1 (June 1880) chaps 1-6

Aloha, Serial Readers!

I'm reading James in Hawai'i, a setting that accentuates my reading of place in this first installment in Old New York. WASHINGTON SQUARE appeared transatlantically a month apart (with the first installment, these six chapters, in The Cornhill in June, and in Harper's in July 1880), a traveling experience of a different kind.

I also just finished Jeffrey Eugenides' THE MARRIAGE PLOT, an ideal post-sequel to this story about Catherine Sloper's marriage plot. What struck me about the description of Catherine in this debut installment is her sensuality. Her accentuated plainness, which I take to mean she possesses no conventional feminine beauty, and her strong appetite for food and for clothes (that red dress with the gold trim--what Lauren Berlant considers an allusion to Hester Prynne's Scarlet) imply to me a kind of sexual presence perhaps more common with male Victorian characters. She's "somewhat of a glutton" who "devoted her pocket-money to the purchase of cream-cakes"! Her response to Morris Townsend seems rather more embodied than otherwise--how else to read why dancing with him makes her dizzy?

At the same time she has the power of a fortune, or at least a prospective fortune as an heiress, which is where this marriage plot is headed. Apparently James began working on THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY just after finishing this story, so Catherine as a precursor to Isabel Archer and to Pansy Gilbert. While it's clear that Catherine's aunt likes the idea of Morris as a suitor with a proposal up his sleeve, and that Dr. Sloper is approaching this prospect as a business arrangement (he needs to check out the goods by visiting Morris's sister on Second Avenue), that Catherine imagines telling her father that she refused the proposal, and that she starts lying to him, throws some seasoning into this marriage plot. What other power does Catherine have besides refusing and dissembling? We shall see.

For next week, chapters 7-12.

Serial Seasons,

02 December 2011

Upcoming Serial: WASHINGTON SQUARE by Henry James

Dear Serial Readers,

After this two-month break in reading Victorian serials, I am announcing the launch of our next serial: Washington Square by Henry James. The six installments were published first in the London periodical THE CORNHILL from June to November 1880, and a month later (July-Dec. 1880) these installments appeared across the Atlantic in HARPER's MONTHLY MAGAZINE.

We'll start with the first installment for the week of January 2nd and we'll arrive at the sixth and final installment for the first week of February. This is a rather short serial (considering we've read many that are twenty installments), so do make plans!

#1 includes chaps. 1-6.

Serially starting up,

01 October 2011

Martin Chuzzlewit 10 (Oct 1843) chaps 24-26

Dear Serial Readers,

Another transatlantic crossing eastward with this number--back to the English Eden! Pecksniff's obsequious comments about gardening as "an ancient pursuit" took me back to the American Eden where any cultivation (land and manners) seems an impossible enterprise. That said, what are we to make of Pecksniffian cultivation, "ancient" as it is? And then we have the unfortunate newlyweds, the Jonas Chuzzlewits, with the unmerry married Merry at the end of the installment who arrives at her new "HOME" (last words of the installment and the exact textual MIDPOINT of the serial), which is already "a wicked house."

So Dickens seems to suggest that all is not so rosy in the English Eden either. Yet with such a large cast of characters, in contrast to the smaller American group (who might only appear once or twice), we also get some lovely and amusing types from the lower echelons of English society--Sairey Gamp, Poll Sweedlepipe who perhaps balance out the more obnoxious Pecksniff, Jonas C, and the insufferable scheming Tigg/Montague. We get rising characters too--Tom Pinch becomes more interesting with his attention to Mary--maybe moving somewhere, and Martin's rehabilitation via his American ordeal is on the horizon.

Next time, #11 chaps. 27-29. Which Eden, I wonder?

Serially scenic,

19 September 2011

Martin Chuzzlewit 9 (Sept 1843) chaps 21-23

Dear Serial Readers,

Back across the Atlantic to Martin and Mark's new Eden adventures. Following Josh's lead, I'd say one of my favorite passages in this installment is the very first one which begins: "The knocking at Mr. Pecksniff's door, though loud enough, bore no resemblance whatever to the noise of an American railway train at full speed. It may be well to begin the present chapter with this frank admission,lest the reader should imagine that the sounds now deafening this history's ears have any connection with the knocker on Mr. Pecksniff's door, or with the great amount of agitation equally divided between that worthy man and Mr. Pinch, of which its strong performance was the cause."

I guess this opener answers my last question: Dickens's comparison between old/new, England/America. At least, the narrator challenges the reader to make "any connection," either literally through the sound of knocking on Pecksniff's door and the roaring American train, or more broadly between the cultures. But the movement of these installments does encourage such intertwining.

And we get some amusing caricatures--General Cyrus Choke on "Britishers" and the supposed political suppression of news there in contrast to the wide dissemination of that news to the "locomotive citizens" of America. The General readily admits to Martin he's only been to England "in print,"--perhaps Dickens's allusion to the widespread reprinting of his own words in the American press. There are some other choice comparisons made between US/UK through American eyes, a comic counterpoint for Martin's reverse comparisons.

The Eden settlement--or "lo-cation in the Valley of Eden" is of course a huge send-up of the scamming of Martin-types, foreigners drawn to pioneer outposts to make their fortune through colonizing the land--with a few references along the way to forerunners like Columbus and Crusoe. We meet some choice specimens of Americans, like Mrs Hominy on the steamboat passage (more transits) to New Thermopylae (another settlement like Eden, perhaps a parody of New Harmony). But I was struck by the sheer resistance of the land and landscape--"so choked with slime and matted growth was the hideous swamp which bore that name." If Eden is depicted as a kind of environmental wasteland, it also repels these two English settlers who can't cultivate this land, perhaps because their knowledge of farming is wholly in terms of English soil. If nothing else, Martin wants to go "home"--and his lust for the American dream of rich speculations has been pinched.

Now, back "home" to England in the next installment? Next time: chaps. 24-26.

Setting Sails Serially,

17 September 2011

Martin Chuzzlewit 8 (Aug 1843) chaps 18-20

Dear Serial Readers,

Something interesting that reading serially brings to my attention--how the installments in this mid-portion of the novel alternate between the First Eden (ie England) and the Third (or New) Eden (America). So far, there's no mixing of the two within a monthly number. Although this format would seem to segregate the two nations, the way the narrative crisscrosses the Atlantic does prompt a fusion of the ridiculous, the relative merits and demerits of each place. Usually readings of this novel recycle Dickens's travel writing, *American Notes in General Circulation* with the assessment that Dickens lambasted American culture. True, but he does not spare his ridicule of British culture via the Pecksniffians and the other long list of characters and circumstances. But why then keep these two places serially separated? What's the effect? And in this installment, the narrative returns from America, with this lead sentence: "Change begets change." Anthony C dies, but what changes? More will-plotting among the extended family, with Jonas's confused proposal to Merry-Mercy instead of Cherry-Charity.

Next time (which I'll post shortly): #9, chapters 21-23. Back to (the New) Eden?

Serially Sailing,

PS Thanks AFH for noting Jill Lepore's NEW YORKER article on Dickens (and the Dickens Project at Santa Cruz)--has anyone else had a chance to read it?

05 September 2011

Martin Chuzzlewit 7 (July 1843) chaps 16-17

Dear Serial Readers,

New York! Interesting that Dickens uses journalists and newspapers as a way to introduce this new country and its crass culture. The Rowdy Journal as "Popular Instructor"--what do we learn from this public face on American culture? I must say that Martin never seemed so appealing as he does now in contrast to the vulgar American folks he encounters. Yet even the rank swindlers like Major Pawkins perhaps have counterparts in the English Pecksniffs and Co. I love the idea of this "elastic country"--lots of space for all sorts and conditions of people. And many details on cultural customs, from food, feminism (Mrs P), and dollars, dollars, dollars. Bevan is an American with a capacity for critical analysis of his country. I found interesting the conversation comparing American and British culture, and enjoyed the pretentious Norrises who are obsessed with British peerage and repulsed by Martin's steerage passage!

It will be interesting to see how Dickens juxtaposes these cultures as the narrative crisscrosses the Atlantic.

Next time: #8, chaps. 18-20.

Serially yours,

26 August 2011

Martin Chuzzlewit 6 (June 1843) chaps 13-15

Dear Serial Readers,

I found myself only reading one more installment--I shall endeavor to pick up the pace, but too many other demands on my reading time right now!

In this installment, where Martin C. and Mark T. make the transatlantic voyage, I was especially intrigued by the description of the steerage. Martin, with his English "gentleman" class identity, resents having to mingle with the riff-raff in steerage, but Mark rallies to the democratic flavor of this miscellaneous group of travelers and tends to them all with food, song, reading, writing letters for others--"there never was a more popular character than Mark Tapley" who is "the life and soul of the steerage."

I'm also struck by how miserable the journey is on bodies--everyone seems to suffer from sea-sickness in this "unwholesome ark" of The Screw, and its "terrible transport." I've read about the "middle passage" from Africa, and wonder how the steerage conditions Dickens describes compares with the horrors of the middle passage. Being chained and without fresh air or windows or the ability to walk on the deck would be worse. Steerage is the way immigrants usually traveled. But in any case, is the prospect of opportunity (which Martin seems to anticipate) in the US worth the price of the passage? We'll see.

Next up, New York, New York! Chaps. 16-17.

Serially sailing still,

16 August 2011

Martin Chuzzlewit 5 (May 1843) chaps 11-12

Dear Serial Readers,

More travels in this fifth installment, including a paean to the "strong, healthy, hardy walk" as "better than a gig" as Tom Pinch and Martin C venture to Salisbury to meet John Westlock. More too on the petulant, sour disposition of Martin in contrast to Tom's sweetness (to a fault, John notes), and more on the insufferable Pecksniff who insults his young cousin sufficiently to make Martin resort to desperate measures--to go off to America.

Tom's horror is amusing to behold: "No, no," cried Tom, in a kind of agony. "Don't go there. Pray don't! Think better of it. Don't be so dreadfully regardless of yourself. Don't go to America!"

So ends this installment with Martin on the brink of a rash journey. I'm curious for this adventure! And I'd like to try to pick up the pace of reading a bit by moving from one to two installments per week.

For next time:
installment 6, chaps 13-15
installment 7, chaps 16-17

Serially sailing (not walking),

09 August 2011

Martin Chuzzlewit 4 (April 1843) chaps 9-10

Dear Serial Readers,

The beginning of this installment--"Town and Todgers'"--offers a perfect passage of Dickensian London with the maze of streets--"Todgers' was in a labyrinth." I think "labyrinth" must be *the* word for Dickens' London, and perhaps too for Dickens' multiplotting. I find myself drawn to some of the stories more than others, although like the streets, alleys, and whatnots, in the City of London, there are surprising plot intersections where I'm able to get better oriented. Pecksniff's London visit, in this case, is due to the business of the wealthy senior Martin, and now we know that young Martin will soon be heading abroad, at least from Pecksniff's establishment. I can't wait for narrative to sail altogether away from Pecksniff territory! Ruth Pinch is the female counterpart to her brother Tom who seems to find contentment despite the abuse she suffers as governess. Still, I hope these Pinches end up doing more than succumbing to tyrants, small as they are.

Again, like this one, the next and fifth installment consists of two chapters, 11-12. I'm wondering if the three-chapter segments, more common in later Dickens serials, offers a bit more variety for reading pleasure. I found this installment rather lukewarm and am not sure how eager I'd return for more, if I didn't have a hunch about where the plot is traveling....

Serially stalling,

03 August 2011

Martin Chuzzlewit 3 (Mar. 1843) chaps. 6-8

Dear Serial Readers,

Traveling in this novel seems to take a while--perhaps to allow sufficient time for all the reading? I was intrigued by the discussion of form by the architecture student, aka Martin C, early in this installment. Pecksniff has given him the assignment of designing assorted odd constructions--a cow-house or an ornamental turnpike. I wonder if this as an extended metaphor for the raw materials of fiction-building, where even "a cart-load of loose bricks" can be transformed into architectural wonders, like the domes of St. Paul's in London or St. Sophia in Constantinople.

Despite the various tangents and odd annexes (Slyme and Tigg), the plot thickens--we learn that grandfather Chuzzlewit's traveling companion Mary is young Martin's would-be sweetheart. As Tamara noticed about Dickens's fire-gazers, Martin relates much of this backstory to Tom Pinch while watching the flames in the fireplace, a favorite Dickensian inspiration for imaginative speculations. This seems a familiar pattern: young Martin must prove himself worthy of his love, and presumably worthy of the wealth too his grandfather withholds from him. Have I read this story already?

Eager to learn more of M. Todgers while the Pecksniffs visit London--for reasons which will reveal themselves "all in good time" (apt closing words of this number) in the fullness of seriality!

Next week: chaps. 9-10 (again, two long chapters, rather than three shorter ones).

Serially yours,

27 July 2011

Martin Chuzzlewit 2 (Feb. 1843) chaps. 4-5

Dear Serial Readers,

First, if you click on the part-issue cover of Martin C to your right of this page, you'll find all the installments of the novel in pdf forms you can download, plus many illustrations (2 per installment). You'll also see the brief headnote that this novel was not popular among initial readers and that Dickens added the traveling to America portion later to boost sales.

Since all I know about this novel is that the title character does travel to the US, I did notice the attention to travel in this second installment--lovely Tom Pinch's jaunt up to Salisbury to collect Pecksniff's new architecture student (none other than the eponymous MC) *and* the allusions to reading as transportative! Tom Pinch's delight in both kinds of travel were also a pleasure to read, perhaps because of the relief we readers (like Tom) get after the stifling and miserable atmosphere of the vulgar vultures after the aged Martin C's money in chapter 4. How nice to escape to the road, and to traveling via books!

[ASIDE: I should add that while I think "Pecksniff" is a perfect caractonym, I'm less persuaded by "Pinch"--who may be pinched as Pecksniffian assistant), but has some fine qualities not conveyed through this tag.]

The descriptions of the two bookshops in Salisbury have my vote as best passages--how the smell of pages and leather binding transport Tom back to his boyhood grammar, and how the illustrations from Robinson Crusoe and the Persian Tales prompt his travels to other places and times "before the Pecksniff era" of his life. Reading here is much more than a mental activity--it involves sensations of smell, sight, touch, sounds of language. I do love the Dickensian word playing, and there are terrific flourishes in this segment too!

Next time, chapters 6-8. I'm still debating picking up our traveling pace through this serial.

Serially in Salisbury,

18 July 2011

Martin Chuzzlewit 1 (chaps 1-3) Jan. 1843

Dear Serial Readers,

We've read several Dickens novels already (Dombey, Drood, Dorrit), but this 1843-44 serial is the earliest of the lot. In this opener, I recognize the Dickensian journey to the interior--it's gradual, from the scene setting of chapter one with all the somewhat abstract description of nation and world traveling, and the rise and fall of Chuzzlewits whose "high and lofty station" and "vast importance" delivered with irony at best. The Pecksniffs, father and daughters, have grandiose ideas of themselves, the father especially. And finally in this last chapter of the opening installment, we have a character with some merit--the childlike young woman (a stock character in Dickens--think Little Amy Dorrit) who accompanies the elder Martin Chuzzlewit on his travels. There's a will and wealth plot afloat here too--Martin senior has lots of money, but he sees only the corrupting power of that wealth and seems reluctant to leave the money to his grandson who, claims Mary, has "the strongest natural claim upon you." How many Dickens novels showcase the hazards of wealth for character and for familial ties?

Intriguing and Dickensian is Martin's final diatribe against the self plot, which he suspects his grandson of pursuing: "A new plot; a new plot! Oh self, self, self! At every turn, nothing but self!" And "Oh self, self self! Every man for himself, and no creature for me!" The ultimate sentence of the installment: "Universal self! Was there nothing of its shadows in these reflections, and in the history of Martin Chuzzlewit, on his own showing?" It seems like selflessness is the virtue of the day, one lacking in the male Chuzzlewit line, but modeled by little orphan Mary.

We're set up to wait for the young Martin, successor to the old: Chuzzlewit and Grandson. Traveling seems a key note in this opener too. Your thoughts on this serial launch?

Next installment: chapters 4-5. What about accelerating our travels with this novel, and reading two installments per week? I'll see if anyone has thoughts about a quicker pace (please comment), and perhaps we'll adjust for upcoming segments.

Serially starting,

11 July 2011

"Janet's Repentance" V (chaps 22-28) Nov. 1857

Dear Serial Readers,

This story, and the series of "Scenes," ends with hope and loss--quite a fitting closure for Eliot's budding realism. Janet rallies forward into grey-haired age, and although she has no picture-perfect ending, she does have financial security, due to her inheritance as a widow, and a reasonably gratifying life. This story about an Evangelical curate who is subject to harassment and ridicule yet proves to be a deeply compassionate person--the best of the lot of the clergymen in the series (although the other two weren't *bad*)--for me, this story redeems the sequence. I say this because I'm wondering how many people started reading "Amos Barton" and then bailed, from boredom or something else? I'd love to hear about that. I still am inclined to think these early stories are trying out the "realism is boring" possibility, but this last story realizes the power of suspense, and dramatic incident, and the psychological realism of the title character--not a minister but an abused and despairing and alcoholic wife. That deathbed kiss between Tryan and Janet suggests the hint of a deeper, even sexual love, a potential marriage that does not happen: something we see often in Eliot's novels. The very last sentence of the story mentions Tryan's "lips" again. A lost opportunity that Tryan seems to comprehend.

There were bits in this last installment that also reminded me of those later novels: the deathbed scene of Dempster who seems about to make some kind of revelation made me think of Mrs Archer at the end of "The Lifted Veil." And the fast-forward of the last paragraphs reminded me of the ending of THE MILL ON THE FLOSS and the sense of survival in the wake of loss.

Finally I wanted to say that, unlike Kari, I don't think Eliot is "anti-religion." I just think she's critical of doctrinal rigidity, and so sometimes seems to castigate religious figures and religion in her fiction. But clearly she believes in the power of human compassion to bring about some kind of spiritual (and practical, daily) redemption. As I've said before, Tryan's talent to understand--to read rightly--Janet's struggles through his own experience forecasts other characters with this capacity in later novels, some of them clergymen (like Farebrother).

After this experiment with the serialization of a series of stories or "scenes," Eliot turns to novels, and although she writes two more stories ("The Lifted Veil" and "Brother Jacob"), only the second was serialized across a few months and is a self-contained story rather than these loosely linked three. I'm curious what these stories can tell us about the serial form.

Onward, Serial Readers, to Dickens' MARTIN CHUZZLEWIT! Dickens wrote this novel just after his trip to the US, and after he published AMERICAN NOTES, about those travels; so we might think of the novel as the fictional counterpart to the NOTES. Published in 19 monthly installments (the last a double-header), the first appeared in Jan. 1843, and consists of chaps. 1-3 (but not the Preface, which Dickens wrote after completing the novel).

For next week: MARTIN CHUZZLEWIT, chaps. 1-3! Spread the word!

Serially yours,

04 July 2011

"Janet's Repentance" IV (chaps. 15-21) SCENES of CLERICAL LIFE (Oct. 1857)

Dear Serial Reader/s,

I'm on a mission--these stories deserve more serious notice than they've received! I have one comment on this episode of this "Scene"/story, and then another on a way to read these "Scenes" as interlocking.

First, on the scene between Tryan and Janet. I once wrote a book on confession in Victorian literature, and I wish I'd included this remarkable scene. When Janet confesses "how weak and wicked" she feels for her sin of drinking (seems a bit harsh on herself, given that her husband drinks excessively and beats her and locks her outside in the middle of the cold night, but never mind) to Tryan, this Evangelical, renegade preacher responds with a confession of his own sin--his great guilt for indirectly causing a young woman's death. Eliot demonstrates that much more than doctrinal belief, true religion is human compassion, not just sympathy or pity, but deeply hearing and understanding another's suffering, sometimes through connection with one's own. Tryan is a remarkable confessor because of the mutuality which his sympathy means--"sympathy is but a living again through our own past in a new form, that confession often prompts a response of confession." I can think of many confession scenes in other Eliot novels (such as Gwendolen to Deronda) and cannot recall a single instance of this response of confession to confession. It seems clear that redemption and salvation come through human connection first, not some dry religious creed. The story Tryan tells about Lucy reminded me of Gaskell's earlier seduction stories (Esther Barton, even Mary Barton and Carson, and Ruth), only this time from the perspective of the genuinely reformed seducer (unlike Ruth's Bellingham).

Second, it occurs to me that we might link together each clergyman of the "Scenes" and see a kind of evolution here, from the very ordinary Amos Barton who does his job in a perfunctory way, but nothing remarkable. Perhaps all those young children and wife and the countess distract his attention outward. Then we have Maynard Gilfil, who is a good enough vicar, even if he doesn't seem to live up to the most doctrinal principles. We learn he has a good heart, by going back through the story of his own heart. Yet it is this third clegyman, the "meddlesome, upstart, Jacobinical fellow" (according to Lawyer Dempster), who displays the greatest power of ministering to a sufferer. This is also the only story of the three where the minister's name isn't in the title, but instead the woman who turns to him out of desperation.

While I think that it's "Janet's Repentance" that typically has received the most attention as the best of the three "Scenes," I'd like to suggest that we could even see Tryan as the culmination of the serial ministers, and perhaps Janet as the composite of the women linked to them. In any case this story of a battered wife and a ridiculed Evangelical preacher who "gets" what human suffering means is quite remarkable to me. And I wonder if Eliot is recommending celibacy for her clergymen--or recovered celibacy at least. It seems to me that the most powerfully compassionate religious men are not married--Farebrother in Middlemarch, say, or even Savonarola in Romola, and Dr. Kenn at the end of The Mill on the Floss is recently widowed.

If anyone reading this knows of good scholarship on this series of stories, please tell me!

Next week: the final installment of "Janet's Repentance" (chaps. 22-28). There's more suspense, I find, at the end of each of these installments (or maybe the suspense builds from the earlier stories to this one). Now the final suspense: is Janet going to be delivered through Dempster's timely death or will he survive and she return to him? Tune in for the finale!

The week after next: Martin Chuzzlewit!

Serially sympathizing,

27 June 2011

"Janet's Repentance" III (chaps. 10-14) SCENES of CLERICAL LIFE (Sept. 1857)

Dear Serial Readers,

This story has now swerved into a portrait of an abused wife, with the harassed Evangelical minister on the periphery. Eliot offers an array of reactions, none helpful--how Janet's mother-in-law blames this misery on Janet's failures in housekeeping, and how her own mother sees and feels helpless, and how the people in Milby see and gossip and do not feel enough. Eliot implicates the reader in this futile search for origins of abuse: "Do you wonder how it was that things had come to this pass--what offence Janet had committed in the early years of marriage to rouse the brutal hatred of this man? The seeds of things are very small: the hours that lie between sunrise and the gloom of midnight are travelled through by tiniest markings of the clock: and Janet, looking back along the fifteen years of her married life, hardly knew how or where this total misery began..."

Several "Poor Janet!" moments--reminds me of Eliot's penchant for this pitying address in later novels, especially MIDDLEMARCH.

At the end of this installment, Dempster has locked Janet out of their house--at least he did not murder her, as she expected. But to be locked out in the cold also thrusts her domestic plight into public. I'm anticipating Tryan to the rescue.

On this serial reading and ahead: I see the conversation has fallen off in recent weeks. I am curious if this relative quiet has anything to do with the stories themselves. I have been searching for how these "Scenes" are a series, but it's clear the narrative threads are unevenly stitched, with Gilfil before Barton in time, and this tale of Tryan and the Dempsters seemingly unhinged from the other two, except for the "clerical life" theme. Two more episodes and we're through with SCENES OF CLERICAL LIFE. For next week: 15-21.

Upcoming serial--Dickens again! We'll start reading MARTIN CHUZZLEWIT, the last of Dickens's picaresque novels (with PICKWICK as the first),in a few weeks.

Serially yours,

19 June 2011

"Janet's Repentance" II (chaps. 5-9) SCENES of CLERICAL LIFE (Aug. 1857)

Dear Serial Readers,

The ending of this second installment, like the ending of the first of this story, is jarring, again a hook of suspense leading to the next segment of publication. But this last paragraph also hints at the title's meaning. I had thought the title alluded to J's repentance of her marriage, but now it seems geared toward her part in ridiculing and causing pain to Tynan, the Evangelical minister with a deeply sympathetic core, unlike the wretched Dempster. On the one hand, it sounds like the narrator is scolding Janet for "looking on in scorn and merriment" at Tynan. But on the other hand, we see the pernicious claws of abuse where Janet, for the paltry crumbs of her husband's affection("Gypsy" is his nickname for her! Shades of Maggie Tulliver!), stoops to take part in humiliating a good man who has noticed her own suffering.

Like Kari, I noticed that the narrator identifies as a man with memories of boyhood. What did you make of the "mural literature" of Dempster's playbill of the "reclaimed and converted Animals"? It seemed rather silly farce to me, and somewhat surprising from Dempster who appears to lack any speculative, imaginative capacity, something Eliot usually affiliates with sympathy.

Next week: segment 3, chapters 10-14.

Serially yours,

12 June 2011

"Janet's Repentance" (chaps. 1-4) SCENES OF CLERICAL LIFE (July 1857)

Dear Serial Readers,

From female murderers to a High Church lawyer who has a habit of wife-beating in Eliot's final "Scene." I must say I was taken by this first installment--how we're initially introduced to Dempster's campaign against the Evangelical minister Tynan's evening lectures, and then other scenes in Milby (forerunner of Middlemarch?) replete with tea, handicrafts, and gossip, including Tynan's comment about Mrs. Dempster, aka Janet, and then finally her sad story. There's something about the form of this installment that performs the suppression of domestic abuse--until the end. All this piling up of public sphere politics, spearheaded by Dempster, and then he resurfaces at the end when he returns home, drunk, and beats Janet. Is this, like realism, or part of realism, domestic violence as ordinary or as the dirty secret everyone knows?

As Plotaholic asks about what are female murderers doing in Eliot's realist fiction, I would ask the same about the abusive husband, who has a different public face. I sometimes think Eliot uses sensational scenes (like Mme Laure or Gwendolen's held hand in Grandcourt's drowning--and do we know in either case what did cause the deaths of their husbands?)for realist ends, which could mean ambiguity, lack of resolution or full disclosure--an ending that doesn't quite conclude. It's interesting that both *Middlemarch* and *Daniel Deronda* prompted sequels.

I found moving the last paragraphs of this segment on the twin paintings over mantelpieces, one of Janet's mother, the other (Christ about to be crucified?) by Janet as a young girl, as symbolic presences of mother and martyred daughter to each other. Yet neither is able to actually speak about this horrible secret of Janet's abuse. Like Janet's mother, and Milbyites who seem to know what's going on here, the reader too can feel, but cannot do anything. I'm hoping Tynan does.

One more thing--I wonder if the "Janet" mentioned in the first chapter of the first story of Amos Barton is the same "Janet" here? Perhaps just a coincidence? Mr. Gilfil does come up in that first chapter of "Amos," and I'm suspecting that there are more networked connections across these three "Scenes."

Next week: chapters 5-9.

Serially stunned,

06 June 2011

Mr. Gilfil's Love-Story (chaps. 14-Epilogue) SCENES of CLERICAL LIFE (June 1857)

Dear Serial Readers,

On the lacking of the "clerical" in this story about Mr. Gilfil, the Shepperton rector who preceded Amos Barton of the first SCENE: maybe Eliot's point is that clerical life, like realism, is ordinary and secular. Notwithstanding the protracted botanical metaphor of Gilfil as a " whimsical misshapen trunk" (due to heartbreak over that "delicate plant" that died "in the struggle to put forth a blossom"--did Caterina die in childbirth?), this story concludes with the suggestion that Gilfil's "love-story" of long ago made him a better clergyman, a more compassionate presence than a doctrinal expert.

I found myself impatient with the story, and I'm not sure it was simply because I knew the ending near the outset (some of you know my agnosticism on readerly suspense). I found the writing at times too maudlin, overgrown with those botanical flourishes. I even had this suspicion: did Eliot write this story entirely, or did Lewes have a larger helping hand?

Yet here are some aspects that intrigued me:

*Caterina's dagger--her desire to murder Anthony, and Maynard's refusal to believe she would actually be capable of this deed--shades of other Eliotic women would-be or otherwise murderers (from Hetty Sorrel to Madame Laure and Gwendolen Harleth) and men who cannot fathom them as such.

*All the chapter divisions--this story has many very short chapters; I'm not sure what this means in terms of the serial parcel, but I found many sub-scenes within this larger scene.

*The verb tense shifts (as Julia noted)--the use of the present tense to generate suspense, excitement, or immediacy-- a way to insert the reader into the story.

*The scene shifts between humble homes and Cheverel Manor (between realism and romance), even between provincial England and Italy.

*There were elements that also reminded me of JANE EYRE (Caterina fleeing Cheverel Manor, and her vulnerability to the seductions of Anthony who cannot marry her) and AURORA LEIGH (the transplant of the Italian child onto English soil)

Next up: our third and final "SCENE"--"Janet's Repentance" (chaps 1-4).

Thanks, Kari, for mentioning the photographs from the 1907 edition. Are there ones that accompany the other stories in SCENES too?

Serially scenic,

29 May 2011

Mr. Gilfil's Love- Story #3 (chaps 7-13) May 1857

Dear Serial Readers,

First, HAPPY BIRTHDAY DEAR SERIAL READERS! Three years ago this week I launched this adventure with the first novel, DOMBEY & SON. Since then, we've serialized through eight novels and a few stories.

This third of four installments of "Mr Gilfil's Love-Story" showcases the structure of the serial, with the first sentences as a kind of recap from the previous chapter/installment, and the final lines a stab at suspense--is he dead or alive?
Of course, we know the end of the love-story from the start of this narrative, so whether he is dead or alive is only an issue in terms of how the plots works out, not the overall outcome.

I was amused at the rapid switch to present-tenseness for suspense value in the close of this episode with: "See how she rushes noiselessly, like a pale meteor..." But still, I'm rather detached from any gripping engagement with this story.

Next time--the end of "Mr Gilfil's Love-Story" (chaps 14-Epilogue).

Serially celebrating Three,

23 May 2011

Mr. Gilfil's Love-Story (chaps.3-6) from SCENES (April 1857)

Dear Serial Readers,

First, I just added an article link to the list of blogs and articles (see right column, scroll down past several novel covers)about designing a Kindle for Dickens.

On this story as a serial: I continue to be intrigued by Eliot's reverse-narrative with Mr. G's story. In this second installment, the narration goes back several decades to the summer of 1788 in Italy to tell the backstory of Caterina Sarti and how she came to be a ward of Sir and Lady C at Cheverel Manor. I found echoes of various Victorian narratives before and after this one, including Aurora Leigh (transplanted too from Tuscany to England). The narrative structure that sets a scene in the opening two chapters and then jumps back to provide a richer narrative context for that initial moment is a form Eliot uses in her final novel DANIEL DERONDA. I wonder how effective this shape is for the serial? Perhaps one could read this story and not even need the first two chapters (ie first installment) to follow it?

That this story stands on its own apart from the first "Amos Barton" SCENE is clear, and yet Eliot does intertwine the stories, again going backward. I'm curious to see how the last story, "Janet's Repentance," will play into the serial and the backward narrative structure. But first, the penultimate segment of this story for next week--chapters 7-13.

Serially yours,

16 May 2011

"Mr. Gilfil's Love-Story" (chaps 1-2) SCENES (Mar. 1857)

Dear Serial Readers,

Picking up on Kari's comment about the good clergyman Cleves at the end of "Amos Barton," I find this story also recommends a model of the kind vicar who can make meaningful connections to his parish flock and isn't wedded to doctrinal principles. I see seeds of future Eliotic ministers in Maynard Gilfil--the generous Dr. Kenn in THE MILL ON THE FLOSS, the warm and intuitive Farebrother in MIDDLEMARCH, to name only a few.

While I can hear some of you SRs groaning about the plodding plot, the overwrought descriptions of Cheverel Manor (supposedly modeled on Arbury Hall, where Eliot's father Robert Evans was estate agent when she was a child), I do find interesting the narrative structure in this story. It works backwards from the time of "Amos Barton," as the opening mentions "old Mr. Gilfil died" thirty years earlier. Then we see the later years of Mr. Gilfil as the vicar who doesn't "shine in the more spiritual functions of his office" yet seems a better clergyman for all that then poor Amos B. The first chapter of this story concludes with hints about the love story of the vicar's now "wifeless existence" and the second chapter goes back several decades more to 1788 and young Gilfil's unrequited love for Caterina who is in love with the seductive Captain Wybrow who apparently has no intention of marrying her. I like this backward motion, even from "Amos Barton" to this story, and then again within this story. Eliot's interest in how to write the past surfaces in these early stories. But as for seriality, it's subtle perhaps.

Next time: chaps. 3-6 of "Mr. Gilfil's Love-Story."

Serially yours,

08 May 2011

"Amos Barton" (chaps. 5-conclusion) from SCENES of CLERICAL LIFE (Feb. 1857)

Dear Serial Readers,

After reading Plotaholic's Complaint, I had to laugh when I began this installment of "Amos Barton." At the start of the fifth chapter, the narrator launches into a long defense of this "unmistakably commonplace" story about a man of "insignificant stamp." It's almost as if Eliot is daring readers to fling aside her experiment in realism, which is more "Scenes" than story: "As it is, you can, if you please, decline to pursue my story farther; and you will easily find reading more to your taste, since I learn from the newspapers that many remarkable novels, full of striking situations, thrilling incidents, and eloquent writing, have appeared only within the last season." Go ahead, toss this aside, the narrator challenges: realism (at least Eliot's version here) *is* boring!

Besides thinking of Charlotte Bronte's opening of SHIRLEY where she tells her readers that if they are hoping for "passion, and stimulus, and melodrama" to "calm your expectations; reduce them to a lowly standard," I also thought of a novel written nearly forty years after this one--George Gissing's NEW GRUB STREET. At one point a character plans to write a novel that as "honest reporting" would be "unutterably tedious." Is this the experiment in realism Eliot initially attempts in her first published fiction here? What are the limits of the commonplace and tedious?

While I wouldn't call this a memorable story at all (and perhaps Eliot learned that she needed a larger space for a fuller development of narrative since the next two stories are progressively longer still), there were at least two memorable scenes for me: Nanny giving the pampered Countess a piece of her mind which results in the Countess's overdue departure from the Barton home AND Milly Barton's death and its effects on her children of different ages and on Amos.

As I said last time, I am surprised at how sustained and frequent are the interruptions by the narrator who addresses "dear reader." Maybe Eliot is trying to figure out the balance of story and narration, of the commonplace and enough narrative interest. At least these addresses to "you" do attempt to pull the reader into the story. We'll see whether she advances from "Scenes" to something more like plot as we head into the second story, "Mr. Gilfil's Love-Story." But I admit that these "Scenes" with her fabulous word-work do appeal to me.

For next time: chapters 1-2 "Mr. Gilfil's Love-Story."

Serially in scenes,

02 May 2011

"Amos Barton" (chaps. 1-4) from SCENES OF CLERICAL LIFE (Jan. 1857)

Dear Serial Readers,

If the author weren't available to me, I might've thought this first of two installments of the story "The Sad Fortunes of the Rev. Amos Barton" was written by Oliphant! Not only the "clerical life" theme of a provincial English community seemed Oliphantine to me, but also the deliciously ironic humor about manners and style! When John the man-servant overturns the gravy tureen onto Milly Barton's dress, I thought--isn't there a parallel scene in MISS MARJORIBANKS? Although we read that novel first, this story predates O's novel by some 8 years, so the gravy mishap has Eliotic roots! Eliot published this series of stories in BLACKWOOD'S, the magazine Oliphant began as a regular reviewer for in 1859. More to the point is that both writers worked as review editors for monthly magazines before turning to fiction.

What intrigues me most about the installment (as Eliot's first venture into published fiction) is her narrator's presence. With so many appearances of "I" and "we" and "you" in these pages, Eliot foregrounds the networking of readers/narrator/character in a way that seems to recede in her later novels. In fact, I don't recall Eliot using "Reader!" as she does in the very first chapter: "Reader! *did* you ever taste such a cup of tea as Miss Gibbs is this moment handing to Mr Pilgrim?" Such interventions seem to point to (even if they attempt to bridge) realism's gap between outside and inside the story. The writing here also reminds me of Gaskell--and although MARY BARTON seems an obvious precursor because of the character name, I sometimes found Eliot's humor Crandfordian! The only other Eliot fiction that I've found this amusing is her underread story "Brother Jacob" (published in THE CORNHILL in 1864).

As for the title character, we have a curate who is very ordinary stuff--the perfect kind of realist material Eliot elaborates on in her essay "The Natural History of German Life." But I'm more interested in the women presented in this opening installment--Milly Barton, the intriguing Countess Czerlaski (nee Caroline Bridmain) who married the dancing-master of the family where she worked as governess, and even Janet Gibbs, the fifty-year old niece of Mrs. Patten. Perhaps I'm thinking this "Janet" will figure in the third SCENES story. I admit I'm on the look-out for possible connections across the three stories, and there is a brief allusion to Mr. Gilfil who had the good sense to preach short sermons, unlike Amos Barton.

For next week we'll finish this first story in the SCENES series with chapters 5-10. I'm curious to hear your thoughts on this installment!

Serially scenic,

27 April 2011

Coming Next Week: Scenes of Clerical Life

Dear Serial Readers,

We'll resume our serial adventures with George Eliot's first published fiction, SCENES OF CLERICAL LIFE. The first story, "The Sad Fortunes of the Rev. Amos Barton," appeared in two installments. We'll read and chat about that first installment this coming week--chapters 1-4. Spread the word!

Serially starting,

26 March 2011

Miss Marjoribanks 15 (May 1866--chaps 50-The Last)

Dear Serial Readers,

A circular plot by way of this conclusion where Tom repeats his proposal from installment #3, after he returns again to Lucilla, as he did first in #2. But presumably now he is now more like--as he had wished to Lucilla in that early proposal scene--"someone you had never seen before." It's all in the beard--and all those "heaps of Indian things."

How does "after all it was Tom" make sense? If marriage, despite Lucilla's protestations in #3 that she "had not the least intention of marrying anybody," is required "after all" for Lucilla, then marrying her cousin allows her the most continuity with the character of her very self--not only does her name stay the same, but she ascends to "Marchbanks" (yes, same pronunciation as "Marjoribanks"!) which offers her a bigger social sphere (county rather than town) and physical domestic space for her social reforming genius. Even the hint that she can pitch her political hostessing skills through Tom surfaces in her idea that "there are Members for counties as well." By keeping the marriage all in the family, with a cousin who adores her from the start and yet seems a pliable quantity worthy of her efforts (unlike poor Cavendish--I wish we'd seen that he was indeed married to Barbara Lake--), Lucilla can stay her course, and yet expand her social consciousness (as Tamara K suggested in her recent comment--)

The most curious line to me is where Lucilla compares her past efforts to reform Grange Lane and Carlingford to a woman who has "slaved...in a mill." Her interest in social reform here seems ludicrously compared with the focus of reform work by E. Gaskell's heroines, for instance. But is this a comical note, Lucilla's comparison, that ironic undertone that creeps in from time to time in this novel?

The suggestion that Lucilla will now embark on housing reform projects in Marchbank anticipates Dorothea's interests in Middlemarch--so I can appreciate Q.D. Leavis's comparison a bit better with Eliot's heroine devised only five years later. Tamara K mentions Eliot's "dead hand" in Middlemarch with the startling ringing of Papa's bell, and yes, it seems to me totally clear that Eliot read this novel--after all they had the same publisher! But I don't know if they met or corresponded. Do any of you Serial Readers know, by chance? I imagine we'll see evidence too that Oliphant read Eliot's stories published in Blackwood's--

I will say that this ending is palatable too because Tom is so familiar, but also so relatively unformed as a character compared to Cavendish, Ashburton, and any other suspects who have had far more page time in the serial. Maybe this familiar unfamiliarity is a good quality too for our "genius" Lucilla to continue to have full sway for her reform works.

Your thoughts on this concluding installment? Thanks to all of you various and many Serial Readers for this novel--I counted something like eight or nine different readers posting, a record for this slow reading adventure! I've relished all your contributions!

We will take a short break from these screen-pages before starting the serialized stories, "Scenes from Clerical Life," George Eliot's first fiction, first published in the same magazine in which MISS M appeared in serial form! I estimate that the first installment of "The Sad Fortunes of Amos Barton" (in two installments) will be for the last week of April. But I'll announce that in the next few weeks. Get ready for this next serial adventure designed for short-term readers too (since the first story is only two installments)!

Serial salutations,

15 March 2011

Miss Marjoribanks 14 (Mar. 1866--chaps 47-49)

Dear Serial Readers,

The election of all elections in this installment--but, as some of you have pointed out, an election devoid of political views. What emerges in these chapters, though, is who gets to vote, and who does not. Reform Bill debates were whirling in spring 1866 when this installment appeared. Would extending the franchise to some of working class men help Conservatives or Liberals at the polls? The Reform Bill, introduced in 1866, debated and altered and finally passed in 1867, was meant to enfranchise only "respectable" urban working men and exclude unskilled poor men by a householder stipulation. This issue of voting reform was so charged due to speculations about how new voters would aid or hurt political parties--there were demonstrations in several cities as the Reform League called for universal suffrage. And while "universal suffrgage" typically meant only men, the question of women voting was also in the air. Oliphant published an article, "The Great Unrepresented" in Sept. 1866 in Blackwood's where she notes that despite being taxpayers and householders, and even contributors to the pages of "Maga" (ie Blackwood's), "we are supposed unable to decide whether Mr Smith or Mr Jones is the best man for the borough." Yet Oliphant declines John Stuart Mill's call for women's suffrage. I was surprised to learn that it wasn't until 1918 that British legislation enfranchised all male resident householders over 21 and women over 30 who met property qualifications, and not until 1928 was there equality for women and men voters.

What we do hear about in these pages are the various boroughs of voters for the Carlingford member, from Grange Lane to Grove Street to the bargemen of Wharfside, "many of them, freemen, and a very difficult part of the populartion, excited the most vivid interest." All this flurry about voting propels the start of the installment, the only installment launched without Lucilla in view. As a woman, she is cast to the background about voting reform and the election. Even her former servant Thomas, now "an independent householder," has a vote it seems.

Lucilla's participation in politics is through proxy, through her selection of "the best man" for Carlingford. But now it appears this "best man" is not the best man for her. That frantic bell-ringing that interrupts Ashburton's proposal at the end of the installment heralds, no doubt, cousin Tom fresh from India. All Lucilla's pounding heart here suggests she's swayed by the love match for her cousin (the cousin about whom she seemed to hold a pragmatic older sister attitude early on) over the marriage of political and financial and social merit. But this familiar choice perhaps is the closest Lucilla can achieve to her past reign in her father's house; at least by marrying Tom, she remains Lucilla Marjoribanks, or becomes Mrs Marjoribanks.

I much prefer Lucilla's sealskin coat over Barbara's tin dress, that's for sure. Even so, I'm glad Cavendish and Barbara appear to be on the verge of marrying. For a novel to conclude with two women "gone off" in age at least and marrying too seems rather remarkable.

Next time--the final installment!

In some serial suspense,
Serial Susan

06 March 2011

Miss Marjoribanks 13 (Feb. 1866--chaps 44-46)

Dear Serial Readers,

To offset last week's lengthy dialogue, I'll offer a brief comment on this week's installment. Lucilla's decision to remain alone (with only cook Nancy rather than the entire household retinue) in her Grange Lane house is remarked upon sufficiently to suggest the boldness of her move not to move or to "abdicate." I wonder about the importance of Lucilla's remaining in this house which bears the marks of her interior designing. The house has become an exemplar of herself: for Lucilla and this house to part company is unthinkable. Will she retain her domestic rule then by marrying someone who can move into this house and support her life there? The relationship between property and personhood seems crucial.

One tiny leftover from last time: I had meant to mention Maria Brown, the photographer, whose picture-making career reminds me of Rose, the little Preraphaelite. I find it interesting that Oliphant does provide these examples of working women even if Rose is forced to "abdicate" her profession for home work.

There are two installments left of this novel. Our next serial reading adventure will begin in three weeks (the week of March 28): George Eliot's SCENES OF CLERICAL LIFE. These "Scenes" are three stories, which ran in serial segments from January to November 1857, as Eliot's initial foray into fiction after writing essays and translations. For those of you who haven't kept up with the program of a novel's worth of installments, you might like this next selection since you could pick and choose the stories: the first ("The Sad Fortunes of Amos Barton") with only two installments, the second ("Mr Gilfil's Love Story) with four installments, and the last "Janet's Repentence" with five.

For next time, Lucilla's latest experiment continues with chapters 47-49.

Serially yours,

27 February 2011

Miss Marjoribanks 12 (Jan. 1866--chaps 40-43)

Dear Serial Readers: A dialogue follows--

Reader Ann: More happened in these four chapters than in all the previous installments combined!

Serial Susan: How so?

Reader Ann: Well, we start with politics and end with death.

Serial Susan: Yes, and Lucilla's moment of reflection about her own condition forms the keystone in the middle holding together politics and death. It's there, early in chap. 42, where the narrator comments that "she had come to an age at which she might have gone into Parliament herself had there been one disqualification of sex, and when it was almost a necessity for her to make some use of her social influence."

Reader Ann: And she recognizes her "instincts go beyond even dinners," that she "was a Power in Carlingford and she knew it. But there is little good in the existence of a Power unless it can be made use of for a worthy end."

Serial Susan: And there's the rub--what "worthy end" can Lucilla pursue given that direct representation in politics is denied to her and that by the end of this installment she loses even her financial power--along with papa?

Reader Ann: Even in her supporting role in the Carlingford election she's aware that after the election she would feel a "blank."

Serial Susan: This "blank"--perhaps that's also an allusion to death, nothingness, no matter any more. Were you surprised about her father's death and how we're prepared for it?

Reader Ann: I would've been surprised if you hadn't said while we were reading aloud that you thought her father would die! But it seems logical given how frequently we are told in early installments that her purpose is to be a comfort to "dear papa." He needed to be taken out of the picture in order for her to realize her next step.

Serial Susan: And her father starts hinting about her marrying eventually, maybe sooner than later, maybe Ashburton, although all he wants is that his daughter not marry "a fool." He advises her to marry because "I don't think you are cut out for a single woman."

Reader Ann: Isn't it a contradiction that he says she's not suited to the single life, but that she should be careful about too much self-sacrifice. If anyone can come up with a new idea of marriage, it will be Lucilla! Maybe that explains Lucilla's great "Experiment" of marrying someone who is poor. Or maybe this "Experiment" is the hint that she's about to design a new notion of marriage.

Serial Susan: Maybe such an "Experiment" would provide an opportunity to use her Power to some good. But what a surprising ending to this installment where it's learned that she has lost monetary Power at the moment of her inheritance after her father's death! What's the point here? Again, like Rose the little Preraphaelite, a young woman is forced to surrender her talents and suffers a diminishment.

Reader Ann: We had been speculating that the "poor man" she might marry could be Tom--

Serial Susan: or possibly Cavendish, although we're told so abundantly that he's truly "gone off" with his corpulence and red face, that that's *highly* unlikely! So where are we at the end of this twelfth installment with only three remaining?

Reader Ann: I am looking for a glimmer of hope in her father saying that a woman's self-sacrifice can be "useless" or "carried too far." In her genius and creativity perhaps she'll find an option that is outside the norm, something we've not considered.

Serial Susan: It's certainly true that Lucilla's options seem very limited. She cannot travel as she'd envisioned, the Grange Lane Marjoribanks home along with its Thursday Evenings (not "parties") must be relinquished, and whom could she marry? The "gone off" Cavendish? Hardly. The boring Ashburton? Possibly. What about cousin Tom? He was on the scene at the start, so I expect him waiting in the wings for the finale.

Reader Ann: Lucilla was feeling guilty that her mind wouldn't stop with her father's sudden death--that still she schemed, hatched plans, relishing her options in spite of her grief which made these new circumstances disclosed by the will even crueler.

Serial Susan: Yes, this double "inconceivable reversal of fortune"--her father's death and her loss of property and station--

Reader Ann: I thought all that was a way of saying so much for guilt, that's a waste of time.

Serial Susan: I still like your idea that Lucilla will rise above this calamity too and surprise us with a resolution to this difficulty.

Next week: #13, chaps 44-46.

21 February 2011

Miss Marjoribanks 11 (Dec. 1865--chaps 37-39)

Dear Serial Readers,

After the doleful conclusion of last time, I was delighted with the turn of events some ten years later. Despite the repetitive concern that Lucilla may have "gone off" in her looks, here she's given a taste of political influence in her bid for Ashburton. Mrs Woodburn even notes that influence is "a great deal better than a vote." Oliphant has this social genius put her talents to use in the political arena, and her strategy of a simple sound-bite "the right man for Carlingford" and the standard bearer colors of green and violet (with the green--Lucilla's own color--the dominant hue) seem to be effective. Although there is mention several times that women cannot vote, Lucilla indirectly votes by influencing her father and Col. Chiley. Of course the whole matter of political choice gets mystified here as tasteful colors and sloganeering, but Oliphant has a point as intertwines public and private spheres into a network with effects. To bring home women's disenfranchisement, Ashburton even tells Lucilla that if he could put her on his election committee, that would be "the first thing to be done... but unfortunately I can't do that." Mild perhaps, but this seem a bid for suffrage and at least some recognition that women do participate, if from the margins, in the political scene. Besides, how can a candidate supported by the pageantry of those lovey green and violet cockades lose?

Oliphantine humor continues, I think, with those wry allusions to Lucilla like Joan of Arc with her ribbons, as if she's martyring herself for a cause instead of marrying. And like Joan of Arc Lucilla is inspired by extraordinary forces, not voices exactly, but those lightning flashes and possible spirit-rapping from the deceased MP. Amusing!

The return of Harry Cavendish seems a momentary threat to Lucilla's campaigning convictions, but she stays the course--with the help of that marvelous sealskin coat. I find so intriguing this female character who seems to deflect obstacles from within or without-- and an unmarried Victorian heroine at this grand age of 29 whose independence seems the envy of at least one of her married women friends. The installment concludes that Lucilla's current "satisfaction and well-being" renders unnecessary any love interest. Such a radically different tone from last time and, as many of you have noted, from most Victorian novels I've read.

Next week: #12 (Jan. 1866), chaps 40-43. I have one more idea for our next serial, again a novel I'd proposed before: Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit.

Searching for Sealskin,
Serial Susan

12 February 2011

Miss Marjoribanks 10 (chaps 33-36, Nov. 1865)

Dear Serial Readers,

This installment has more than a glimpse of Lucilla's interiority. I was especially taken with the momentous scene where Cavendish comes up to her in the street (chap 34) and the sense of anger and regret on each respective side that this match cannot come off. Here we learn that Lucilla's heart "fluttered" more than once, as Cavendish is on the brink of some kind of proposal or love confession. But propriety makes her follow on the course she's established, and she tells her favorite imposter (and brother of the mimic) that she hopes he marries Barbara. All this happens with her throat contracting, her heart fluttering, and with many explicit and pregnant "pauses" in her performance of this scene. And then afterward, the sense of a lost opportunity--Lucilla "a little sad in the solitude of her genius" with her unappreciated sacrifice. That she might have married Cavendish after all and rally to the great challenge of being a political wife--a "position which pleased her imagination, and suited her energies, and did not go against her heart," but instead she acts according to social laws that dictate she must marry within or above her class. Cavendish reminds me of some of Trollope's struggling heroes, Johnny Eames (whom some of us have met in these screen-pages) or even Phineas Finn--created *after* this novel. If only Lucilla could've been Cavendish's Madam Max!

Instead we have Lucilla's self-renunciation of a marriage (and not only is Cavendish the most popular man in Carlingford, he is with this reader too), much like Rose, the little Preraphaelite, forced to give up her "Career" for domestic duties. I can't help but feel "a little sad" and also marvel that Oliphant links the relative sacrifices of these young women, including Barbara, with her gorgeous voice and fiery passions, whose disappointment in love motivates her to turn to governessing.

Otherwise, I have been thinking about the staginess of these scenes, especially those that take place in the Marjoribanks drawing room, like the Archdeacon's encounter with Mrs. Mortimer, under the watchful eye of Lucilla as director, who has set up this reunion, and then goes on to provide all the necessary props for the wedding. But the walking scene with Cavendish gives the hint that perhaps her social artwork, genius that she has for it, does leave something to be desired.

I was intrigued by the final chapter, a reflexive commentary on the progress of the story and the shift to the second phase of Lucilla's career--"amid mists of discouragement, and in an entire absence of all that was calculated to stimulate and exhilarate..." Oliphant's realism indeed, especially on the subject of women's careers--whether the artist class of Grove Street or the elites of Grange Lane.
The strong chord of this segment seems about women's wasted talents and surrendered desires. Not just a "little" sad.

For next time, chaps. 37-39 for installment 11--only four more after this (15 in all).
Recommendations for the next serial? I had suggested Eliot's first fiction, "Scenes of Clerical Life," but am eager for other suggestions!

Serially sad,

06 February 2011

Miss Marjoribanks 9 (Oct. 1865--chaps 29-32)

Dear Serial Readers,

I loved the "outsourced" review Josh provided--and I thought the description of Oliphant could also apply to Lucilla herself. And I agree about the slapstick elements--I found so many scenes hilarious--like Cavendish's bad luck of sitting at the dinner table directly under the lamp so that the Archdeacon immediately recognized him. And Lucilla, whose sharp vision sees the calamity about to happen,drops her fan into her pyramid-shaped dinner napkin! And then all the mistaken assumptions about Lucilla and Cavendish, from Mrs Chiley or others watching her. AND, like last time, those allusions to "Them," or, as Mrs Chiley puts it, "everybody knows men are great fools where women are concerned." I don't think I've encountered another Victorian novelist this funny with the exception of Dickens--but, as I've said before, the Oliphantine humor is so different.

What struck me this time is the narrowness of the canvas here--that all the action of the novel is basically across two streets in Carlingford--the class-inflected neighborhoods of Grange Lane and Grove Street, and a few select homes within each. Not much traveling about this novel, but so much action, so much tempest in a drawing-room! And for all the suspense set up for the last installment (as TK said, "I wonder what will happen next!"), the playing out of the Cavendish Unveiled plot is quite drawn out. Now we have to wait for the next segment to see if Lucilla's best-laid plans to hitch Mrs. Mortimer with the Archdeacon (motivated by her desire to foil her father's leaning toward the widow who wants to disappear), will come off. And whether Cavendish will marry Barbara Lake after all, now that Lucilla has confirmed his class fall. The plot moves slowly, and not much happens, and yet the novel is oddly engrossing. As others have commented, this seems a different animal altogether from the familiar fare of Victorian domestic fiction, an alternative realism.

Despite the anxiety about this particular Thursday Evening, as it faintly registers through Lucilla's body (although her pulse remains calm!), her self-possession as hostess extraordinaire is still delightfully reassuring. She is a social artist, and what's also quite remarkable is her zest--her "genius"--for this. And so this installment propels us forward to more drawing-room suspense orchestrated by Lucilla: "her lofty energies went on unwearied to overrule and guide the crisis which was to decide so many people's fate." Is this humor in hyperbole?

Next time, chaps 33-36.

Serially salivating,
Serial Susan

30 January 2011

Miss Marjoribanks 8 (Sept 1865--chaps 26-28)

Dear Serial Readers,

Yes, I can see how Darwin's theory of natural selection resonates with Lucilla's fitness and the variety of weaknesses we get, from Barbara Lake to Cavendish and his sister (if she is his sister). And then, going along with this, the occasional remark that suggests 'Nature red in tooth and claw' (apologies Tennyson) aggression, like the Archdeacon "lying in wait to crunch his [Cavendish's] bones."

I loved Lucilla's compelling command of the episode where she dispatches with the Lake sisters in succession and appropriates the feckless Cavendish--such ordinary suspense, now, to find out in the next installment what Lucilla manages to extract from him about his secret life! I also enjoyed the attention to the scene as a performance--highlighted by the little Preraphaelite's awareness of its "pictorial qualities" like Millais's paintings--I wonder which Millais?

I was also amused by the places where Lucilla's genius for plotting all the threads of lives around her hits an unanticipated snag--the very possibility that her father may be too attentive to Mrs. Mortimer; the narrator remarks that "it was doubtful whether even Miss Marjoribanks's magnanimity could have got over any ridiculous exhibition of interest on the part of her father, who certainly was old enough to know better." Lucilla does seem to have a very pragmatic view of affairs of the heart (and attractions of the body). She likes some flirtation and matchmaking, but within social bounds set by herself.

She does seem to be tending toward cousin Tom, yet it's hard to reconcile how this "woman of genius" could find him a suitable match. Perhaps that's the point.

Next week: chapters 29-32.

Serially yours,

23 January 2011

Miss Marjoribanks 7 (August 1865--chaps 23-25)

Dear Serial Readers,

If Oliphant and Lucilla resemble each other as designers, there is one way in which they part company: a sense of humor. I'm finding Oliphantine humor a delicacy I've come to relish. I'd place this humor somewhere between Dickens and Eliot, more subtle like Eliotian humor, but without the acerbic edge. As one example: the "web of pronouns" episode where Lucilla endeavors to make sense out of Mrs. Mortimer's rather imprecise jumble of words. I could not resist thinking of Flora Finching, whose prolix proclivities Dickens offers up as lexical fun, as we considered a while back in these screen-pages (Little Dorrit). Unlike Dickens, Oliphant turns Mrs. M's pronoun confusion into a reading lesson as we see Lucilla struggle to locate some sort of pattern in the story. To return to Lucilla's insistence that she lacks a sense of humor: does she? or what does this insistence suggest about her, about her---interiority--her self-scrutiny?

I really did admire this installment for cavorting with the genre of sensation fiction, once again. A subtitle for these chapters could be: "Mr C's Secret." It seems that Cavendish has several of the signature features of the sensation heroine: disguised or mistaken identity ("the impostor") complete with a name change, a suspicious inheritance plot, and last but not least, bigamous desires. Cavendish, if he might be "Kavan" too, has been associated as a possible husband for at least three women: Lucilla, Barbara, and now Helen Mortimer (at least in Lucilla's crafty suggestion to Beverley). Earlier, last week, he expressed the quandry that he desires Barbara but he knows that marrying Lucilla is the socially proper course to follow--if only he could marry two women at once!

Finally, I loved Lucilla's command performance, including the sobbing, with Mr. Beverley to test him out and to test out her hunch about this "Kavan" character. Our "genius" Lucilla now must keep "three different threads of innocent intrigue with the three different persons in the drama" all in motion and without confusion--much like the novelist of a multiplot serial!

Next week, chapters 26-28. I think I'm back on track with reading and posting by the start of each week. Since we're at about the halfway mark in this serial, I'd like to invite suggestions for the next. I was thinking about another Blackwood's serial--or rather series--SCENES OF CLERICAL LIFE. I know these three loosely linked stories may not satisfy you suspense addicts, like Plotaholic, but these would offer another angle on the serial possibilities of Victorian fiction. Let me know if you have thoughts!

Serially simmering,

19 January 2011

Miss Marjoribanks 6 (July 1865--chaps 19-22)

Dear Serial Readers,

Kari will launch us for this week's installment, and I'll chime in later with a brief comment. For next week, chaps 23-25 (vol edition; or chaps 22-24 original installments).
Thanks to Kari for what follows! Yours, Serial S.

I enjoyed these chapters so much! Not one, but two not-quite proposals.

Let's start with the end, when Lucilla is surprised, which in itself is so unusual. It seems that it is she who feels "the earth had suddenly given way under her feet." The sentence is surprising, and perhaps that is why its grammar is also a bit confused. And I, this reader, was surprised that Lucilla had been providing for this school, such an idyllic setting for her in which to be posing when the Archdeacon runs into her. I had completely forgotten about Mrs. Mortimer, perhaps the first character for whom I've felt there might be real risk, and therefore, for the first time, I feel suspense. Since I can't wait for the next installment, I agreed to write this so we can get started blogging and I can keep reading!

This seems the most interiority we've seen of Lucilla. Perhaps that is because as contemporary readers, we are trained to see the unexpected, the unwanted, and the undesirable as the most inner and the most "true." In any case, that's how my students talk, and I often hear myself say the same thing. I do wonder what the notion of interiority was at the time of this novel, and how much literary uses of interiority were setting the stage for Freud's notions of repression and the unconscious.

And, in other drawing rooms, Lucilla's "self-devotion" is what can't help but convince Rose (and others) to follow Lucilla's will. I find that quite intriguing. I'll leave Barbara for others to dsicuss, aside from mentioning that it makes me a little sad to see the vast difference between Barbara's and Cavendish's desires. I'm probably giving more sympathy to Cavendish than Mrs. Oliphant is.

The other room that figures often so far in this novel is Lucilla's bedroom, which seems to my memory to be regularly referred to as "maidenly," although it is her "womanly" feelings that naturally wish she could have received Cavendish's proposal as a another tribute to her successes, but not to necessarily accept. This contrast between "maidenly" and "womanly" also reminds me of her vast wisdom compared to that 18-year old young man in the last installment.

I'm eager to hear what other serial readers noticed in this chapter. What shifts in tone do you all notice? What did you think of the lovely rural portrait of the schoolhouse in the midst of Carlingford? How did you see Lucilla's comparison between herself and Rose? Or . . . ?

13 January 2011

Miss Marjoribanks 5 (June 1865--chaps 17-18)

Dear Serial Readers,

Sorry to be a bit delinquent here--too much going on for serial pleasure! And so much to remark on from last time, all your comments, before getting to this week's installment!

Professor R's comments about Lucilla's character lacking the kind of interiority we're accustomed to finding in Victorian heroines is so intriguing! It's almost as if Oliphant is offering a send-up of all that interiority, with her domestic queen who is outwardly oriented to such an extent that what internal access we have seems all about her working through the challenges and rocky bits of the Thursday evenings. Barbara Lake seems a foil to Lucilla's character in this regard, and so Barbara becomes the cautionary tale (we're told) about the wrongs of showing your feelings. This is selflessness taken to a perverse extreme! Or are there hints of some lurking interiority?

There is attention, in this installment, to the discrepancy between outward calm and inward turmoil--that "somebody" who at once would have pounced on Lucilla for interrupting the Archdeacon's revelation and at the same time wanting to tear out his tongue for almost revealing the story of the adventurer (whom must be Cavendish).

I also keep thinking Oliphant is offering a kind of parody of the sensation novel, noted for plot over character. Here was have a character who is devoted to her scheme of social engineering, her "grand design of turning the chaotic elements of society in Carlingford into one grand unity." If Mr Beverley's story of the adventurer seems like a sensation character's social impostering (Lady Audley, for instance), does Lucilla's devotion to social mixing seem a benign or ordinary variation on the theme?

Plotaholic's point about the Lakes's proud class identification as artists comes through to me in this first chapter about Rose's disapproval of her sister. But I also love how Oliphant suggests that "the little Preraphaelite" too has her own social ambitions and dreams when the Archdeacon seems interested in her art portfolio. Some good puns too--such as Mrs Chiley on those "designing" Lake sisters!

I'm struck by the seemingly mild suspense woven into these installments--the fourth ending with Cavendish's "ghastly look" at the mention of the newcomer to Carlingford and in this installment the "somebody" at the Marjoribanks dinner table who has such a marked response to the Archdeacon's tale of the adventurer. Suspense is ordinary, Oliphant seems to be claiming here.

Finally, to respond to Plotaholic's question about bedside reading for Victorians: wouldn't there be the matter of illumination? I would think a candle to read in bed might be risky.

I'm reading the Penguin edition of this novel, and there is a note that after the June 1865 installment, the chapters in the revised volume version don't exactly square with the original serial version, since Oliphant applied a lot of editing at this point--to this installment. If I had time, I'd compare the revised volume version (which is what I've read) with the Blackwood's version. If someone knows, do chime in!
But from now on, the chapter numbers are off between serial and volume versions.
For next week, it's chapters 19-22 for the volume version (which I've been following), but chapters 20-23 for the serial version (which suggests this week's serial went through chap 19). Sorry for all the confusion! What version are you reading?

Serially yours,

03 January 2011

Miss Marjoribanks 4 (May 1865--chaps 13-16)

Dear Serial Readers,

All your terrific comments take me in a different direction than I thought I'd go in response to this latest installment. I wanted to say (and so I do) that this monthly segment ends with the drawing-room suspense (perhaps a mock suspense, in keeping with the mock epic others have pointed out) about the "young-enough" Archdeacon's arrival on the scene, and the mystery of Mr. Cavendish's "green ghastly look"--as the narrator concludes, "The question was, What did it mean?" But mostly, for me, the mystery that I fear will never be answered is what *was* that "famous dish" Lucilla requested and Nancy provided?

I agree with TK that Lucilla's lack of humor may be consistent with her materialist practicality, but you have all convinced me, for now, that the narrator's tone is an intriguingly ironic contrast to her character. It also occurs to me that the doctor's wry amusement about his daughter's success--her unflappable self-composure in the wake of the scandal of Barbara Lake's play for Cavendish--perhaps is a model for how we are to read her with something like detached affection. We might consider this novel a mock-biography (the narrator refers to "Miss Marjoribanks's biographer") where Lucilla's character is less obvious than at first it seems, maybe like the garden she's remodeled with dark corners and a spot of strategic illumination. But where are her dark corners?

Here I wonder if Lucilla seems somewhat sexless. She is rather impervious to all the marriage plotting in her direction. And while Lucilla may remark to Tom (as Prof R noted) that he's lucky he spilled his heart to her rather than someone else who took marriage seriously, her lack of susceptibility to men might point to some hidden quality, some reserve or fear. I do think of a later Victorian heroine, namely Gwendolen Harleth, who enjoyed male adulation, but the indication of sexual passion toward her seemed a source of trauma or terror. In any case, Lucilla and Barbara are quite different in drawing power from their physical charms. Lucilla is larger than life, a woman with a commanding presence, but what else?

I was sorry to see Barbara reduced to a rather pathetic figure, someone belittled by the narrator for her desire to hurt Lucilla, who did not take the sting of Barbara's attempt to conquer Cavendish. At the same time, I admire the recognition of Barbara's class sensitivity over L's patronage. Lucilla's "sleeping the sleep of the just and innocent" also implies her social privilege, that she can afford to cast off the affront.

Next week, chapters 15-16 (a shorter installment than usual).

Serially sifting,