POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

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,