POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

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