POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

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,