POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

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,