POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

POOR MISS FINCH by Wilkie Collins

10 May 2012

Curiosity Returning

Dear Serial Readers, I'm ready to try again, and will read the next two installments (chaps 13/14 and chaps 15/16) over the next week, and post! So since Kari seems curious, and I'm curiouser, I'll hope more people join in. If you've not started this serial novel, there's not that much catching up. Serially starting (over), Susan

25 March 2012

The Old Curiosity Shop #7/#8 (chaps 9-10, 11-12), June 20/June 27, 1840

Dear Serial Readers,

I'm picking up the pace although I'm not sure I have co-readers with this serial. Any suggestions for rescheduling the pace are welcome.

With the June 20, 1840 issue of MASTER HUMPHREY'S CLOCK, Dickens devoted the entire weekly to this novel, with two chapters per installment. These segments are much shorter in length than the monthly part issue numbers, and perhaps that makes for a tighter unit rather than the variety of scenes and plot lines in the monthly serials.

In the June 20, 1840 installment (chaps 9-10), Nell's susceptibility to her grandfather's plight and to Quilp's evil machinations around money gets lots of attention. The child/adult inversion, especially with girls, is evident too as Nell seems more the parent, more the one with good intuitive sense, than her grandfather. She tells her grandfather that homelessness and begging would be better than imprisonment in the house/shop which Quilp repossesses once he exploits the grandfather's nightly secret of gambling. In contrast to Nell's perverse home which the "crafty dwarf" invades is Kit Nubbles's jumbly family home. So does Kit's benevolent gazing contrast with Quilp's malevolent leering at Nell. Dickens seems to be dishing out lots of opposites here with these characters who surround Nell, although the grandfather's gambling vice is ameliorated by his desire to save Nell from a life of penury.

Chapters 11/12 (June 27, 1840) show Quilp in possession of Nell's home now with his legal advisor Mr. Brass in tow. Again I see the coding of Jewishness here with Brass from Bevis Marks, the City of London neighborhood where the first post-resettlement Jewish synagogue stood (and stands). I think that association would have been legible to Dickens's earliest readers. What's creepiest of course is Quilp's lecherous desire to take possession of Nell as the most valuable object in the household. Kit's banishment by the grandfather (due to Quilp claiming that Kit divulged the grandfather's gambling secret) makes Quilp's intrusion even more horrific. Yet the grandfather takes up Nell's suggestion that they choose homelessness over this unhomey home, and the episode closes with their fleeing the house as "two poor adventurers, wandering they knew not whither." In this sense of wandering, they are symbolically associated with diasporic Jews without a home.

Next time, two installments again, which translates into four chapters: 13/14 and 15/16.

Serially yours,

11 March 2012

The Old Curiosity Shop #4/#5 (chaps 5, 6-7), May 30 and June 6, 1840)

Dear Serial Readers,

With these early segments of Curiosity Shop, Dickens was still including in his new magazine Master Humphrey's Clock other short items in addition to this story. In the May 30, 1840 issue along with the fifth chapter of Curiosity, Dickens ran a piece that harkens back to his first serial Pickwick: "Sam Weller's Clock." Apparently TIME gets lots of play in the short pieces in the magazine too, as it does in Curiosity Shop. Given the serial form's dependence on reading in time, I'm intrigued by the CLOCK theme.

Chapter Five brings the beautiful child Nell to her antithesis, the "hunchy" grotesque Quilp. Again, Dickens seems intent on "curtain scenes" like Nell's mysterious message to Quilp to get readers to return the next week. Quilp is clearly implicated in shady monetary matters with his waterside counting-house. Although he's not explicitly marked as Jewish, Quilp does seem to have some traits notoriously close to the anti-Jewish arsenal of Dickens's day: his voracious and uncouth appetite, his excessive embodiment with its misshapen ugliness (clearly deviating from the normative), and finally his nefarious powers linked to money in the City of London and east of that neighborhood. That he'd like to elevate Nell to Mrs Quilp #2 when she's a bit older and when #1 dies is both comical and appalling.

Nell seems rather heavily marriage plotted in the paired chapters of 6-7 (the June 6, 1840 installment)--Quilp's plan may be the comical-grotesque, but her brother Fred's design with Swiveller isn't delicious either. Yet is it clear that Nell is in line for a nice inheritance? Or is this Fred's fancy as the unfavored grandson? In any case, Dickens has (to jump ahead in the time of his career) many brothers who try to take advantage of their sisters' good looks or other attributes--Tom Gradgrind and Charley Hexam are two that spring to mind.

Next time: chapter 8 (which appeared along with "Master Humphrey from the Clock Side"); chapters 9-10. After chapter 8, Dickens turned the magazine entirely over to Curiosity Shop. I supposed his readers were sufficiently Curious to merit this move by then! See if you notice some kind of shift in the story at this stage.

Serially yours,

03 March 2012

The Old Curiosity Shop #3 (chaps 3-4, May 23, 1840)

Dear Serial Readers,

Sorry to be languishing a bit with the pace here. I was waiting for a few more to jump on this Serial Reading Train before picking up speed. What about two weekly installments per week? Since these are shorter than the monthly portions, the amount of reading would be about the same as with Dickens's monthly numbers.

Yes, interesting about our Man of the Crowd narrator Humphrey, who in the middle of this third installment announces he's stepping back into the crowd--or, as he puts it, "I shall for the convenience of the narrative detach myself from its further course...." I wonder if this shift is also a marker of the transition from short story to a longer narrative form?

Balancing this retreat of Humphrey the narrator with his benevolent eye on Nell is the introduction of the notorious Daniel Quilp. This character seems almost anachronistic to me, a throwback to earlier literary devices of the "low" character whose body mirrors his social status and moral depravity. I'm sure disability theorists must have written about Quilp the "dwarf"--a small specimen in the meanest sense (as a husband, as a moneylender) of humanity. I suppose he's also a counterpoint to "little" Nell. I found myself cringing in response to the grotesqueness of Quilp, and his society of women including Mrs. Quilp as "martyr" and her mother Mrs Jiniwin, with her weird protests about the abused wife (with suicide as one solution). I'd much rather have the scenes of Nell, Kip, and company--so I'll be back for the next segment and hope to learn more about the life of Nell. She and her grandfather appear to be under the power of Quilp who wants to learn the grandfather's secret. I assume it's about money.

Next time: part #4 of this novel (actually #9 of Master Humphrey's Clock), chapter 5
and part #5, chaps. 6-7 (for a grand total of three chapters--5-7-- next week).

Serially yours,

19 February 2012

The Old Curiosity Shop #2 (chap 2, May 2, 1840)

Dear Serial Readers,

This story starts slowly, or in small installments, because originally Dickens meant to write a short tale for his new magazine MASTER HUMPHREY'S CLOCK. Infact, it's Master Humphrey who is narrating the story so far of the Curiosity Dealer and his granddaughter (and, with this second installment, his grandson Fred). With three serial novels behind him (Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, and Nicholas Nickleby), Dickens had in mind, for this weekly journal, some sketches, essays, adventures, and letters along the lines of the famously successful eighteenth-century periodicals, the SPECTATOR and the TATLER. So that's one reason why this story seems so clearly focused already and the installments so short. I learned too that book versions of this novel do include a few sections Dickens added later to the original installments. But this is because he really had not initially meant for a full-length serial. The public's warm response to Nell demanded much more. So I wonder if we'll see a shift in the style of the narrative later on, as Dickens makes the transition from a tale to a multiplot serial novel.

This second weekly installment has our Master Humphrey narrator return to the Curiosity Dealer's warehouse in his efforts to learn more about the grandfather and his mysterious occupation. No doubt There we encounter, along with Master H., Fred, the grandson who's angry with his grandfather and demands to see his sister. Fred insinuates that the grandfather is rich and yet works little Nell nearly to death, while the Curiosity Dealer claims they're poor. Dick Swiveller provides some comic interest as a human curiosity in the shop/novel, a glimpse of the eccentric characters that are part of the Dickens trademark. What struck me again is how this short installment again ends with a bit of suspense--as Nell is on the threshold. I like these small doses of narrative that close with a teaser for more--and I'll be back soon to find out what happens when "the child herself appeared."

Next time (at the end of this week, via my Mousehold Words delivery system), chapters 3 and 4. With this slow starting up pace, I'm hoping there will be some Curiosity readers joining this serial experience! If you like, you can read the first four chapters and chime in next week. Curious?

Serially shopping,

12 February 2012

The Old Curiosity Shop #1 (chap 1)

Dear Serial Readers,

I'm trying an experiment and I invite you to join me. I'm reading this serial via the Mousehold Words delivery system on my iPad or laptop rather than in a paper book format. I've asked Mousehold Words to deliver the 40 installments of THE OLD CURIOSITY SHOP twice a week, and my plan is to post short comments after I read each installment (one at the start of the week, the other toward the weekend). I hope you'll join me! See the link to MOUSEHOLD WORDS in the right sidebar of the homepage of "Serial Readers."

I love the way this serial begins! The narrator as a flaneur, a man walking about London at night who encounters a little girl on a mission, is terrific as a launch into the story. Isn't this walking through the city at night, this musing and watching and wondering, like the solitary work of writing fiction and of reading it? The eponymous shop too with the "curiosity dealer" also reminds me of story-making & the shop as an emblem for the entire novel. And Nell seems an early instance of Dickens's fascination with the wise girl-child (Amy Dorrit, Sissy Jupe, Florence Dombey, Jenny Wren).

At the end of this opening number, my curiosity is piqued, eager and waiting for more. Why was Nell out alone at night in the London streets? What is the nature of the curiosity-dealer's nightly absences from home?
Stay tuned to part two of forty (second chapter)!

Serially speculating,

07 February 2012

Happy 200th Birthday to Charles Dickens, serial novelist extraordinaire!

Today is the bicentennial of Dickens's birth! To celebrate, I talked with University of the Air hosts Emily Auerbach and Norman Gilliland about Dickens's serials and about "Serial Readers"--you can download that interview through the link (sidebar).

Next week, we'll start reading Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop, originally published in forty weekly parts in his new magazine, Master Humphrey's Clock in 1841. I propose a slightly accelerated pace of two installments per week rather than one so that we'll take twenty weeks in all to read this novel. The reading for next week's launch at the bottom of this post. So for next week, February 13-20, chaps 1-2! If you click on the image of MASTER HUMPHREY'S CLOCK at the top of this screen, you'll go to a website with the installments of the novel--chapter one is waiting for you!

Serially celebrating still,

Washington Square 6 (Nov. 1880)--chaps. 30-35

Dear Serial Readers,

Today we conclude the six-part serial by Henry James. I found these final chapters of WASHINGTON SQUARE quietly satisfying, like Catherine Sloper herself. She rallies forth in her own quiet but determined way to refuse the two men who have refused or disappointed her, her father and her lover. She refuses to accommodate her father's wishes that she marry eventually and she refuses to promise him that she won't marry Morris, because she has no desire to satisfy a father who has disappointed her in his low regard for her. But Catherine also refuses Morris's renewed proposal after some decades. In that finale, she tells Morris that she didn't marry because she didn't "wish to" and that she had "nothing to gain." It's true that her father reduced her inheritance because she refused to make the promise he required, but she has enough money and property, and a comfortable life. She's a spinster by choice, and as such James gives us a new kind of heroine. I'm also intrigued by Catherine's "ancient facility of silence"--she's a woman of few words (in contrast to the babbling Mrs. P.) and yet her quiet determination speaks volumes.

As other Serial Readers have noted, we have some interesting gender reversals--it is Catherine who is the strong, silent type, not noted for her physical beauty or charms, but deeply attracted to these qualities in Morris, whose body and face (both young and middle-aged) get far more words in this story than does Catherine's. And she enjoys material independence--she has the money which Morris must marry into because of his seeming inability to make money himself--again a position more typical of women. So, again, I found Catherine's life at the end, even with that "morsel of fancy-work," quietly satisfying because she has refused both men's wishes and because she does have a life of financial autonomy and activity--not to mention that Washington Square home! Your thoughts?

Please join the next serial, Serial Readers! You can sign up for installments of Dickens's CURIOSITY SHOP via "Mousehold Words" (see sidebar) by requesting the e-delivery of TWO installments per week! Next week, chapters one and two! See the next post too!

Serially celebrating (Dickens at 200),

31 January 2012

Washington Square 5 (Oct. 1880)--chaps. 25-29

Dear Serial Readers,

Thanks to Lurking Leora for her global observation that we've read three novels now of widowed doctors and their daughters! I like too this idea that Catherine's money and appreciation of beauty (rather than being the object of beauty) suggest some gender reversals. I hope she ends up a bachelor rather than an old maid--we'll soon find out.

I found in this penultimate installment some of the resolve and strength and smoldering sexuality of the early Catherine. She's now quite assertive about wanting to marry Morris despite her father--whom she has distanced herself once she recognizes he has no love for her. Meanwhile Morris is a coward--he can't even break off the engagement outright (since Sloper isn't yielding on the money matter) and manufactures weak excuses--he must go to New Orleans on business. Resolute Catherine says she'll go with him and risk yellow fever. She even sees beneath Morris's evasions and gathers he's leaving her despite his denials. I like Catherine's determination in the face of both her father and Morris. But I don't know where this story will conclude--only one installment remains!

When readers of THE CORNHILL read this installment in Oct. 1880, they found another James serial launched in the very same issue: THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY, a novel with some interesting echoes of Catherine, her father, and perhaps Morris, but without New York or American scenery at all.

We'll leave WASHINGTON SQUARE after next week. I just learned that Dickens's THE OLD CURIOSITY SHOP was first published in 40 weekly parts in the magazine MASTER HUMPHREY'S CLOCK. I propose reading a part per week, starting the week of February 13th. And guess what? You can have each original installment of Dickens's novel emailed to you via MOUSEHOLD WORDS (see sidebar). So sign up for CURIOSITY SHOP on the weekly plan! No money down! There are a few other websites that offer Dickens's novels in serial format and I'll include these next week. Some of the installments are only a chapter long--so I hope you'll consider joining the "Curiosity" serial reading experience!

Serially yours,

25 January 2012

Washington Square 4 (Sept. 1880)--chaps. 19-24

Dear Serial Readers,

I must say this serial continues with its collection of unappealing characters. Morris does seem increasingly a cad, really, and Mrs. Penniman a meddlesome fool (something the narrator and the doctor seem to concur on). Sloper is willful, including his threat that he won't will his money to C if she marries M, but then so is Catherine in her subdued, dutiful way.

Sloper's distasteful views of his daughter's merits where she's "about as intelligent as a bundle of shawls" persist. I doubt he believes what he tells her at the end of this installment, that Morris should thank him because, by taking Catherine traveling in Europe, her "value is twice as great." He's already suggested she's somewhat dense. Still, that Sloper sees his daughter in terms of her value (monetary, cultural, aesthetic) is clear, and perhaps echoes how Morris sees her as well.

The last chapter surprised me. Sloper's alpine wandering made me think something dramatic would happen--he'd get killed in an avalanche. But when he returns to Catherine he confronts her about her marriage plans and expresses his anger. The installment ends just on the brink of their return to NY, what Sloper anticipates as "a most uncomfortable voyage." There's a bit of suspense here too--and I expect something will happen on that trip--maybe he'll fall overboard or die suddenly, and we'll get to see if Catherine has the grit to marry Morris after all. Her plan to wait indefinitely has its limits.

Next time: chapters 25-29. And since we're approaching the conclusion of this serial (only one more after next week), I'm thinking of returning to Dickens--The Old Curiosity Shop. What do you think, Serial Readers?

Serially yours,

18 January 2012

Washington Square 3 (Aug. 1880)--chaps. 13-18

Dear Serial Readers,

The question of marrying for money--mercenary motives--continues in this installment. I rather liked Morris's candor with Mrs. Penniman: "I DO like the money!" And Mrs. P points out in turn that Dr S "married a wife with money--why shouldn't you?" So is Catherine's inheritance the underlying motivation or a benefit on the side? Isn't money always a facet of marriage alliances, does James suggest, in some way or other? Is it the money angle that irks Catherine's father, or does he use this to provide a rationale for some intuitive dislike of Morris's character (along with Dr S's sense that his daughter is easily taken advantage of--but is she)? What matter is this matter of money in marriage plotting here? Is Dr S's threat that Catherine won't receive his money should she marry Morris a test of her dutiful daughterliness (which she's struggling to preserve) or a test of Morris's ultimate motive?

I can see all the wills and will plotting at work here. Whose will prevail in the end? I'm glad this novel is short--only three more parts.

Next time, chapters 19-24.

Serially yours,

12 January 2012

Washington Square 2 (July 1880)--chaps. 7-12

Dear Serial Readers,

I agree that we have a story with unappealing or at least challenging (to care about) characters, most of all Dr. Sloper who has so little regard for his daughter as worth marrying for any reason but her money, or for her "liberty" in the matter. In the first installment I pounced on those crumbs of hope for Catherine's character--her childhood appetite, her red dress, her deception. But in this second installment I'm finding a too compliant daughter whose rebellion is less than mild (accepting Morris's proposal not outdoors in the Square, but in the drawing room). The only trace of that earlier sensuality is her slightly animated response to kissing.

The end of this second installment tries to muster a touch of suspense--will Catherine "retreat" or "stop," or will she elope with Morris? I'm afraid I have difficulty seeing ahead any action against her father and toward marrying Morris. But maybe that's because I'm too familiar with the dutiful daughter Pansy Osmond who follows this heroine in James's next novel.

One more thing--the narrator's voice seems to blend with Dr. Sloper's clinical gaze; neither seems to have much heart or care for these young people. Or do you see something else?

Next installment: chapters 13-18.

Serially stalled,