Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Iphigenia Clock

Reading _Vanity Fair_ the other day I came across the following:
... and working at a huge piece of worsted by the fire, on the sofa, hard by the great Iphigenia clock, which ticked and tolled with mournful loudness in the dreary room.
This is in Chapter 42, page 442 of my edition. It describes Jane Osborne's miserable life attending to her father, who refuses her any real independence or chance at meeting a suitor because she is slightly useful to him at home. When I read the passage I was so struck by "Iphigenia clock" that I had to put the book down. I wondered if there could possibly be such a grotesque thing. Iphigenia was of course the Greek Isaac, the daughter of Agamemnon, sacrificed by him to placate the virgin goddess Artemis and allow the Greek ships to sail to Troy (this being the reason for his murder by Orestes). A little investigation revealed that I had missed or forgotten
When that chronometer, which was surmounted by a cheerful brass group of the sacrifice of Iphigenia...
(Chapter 13, Mr. Osborne about to ignore Amelia's request to wait for George Osborne to come before starting dinner.)
They were both so silent that the tick-tock of the Sacrifice of Iphigenia clock on the mantelpiece became quite rudely audible.
(Chapter 23, Dobbin nerving himself up to ask Miss Osborne to support George's marriage to Amelia, as Miss Osborne hopes he'll ask her to marry.)
And the clock, in the altar in which Iphigenia was situated, beginning, after a preparatory convulsion, to toll twelve, the mere tolling seemed as if it would last until one — so prolonged was the knell to the anxious spinster.
(More of the above.)

The first reference to the clock comes on page 121 of my edition. I read that chapter while we were in the hospital after rilkekindstrich's birth, so almost four weeks ago. It takes a very tired and distracted or a very careless reader to miss "a cheerful brass group of the sacrifice of Iphigenia", perhaps the least cheerful scene imaginable, and thematically of obvious (rather wildly overobvious in fact) importance in the context of Mr. Osborne's bullying of his son's almost fiancée. And then the theme is continued some hundred pages later in describing Jane Osborne's situation, setting up the passage I quote at the top of the post.

(Note that the first readers of the novel had to contend with its serialization - the first and last passages above were separated by something like eight months.)

Are we really meant to think that Mr. Osborne (or rather his agent, or the agent of the bankrupt man one imagines originally owned the clock) might have furnished his home with an object in such awful taste? Compare that symbol of Victorian awfulness, the bishop's bird stump in Connie Willis's masterpiece _To Say Nothing Of The Dog_, so who knows.

Also, are we expected to hear the "worst" in "worsted"? And "hard" in "hard by"? And is the fire noted in association with the altar?

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