Tuesday, September 19, 2017
'Middlemarch' by George Eliot
By the time the novel appeared to tremendous popular and critical acclaim in 1871-2, George Eliot was recognized as England's finest living novelist. It was her ambition to create a world and portray a whole community--tradespeople, middle classes, country gentry--in the rising provincial town of Middlemarch, circa 1830. Vast and crowded, rich in narrative irony and suspense, Middlemarch is richer still in character, in its sense of how individual destinies are shaped by and shape the community, and in the great art that enlarges the reader's sympathy and imagination. It is truly, as Virginia Woolf famously remarked, 'one of the few English novels written for grown-up people'.
First off, there might be some minor spoilers, because this is like a review/discussion hybrid. But you'll forget them by the time you get stuck into Middlemarch.
When I was 19 and read this classic for Uni, I thought it was the best English novel on the syllabus. Years have passed and now that I've returned to it, I think it might well be the best English novel ever written. My husband said, 'But isn't it just about people living their country lives without much happening?' Some readers might answer yes, which makes the thickness seem incredible. But I love it because it's all about attitude. This book is like a magnifying glass George Eliot holds up to us, because we keep bumping into our own buried attitudes when we see them mirrored in the characters. We can't read it without wanting to make course corrections or set good thinking habits in place.
Basically, two poor marriages take place between couples who go into them assuming that what they see is what they'll get. Young Dorothea Brooke wants to make the world a better place for others, and believes it will be a step in that direction to marry Edward Casaubon, a crusty scholar twice her age, who is working on a comprehensive book in which he hopes to reveal the meaning of life. But instead of being a valuable helper to a great man, she discovers too late that he's a hopeless pedant, snuffling around in research which is already antiquated.
Meanwhile, Tertius Lydgate, the new young medical man, is seduced into marrying local cutie, Rosamond Vincy. He believes she'll support him in his genuine cutting edge research, but discovers too late that she's not remotely interested in any part of his life that doesn't concern herself. Rosamond has simply latched on to Lydgate to boost her own lifestyle. When things don't happen the way she expects, her contagious misery infects him.
Lydgate is the poster boy for those of us who may claim, 'There's no way in the world I'd ever do (fill in the blank)' But until you've tried walking in somebody else's shoes, there's no predicting how you'll react. It's wise not to throw around the word 'never' because you might end up with egg on your face. And while you're at it, it's a hard lesson to learn not to look down on those who do things of which you don't approve. I really loved Lydgate, and reading his humbling experiences was hard.
Casaubon reminds me a bit of Owl from Winnie the Pooh. He tries to project an image of himself as lofty and important, but gets rumpled feathers, because the hardest person to convince is himself. He's middle-aged with the bearing and attitude of an 80-year-old, which finally catches up with him. Lydgate's professional advice shows he's too far gone to be told in effect, 'Hey man, lighten up and smell the roses,' but maybe we readers can take it on board, in case we ever need cobwebs blown off us. Poor dude. Imagine coming to the end of your life with the fear that you might've completely wasted your time. But setting ourselves the task to know absolutely everything is just too big a goal. We can learn the lesson of this guy who tried it.
Rosamond is a princess in the most negative sense of the term. She doesn't realise that her mind filters out anything that doesn't put herself at the centre of everyone else's world. She's too well-bred to throw a complete Veruca Salt style hissy fit, but she's got the passive-aggressive sulk down to a fine art. And every disappointment is magnified to a disaster, because it adds to her challenge to get her own way. Truth be told, I thought back to some of my own melt-downs I remember in the light of Middlemarch and thought, 'Yep, I'm afraid that's Rosamond.' If you can relate too, there's no better incentive to stop the next time you might be tempted to react that way.
Dorothea is like a breath of fresh air, even though she has moments of deep depression, bursts into tears, finds herself stuck in bad moods and sometimes makes dumb decisions. In fact, the mistake she starts off with is a real doozy, but she wins our hearts easily, because her attitude of wanting to relieve the pain and discomfort of others is such a sound compass. She even tells Will, the true love of her life, 'Even if we had lost our own true good, other people's good would remain, and that is worth trying for,' and means every word. You can't get to the end of the book without wanting to adopt Dorothea's habit of seeing the best in everyone. Eliot shows through her intriguing heroine that it's not an attitude of naivety or idealism, but the healthiest way to inoculate yourself against the gossip, cynicism and disillusionment that's all around you.
Virginia Woolf famously called Middlemarch 'a novel for grown-ups.' It's hard to miss this quote if you ever want to read the book, because it's splashed around every discussion, website and on the covers of many editions, without anyone really threshing out what she might have meant. Lest you get the wrong idea, it's not an 'adult' novel as some might understand the word. It's exemplary and squeaky clean without any X-rated content. I think 'grown up' in the sense Woolf meant is more to do with the way we handle disappointments.
'Happily ever afters' are low key in Middlemarch, because characters haven't lived up to what they considered to be their full potential. It's not for lack of investing lots of toil and tears. Hopes and dreams have crashed and burned everywhere, because the chokers and creepers of real life have strangled them, as they often do.
The wrap-up chapter tells us that both Lydgate and Dorothea considered themselves fall-shorts who never achieved a fraction of what they hoped. Lydgate never makes a major medical discovery, but finds simply paying the bills and providing for his family is a major drain for him. Dorothea never helps bring an amazing book to the public, or start a colony, but she encourages others in all the small, low-key ways she can. She's basically in the gentlewoman's trap. You're technically free to do as you please, but can't do any of the the good things that fall into your head because of society's restrictions.
The novel also has its share of people slogging away at jobs they wouldn't have necessarily chosen, because that's just what we have to do. Mr Farebrother knows he would have made a better biologist than clergyman, but life wasn't designed for a middle-aged man supporting dependent females to make a sea change. Then there's Fred Vincy, who at the start of his working life, grumbles that he would have made a great gentleman of leisure, but has to either pull something out of the bag, or keep sponging off his struggling parents. He decides estate management and agriculture is as good as anything else. (I feel for him because I've got a 'Fred' in my own household right now. It's my elder son, who's almost finished Uni and hasn't a clue what to do next. Even their surnames are similar. Vince or Vincy, you've got to love 'em.)
Mary Garth appeals to me because she understands all this from an early age, putting her in a strong position. We are told, 'She had good reason to believe that things were not likely to be arranged for her peculiar satisfaction, and wasted no time in astonishment or annoyance at the fact.' That helps Mary leap ahead of the entitled Vincy kids in her outlook. She's not one to be taken in by her current versions of the 'whatever you believe you can achieve' sort of messages we still wade through in modern times. I'm sure George Eliot wouldn't be surprised that even by the 21st century, we don't really grow up until we learn to handle disappointment graciously.
I didn't get all this out of Middlemarch the first time through. But back then, I was still the teenager who aspired to write the great Australian novel, earn a fortune and go on world tours. When Farebrother tells Lydgate, 'I have paid twelve or thirteen years more than you for my knowledge of difficulties,' I probably shrugged it off just like Tertius. Virginia Woolf was right, in some ways, this is very much a book for grown-up retrospection.
But even though she gives us this dose of reality, Eliot still presents a world where wonderful surprises can catch us off guard, and refresh us to keep smiling.
A middle-aged vicar, disappointed in love, can help his young rival win the girl's hand, for the sake of her own happiness.
A young man who's been diddled out of two rightful inheritances can keep bitterness at bay, and claim that his goal is to see the good and beautiful in everything. All he wants is good friends and a soft rug to stretch out on. (We love you, Will Ladislaw.)
A couple madly in love can say, 'Stuff this mean codicil, let's get married anyway.'
A wife and mother who's been used to the good life can whip off her bright clothes and jewellery and resolve to stand by her disgraced husband through thick and thin. (Harriet Bulstrode, you're a hero.)
A young doctor who has suffered major blows, including those inflicted by his nearest and dearest, can look in the face of an angelic benefactress who tells him, 'You'd be taking a great burden off my shoulders if you'd accept this hand-out.'
Middlemarch is dense and thick, and sometimes takes lots of concentration, but is well worth the time it takes to read.