Showing posts with label George Eliot. Show all posts
Showing posts with label George Eliot. Show all posts

Saturday, March 6, 2010

On Middlemarch (Jillian)

Recently, I have read George Eliot’s masterpiece, Middlemarch. For those of you who have heard of the novel but have no idea what it could possibly be about or whether or not it is actually “any good”, it is a novel of interconnected lives in the fictional town of – you guessed it – Middlemarch, set in the 1830s, written in the 1870s. Much like Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters and Cranford, it is set in a time of transition and reform when the railroads are beginning to weave their way across England. It is well worth reading.

One of its most dominant themes is marriage, but what makes it different from, say, Pride and Prejudice or other familiar 19th century romances, is that it is a solemn, sober view of marriage… primarily marriages made for the wrong reasons like money, social standing or a want of usefulness. One of the two primary plotlines involve Dorothea Brooke, an intelligent, feeling woman who has strong ambitions for doing good in the world, who marries a dreary clergyman-scholar, Mr. Casaubon, for his “great soul.” The other plotline focuses on the young, reform-minded doctor Lydgate who falls in love with and marries the beautiful but spoiled Rosamond Vincy. Lydgate falls into debt; Dorothea into disappointment. Eliot’s narration switches back and forth almost seamlessly between them, as part of the gossip-y, political, socially precarious life of Middlemarch (how rumor painted and ruined people before Twitter took over the world). It is a novel of many interwoven stories: the struggles of Fred Vincy, the mayor’s son (and Rosamond’s brother), as he endeavors to clear himself of reckless debts and marry plain and practically-minded Mary Garth; the story of Will Ladislaw, Mr. Casaubon’s wayward cousin, who falls in love with Dorothea; the reign of Mr. Bulstrode, the richest man in town who proclaims to be a man of God, but may have had a shadowy beginning. Above all, it is a beautiful tapestry. It is dense in places, sober and painful, and yet redemptive, bringing Dorothea, Lydgate and others out of the storm of uncertainty into a sunrise soaked with peace, if not raptures.

Another thing that made this novel fascinating was the version of Middlemarch I bought over a year ago in a local used book store. The copy right date is 1957, and I’ve had to repair its cover with packing tape lest it should completely come apart. But that’s not the most exciting bit. The stranger who owned the book before me – a mysterious person known as C.W. Mignon (yes, like filet mignon) wrote intensive commentary on the inside cover and on many of the pages… underlining, analyzing and sometimes spewing frustrated opinions in the margins. It makes me wonder if Mr/Ms Mignon was an English teacher or a student writing an essay, as he/she underlines passages. He or she also draws comparisons between Eliot’s style and that of Dickens or Fielding… noting Eliot’s “multiple selective omniscience” and drawing connections of character types with Will, Dorothea, Fred and Caleb Garth… pointing out “casual relations” between actions of characters, and the moral evolutions that mark their journeys. Then at some points you’ll see CW scrawled in the margins, especially when Rosamond is being unreasonable about Lydate’s solutions to their money problems, “stupid bitch” or “he’s so damned cold” to vent frustration on Casaubon. Believe me, CW, such things pain me, too.

I believe "the posse" refers to Dorothea's determination
Lydgate in the narration
Character description

I appreciate the ability to write out one’s understanding in the margins of a book, even if it may seem like reiterating the obvious. (Admittedly, many times I think, “Okay, CW, I understand that Rosamond is intolerably spoilt. Must we use such language?” “Yes, CW, I understand perfectly well that the narrator is absolutely omniscient. You don’t have to tell me so many times.” “I agree with you; this is a perfect representation of Lydate’s inner thoughts.”) But over all, it is good to have these comments on the page; as though someone was reading along with me, making mile markers to keep on-course with the interwoven story. Middlemarch is not the easiest novel to read, so it is a comfort to know that the previous owner was noticing things too… that the story mattered enough to write these notes… even if they are at times unnecessary or downright blunt.
Using the entire page, a history of England ca. 1830
A working bibliography (p. 1 of 3)

One thing I didn’t realize would be so enjoyable was Eliot’s omniscient narrative style, describing her characters’ modes of thinking in almost comical terms. Her descriptions of things are so precise, poetical and sensual. Here are some of my favorite passages, some funny, some exquisite, some both:

Any human figure standing at ease under the archway in the early afternoon was as certain to attract companionship as a pigeon which has found something worth pecking at…
– p. 682, describing the mode of the gentlemen of the town discussing news/gossip.

If you think it incredible that to imagine Lydgate as a man of family could cause thrills of satisfaction which had anything to do with the sense that she [Rosamond] was in love with him, I will ask you to use your power of comparison a little more effectively, and consider whether red cloth and epaulets have never had an influence of that sort. Our passions do not live apart in locked chambers, but, dressed in their small wardrobe of notions, bring their provisions to a common store according to their appetite.
– p. 161, Rosamond's thought process - Eliot explains in detail.

That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.
p. 189

Each looked at the other as if they had been two flowers which had opened then and there.
– p. 349, Will and Dorothea

If you want to know more particularly how Mary looked, ten to one you will see a face like hers in the crowded street to-morrow.
– p. 391, George Eliot's descriptions of characters
Everything seemed dreary: the portents before the birth of Cyrus… oh dear! – devout epigrams – the sacred chime of favourite hymns – all alike were as flat as tunes beaten on wood: even the spring flowers and the grass had a dull shiver in them under the afternoon clouds that hid the sun fitfully: even the sustaining thoughts which had become habits seemed to have in them the weariness of long future days in which she would still live with them for her sole companions.
– p. 455, Dorothea returning home from her honeymoon

Driving was pleasant, for rain in the night had laid the dust, and the blue sky looked far off, away from the region of the great clouds that sailed in masses. The earth looked like a happy place under the vast heavens…
– p. 606 Infusing hope into the scenery.

His conscience was soothed by the enfolding wing of secrecy, which seemed just like an angel sent down for his relief.
– p. 678

Animal imagery – “falcon-faced” and “graceful long-necked bird”, “beaver-like noises”
It had taken long for her to come to that question, and there was light piercing into the room. She opened her curtains, and looked out towards the bit of road that lay in view, with fields beyond, outside the entrance-gates. On the road there was a man with a bundle on his back and a woman carrying her baby; in the field she could see figures moving – perhaps the shepherd with his dog. Far off on the bending sky was a pearly light; and she felt the largeness of the world and the manifold wakings of men to labour and endurance. She was a part of that involuntary, palpitating life and could neither look out on it from her luxurious shelter as a mere spectator, nor hide her eyes in selfish complaining.
– p 750, Eliot speaks through her landscapes.

One little scrap of dialogue, Dorothea to Will:

“… I wonder what your vocation will turn out to be: perhaps you will be a poet?”
“To be a poet is to have a soul so quick to discern, that no shade of quality escapes it, and so quick to feel that discernment is but a hand playing with finely-ordered variety on the chords of emotion – a soul in which knowledge passes instantaneously into feeling and feeling flashes back as a new organ of knowledge. One may have that condition by fits only.”
“But you leave out the poems,” said Dorothea. “I think they are wanted to complete the poet. I understand what you mean about knowledge passing into feeling, for that seems to be just what I experience. But I am sure I could never produce a poem.”
"You are a poem – and that is to be the best part of a poet – what makes up a poet’s consciousness in his best moods,” said Will, showing such originality as we all share with the morning and the spring-time and other endless renewals.

One final note: the 1994 miniseries captures the novel spectacularly! Granted, I would have liked the final scene between Will and Dorothea to have shown more of their inner struggles… but in all, it is a very small complaint to make. It is a heavy, long novel, and it has been properly reimagined in film. It might have something to do with Andrew Davies, who has been, as I understand it, the creative force behind other projects such as Wives and Daughters, North and South, and Sense and Sensibility.

Middlemarch: Mr. Casaubon and Dorothea in Rome, with Will Ladislaw looking on.


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