MIDDLEMARCH BY GEORGE ELIOT

I am not, I must confess, terribly fond of Englishness. I suppose that being English I find it too familiar, and therefore unexciting. Or perhaps it is the case that my tough upbringing worked on me as a kind of aversion therapy, so that everything connected with my homeland strikes me as unappealing. I don’t know. Until I came to think about this review, I had never really sought to thoroughly explain to myself my preference for things foreign, a preference that extends to the women I have been in relationships with, landscapes [I find the English countryside incomparably dreary], art, film, and most other aspects of my private and intellectual life. One consequence of this attitude is that, I now realise, I’m particularly tough on English literature; I make fewer allowances, I let less slide. And so a novel written by an English person has a much steeper mountain to climb to reach the summit of my affections. Of course, some have managed it [Charles Dickens, for example, found the going relatively easy and has become a particular favourite; Jane Austen laboured somewhat, but got there in the end], but they are certainly in the minority up there. The purpose of all of this is to give some perspective to my claim that Middlemarch by George Eliot is not one of the finest English novels [a statement that coming from me would mean very little] but one of the greatest novels, period.

With Emma it was, apparently, Jane Austen’s intention to create a heroine that her readers might not like immediately, or at all. To some extent she was successful in this endeavour, for many appear to find the title character irritating. Yet I have never felt that way about her; she is too energetic and silly to engender any kind of antipathy. However, if George Eliot had ever had, while writing this book, the same aim in mind she absolutely nailed it. In the interests of fairness, one ought to point out that Dorothea Burke is not without positive traits, such as her desire to help the poor, but she is without charm. Indeed, if I were asked to choose a bunch of adjectives to describe someone who I would cross the street to avoid, those pertaining to Eliot’s heroine – pious, self-denying, proud, judgemental – would be high on the list.

For me it is these qualities that inspire her to forgo the more obviously appealing Sir James in favour of the musty Mr. Casaubon. In this respect, I was reminded very much of another strong-willed young woman, Isabel Archer from Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady. Both women, to themselves, justify their strange choices as wanting to be useful or challenged. Dorothea, in fact, likens Casaubon to Locke or Pascal; she thinks him a superior soul who will instruct and lead her, while she will aid him in his work. Yet, as the reader, one can’t help but think that marrying him is a kind of sacrifice, or martyrdom. She prides herself of not valuing frivolous things, and of being able to give them up [like horse riding, or jewels]; she doesn’t admit it to herself, but in picking Casaubon she gives up physical attraction, or at least trades it so that her intellect, her soul, can be, ahem, given a good seeing to instead. But even in this, even in denying herself, one could argue that there is a kind of vanity or egotism, that, just like Isabel, she chooses one, Casaubon, over another, Sir James, in order to show that she knows better, that she can make her own obscure choices, will go against the grain.

That Eliot allows her heroine to get off on the wrong foot, so to speak, with her audience was a brave move. I can imagine some readers clapping the book shut and throwing it away from themselves, in order to be rid of the haughty Miss Brooke. However, if you do persevere I am confident that your attitude will change towards her, or will soften at least. The reconciliation between the reader and Dorothea is most likely to take place during her disastrous marriage to the mummy [as Chettem calls Casaubon]. Before the couple tie the knot one might have been in two minds as to whether it would be a success, because, although the ageing clergyman, who is not in the best health, may strike you as unsuitable for marriage with a young woman, Dorothea’s personality is such that the union does, on the surface, pretty much make sense. Even her Uncle concedes that it is not sheer folly, and that Sir James would not have been a good match; but once Dorothea is alone with her husband she quickly comes to realise that life with him will be a lonely, frustrating, and unhappy one. And Eliot uses the contrast between the husband and the wife to expose aspects of Dorothea’s character previously unknown to the reader, making her much more agreeable.

Edward Casaubon, is, quite rightly, one of the most well-known and cherished characters in English fiction. Of all the people who feature in this vast novel, he was the one I best remembered from my first read, the one I would reference in conversation with others. Yet it was interesting to note during this reread that, while Eliot’s reputation is as a fair-minded author, a creator of finely crafted, sympathetic, flawed but human characters [and it is a deserved reputation], she is fairly relentless in mocking Casaubon, at times reaching Dickensian levels of satire. He is a terminally boring, self-absorbed and passionless man. Eliot makes this clear in numerous ways, but a number of his speeches [one about painting in particular – where he speaks about admiration without ever giving the impression that he feels any himself], and his letter to Dorothea asking for her hand in marriage, are almost painful to read in their formality and dryness.

“MY DEAR MISS BROOKE, — I have your guardian’s permission to address you on a subject than which I have none more at heart. I am not, I trust, mistaken in the recognition of some deeper correspondence than that of date in the fact that a consciousness of need in my own life had arisen contemporaneously with the possibility of my becoming acquainted with you.”

Perhaps the deepest thrust Eliot delivers is in relation to Casaubon’s work, his life’s work, called the Key to all Mythologies. It is an ambitious, comprehensive study that he is, of course, incapable of bringing to completion. He isn’t, then, only self absorbed, monomaniacal, and emotionally limp, but also completely ineffectual. I have known a number of people like this, such as my friend’s father, who left his wife, isolated himself from his friends and family, and then spent the next two decades faffing about with complex computer programmes and photography equipment, never getting within even sniffing distance of achieving anything. Or, to call forth a more famous example, what about Austrian author Robert Musil, a man of questionable temperament apparently, who dedicated the majority of his career to writing The Man Without Qualities, and yet died leaving the work unfinished? Indeed, what Eliot most impressively nailed with Casaubon is a particular kind of male behaviour or psychology or approach to the world. Many men are, to some extent, obsessive, are prone to cutting themselves off and getting lost in their hobbies or projects, be that football, gardening, or whatever. Moreover, a lot of us do not have a sense of our own ridiculousness, of how tedious we can be when we hold forth on these subjects; nor do we understand our own capabilities or limitations. This is especially true of men who are engaged in intellectual pursuits.

I must admit that I had an uncomfortable realisation during the book that there is a very real danger, not that I am a little bit like Casaubon, but that I could go full Casaubon. And you should never go full Casaubon. For example, one of my girlfriend’s once left me because I had stopped paying her attention as I worked my way through Cao Xueqin’s multi-volume Chinese novel, The Story of the Stone [totally worth it though]. Moreover, I once decided that I wanted to be able to name the greatest novel from each major country and spent at least two years engaged in research; and this is without mentioning the years I spent on my own writing projects, including a [never completed, of course] work that was meant to incorporate all of the [hundreds of thousands of] pieces and fragments of prose I have accumulated throughout my life, which I believed would, in toto, result in a bildungsroman for the modern age! Casaubon is, in this way, a warning to people like me. He is the ghost that visits you on Christmas Eve, proposing to show you who you could turn into if you are not careful.

In light of all this, it is not difficult to see why Dorothea suffers so much in the marriage. She thought she was aligning herself with a Locke, but instead got with an old man of no genius; she thought she would share in, and help with, his work, and yet she ends up being little more than an unpaid secretary or unvalued pupil.

“And certainly, the mistakes that we male and female mortals make when we have our own way might fairly raise some wonder that we are so fond of it.”

Since first reading Middlemarch I have, whenever the subject has arisen, claimed that it is the greatest novel ever written about love and relationships; and I have found, on this occasion, more than enough in the text to back that up. Indeed, while Casaubon and Dorothea are endlessly fascinating, I perhaps enjoyed the Lydgate and Rosamond storyline even more. As with the more famous couple, Eliot’s great skill is in being able to make you see the potential for success in the relationship, while also observing its possible flaws. Despite their age and attractiveness, Lydgate and Rosamond getting together isn’t mindless star-crossed lovers fluff; the coupling is psychologically sound. He thinks that her beauty and grace will enrich his life, which is understandable, and consistent with his personality, while her air of vulnerability, of needing to be looked after, is also consistent with his profession. Likewise, she wants a man who is not a Middlemarcher, who is superior, and Lydgate fits the bill. However, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that a marriage based on such superficialities will likely flounder.

As central as love and marriage are to the narrative, what unites or defines almost all of the couplings formed during the duration of the novel is a sense of eventual disappointment or, more precisely, disillusionment. Indeed, this feeling plays a part in many other aspects of the story, including, for example, Fred Vincy’s dreams and ambitions. In this way, I can’t help but think that, while the name Middlemarch has served the book adequately, the two most appropriate titles were already taken: Great Expectations and Lost Illusions. All of the major characters approach life hopefully, with expectations of success, and yet nearly all find their hopes dashed.

“Having once embarked on your marital voyage, it is impossible not to be aware that you make no way and that the sea is not within sight–that, in fact, you are exploring an enclosed basin.”

Again, Dorothea and Casaubon provide an interesting example. As noted, Dorothea finds that marriage is not all she thought it would be. Yet, crucially, she cannot really fault her husband; he did not make false promises, nor did he change upon signing the contract. It is more a case that Dorothea, like most people entering into relationships, took every small example of admirable traits or behaviour during the courtship to be but a taster of the huge amounts of such qualities the person in question would have in store. Likewise, Casaubon is also left disappointed; he imagined Dorothea would ease his strain, would support, rather than question, or make demands of him. To return to Fred Vincy, he considered it a fait accompli that old Featherstone would leave him a sizeable legacy, but things do not work out as he envisaged. In fact, the only people who avoid disappointment are those who never had ideals for living, or great hopes, in the first place, such as Mary Garth. As a consequence, I’m not quite sure what the novel’s message really is. Do not hope? Have small ambitions? Be sensible? Maybe. Or perhaps to speak about a message is to turn down the wrong road. I prefer to believe that Eliot wasn’t interested in pedagogy, that her novel is simply showing you life: in its smallness, its meanness, its disappointments, as well as its joys and its successes.

While there isn’t an out-and-out message, Middlemarch does engage with important issues, such as the women question, as I have anachronistically heard it called. As one progresses through the book one comes to realise that Dorothea could be viewed as a kind of unassuming feminist icon. What defines her character is a desire to be active and useful; she draws plans for poor housing and wants to donate to the local hospital. She may not want equality, or never voices that idea, but she does want to do good, to contribute to society. On the other hand, many of the male characters treat her as ‘a vulnerable little woman’; her uncle, for example, worries about her overtaxing herself, and thinks that too much knowledge is bad for a woman; Sir James Chettam thinks that she ought to have been given stronger guidance [i.e. be told what to do and what not to do] when weighing up Casaubon’s proposal, indicating that he believes her unfit to make this so important decision. It is vital, for me, that Eliot allows Dorothea to be both feminine and strong; she is vulnerable, but no more than anyone else, than any man, and she is emotional. While her decision to marry Casaubon is shown to be a poor one, she at least made it herself and insisted on it in the face of opposition. Through her Eliot explores how difficult it was for women to find a useful place in society, one where she is allowed to be significant and make a difference. Lydgate is a doctor, her uncle dabbles in politics, and so on, but she is expected to be little more than a wife.

In terms of Eliot’s style, she has a fine authorial voice: frequently wise and warm, while also capable of irony and a kind of wry humour. I’ve read elsewhere that some find her omniscient, Godly approach not to their taste, and while there were occasions when she unnecessarily breaks the spell [for example, when she addresses the reader and notes that you may or may not be interested in so-and-so], I found it, generally speaking, not to be a problem. What certainly is worth trumpeting is her ability with metaphors. This is an area that I am particularly interested in, for I think that it is a dying, or dead, art [if you’re going to liken, say, a pale face to milk or ivory then you might as well have not bothered at all]. In fact, most rappers turn out better metaphors that this generation’s acclaimed novelists. Eliot’s, however, are supreme; they are constantly surprising and illuminating [which is the point of a metaphor – to enable you to better understand, or appreciate, the thing that is being described by way of comparison].

Before I conclude, I want to outline some minor criticisms. I said at the beginning of this review that you will probably come to change your mind about Dorothea, that although she seems unlikable at first, I am confident that you will come to like or admire her. Yet one of the failings of the novel, for me, is that her character changes too abruptly, that, more specifically, she loses her illusions regarding Casaubon too suddenly. It is not that Eliot does not provide justification, it is simply that the reasons she gives are not entirely consistent with the character of the Dorothea that we meet in the opening stages of the book. For example, during the marriage Casaubon is shown to be lacking passion, and this dismays his wife. Yet she never indicated a desire for passion prior to the marriage, only intelligence and learning [which he has]. Furthermore, by the end of the book Dorothea has become a kind of Jesus figure; forgiving, full of love and understanding. That’s lovely and all, but it just seems too epic a journey, too big a change, to have undertaken in the course of the novel. Another problem with the book is that Will Ladislaw, who is the closest Eliot comes to a romantic hero, is dull as shit. Seriously, I yawned my way through almost all his bits. In any case, none of that was enough to spoil my enjoyment or to dampen my affection.

Finally, then, if this review seems somewhat confused or poorly structured [I hope it doesn’t but I fear it does], or far too long, that is because I struggled to write and edit it. However, I struggled not because my ideas wouldn’t come, or would not allow themselves to be moulded into coherent sentences and paragraphs, but simply because I had so much I wanted to say, because every time I started to lay down my thoughts and feelings I was aware that there were other fascinating aspects of the novel that I could be engaging with. I felt, as I wrote, always as though I was grappling with something bigger than me,  like a fisherman trying to land a shark. That, for me, is the sign of a truly great book – one that will not politely submit itself to a nicely-formed, perfectly manageable 1000 word review. Oh no, Middlemarch made me drag this this out of myself, all 3000 words of it.

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2 comments

  1. Not a random review at all – a very coherent one, which makes me want to go off and read the book!

    1. Cheers. I nearly lost my mind editing and rewriting it. It has probably prejudiced me against the book for the rest of my life. It’s definitely one of the greats though.

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