George Eliot, Middlemarch: A study of provincial life (George Eliot, 1871–1872; Könemann 1997), pages 1–162
I had read just eight pages of Middlemarch, two mornings’ worth, squinting through sleep bleared eyes, when a kind friend lent me her copy, a beautiful two-volume edition from a German publishing house that is set in type that will demand less effort than the on I picked up from Gould’s bookshop.
In other reading this month, when the protagonist of Ian McEwan’s Lessons reads the novel written by his estranged wife, he finds to his chagrin that it is brilliant, and includes ‘high-flying digressions offered up to the ghost of George Eliot’ (page 243).
So far, it’s not so much high-flying digressions as sharp authorial observations on the side that are delighting me. For instance, in the first scene where the gorgeous, privileged Rosamond Price and plain, less privileged Mary Garth have a scene together, there’s this brief excursion into the abstract:
Plainness has peculiar temptations and vices quite as much as beauty; it is apt either to feign amiability, or, not feigning it, to show all the repulsiveness of discontent: at any rate, to be called an ugly thing in contrast with that lovely creature your companion, is apt to produce some effect beyond a sense of fine veracity and fitness in the phrase.(Page 130)
Part of the pleasure of this kind of thing is that it’s ironic. The narrator goes on to attribute to Mary the ‘vice’ of speaking with a satiric edge, a quality the narrator herself has in spades. There’s always a sense of the narrator as a character here, one who has a lot in common with George Eliot herself. In this example, it’s hard not to read the comment as springing in part from Eliot’s own experience of being seen as plain (‘horse-faced’, I dimly remember). The novel’s opening words, ‘To my dear husband’, affirm that George Eliot is a woman, and I guess she could assume that the English reading public knew who she was.
When I read Middlemarch in 1968, it was as part of an exhilarating immersion in literary classics. In the little notebook where I listed the books I read, it appears on the same page Racine’s Phèdre, Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, and books by Pinter, Conrad, Joyce, Lawrence, Descartes and Rabelais. So reading it now, with that tsunami well in the past and without my 20-year-old predisposition to awe, is like meeting it for the first time.
I’m pretty sure I picked up on the ironic tone back then, but I doubt if I understood that the affectionate mockery of the idealistic heroine Dorothea and her pragmatic sister Celia, of gorgeous Rosamond and her flibbertigibbet brother Fred, and of ‘plain’, sarcastic Mary all has to do with their youth. The narrator is in love with their lack of world-weariness, and I’m in love with them too, as I doubt I was the first time around, however much I loved the book.
Mind you, I’ve read to the Emerging Artist a couple of passages that gave me joy. She responded to the first with a noncommittal noise, and to the second, ‘Now I know I was right not to read past the first page.’ So it’s not a book for all tastes.
So far, Dorothea has committed herself to marry the dried up old stick, Mr Casaubon. Youngish Dr Lydgate has arrived in the area full of reforming zeal. Rosamond, whose beauty no man could resist, is determined to marry someone from outsides Middlemarch and Lydgate is a likely prospect. Fred is in love with Mary, who has been his friend since childhood. The older generation is rife with intrigue to do with religious intolerance, political ambition, greed, and owning-class pretensions. So far, it’s a frothy comedy of manners as told by an immensely erudite and morally serious narrator.
This morning, there was some dialogue worthy of Oscar Wilde. Mary is responding to Fred’s proposal of marriage, which we understand has been made many times before::
‘If l did love you, I would not marry you: I would certainly not promise ever to marry you.’(Page 162)
‘I think that is quite wicked, Mary. If you love me, you ought to promise to marry me.’
‘On the contrary, I think it would be wicked in me to marry you even if I did love you.’
‘You mean, just as I am, without any means of maintaining a wife. Of course: I am but three-and-twenty.’
‘In that last point you will alter. But I am not so sure of any other alteration. My father says an idle man ought not to exist, much less, be married.’
‘Then I am to blow my brains out?’
‘No; on the whole I should think you would do better to pass your examination.’
I hope they end up living happily together, rich or poor. I know their love’s path will not be smooth, any more than that of any of the other potential love matches.