George Eliot, Middlemarch: A study of provincial life (George Eliot, 1871–1872; Könemann 1997), chapter 15 to most of chapter 28
Reading five pages of Middlemarch each morning, which I’ve now been doing it for two months, is a joy.
When reading Niall Williams’s This Is Happiness, I kept feeling a Middlemarchian tone: the narrators in both books tell of events that happened in a remote village in living memory but feel as if they are from a different era. Williams’s narrator has a name and a story of his own. We are left to imagine who George Eliot’s narrator might be, though there’s definitely a person there, who is full of opinions, occasionally mentions conversations with her friend, and – if we assume she is a mature woman as Eliot was known to be when the book appeared – has bitter experience of male domination. Both narrators identify themselves as sophisticated and modern, she in metropolitan England, and he in the USA.
This month the intrigues continue among the older and younger generations, the former to do with control of the town’s institutions and the latter to do with affairs of the heart. Dorothea is married to Casaubon but troublingly finds his young cousin Will Ladislaw a more interesting companion in Rome. Rosamond is closing in on Lydgate as a prospective husband. And Fred, the profligate young man, discovers that his failure to keep promises not only harms his reputation but also harms other people.
This morning, the Rosamond–Lydgate story is approaching a defining moment. They have been thrown together when Lydgate comes to attend Rosamond’s brother Fred who has been struck down by typhus. Actually, not quite thrown together: Rosamond has declined to take the recommended course of leaving their house until the danger of infection was past, ostensibly so that she can help her mother tend to Fred, but really so she can see more of Lydgate. After some vividly evoked moments when they become embarrassed at meeting each other’s eyes, they settle into openness and ease with each other. He begins to play at flirting with her, seeing no harm in such a little pleasure. She – admitting it to no one – has visions of marrying him and escaping the suffocating backwater of Middlemarch. After much intricate tracking of the mental processes of each of them, and a scene where Lydgate sees off a chinless young man who he doesn’t even realise is a rival for Rosamond’s affections, today’s read finished with this terrific paragraph, which sums up the state of play, foreshadows the outcome, and ends with a gloriously deflating image:
To Rosamond it seemed as if she and Lydgate were as good as engaged. That they were some time to be engaged had long been an idea in her mind, and ideas, we know, tend to a more solid kind of existence, the necessary materials being at hand. It is true, Lydgate had the counter-idea of remaining unengaged; but this was a mere negative, a shadow cast by other resolves which themselves were capable of shrinking. Circumstance was almost sure to be on the side of Rosamond’s idea, which had a shaping activity and looked through watchful blue eyes, whereas Lydgate’s lay blind and unconcerned as a jelly-fish which gets melted without knowing it.(pages 312–313)